NYC’s Lounge Singers

Written by C.J. Sullivan on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

As we head
to another hotel bar I discuss with Kelly the value of having a piano player
working a lounge. While hotel bars charge more for a drink than a standard bar,
they offer something most of those places don’t have. We agree that a piano
player lends a room class, which makes patrons want to act better–more
mature, maybe even sophisticated. You want to dress better and be polite to
the person standing next to you. New York can always use more of that.

is how my parents lived when they were younger," he says. "They loved
to dress up on Saturday night and go out to hear some music. It’s nice.
Something we never really had–at least not on this level."

We hit a few
more hotels. Kelly walks around pressing the flesh, taking notes, answering
endless questions.

We enter the
Park Lane and walk up a marble staircase into Harry’s Bar. A trio of women
sits at the dark wooden bar sipping martinis and listening to Fields play. The
bar smells of fresh polish. The piano is in the dining area next to the bar,
called A Room with a View. Fields wraps up a set and sits in a booth, where
we join him. A waiter brings him a meal as we talk.

"You know,
down the block at the Plaza they’ve cut off all live music except for a
harp player during brunch," Fields notes. "Why should a prestigious
hotel like the Plaza be so demeaning and disgraceful as not to have music? At
a time like this when we’re at war and getting over the World Trade Center
attack, music is a psychedelic medicine. It’s needed to lift people up."

He pauses,
raises a finger and says something I have never heard another human being utter:
a kind word for Leona Helmsley.

"I offer
my sincerest compliments to Leona Helmsley for having live music at the Park
Lane. It’s a smart move on her part. Since I started playing here, business
has improved for them. Where are all the musicians? Live music brings business.
All they worry about is they want an extra table where the piano was. What good
is an extra table if the place is empty?"

Fields tells
us how he got his job at the Park Lane. He and his wife were having lunch at
Harry’s, and Leona Helmsley asked him to play "I’m Just Wild
About Harry."

"My style
is to play a big arrangement. After she heard my rendition of that song she
wanted to know how soon I could come and work here regularly. People feel the
music I play. I play the right music for the right occasion. Now people are
hungry for the music of the 30s, 40s and 50s. The young people want that."

Irving Fields
was born in 1915 and raised on the Lower East Side. He got into show business
at the Yiddish Theater on 2nd Ave. as a child actor. He then studied the piano
and got his break when he won first prize on the Fred Allen Amateur Hour
Radio Show
in 1930. He won $50 and a week’s engagement at the Roxy
Theater. After that he was on his way. Some nights he had to brush on a mascara
mustache and wear a homburg to look older so he could get around the child labor
laws. He always had work, and claims to have played almost every venue in New
York that had a piano. From headlining Carnegie Hall to working on cruise ships,
he has seen all of the city and a lot of the world.

He’s cut
scores of records over the years, and composed the tunes "Managua Nicaragua,"
"Chantez, Chantez," "Miami Beach Rhumba" and "Take
Her to Jamaica," among others. Older folks might remember his Decca albums,
with great titles like Bagels and Bongos and Bikinis and Bongos.
Meanwhile, he raised two kids in New York, and now lives on Central Park S.
with his wife, Ruth.

"I have
a great commute to work. I walk down the block."

I ask him what
changes he’s seen in New York City across eight decades. His lively face
gets sad for a moment.

"I think
we have deteriorated in the quality of music and the quality of style. You see,
it’s elegance that is missing. Especially in the clothing styles. The way
they dress now is appalling." Fields brushes the lapel of his own tuxedo
and shakes his head. "I’m living in a different world now, I guess."

A middle-aged
woman–even Fields might describe her as elegant–comes over to the
booth and thanks him. Her mother works her way over as well and gives Fields
a small kiss. As they walk out, Fields turns and whispers, "She’s

He offers to
play a song for us. I ask for "As Time Goes By." Fields ambles over
to the ebony piano and knocks it out with what he calls his "big sound."
A few couples are finishing their meals. I observe the deep rich carpet, the
huge candelabra hung from the vaunted ceiling, the polished oak walls with gold-framed
mirrors, the northern view framed by huge windows with open drapes. All you
can see are the night sky and the tops of the trees in Central Park. This is
indeed a room with a view.

