June 17, 2008
A son spins a song of reunion
When country musician David Serby goes looking for his
biological parents, he finds the root of his artistic
talent -- and a brother to boot.
By Matt Lait
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 20, 2008
APACHE JUNCTION, ARIZ.
The raffle was over, the
drinks were flowing and the gray-haired crowd at VFW
Post 9399 was in a mood to party when David Serby
approached the stage.
A lanky South Pasadena singer-songwriter, Serby had
been asked to sit in with the aging house band and
play a few of his own honky-tonk numbers.
In the last few years, the 43-year-old troubadour had
gone from playing open mike nights at local
coffeehouses to kicking off a country music festival
in the Coachella Valley last spring featuring such
stars as Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Willie
Nelson. So it wasn't the venue that drew him to this
dingy hall 40 miles outside of Phoenix.
It was the man with the bad back, weak heart and bass
guitar in his hands, who Serby had recently learned
was his biological father. In the audience sat his
biological mother, as well as an aunt, an uncle and a
few other relatives that for more than 40 years Serby
never knew existed.
As he strapped on his Gibson guitar, the surreal scene
enveloped him. His quest to learn more about himself
and his passion for music was turning into an
emotional journey with consequences beyond his
control. This heartwarming get-together, he knew, was
more complicated than it seemed.
In 1962, Evie Hagle and Pete Canton were two
Midwestern teenagers trying to make it on their own in
California. Evie, a slender 5-foot, 5-inch blue-eyed
girl, worked at a clothing store and lived with a
couple of girlfriends in a North Hollywood apartment.
Pete, a 6-footer with a cleft chin and blond hair,
played guitar in a country-western band.
Though he was engaged to a woman in North Dakota, Pete
was drawn to Evie. She, likewise, adored Pete's
adventurous and rebellious attitude toward life. They
were young, carefree -- and ultimately careless.
Evie learned she was pregnant shortly after Pete
decided to move back home to marry his fiancee. When
Evie wrote him with the news, Pete panicked. He called
off his engagement, but also withdrew from Evie,
thinking he didn't want to be a husband or a father.
Evie debated raising the child on her own, but at the
urging of her mother and social workers, she gave the
baby boy up for adoption.
Weeks after the child's birth, Pete moved back to
California and reunited with Evie. Two months later,
Evie was pregnant again.
This time, Pete stayed by her side. But the outcome
would be the same. They agreed they were too young and
immature to be married, let alone be parents.
As Evie signed the forms giving their second son up
for adoption, she wept.
Where Pete and Evie were a bit free-wheeling or even
reckless, Arvene and Verna Serby were stable and
responsible. After 14 years of marriage, they were
ready to adopt, having been unable to have a child on
their own. According to adoption records, they were
overjoyed to find a son who came from the same
Norwegian stock as Arvene.
"That cinched it," he jokingly said to the social
worker finalizing the adoption.
Baby Boy Hagle became David Allan Serby.
Two years later, the Serbys moved to Illinois, with
David and his baby sister, whom the couple, to their
surprise, had conceived on their own.
Although neither Arvene nor Verna was musically
inclined, David loved music. He played violin in
elementary school and saxophone in middle school, sang
in a band in high school and taught himself the guitar
while in college.
By then, the family had moved back to California,
settling in Placentia. David married his high-school
sweetheart, followed his father into the insurance
business and bought a Spanish-style home in Highland
At age 30, though, David's comfortable life started to
crumble. His marriage ended in divorce about the same
time his father died after a prolonged fight with
colon cancer. In the sadness of those days, David
turned to music. He dusted off his guitar, which he
hadn't touched in nearly a decade, and practiced
constantly. Soon, he started writing his own songs.
David, who had known from an early age that he was
adopted, also became more interested in his biological
parents after his father's death. He wrote to the Los
Angeles County Department of Children and Family
Services for any information it might have. Under
adoption laws, the county couldn't disclose the
identities of his parents, but it could reveal other
details about their backgrounds. That information
seemed to put his interest in music into perspective.
On the maternal side: "All of the family was musically
inclined." And his biological father played guitar in
a "traveling band."
Another piece of information struck an even stronger
chord: His mother and father had had a baby boy 11
months before his birth and had also given him up for
adoption. Somewhere out there was his older brother.
Did they look alike, he wondered. What did he do? Did
he play guitar?
David struggled with what to do with this new
information for weeks, then months and ultimately
years. By this time, he had married again. His new
wife supported David's interest in music and his
desire to find his brother.
He took lessons to improve his guitar playing,
enrolled in songwriting workshops and played at bars
and coffeehouses on open mike nights. He also quit his
job as a claims adjuster, which he had come to loathe.
In just a couple of years, his playing and songwriting
were receiving more notice. He started getting regular
gigs. As he approached 40, he cut his first CD. Then a
second. Both received critical acclaim in
In 2004, he contacted a private investigator who
specialized in finding the families of adopted
children. For $500, she said, she would find his
Within two weeks, she e-mailed Serby giving him his
brother's name and address. Mark, the brother, lived
less than 20 miles away in Whittier. If David intended
to contact his brother, the woman advised that he send
a note in a Hallmark greeting card envelope. It's less
likely to get tossed as junk mail, she said.
So that's what he did. In the note, he documented the
information showing that they were brothers and asked
that his brother call, if he was interested in
talking. Days later, Mark called. At first, he was
suspicious of David. Why was he making contact now?
