[N.B. This month’s column is a continuation of my recalling halcyon days I enjoyed performing at the Yankee Silversmith Inn in Wallingford, CT, and being mentored by the fabulous banjoist, vocalist, and showman Bob Price, the “Banjo Crackerjack.” Part 1 is in the July 2022 issue]
My tenure at the historic Yankee Silversmith Inn (YS) had a modest start. Everyone agreed, due to my age and inexperience, that I’d play piano Thursday and Friday nights from 5-8 pm, whereupon Jan Fitzpatrick and Bob Price would take over for the night-time crowd. During the times Jan was undergoing lung-cancer treatment (while continuing to raise her five kids!), I’d sit in for her, keeping her seat warm and safe for her return.
I started at age 14 in 1981; I was entertaining the early evening 40 to 70-year-old patrons eager to belt out music from the 1920s-1940s. I stumbled through my sets and gratefully recall everyone being so patient and kind to me. From the start, Banjo Bob came in to share the early slot with me; that’s where my real training took place. He was a garrulous master of story and song; he knew everyone by name; he knew what their favorite songs were; he had a quick wit and a glib tongue: a real raconteur. I was on top of the world, earning the princely sum of ten dollars an hour (just a nickel under triple the then-hourly minimum wage) plus tips. While my peers were inquiring about customers’ fried potato preferences, I was hobnobbing with sophisticated adults 30-60 years my senior.
“Always give the folks what they want, Jeff,” he’d instruct me, “and they’ll keep coming back for more.” Bob was never a primo don; on Thanksgiving, innkeeper Bob Meyer would have him dress in a pilgrim’s outfit and stroll through the dining rooms as well as the railcar and the bar. He’d start playing St. Patrick’s Day at 8 o’clock in the morning (!?!). AND there were people already there to hear him and drink Irish coffee (and all that comes with it).
It was one of those times he met up with a true character. Bob Willis was sitting at the far end of the rail car in a plush Victorian wing chair reading the paper over a cup of coffee when Bob Price came up to him wielding his instrument of mayhem and mirth.
Willis looked over his reading glasses at Price and intoned, “Young man, you’re playing the banjo at 8 o’clock in the morning? Wars have been fought for less!”
A firm friendship was quickly formed. Willis would come in to sing with Bob and me, his doting (tolerant) wife Rosemary in tow. The grand piano with the closed lid and glass top (to protect the wood from the drinks, snacks and meals served on it) had edges lined with leather and six plush stools around its perimeter. Rosemary always took the seat second from the left if you were sitting at the keyboard. Bob Willis would sing show tunes next to Bob Price at my right. He was a charmer; almost every night a few ladies, decades his junior, would ask if he was married. He’d glance at Rosemary perched on the other side of the piano, look seriously at the enquiring suitress and reply, “Well yes, but we’re separated.” Price would follow up “Yeah, by a piano!!”
Of course, there were regulars who claimed the same seats every night (“NORM” comes to mind). Rosemary always took the seat second-from-the-left because a well-rounded fellow with thick salt-and-pepper hair and piercing grey eyes named Mike was always in that leftmost seat. He loved to watch my fingers at the keys. He also enjoyed stumping me with requests. I loved that as well; I’d write down the titles and get them ready for him the next week. He took a proprietary interest in me; he’d tell people in a fatherly way how proud he was of how I was “coming along.” He wasn’t a musician, but he had a keen ear and knew a LOT of tunes.
About two months after I began to play at the YS, my mom received a phone call from Bob Meyer. He regretted I would no longer be able to play for him; the authorities had caught wind of it and were threatening him with closure for employing a minor. My soul was crushed. I dramatically holed up in my bedroom, listening to continuous replays of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” at an ear-splitting level and sank into increasing depths of gloom.
Meanwhile, the patrons at the bar had grown so fond of me that they protested my ousting and Bob Meyer had to come up with something. His lawyer discovered that if an adult assumed guardianship of me while I was on premises, no-one could raise a ruckus again. Bob’s mother-in-law, Betty, the head-waitress, took on that role and I was back at the piano after only a week’s absence.