Fields finishes
up with a flourish and comes down off of the bench. He sits down to a cup of
coffee. It’s 10–the end of his shift–and the last of the patrons
are leaving. I ask him, given that he’s spent a lifetime playing other
people’s favorite songs, what would be his.

like asking me if I like steak or lobster. It’s hard to select one. I can
name a few. ‘Somewhere in Time,’ ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ ‘St.
Louis Blues’ and the songs from My Fair Lady."

Asked if he
has any secrets to aging gracefully, Fields breaks out in a big smile. "You
need a sense of humor. People live longer when they have one. Also you should
count the blessings for what you have. And if you get into an argument change
the subject and the argument will usually end. Get into sports when you’re
younger–swimming, walking, cycling. Then keep at it. Don’t watch too
much tv. Learn to play a musical instrument, even if it’s just as a hobby.
Be in work you love. And never worry. Let the other person do the worrying."

We leave the
Park Lane and walk across to 5th Ave., passing an apartment building where three
ancient doormen mournfully sit gazing at the lobby floor. A block farther uptown
you can hear the huge Canadian and American flags flapping in the wind above
the entrance way of the Hotel Pierre. A uniformed doorman gets the door. We
pass through the quiet lobby to the back entrance of the Cafe Pierre. Down a
small set of marble steps–I almost trip over Joan Rivers, who’s seated
there attentively listening to a woman sing and play piano.

At the bar,
Kelly tells me the singer’s name is Kathleen Landis. She’s been holding
court here for the last 17 years. I look around at the rapt audience of maybe
50, a friendly, older, well-coifed crowd. We order two beers as Landis purrs
into the mic that she’s doing a seasonal program about "the romance
of dance, especially the music from the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers."

Landis lights
the room up with "It’s Wonderful" and, yes, "As Time Goes
By." The Cafe Pierre is a long room; the front is dedicated to the bar
and lounge, while the back has 20 tables for dining. A middle-aged couple gets
up and walk hand in hand to the dinning area, where they dance cheek to cheek
as Landis croons, "You must remember this…a kiss is still a kiss…a
sigh is just a sigh…" A goateed lounge lizard chats up a young woman
at the bar. He’s telling her that he owns major property on some Caribbean
island Christopher Columbus sailed by during his 1492 voyage.

"Go out
and buy an atlas and look it up. A whole world could open up to you. Maybe I’ll
take you there someday."


On her break
Landis takes me to a quiet back room. A beautiful woman and classic torch singer,
she’s also what we called back in the old neighborhood "a real lady."
I can’t bring myself to ask her age. I guess late 30s.

She sips from
a wine glass and tells me that she grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. While
her parents weren’t very musical they did sing and listen to all the old
standards of the 30s and 40s. The music rubbed off on her and she diligently
studied singing and piano. She was a hit in Detroit, played all the major supper
clubs there. I venture that I never knew that Detroit had supper clubs.

"I had
to leave Detroit because I had already worked all the biggest venues there,
and they were ready to turn the lights out on them."

Landis came
to New York in 1982 and found work as a piano player in a hotel. The job she
wanted–the Cafe Pierre–was auditioning new talent in 1985, and Landis
gave it a shot. Her agent told her they wanted a man.

"At the
audition there were 17 men and me, and I managed to get the job."

Through the
years since, Landis has worked the Pierre as the leader of a trio and with a
dance band, but since 1998 it’s been just Landis and her piano.

"The music
I play, from the 30s and 40s, I connect to the elegance of what New York was,
and how sophisticated love was then. People today are missing out on the sophistication
of love. There’s no romance in the post-rock era. It’s all about energy.
But I see people in their 20s coming here looking for that–romance. Here
they find it. I have a glamorous approach to the music."

