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  • My mom, Norma, loved popular music; hence I did. As a kid, I remember using a hairbrush as a microphone when nobody else was home. Looking into the biggest mirror in our apartment, I earnestly pretended to be Lena Horne while her 33⅓ album played on our small record player. Being a back-up singer to Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack" was another favorite for my lip-syncing. The sounds from my mother’s whole record collection including the likes of Les Paul & Mary Ford, The Mills Brothers, Eddy Arnold and Nat King Cole fascinated me.

    The record player, looking like a little suitcase, came as a Christmas gift from my father for me and my sister, along with two 45’s of Elvis Presley’s, including "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock." (I could really ham it up to that last one.) The Elvis records were a natural choice for my Dad who lived almost 500 miles away in Memphis, now the King’s hometown. Dad had moved there shortly after he and Norma parted ways and divorced when I was an infant. I had to hand it to my dad, for not even knowing his kids that well, the records and player were an excellent gift. Maybe he knew how much Norma would enjoy it, too.

    I got my love of music and words - spoken, sung and written - from Norma, and I acknowledged this in my tribute at her memorial service in 1999 in Nashville. After a sudden intestinal blood clot, she had been in the hospital for almost a month when a surgery made it necessary to stay. At 82, her body wouldn’t heal from that first surgery, so another one was proposed to "explore" what was up. She didn’t want to do it, but acquiesced because she was being begged, and because she just wanted to be knocked out to get some sleep after having none for well over a week. However, she protested going under the knife again and declared she would not survive this one. She adamantly pointed her finger in my face and said, "Remember, I want 'Sophisticated Lady' played at my funeral. Duke Ellington. You’ve got to promise me." The finger did not come down until it was promised.

    She lasted several suffering days after that second one and then, with my dear brother-in-law (son-she never-had/brother-I-never-had) at her side, she willed herself to go.

    In shock, we prepared to honor her. Surprisingly, I could find no Duke Ellington version of the song among her albums. I borrowed one from a wonderful friend who has lots of old jazz standards on CD. One was the familiar instrumental with Duke himself at piano. The other was with a vocal. My sister and I didn’t even know the song had lyrics. We listened intently to the vocal version floating up from my sister’s stereo in her high ceiling kitchen. When the first phrases came, we looked straight at each other: "They say into your early life romance came / And in this heart of yours burned a flame / A flame that flickered one day and died away / Then, with disillusion deep in your eyes / You learned that fools in love soon grow wise.” One of us said, "Well, we know who this is about."

    Then comes this in the chorus: "...sophisticated lady, / I know, you miss the love you lost long ago / And when nobody is nigh you cry." (Okay already, Duke!... Mitchell Parish [lyricist]! You’re killing me!) It was decided we couldn’t play the vocal version at the service. The instrumental is beautiful and mournful enough.

    Though having quite the liberal reputation, the church where we were to hold her memorial (my sister’s church, as I don’t really have one, heathen that I am) told my sister they simply didn’t allow “secular” music in their chapel. Dear older sister, Wanda, told me this gently, and graciously said it would certainly be okay with her to hold it elsewhere so that Duke Ellington would be heard loud & clear as promised. The alternative was to play the chosen CD in a gathering room outside the chapel before the official "service" started. We were pissed off (as Norma would be), but agreed to this.

    With many of her surviving family and friends standing and sitting around a large comfortable room, it was announced there was
    special music Norma had requested be played. As the CD started, something compelled me to close my eyes. Immediately, I saw and felt Norma dancing all around the assembled people in the room. She twirled gracefully in a flowing coral dress she'd worn to a couple of family weddings.

    The fascinating fact is that later my sister said she closed her eyes and saw & felt the exact same thing in that room: Norma dancing in that same coral dress. Our mother had always loved to dance... especially back when couples really danced... entwined, in front of big bands like in the 1940's. She always said our dad was the best dancer.
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