Bob Meyer himself would get into the act. Many’s a night Price and I would have the crowd in a froth only to be interrupted by the leviathan man, who would say “Boys, it’s time for my feature!” He’d then whistle “Granada” and “Indian Love Song” for the enthralled throng, and I admit, although I was annoyed at having our show usurped, he was magnificent. World-class lip-tooting, that. His wife Cherri commiserated with Rosemary Willis about their show-off husbands.
My best story will seem too ridiculous to have happened, but I swear on my vow to never run for political office that it’s true. In 1984, I was performing the early shift alone and the crowd was sparse: a few desultory diners at nearby tables and the stalwart Mike on his throne at my left. During my second set, a middle-aged man wandered in, dressed in a wrinkled off-the-rack slate-grey suit. He was rather unkempt, with slicked-back thinning hair and a nose long ago broken—and not set—but he looked harmless enough. He approached the piano, sat at the rightmost stool around the piano, ordered his drink, and settled in to listen.
After I’d fielded five or six requests from Mike, the new fellow opposite him piped up, “Hey, kid, do you know ‘As Time Goes By?’”
“Certainly, sir!” I responded, launching into my best Dooley Wilson routine. Upon completion, the man reached into his right inside jacket pocket, withdrew his wallet, and ceremoniously deposited a one-dollar bill in the ubiquitous tip jar occupying the center of the glass-topped piano.
I went back to playing what came to mind, occasionally taking requests from Mike or other patrons wandering by. Ten minutes later, Grey Suit asked for “As Time Goes By” again. I obliged and received another dollar tip. This pattern was repeated for the next 40 minutes, with a buck for each time I played this guy’s favorite tune.
This first-timer asked one too many times. Mike, annoyed simultaneously with having so much attention paid to someone other than him and having to listen for the fifth time to the same tune, wagged a fiver towards the jar, telling me, “Jeff, I’ll give you this if you don’t play ‘As Time Goes By’ again!”
Mike never tipped, so I greedily agreed and began a different selection when I heard, “I really want to hear that tune. I LIKE it!” I looked up to see Grey Suit throw a tenner in the jar. So, I started to play it again.
“I like it too,” Mike glowered at our newcomer, “but we’ve really heard it enough!” He placed a twenty in my jar. “Don’t play it, Jeff. Don’t let this guy bully you and take over!”
Grey Suit tossed thirty bucks into the jar. “Play it,” he blared.
Forty bucks from Mike. “Don’t play it!”
Although things were beginning to get slightly uncomfortable, I was blinded by avarice. “Will this guy put in a fifty next? Has Mike ever owned a hundred-dollar bill and if so, does he have it with him?” There was a cute girl I hoped to take to dinner at (where else?) the YS, and that money was my ticket to asking her out!
Instead of a fifty, Grey Suit reached into his left inside jacket pocket, withdrew a small pistol and placed it atop the glass lid of the piano, pointed vaguely between Mike and me.
Never taking his eyes off Mike, he rasped through gritted teeth, “I said, play it.”
I blithered, “OF COURSE, I will! Any particular key? Would you like it sung in a favorite language? As a waltz? A Polka? Schottische? A la Schoenberg?” I fumbled along, fingers shaking too hard to be remotely accurate, when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Betty the head waitress, mother-in-law of the owner, and guardian of my scrawny ass when I was in the building, stood up to her full 4’ 9” and whispered, “Jeff, it’s time for a break.”
Grey Suit whipped around and glared at her, then shriveled in the face of her mother-lion ferocity. I made a hasty exeunt, only to be caught up by him in the foyer.
“Kid, you play real good. I know people. Not the music kind, but sorta more useful at times. Here’s my card. You ever get in trouble, you call me.” With that, Luigi (according to his card) was gone. I still have that card. I really should call the number on it; that guy owes me fifty bucks.