Entertaining our troops is so valuable and a huge morale booster. Every era has musicians that donate their time to support our soldiers. Having served overseas in South Korea, I know first-hand how important it is to be able to go to a concert, sing-a-long, have some laughs and lots of fun. Mitch Miller, Bob Hope, and Gary Sinise are just a few names that come to mind as soldier’s favorites.
Uncle Matty was affectionately known as the Mitch Miller of WWII. He would sing, dance, play piano, and entertain so many people. Now, this was in the 1940s so you would think he would be done entertaining. Well, just as he came home 72 years later as his rifle, his voice and songs were also reincarnated.
A 78 record from the early 1940s was saved in my family first by my mother, and then by my sister Liz. It survived many different apartments in the 1940s and 1950s South Bronx Ghetto. You see back in those days, landlords would often offer two free months’ rent to entice people to move into their apartment building. Many of the poor Irish immigrants would play a game of moving every two to three months as they could not afford to pay rent. This magical 78 record would move each time this happened, it is a miracle it was not lost. It would then survive the move to my grandmother’s Maime’s apartment on 196th Street in the Grand Concourse. But here it would get the royal treatment, Maime was one of the first to get air conditioning and this would help preserve the 78 record. Perhaps Maime knew how important it would be one day. You see 78 records that were warped in the sweltering heat of the summer would become useless, and whatever recording of special memories would be lost forever. Thanks, Maime for saving this precious 78 record. Fortunately, our family 78 record would be safe and sound and never get warped. When my grandmother passed away it would arrive safely at our apartment on 184th and the Grand Concourse. When my mother died, it would be passed on to my sister Liz and survive under her custody from her apartment in Queens to her friend’s house at Croton-On-Hudson. In January 2017 Liz would send me the special 78 record to me for safe keeping. I felt an enormous responsibility to keep it safe and was honored to have it.
What was on this record? That day in January 2017 when I received it, I knew I had to find out. Liz seemed to think it was either my Uncle Jimmy or Matty singing. My sister Pat would recall listening to a 78 record as a young kid that Maime and my mother told her was Uncle Matty singing. Could this be the same 78 record? The uncertainty started to haunt me. I dreamt about what was on the record every night, I would think about it all day, I was obsessed. Could I finally hear Uncle Matty’s voice? So, I began my quest to see if I could find a company that could convert a very old 78 record into a digital file. There were many online companies advertising they could convert the record, but who to trust with a family treasure like this. My wife wanted me to find a local company so I did. At first, they said they would be able to convert to a digital file, I dropped it off at the store in my town of East Brunswick, NJ and anxiously waited a week to hear from them. The news was not good. The record was so old, they did not have the equipment to convert to a digital file. This made me depressed, but only for a few minutes. On my journey to bring home Uncle Matty’s M1 Garand rifleI learned never to give up. I contacted an online data company named Greentree Audio/Video (www.GreentreeAV.com) that specializes in converting data, including 78 records. I was told as long as it was not warped, the likelihood of converting to digital was very good. Well, the record was not warped, even though it was at least 75 years old.
Uncle Matty was know as “The Mitch Miller of WWII” playing guitar and entertaining his 508th PIR buddies Camp Mackall 1943
We would ship the 78 record to Greentree on February 22, 2017, and waited to March 9, 2017, for the record to be converted to a digital file. The suspense was killing me, what was on that recording. Andy, the owner of Greentree emailed me that there were four minutes of singing and clowning around that was converted to a file. His exact words were “The tape is recorded and is 4 minutes, including both sides, has typical quality audio, the singing is clear but has lots of background pops and noises.” Two minutes on each side of the 78 record. Once converted we waited to Saturday, March 18, 2017, to receive it. The whole time waiting I am thinking, wondering, and dreaming what is on this recording. Was I going to hear the voice of my iconic uncle for the first time? I must admit, I had some sleepless nights during the wait. Some nights I would dream of Uncle Matty singing to my brothers, sisters and myself. Am I crazy, obsessed, or just on a mission? You be the judge. On March 18, 2017, I was on the phone interviewing my cousin Danny Werner for stories on my Uncle Jimmy Teahan. It was 3 p.m. and Danny’s memory was terrific describing our colorful Uncle Jimmy. Right in the middle of the interview the doorbell rings, Monica got it. You probably guess it, the package with the 78 record and digital file was delivered. I would be now able to hear what was on it. I told Danny, and he got very excited. Danny made me promise to forward the file to him ASAP. After finishing up with Danny I finally got to listen to the recording.
