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Opinion Shapers

Steve Unger

Many people seem to have a quirky, unique talent or skill that doesn’t necessarily contribute much to the grand scheme of things in life, but can still provide amusing insight or add an interesting facet to someone’s personality.

For example, the Al Pacino character in the movie “Scent of a Woman” had an uncanny ability to identify what kind of perfume a lady was wearing, or even what brand of soap she had used. He was blind, which could help to explain his heightened olfactory sense, but it was quite a trick nonetheless.

Some people have an innate knack for languages or numbers, and those can be valuable assets in one’s career. Sharp gardeners recognize good dirt. Cooks can spot the best produce. Some mechanics can diagnose car problems just by listening to the motor. Amazing.

Unfortunately, my brain is wired to make me a pretty decent Boggle player and proofreader; had I been blessed with a talent for chemical engineering or hitting a baseball, my life might not be so screwed up.

I know people who can unscramble a Rubik’s Cube but have trouble resetting a thermostat. My father had a gift for remembering people’s names, but would still occasionally get me mixed up with our dog. I once interviewed a woman in Seattle whose job was to select fashion accessories for an unnamed, high-profile software magnate when he made public appearances because he evidently couldn’t pick a tie to coordinate with a suit. Yep, there are all kinds of strange skill sets out there.

My youngest son has recently started displaying an ability that defies my comprehension. He can tell how old a movie or TV show is by its soundtrack. Seriously. He’ll walk into the den when the television is on and say something like, “What are you watching? That music is so early '80s!” He almost always gets it right, even for decades that predate him.

Maybe that’s not impressive or befuddling to somebody who studies the evolution of musical styles, but I can’t figure it out. After all, the actual instruments don’t change from one decade to the next, and there are still only a certain number of notes and chords. So that got me thinking: are there subtle trends or popular musical devices that composers and performers use only within a given period of time? I know that’s true with many graphic designers and type faces.

Then I happened to come across an old episode of “The Twilight Zone,” with its famous Rod Serling monologue and opening theme – using music that was obviously from about 1961. Why was it obvious? Bongo drums!

If you remember those great days of the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s, you probably remember the sound of bongos. For some reason, bongo drums were considered to be totally hip and cool during that heady era of pop culture. Maybe it was left over influence from Ricky Ricardo’s conga drums and America’s relationship with Cuba, or maybe it was part of the beatnik generation thing we had for a while. But in any case, bongos were popping up in musical venues all over the place.

Other 1960s’ hit TV shows that featured bongo-thumping in their theme songs included “Mission Impossible,” “The Man from UNCLE,” “The Avengers” and perhaps more appropriately, “Hawaiian Eye.”

Bongo drums themselves played a role in a number of shows’ plots, like the time Bud Anderson on “Father Knows Best” decided to become a bongo player, partly because the piano and accordion weren’t interesting enough. On an episode of “Leave it to Beaver,” Eddie Haskell tries to be cool with bongo drums, but just ends up being an irritant.

In the 1958 movie “Bell, Book and Candle,” Kim Novak lures Jimmy Stewart to a funky underground nightclub in which the entire percussion section of the band is Jack Lemmon on the bongos.

So what happened? Did America’s musicologists have an onset of hyperbongoism? Did the drums have their brief fling with fad status and then suddenly turn uncool? Does anybody miss them?

I have a long way to go before I can recognize popular musical nuances and isolate them for their place in history, but the bongos were a good lesson. Here’s another one: if you hear a soundtrack featuring a Bee Gees song, it’s probably from the late ‘70s. See, this isn’t so tough.

Steve Unger has been professionally writing for 30-plus years to help companies sell stuff. His Journal columns are a labor of love to salute the people, places and charm of St. Louis. If you’d like to share a memory of St. Louis or just drop him a line, he can be reached at stevethewordguy@aol.com.