Reflections of a 'Piano Girl'

Robin Meloy Goldsby

Robin Meloy Goldsby's book recounts her career as a piano-lounge performer. hide caption

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Robin Meloy Goldsby has spent decades making "pleasant and unobtrusive" background music. She's a piano player in a cocktail lounge, tickling the ivories to produce tinkly versions of American standards, as well as her own compositions.

But she steps front and center with a memoir called Piano Girl: Lessons in Life, Music, and the Perfect Blue Hawaiian. Read an excerpt:

Play Something You Know

Right on Main Street in downtown Nantucket is a famous old restaurant and bar called the Club Car. Jens, a hulking blond Swedish waiter I've met in the alley behind Vincent's Italian Family Restaurant, suggests the Club Car would be a good place to practice. I show up there one morning at nine and ask to speak to the manager, and I'm introduced to a very kind but lecherous older gentleman named Lino Tambellino. He agrees to let me practice at the Club Car every morning from nine to eleven.

"So, let me get this straight. You wanna play here in the mornin' for nobody?"

"Well, yes, Mr. Tambellino."

"Call me Lino, sweetheart."

What a name, Lino Tambellino. He could join the My Name Is a Poem Club. I'm always on the lookout for new members.

"Okay, Lino. I just need someplace to practice. I'm studying music in college, well music and theater both, actually, and I need to practice the piano over the summer."

"You wanna eat here, too?"

"No, Mr., uh, Lino, I just want to practice in the morning."

"You gotta eat sweetheart."

"Thank you, but that's not necessary."

"What are you crazy? RICARDO! Get the babe somethin' to eat! What do you want, a steak?"

Lino obviously has a warped sense of time. I guess when you live in a cocktail lounge it's easy to become a nocturnal creature, confusing breakfast with supper, and dawn with dusk.

"Lino, it's pretty early for me. Maybe a bagel or something, if you insist. But then I'd like to practice, if that's okay."

"Ricardo, we need bagels! And coffee. And juice. You want bacon? We got bacon. Go practice. Ricardo! We need some f——-' bacon over here! Sweetheart, Ricardo will let you know when the food is ready."

Ricardo is short and swarthy with a full head of dark brown curls and big brown eyes. I'll bet he's at least thirty. A professional waiter. Wow! I haven't been on the island for a week and I'm becoming an American clearinghouse for serious waiters from European countries. Where are all those Ivy League boys I've heard about? I want Harvard, Yale, and Brown, but I'm getting Stockholm, Fuerteventura, and Sarajevo. It's early in the summer. Maybe the Ivy League guys are still in school. Ricardo winks at me.

I go to the piano. It's an old upright grand, ornately carved ebony with lots of water stains and cigarette burns. But it's almost in tune and it has character. Oh, it feels so good to play. So, so good. I make up a song and play for about five minutes when Ricardo comes to announce the arrival of the breakfast. Drat. Reluctantly, I follow him to Lino's table. Ricardo winks again.

Stop that. Don't wink. Just don't. Wiggle your eyebrows if you must, but don't wink at me —it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

"Tell you what, sweetheart," Lino says in a low voice. I feel like I'm in a scene from The Godfather and Lino is about to whisper his plan to put a horse head in Ricardo's bed or something. I lean closer. "How's about you play here five nights a week?"

I am shocked. "For people, you mean?"

"Yeah, sweetheart, for people. I never heard of no piano player playin' for nobody. You sound nice. The people, my people, they'll like it. Eat your bacon. You want some shrimp salad? How about a lobster?"

"Oh, no thank you. I mean, no thank you to the food, I'm fine really." I'm flustered. "But thank you for the job offer. Wow. I'm very flattered. But there's a problem. I've got my waitressing job at Vincent's Italian Family Restaurant. And I work at night."

"So quit, sweetheart. I'll give you fifty bucks a night to play here. That's 250 clams a week. You ain't gonna make that schleppin' no minestrone at Vincent's. Can you start next week?"

I manage to get around the corner from the restaurant before I start jumping up and down and making whooping noises. This is like winning the lottery! I have a job, a real job, in show business!

No more hair net.

I run to Vincent's, resign, give my uniform to another trainee, toss the hair net in the

dumpster in the alley, and race to the pay phone to call my parents with the news that their eighteen-year-old daughter is now a professional bar pianist.

My dad, Bob Rawsthorne, is a professional drummer and vibes player in the greater Pittsburgh area. He knows the score, and I think he'll be excited for me.

"Robin, get hold of yourself," my Dad shouts into the phone. "You only know twelve songs and eleven of them are Bach. What are you going to play!?"

Dad ships a crate of fake books — volumes of popular songs in easy-to-read arrangements — to me. My mother scrounges around and finds some passable evening gowns for me to wear and throws them in with the music. The crate is like the cocktail-piano version of the Popeil Pocket Fisherman. Dad has tucked in a note:

Bob's Excellent Rules for Success on a GIG:

1. Don't drink on the job.

2. Don't let the management push you around.

3. Always carry a roll of duct tape and an extension cord with you because with those two items you can solve virtually any problem.

Sure enough, there's a roll of duct tape and an extension cord in the crate. Dad has also shipped a small sound system, since, heaven help us, I'll be singing. In spite of my father's doubts and warnings, I'm completely confident that I'll be successful. I've got a couple of old prom gowns and lots of undiscovered music in me, just waiting to be played. Nothing can go wrong.

After calling my parents, I race back to the Club Car to start practicing. "Thank you again, Lino. I promise you I'll try my best." "You're welcome sweetheart. I got a nice stuffed pork chop on the lunch menu. You like pork chops?"

From Piano Girl by Backbeat Books. Used with permission of the publisher.

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Piano Girl

Lessons In Life, Music, And The Perfect Blue Hawaiian

by Robin Meloy Goldsby

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