Did he want something? As the conversation continued,
Mark, a banker, seemed to believe David was legit. But
he had a couple more questions.
What's your hairline like, Mark asked.
Not so good, David replied.
Do you drink beer?
Maybe we're really related after all, Mark said,
A couple of days later, Mark and his wife visited
David and his wife. Mark's experience with adoption
wasn't as pleasant as David's. His folks were less
nurturing, and his older brother a bully.
While David had no hard feelings toward his biological
parents, Mark carried a grudge. Both, however, decided
they wanted to find them.
Using information from the private investigator and
clues from the county's letter years earlier, David's
wife, Barbara, combed the Internet. Within hours, she
had located both parents: They were married to each
other and living in Arizona, just miles away from
David's adoptive mother.
David crafted another letter. As he had done with his
note to his brother, he laid out the information
showing they were related. He wanted the couple to
know that he and Mark did not mean to invade their
privacy or disrupt their lives and would honor their
decision should they not want to have contact with
"Please understand that we want nothing more than the
chance to meet you," David wrote. "If I were to use an
analogy, I would say I feel like a character in a book
that was spun off into a different book after the
first chapter; I am curious to know how life turned
out for the characters in my first book."
'They found us," Evie shouted to Pete. "They found
"Who found us?" Pete asked, trying to calm his wife.
"Our boys," she exclaimed.
The letter, which arrived just days after the couple
celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, couldn't
have been more welcome.
The decision to put their sons up for adoption was one
they had always regretted. Ironically, they found the
maturity to get married only months after they gave
David up for adoption. As a young couple they
struggled financially. In 1966, Pete was drafted and
went to Vietnam. After he got out of the Army, he and
Evie settled in L.A. He joined a band that had steady
gigs at joints such as the Palomino Club in North
They talked often about their sons. Wondered how they
were doing. Were they doctors or lawyers? Were they
punks or in jail? Did they love music?
Pete and Evie even thought about trying to find the
boys, but decided it wouldn't be fair to the families
that had adopted them. For years, they tried to have
more children to raise on their own, but Evie was
never able to get pregnant again. They saw the letter
from Mark and David as a second chance.
Evie picked up the phone. When David answered, Evie's
nervous voice cracked.
"We've been waiting for this letter all our lives,"
Weeks later, David, Mark and their wives went to
Arizona for a weekend to meet Pete and Evie. At first,
the conversation was awkward. They exchanged stories
about their lives. Evie brought out baby photos she
kept of the boys and cried as she told them about her
decision to give them up for adoption. David and Pete
bonded over their shared interest in country music.
Pete took out a scrapbook with pictures of him with
Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire and other musicians.
Staring back from one of the photos was a face David
Pete said it was the face of his friend JayDee Maness,
"the best steel guitar player in the world." David
agreed. He had recently hired Maness to do session
work on his CD.
David enjoyed the visit. He had satisfied his
curiosity about his roots. He felt invigorated in his
musical pursuits after learning about Pete's career.
But he also had the unsettling feeling that the
emotional stakes were greater than he had anticipated.
He could tell that Pete and Evie hoped for a tighter
family bond by which they could become integral parts
of their sons' lives as parents and as grandparents to
Mark's two children.
David, however, wasn't looking to replace his family
with a new one. He loved his adoptive mother and knew
that she loved him. And he knew that his quest was
causing her heartache, though she didn't say so.
David also saw that his brother had bottled up
resentment, especially toward Pete, whom he blamed for
failing to take responsibility for the boys and
allowing them to be adopted.
In a telephone call shortly after their first meeting,
Mark angrily told Pete precisely what he thought.
After he hung up the phone, a shaken Pete had a heart
attack and was rushed to the hospital.
Hours before showtime at the VFW, Pete and David
strummed guitars on the back porch of Pete and Evie's
desert home. They played Harlan Howard's "Heartache by
the Numbers" and a few other country classics. Pete
shared a couple of songs he'd written over his career.
His voice was a bit raspy from years of smoking, but
David was impressed with the lyrics and melody.
Likewise, Pete admired his son's talent. He spent
several days listening to David's CD, charting all the
chord changes for his band the Good Ol Boys.
Before meeting David, Pete had given up the guitar and
retired from music. David's emergence in his life,
however, reignited Pete's passion for playing.
His heart attack caused both parents and sons to
reevaluate their expectations. Mark became more
accepting of Pete and Evie's actions and recently grew
closer to his own adoptive father. David understands
their desire to establish a bond. And Pete and Evie
realize that building any sort of relationship with
their boys is going to take time.
Still, Pete and Evie have a hard time containing their
joy at getting to know their sons. At the VFW that
night, they made sure friends and relatives were there
to see father and son take the stage.
"I couldn't be prouder," a grinning Pete said after
the show. "I couldn't be prouder."
For David, the whole thing was an almost out-of-body
experience. He smiled and posed for pictures with
folks who embraced him like the long lost relative he
Driving back to his hotel after the show, David
reflected on his search for his roots and its
"Once you start walking down a road like this it's
hard to stop," he said. "You can't manufacture a
family out of thin air, and there is pressure to build
relationships that weren't there before."
But he doesn't regret it.
"It's mind-boggling the paths your life takes," he
said. "All of our lives could have been so different
in many ways."