In April, I described from whence came my fascination with silent film comedy and introduced to my column Jan Fitzgerald, a woman who would continue to be important in my musical life. In fact, she was responsible for my next big step. Other than my increasing involvement at the Ground Round in my hometown of Hamden, CT (for which I received a free dessert and all the Roy Rogers soft drinks I could consume), my performing opportunities at age 13 were sporadic. I’d play family parties and if there was a piano at the cast party for any of the shows in which I took part in junior high school, I’d make straight for it, playing show tunes I’d picked up listening to the family record collection for hours.
Both my memorable “gigging” occasions at age 13 were engineered by my mom and both involved unplanned, hasty exits. The first arose because Mom had a friend at work who was having a baby shower and wanted some live music. She’d heard Mom talk, in typical parental fashion, about how well I played and had heard me at a family get-together, so decided to hire me to provide music at her upcoming fete. My mom’s friend rented an acoustic console piano and paid me a modest amount in bonafide cash (plus more of those Roy Rogers).
It was a fun experience that lasted about three hours; I proved so popular the partiers kept asking for more tunes, to the point when the piano movers were tapping their feet waiting to retrieve the rental. Even at my tender age, I knew things were getting a bit tense, so I went over to the movers, tipped them both a fiver and perpetrated a scam. I returned to the piano and began to play “Maple Leaf Rag,” whereupon they marched over, hoisted the piano, and bench, AND me, up onto a dolly that they then rolled up a ramp into their truck; I was playing all the while this was occurring. I continued to play as they closed the door, got in the truck, and drove away; they rounded the corner out of sight of the banquet room and let me out, laughing at this strange kid who had come up with such a farce. I went back to the party and boy, did I catch hell from my mom, although she was soon after laughing with everyone else.
The other occasion was my playing a St. Patrick’s Day party in a bar that stood next to a firehouse in New Haven, CT. Again, my mom knew someone who knew someone who was looking for a piano player to entertain for the party. It was a rough section of town, but my mom had contacted the fire chief (the clientele at this place consisted mostly of off-duty firemen—the firehouse being next door) and he personally guaranteed my safety. The gig was going swimmingly, with revelry abounding and tips filling my jar (I could see myself buying my future Roy Rogers beverages). I’d started at 7 pm—the party was planned to end at midnight. It ended much earlier than that and very abruptly when my dad arrived, threatened to call the cops (many of whom were there partying with their firefighting brethren and sistren) for hiring a minor and furiously carted me away. Everything blew over and no charges were pressed but I was going nowhere fast. I’d been bitten by the performing bug and lamented being so young: I couldn’t wait to do more!
Enter Jan Fitzpatrick who had become friends with my family, spending her breaks chatting with us at our stage-side table at the Ground Round. She told us her other location was in the nearby town of Wallingford playing sing-along, old pop-tunes and show tunes. When I asked her if she sang, she gave her deep smoker’s rattle: half cough and half laughter. “Not me,” she answered, “I play with an amazing banjo player named Bob Price; he does the singing and soloing. I back him up and we all have a great time. The restaurant is called the Yankee Silversmith Inn and Bob and I play in the piano bar next to the old dining railcar.”
Of course, I begged my mom to take me to check it out. Bob and Jan played there weekly Thursday, 7-11 pm and Friday-Saturday, 8 pm-midnight. She agreed to take me on the Friday night. We walked into the main entrance on the bar side, turned right and saw Jan against the far wall, facing us and seated at a grand piano with the glass-topped lid closed, leather around the perimeter, and stools surrounding the piano, each one occupied by a bellowing barroom beauty or whiskey tenor. They were belting out a lusty version of “Baby Face” to the bemusement of all in the room along with the folks sitting around the three stairs at the far edge of the piano leading up to the dining railroad car or leaning on the brass railing that lined its edge. Jan was playing simple, rhythmic accompaniment to the star of the evening seated on her right: banjoist and entertainer Bob Price, who I later learned was known as the “Banjo CrackerJack.”
I soaked in the atmosphere: the building was 120 years old—the dark paneling and burgundy wallpaper combined with the faux-stained glass lighting fixtures to exude Victorian charm. The polished bar had brass foot rails and ornate high-backed stools that matched the ones around the piano. The waitresses were dressed in 19th century style, while Jan and Bob had white shirts on with black trousers, vests and bowties, and a red garter on their right arms.
During their break, Jan introduced me to Bob, who invited me to sit in for a few tunes. It went well enough that on the next break they both sat down with my mom and me.
“Jeff,” Bob began, “you know a lot of tunes and have a quick ear for one so young.” [I thought Bob was really old—I later discovered he was not yet 40 at the time!] “Would you like to do some playing here with me?”
I was gobsmacked and very nervous. “Mr. Price, I don’t think I know enough to do that…”
“Call me Bob. You wouldn’t have to know the tunes…just pay attention and learn them as we play them. I’ll feed you chords when necessary.”
I looked over at Jan, “What about you?” I asked.
“I’ll be unable to play for a while,” she told me. “I’ll be undergoing treatment for lung cancer and need someone to cover for me in my absence.”
“Well, as soon as you’re up to returning, I’m happy to go back to the audience!” I blurted out, worried about my friend.
“This bar has music going five nights a week and we think you’ll grow into some slots here if it works out for everyone.” Bob counseled.
“When do I start?” I eagerly inquired. Bob’s response was interrupted by the floor shaking as if there were an earthquake.
“Well, why don’t we ask the owner?” Bob gestured towards the stairs on the far wall from the piano leading to the upper floor of the restaurant, which I later discovered housed the admin offices.
I turned to see a giant man stomping down the stairs, his speed belying his gargantuan 400-pound girth. He turned to our table with sparkling blue eyes, a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, an enormous handlebar-cum-walrus mustache, and the widest smile I’ve ever seen. Bedecked in tan trousers, blue-and-white-striped oxford, red tie and cashmere blue blazer, this behemoth resembled Teddy Roosevelt on steroids! My eyes grew wider and wider with each of his approaching steps.
He thrust out his hand (which devoured mine) and thundered, “So you’re the young chap Jan would like to step in during her absence! I’m Robert Meyer but call me Bob…not banjo-playing Bob, INNKEEPER Bob!” He threw back his head and laughed. “I’ve had this place since 1953, young man, and it’s a family business. My mom is head waitress and has never missed a day since we opened. Welcome to the family!”
“It’s great to meet you, Bob,” I stammered. “I won’t let you down.”
“Of course you won’t! Now who,” Meyer indicated my mom, “is this lovely lady, your sister?”
Any doubts my mom had about my taking on the responsibility of playing 12 hours a week in a bar in Wallingford CT dissolved under the charm of the combined Bobs. Next month, I’ll share some of the more colorful stories during my tenure at the Yankee Silversmith Inn, but I’ll close this time with a shout-out to my mom: she was working a full-time job and raising two kids (she’d divorced my dad, who was around but not part of the day-to-day parenting) and still managed to haul my scrawny ass to and from the gig three nights a week. She’d do that for the next three years before I acquired my driver’s license, and she’s a huge part of why I am a musician today. Thanks, Mom!