I ask Landis
about the crowd tonight, who are attending her performance with close attention
and looks of something like love.

it’s my home team. I feel like this is my room. On Saturday night the people
who are devoted to me come out. I create a feeling like this is a private club.
I connect people here. I introduce those I know will get along or be right for
a possible romance, and I make them all a part of the room. I have introduced
couples who later married. Out there I can tell you 90 percent of the people’s
names and what they do. Coming here is part of their New York existence. It
connects them to a lost tradition of New York. This room is truly what used
to be called cafe society."

I ask Landis
what having live music does for a room like the Cafe Pierre.

music creates an ambience of sophistication. It separates clubs that don’t
have it. Music creates nostalgia, and people connect to you so they can reconnect
to themselves and how they once felt. This is one of the places that makes New
York a small, classy town. Twenty years ago there were clubs all around–now
that is no more. People want that and miss it, and when they get it here they
keep coming. My audience is dedicated to me and I am dedicated to them. And
the wonderful thing about the Cafe Pierre is that I have never had to play bad
music here. They let me play what I want."

I ask Landis
if Rudy Giuliani ever stopped down at the lounge when he was living at the Hotel
Pierre during the early days of his divorce. She tells me no. That figures,
I venture. Giuliani and a little night music don’t mix. Landis tells me
former Gov. Hugh Carey "still stops in occasionally. He’s one of my
pupils. I’m teaching him piano."

It’s time
for Landis’ next set. An attractive older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bernie Gussoff,
asks me to sit with them for a moment. Bernie is a doctor by day, but in his
heart he’s a jazzbo. Landis is his piano teacher; his wife says he keeps
getting better. Bernie tells me about his son’s new restaurant, Red, on
W. 44th St., and his wife smiles at him like they’re on their third date.

At the bar
I meet an old newspaperman, Ned Sherman. He tells me how he got out of the print
racket years ago and went on to produce news shows for Channel 13. Sherman is
cruising into his 70s–and still cruising the city on a Saturday night.
"I always start the night downtown, and then I bring them all uptown with
me." He excuses himself to sit at a table. I also talk to Edward Jones
Jr., a top officer at Nextel. I peg him for a 10021 blueblood, and we both get
a laugh when he tells me he grew up in the Bronx and went to Cardinal Hayes
and CUNY.

I wander through
the crowd, talking with everyone from a Park Ave. matron to a guy who sells
potato peelers. At a side table a Joey Buttafuoco type is kissing his young
and pretty date. Kelly sits at the bar and talks music with an ad executive.
A mobbed-up looking man stands at the bar drinking whiskey.

Landis plays
her last song and the lights come up. As people reluctantly file out, many hug
and kiss her goodnight. The bartender breaks down the dirty glasses. When the
place is empty, I watch Landis walk off. By herself. She has a smile on her


Along with
the Cafe Pierre and Harry’s Bar/Room with a View, you might want to check
out some of these other places keeping the tradition alive.

The Oak
Room at the Algonquin Hotel
: One of the world’s most famous cabarets.
Dave Frishberg’s there now through April 27.

Bar at the Carlyle Hotel:
Songwriter Earl Rose plays here on Mondays.

The Monkey
"Alpha Male" Michael Garin plays everything from Piaf to
Fats Domino at this famous room, Mon.-Fri.

The 1050
Lounge at the Skyline Hotel:
Japanese fox Saturi Goto appears Wednesdays.

Lounge at the Essex House:
Hyperion Knight, like Irving Fields, plays all
the classics Tues.-Sat., packing the house on weekends.

The Four
Jon Davis brings the piano bar into the 21st century, most nights.

The Cocktail
Terrace at the Waldorf-Astoria:
Daryl Sherman plays a Steinway once owned
by Cole Porter himself, Fri.-Sat.

The New
York Palace:
Veteran pianomen Ray Cohen and Dave Stettner share duties here,
every night but Sunday.

The St.
Rich Jenkins and Kurt Wieting perform just outside of King Cole Bar,
every night but Sunday.