Something touched me deep inside the day the music died.
— Don McLean
There are those who will tell you one average person acting alone cannot have much of an impact on the world outside his or her direct sphere of influence. I’m here to tell those people they’re wrong.
The following is a story about one person’s lasting impact on a school of more than 600 students. And it’s not one of those urban legends or too-far-out-to-be-true tales that one hears about and immediately dismisses. I know this story is true ... I was there.
Let’s all go back in time, back to the winter of 1971, when Afros, bellbottoms and platform shoes were the style of the day, and young America was listening to the likes of “Maggie Mae” by Rod Stewart, “Spanish Harlem” by Aretha Franklin and “Do You Know What I Mean?” by Lee Michaels.
Another tune that had everyone’s attention all those years ago was John Lennon’s “Mother.” Equal parts spare piano ballad and primal scream therapy, “Mother” remains one of the ex-Beatle’s most enduring songs. It was recorded at the height of his creative powers, almost a decade before his life was tragically cut short by an insane gunman.
Those who know their Beatles history also know that in 1971 the greatest influence on Lennon’s life was Yoko Ono, a conceptual artist who became the singer’s soul mate and helped him escape the Beatles box that the media and millions of music fans the world over wanted him to stay in forever.
To those Beatles fans’ great dismay, one of the primary ways Ono exerted her influence over Lennon was in his music. And for every “Imagine,” “Instant Karma,” “Working Class Hero” or “Give Peace a Chance” Lennon wrote and recorded, he consequently released an Ono-influenced “Woman Is the N----- of the World,” “Angela,” “Don’t Worry Kyoko” or “Attica State.”
A little history: For anyone not familiar with the concept of the 45 rpm record, those were the songs released as “singles” back before digital downloading. Record companies couldn’t put just one song on the little black 6-inch vinyl discs they released, so they backed each single with a “B side” and shipped the singles out to radio stations for on-air play and to retailers for sale.
For reasons known only to him, Lennon chose to make “Why” the B side of “Mother.” (It’s right about here, by the way, many Beatles lovers will say that this decision was Yoko’s bad influence, just as they’ll insist she’s the one who broke up the Fab Four. Sorry, guys, but it’s time we all let it go.)
“Why” starts out with one of the most kicking bass lines you’ve ever heard. When Lennon comes in behind that groove with some excellent guitar work, fans settle in for a “Revolution”-style magical mystery tour. Then the “singing” begins. I put singing in quotes, because it’s hard to describe “Why” that way.
What comes out of the speakers is Yoko screaming “Why!” in a piercing, screeching yowl. Nothing else, unless you count stretching the word out into several syllables as something different. “Why-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!”
Now, to that one person changing his world around him.
Irwin County, as you might guess, was not in 1971 a hotbed of progressive thinking and cultural enlightenment. But, God bless us, there were some who were trying. In fact, some of the more progressive educational leaders of the day — most likely Principal Richard Williamson, one of the coolest administrators ever — decided they wanted to do something for the students. After much discussion, they decided to put a jukebox in the Irwin County High School lunchroom.
For two days, ICHS had a cachet of cool that transcended all the other schools around ... way cooler even than Tift County, Coffee County, Berrien County and especially Fitzgerald. But on the third day, one person — senior Richard Quinney — iced that cool. And in doing so, he took his place in the annals of ICHS lore so deeply that if his story doesn’t live on in the school’s halls to this day, it deserves to be told and retold so that his efforts are never forgotten.
On the third day that the jukebox was blasting the latest tunes in the ICHS lunchroom, Quinney rushed in during the first lunch period and poured as many quarters as he had into the machine. And he played “Why.” Over and over and over.
The reaction was wonderful. Students — at least those who didn’t have their own copy of “Mother/Why” — looked around as if to say “What the ...?” Their consternation was eased, though, by the look of panic and terror on the faces of teachers and administrators, many of whom tried to figure out how to stop the noise. Someone, and I can’t remember who it was, finally pulled the plug.
But this lightning was already out of the bottle. The next day, again during first lunch, Quinney had backup as he raced to the lunchroom and had “Why” playing as the students filed in. There were grins all around — even those intent on hearing “Treat Her Like a Lady” and “Groove Me” got into the spirit. Somehow, Quinney was sticking it to the man.
Of course, shortly after the start of the second playing of the song that second day, the jukebox was again unplugged. The next day, the machine was gone — that was, for ICHS, the day the music died.
But for a couple of days, Irwin County High School — because of one clever soul who, it should be noted, was not averse to partaking of substances that were typically frowned upon by most of the teachers and administrators of the school, as well as law enforcement — was the coolest place in Southwest Georgia. And the name Richard Quinney became legend ... long may it live.
Email Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.