I was born and raised in Tempe, Arizona, as were my father and mother. After a fun-filled year in public school kindergarten, I was enrolled for eight long years in Our Lady of Mt. Carmel catholic school, where I received a generally excellent eduction, though it was sorely lacking in math, science, and social studies. Our math book said something like "Let me add goodness, subtract evil, multiply, and divide my worldly goods." The inclusion of all the religiosity seemed to have led to an exclusion of theory.
The youngest child of a "yours, mine, and ours" family, my Dad, Thomas J. Hughes, grew up on a ranch and, thanks to the GI bill, was able to go to college and medical school. He served our community as a family doctor for 46 years. As a kid, I remember the curly phone chord stretching across the dinner table each time an emergency call came in. He frequently made housecalls at night and I often went with him staying in the car while he cared for his patients. There were times when the patient lived out on the desert and I loved being in the car all alone with the moonlight streaming in. Dad loved to sing and, up until 2009, was a member of the Scottsdale Symphony Choir. To this day, he generally will include at lease verse from "Danny Boy" or "The Street Where You Live" in our phone conversations.
My mother, Penelope Peck, grew up in town, the daughter of Frank Peck, a bank manager and his wife, Myrtle, who was a renowned beauty and Frank's junior by a scandalous (at that time) 25 years. Myrtle died when Mom was just eight years old and Frank mourned her loss, taking Mom with him to Tempe Butte Cemetery every day to put flowers on Myrtle's grave. Frank followed his beloved Myrtle just five years later. Mom, then thirteen, was taken in by Myrtle's sister, Mary Moeur, who was a widow and had a son, John Moeur. John and Penny were raised as brother and sister and remained close throughout Mom's life. Mom passed away in 1984.
It is hard to say when I became interested in music, as it has always been part of my daily existence. My Dad sang and read poetry (inherently musical) to us. I learned Gregorian Chant in Catholic School. I remember high mass on Sunday. It was sung by four men, all in Latin, and they were behind a screen so that you never saw them. Their voices were so full of feeling and mystery that I was often transported to some other place and, at times, nearly brought to tears. Mass wasn't always a sacred experience. I remember when my younger sister, Mary, put her mouth on the pew railing and made the biggest fake fart noise imaginable. My brother, Pat, and I got a terminal case of the giggles, which only painful pinches adminstered by my Dad could suppress. There was also the time when Pat, only five years old, and fascinated with the priest's chasuble, asked my Dad quite loudly, "Is that Superman?" My Dad quiety said, "No." Pat continued, "It sure looks like Superman!"
The first hint that I had a "voice" came in grade school. Each student was asked to stand up and sing a scale. When I finished mine, the room was very quiet (even for Catholic school) and everyone was looking at me.
During a sleepover at my friend, Christine Bernal's, house I picked up a guitar and played it until my fingertips were dented in and somewhere been painful and numb. At some point, I acquired my own guitar and played endlessly in my room. I sang Billy Ed Wheeler's "The Coming of the Roads" until my mother banned it saying it made her too sad.
Mr. Kenneth Wells was the Tempe High School choir director. He was demanding, sometimes ill-tempered, and even made me cry once. He ingrained in me the musical discipline that has served me so well since. I managed to get the lead in "Annie Get Your Gun." During one of the final rehearsals, I broke into tears. Mr. Wells took me aside and told me that everyone who had a lead part broke down at some point from the strain and some of those breakdowns were much worse than mine. He assured me that I could go on and I did. I will always be grateful for both his discipline and kindness.
I began taking voice lessons during the time that we were rehearsing the show. My teacher, Mrs. Utterbach, was an incredible singer and accompanist and had perfect pitch. She was also down-to-earth and downright silly. Once she told me "There's Bach and then there's the Utterbach." When I saw her perform the lead role in Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah" at Arizona State University, I was mesmerized. With its young heroine seduced and betrayed by a church elder, Susannah was about the raciest thing I had ever seen. With its fusion of gospel and eerie tonalities, "Susannah" is my favorite opera.
Blue Knees Music
P.O. Box 457
Collbran, CO 81624
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