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Playing music ‘Kee’ to harmony in his life

Behind the Bars column
By: Kathleen McCoy Grover, Special to The News Messenger
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Can you think of a pivotal experience in your life that changed the course of your life, forever? Perhaps, in those few moments, you were led to discover a gift, one that you would never have imagined. Now, visualize how your life would be different had you not had that one opportunity to experience your life-altering moment. For the four-year-old Irving, Texas tyke Marshal Kee, it was his first concert in the grown-up seats at the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra that changed his life. Granted, he was already singing harmony in church for a year with his mom. However, it was witnessing all the instruments coming together in a symphony of sound that hypnotized and impressed little Marshal’s mind. It was a new and much more powerful harmony. Marshal’s teacher was astonished one year later, during a first-grade Christmas-pageant practice, with the young boy’s standout harmony. Singing harmony was natural to Marshal and he thought everyone could do it. But he was one of those lucky ones born with a natural ear to hear between the notes of a melody. Harmony is the element of sound that adds texture and depth to a melody, to create the rich fabric of a song. In 1964, Marshal’s family moved to Pasadena. Through his adolescent years, Marshal was content playing with his school orchestra. His ability to fill empty spaces with sound grew as he discovered cadence and how its modulation fit into melodies, enchanting him deeper into music. It was the era of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and “American Bandstand.” Marshal’s peers were saturated in the spray of pop music. But he was bored with the triad chords of pop music. “There just wasn’t enough to it,” Marshal said. “It just wasn’t challenging enough.” Instead, he loved the intricate sounds of Henry Mancini and Mantovani’s Strings, who with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, were backed by the orchestra’s deep resonance. “The other music was just something to dance to,” Marshal said. Marshal was content to stand tall under the umbrella of his school orchestra, band and A’ Cappella choir. While attending Pasadena High School, which had a student body of 3,500, Marshal was accepted into The Madrigals, an elite group from the A Cappella Choir. “One of the brightest highlights of my high-school choral days was singing ‘Man of La Mancha’s’ ‘Impossible Dream,’ backed by a 200-piece orchestra,” Marshal recalled. Via the First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, Marshal joined the Christian Minstrels. The distinguished group was comprised of 80 teens between the ages of 14 and 19. For 40 days every summer, they traveled 30 states by Greyhound Bus, giving concerts along the way and recording three albums. “It was the best thing a teenager could do,” Marshal said. At 16, Marshal taught himself how to play guitar and assembled a folk trio, Grand Central Station. The group, together one year, played covers of the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; Gordon Lightfoot; The Lettermen; Simon and Garfunkel; and other folk icons. The group had a gig at Knott’s Berry Farm. Marshal resumed his place in orchestra during two years at a Pasadena college. Athletic appointments to the basketball team added to the balance, until Uncle Sam called him into the draft. The only portable instrument he could take with him was his grandfather’s harmonica, which launched him into the blues. At 23, after completing his two-year obligation to the U.S. Army in Germany, Marshal moved to Eureka for the cool clean air. He went to college at night and started a family. He recalled his first job in Eureka. “The unemployment rate was very high. I was one of 200 applicants for one position at Maxson’s Music Store,” he said. “During the interview, the owner, looking for someone who could play guitar and piano, asked me if I could play.” Marshal answered, “No, but do you mind if I stay in the practice room for a few days?” “ “At the end of three days, the owner came in to listen to me while I played 20 songs on the piano for him,” Marshal said. “When he asked me how I did it, I answered, ‘There are only 12 notes. I listened to find out which ones sounded best together.’ I was hired on the spot. That was the beginning of my long piano career.” In 1975, after only one year there, Marshal moved back to Pasadena. “I started working at piano stores in the area and spent the next 31 years in the piano business. For a few years, I traveled with the Yamaha college sales loan program, traveling throughout 20 states a year,” he said. Ready to retire from The Music Center in Riverside as general manager in 2006, Marshal wanted to find a place away from the congestion of Southern California. “I opened up Google Earth on my computer and discovered a little town called Lincoln,” he said. “My wife, Amy, and I took a vacation to check it out.” Two months later, they moved to Lincoln Hills. “Just a few months after settling here, I met Doug Weiss and George Bungarz. We came together to form Lincoln Highway, completing the group with Mike Sisemore and Charlie Keeney,” Marshal said. “In 2009 and 2009, our premier rockabilly/country Band was voted ’Best of the Best’ by the readers of The Lincoln News Messenger.” Lincoln Highway has released two CDs. Marshal also plays alongside Ric Adamo, in Crossroads Blues Band. In addition, Marshal teaches eight adults (his oldest is age 90), helping make their dreams come true. He also plays piano and sings at eight assisted-living homes in the area, including Lincoln Manor and Villa Del Rey. Marshal can also be heard playing in Lincoln at Buonarroti Ristorante, Kim’s Country Kitchen, Starbuck’s and Mina’s coffee shops. “I play at least 16 shows a month, practice three hours a day and continue to add to my 100 or so originals and my 1,000 repertoire of cover songs,” Marshal said. “I still have openings for a few more students. I have three children, two stepchildren and five grandkids. I love the life I have made here in Lincoln with my beautiful wife, Amy.” I asked Marshal what he did when he was not playing music. He replied, “I sleep!” “Even then, I dream about it. I hear music everywhere. I hope to be like my fireball mother, Nyla June Dietz, who at 81 is still playing gigs with her auto harp in Glendale, Ariz. “We’re all moved by different things in life,” Marshal said. “Music is like a warm blanket. When you experience it,you can’t compare it to anything else on Earth. I’ve had my share of heartbreaks and disappointments but music has always been there for me through the good and the bad. It’s my medicine!”  Marshal remains grateful for music. “I thank God for my gift. Some people live their entire lives never discovering their gift. Everybody has one; the lucky people are led to discover it.” Kathleen McCoy Grover, “My Life, Your Music,” is a Lincoln resident.