Hearing the recording was special. Pure magic, for the very first time in my life I heard Uncle Matty’s voice. I would confirm it was Uncle Matty when my sister Pat recognized the recording as something my Mother and Maime played for her as a kid and yes, they told her it was Uncle Matty singing. I think I experienced every emotion possible. There were joy and happiness, hearing something 75 years old, with my uncle singing rounded out the year of research I had done on him. I was determined to learn the words of the two songs and sing along as I played it. I felt glee, nostalgia, but also sadness, and tears as I thought of what could have been if he survived. Most people experience a song being stuck in their head, that plays over and over again. Well, I keep hearing my uncle singing “Ain’t She Sweet”, and it keeps playing over and over again. I don’t know if it will ever stop playing in my head, but I don’t mind it is a sweet sound every time I hear it.
The recording was scratchy and of the quality, you would expect for being 75 years old. I guess the capacity of a 1940s 78 record was about 2 minutes on each side. Scratchy and all, hearing my uncle’s voice for the first time froze me in a sentimental mood that seemed to last forever. The first song was a solo by Uncle Matty called Heart of my Heart. Wow, did Uncle Matty have a beautiful voice! The second song was a group sing-a-long lead by Uncle Matty, and you could hear him playing the piano. The song was Ain’t She Sweet, what is amazing is that this was my Aunt Francie’s favorite song. She would sing it all the time, as would my mother.
Peter Donahue was my Uncle Matty’s childhood best friend, they did everything together. Was Peter present when Matty was singing? Was he part of the group sing-a-long? I had connected with his son Peter Donahue Jr. and sent it to him to listen. Here is what Peter Jr. had to say:
“Wow! Uncle Matty lives. At the end of that 1st song, I could swear I heard my father’s whistle. Rockaway did have a record machine in Playland where you could record a song. Rye Beach also had one. Tell Elizabeth that this find is a TREASURE!” Perhaps we brought Peter Donahue Sr. back to life with the recording, nice to meet you Peter.
We were always told growing up what a great singer and piano player Uncle Matty was. When I spoke with Art Jacoby, a very good WWII friend of Uncle Matty, he would tell me of him dancing all night, wooing the ladies, and getting the whole crowd singing when he played the piano. Legendary 508th Parachute Infantry RegimentSergeant O.B. Hill, a close friend of Uncle Matty would marvel at his singing, dancing, and musical talent in the letters he wrote to my sister Liz. OB would say once Matty got started dancing, he would go all night, with the girls lined up to dance with him. OB also mentioned the sing-a-longs with Uncle Matty playing the piano or guitar.
Being “off the charts” excited I sent the recording of my Uncle Matty singing to my family and friends who have been interested in his story. My friends in Nottingham England, who were so kind to show Monica and I around all the places the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment was stationed in WWII were over the moon to hear his voice. They said, “Brilliant and a privilege to hear”, “Thanks, Mate, some families would give their right arm to hear the voice of a family member 75 years later.”
Uncle Matty’s best friend in the Army Jim MacMahon would often talk of his talent with singing, dancing, piano playing, and wooing the ladies. He described this in a letter to Liz:
“Your uncle Marty love all the real old-time songs like “East Side West Side”, “Mary”, “I am a Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “Down by the old mill stream”, “Danny Boy”, etc. He knew all the songs word for word. If there was a piano in the room, he would get the piano player to play some of his favorites, at the same time, he would get the guys in the room to sing the songs his way and he became The Mitch Miller of World War II. In time, he would have the whole room singing in harmony.”
Perhaps the reaction I was most curious to know what that of my sister Liz. Liz spent her whole life fascinated with Uncle Matty, and has researched his life as much as anyone could. What would she think, I had to know? I forwarded to Liz and this is what she had to say:
“My hair stuck up and I felt like I was brought back in time. Hearing his voice brings everything back to me, all of my corresponding with OB Hill, Art Jacoby, and many others. They all said he was the life of the party, and this validates this for me. Uncle Matty and his generation had to grow up quick, and you hear in his voice, how mature he is for his age. He really was the Mitch Miller of World War II.”
To my Mom, Maime, Uncle Jimmy, and Aunt Francie we hear Uncle Matty loud and clear, I hope you are having a good laugh over this.