(Soundbite of piano music)
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
Cocktail pianists produce a kind of musical wallpaper. You don't really pay attention to the sound but it does give the room a different color. Robin Meloy Goldsby--and that's her you're hearing--has spent decades in the background. Now she's decided to stand up and take a bow, with a new memoir about a career spent in hotel lobbies, cocktail lounges and even the occasional castle. The book is called "Piano Girl: Lessons in Life, Music, and the Perfect Blue Hawaiian."
Ms. ROBIN MELOY GOLDSBY (Author, "Piano Girl"): Hi, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: You talk about how cocktail pianists are in the background, and at some point you realize you find it unnerving now when people actually stop and listen.
Ms. GOLDSBY: Yes. I've gotten so used to playing the piano in a noisy room that when people actually stop and listen to me, it's disconcerting for me.
LUDDEN: Do you try to make eye contact, or do you avoid it?
Ms. GOLDSBY: Oh, yeah, I love making eye contact and talk--I can talk while I play the piano, so I frequently have conversations with people while I'm playing.
LUDDEN: So you're joining the hubbub.
Ms. GOLDSBY: Yeah. I contribute to the din of the room whenever possible. I live in Germany now, and when I play the piano in Germany and people come start speaking German with me, that's not quite as easy as speaking English. I either tend to start playing in the rhythm I'm speaking or speaking in the rhythm that I'm playing, and then I start sounding like Colonel Klink and it's--yeah.
LUDDEN: You write about how you imagined being a concert pianist at one point. You tried it a bit, and had bigger dreams and thought you should have bigger dreams. But then how did you come to terms with what you do and come to like it?
Ms. GOLDSBY: It took several years for me to come to terms with that. There's a chapter in the book where I describe the voice of doom, this voice that--I suppose all of us have a voice of doom living in our brain somewhere. But the voice of doom for me was very present when I was in a concert situation, and I don't know. I just felt like I wasn't good enough to be doing that kind of work and that--then I could play in a bar, and yeah, that that would be an acceptable compromise. And then after a while, I realized it really--it's a wonderful, worthwhile thing to do. I realized that it took a lot of pressure off me not to have to perform, just to be able to be in the background and watch what was going on around me, that I didn't have to be the show anymore, that I could allow my audience to be the show for me.
LUDDEN: So give us your view, all those people out there eating peanuts and drinking their drink. What do you look for when--do you scope the crowd when you sit down to start out a night?
Ms. GOLDSBY: Yeah. Actually in the really good places it's smoked almonds, it's not peanuts. The bad places have the pretzel nubs. One of the things I always try to remember--I have a connection with Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." My father was the percussionist on that show for 35 years, sort of a world's record music gig. But I got to know Fred very well over those years, and one of the things he always said to me is, `You never know who's listening. It may seem like you're playing in a roomful of noisy, talking people, but there's always someone somewhere who's listening.' I took that very seriously and I considered it my job to play for that one person. And I also realized that sometimes the one person who's listening was me, you know? And that's--getting back to your original question of how I came to terms with what it is that I do, I realized that it's a really nice thing to be able to play for myself, actually; a great way to make a living.
(Soundbite of piano music; voices)
LUDDEN: You're an accidental cocktail pianist.
Ms. GOLDSBY: I'm an accidental cocktail pianist, exactly. I started when I was 17 years old, and I never intended to go into a bar and try to get a job playing the piano. I was on Nantucket Island for the summer. I wanted to be a waitress. I thought that was the ultimate in cool. And I was a waitress for two or three days and then I decided that I missed the piano, that I needed to practice, and I went into a little place called the Club Car on Main Street and I asked if I could practice there in the mornings, just so my piano teacher didn't kill me when I got back to school in the fall. And there was a somewhat lecherous old Italian man there named Lino Cappellino(ph), member of the My-Name-is-a-Poem Club, and he said, `Yeah, sure, you can practice here, honey. Yeah, go ahead. Why don't you go play now?' So I went to the back of the bar, and there's this old beat-up upright piano with coffee stains and water marks all over it and cigarette burns in the wood. And I sat down, I started to play, and he came back to the piano and said he would pay me 50 bucks a night to play there, starting that week.
And I was so excited. I ran to the telephone. I called my father and I said, `Daddy, I got a job. I got a job as a cocktail pianist,' and my father said, `Robin, you know eight songs and seven of them are Bach. What are you going to play?' And he sent me a big crate of fake books. Fake books are volumes of music, popular songs that people might request, and they're written just with the melody and with the chord symbol so that you can fake your way through them.
LUDDEN: Oh, funny.
Ms. GOLDSBY: That's why they're called fake books. Yeah. So he sent me those and my mother threw in a couple of old prom gowns so that I had something to wear, and off I went. You know, when you're that age, you sort of think you can do anything.
LUDDEN: Yeah. You know, most parents probably wouldn't take that news so well.
Ms. GOLDSBY: No, but my father was in the business, you know, so he knew what was involved in all of that. He was a jazz drummer. He is; he's still performing. And in addition to performing on the "Mr. Rogers" show, he played gigs all over the place. When I was a little girl, he played a lot in the burlesque houses, when burlesque was still--it was still spelled with a Q-U-E, not with a K. And I--that's great, isn't it? I just realized my father--I said in one paragraph my father played for "Mr. Rogers" and also for the burlesque shows.
Ms. GOLDSBY: Yeah.
LUDDEN: You had an engagement at a strip place once.
Ms. GOLDSBY: Yes, I did. It came about as a result of my piano playing. A gentleman named Don Brockett, who was also on the "Mr. Rogers" show--he played Chef Brockett on that show--he produced an off-Broadway show in New York called "Big Bad Burlesque," with a Q-U-E. And he took the show out on the road, and when he booked the show in Boston, he needed a stripper for the show and he needed somebody who had a gimmick. So he called me three days before the show was to open and said, `Robin, I've got an acting job and a piano job for you.' I said, `Great.'
LUDDEN: `Acting,' he said.
Ms. GOLDSBY: `Acting,' yeah. And so I jumped at the opportunity to be in a show. And he said, `But there's a catch,' and I said `What is that?' And he said, `Well, you're going to have play classical piano and then stand up and strip.' I said, `You want to run that by me again?' And he said, `You know, they need a stripper and they need somebody who can do like a classy thing, and I thought it would be really...'
LUDDEN: A classy strip.
Ms. GOLDSBY: Classy strip, yeah. And he said, `You can do this. You can start off with, you know, with Chopin.' He had--Don had a great voice. `You can play Chopin or one of those guys, and then just stand up and let it rip.' And I put the whole act together and on opening night--it was at the Chateau de Ville Dinner Theatre in Framingham, Massachusetts--opening night I was terrified. You know, I was--five minute before I went on I was still trying to figure out how to take off my bra gracefully.
LUDDEN: With one hand.
Ms. GOLDSBY: With one hand, yeah. And I was in the wings with Danny Herman(ph), my stage manager, and he said to me, `OK,' you know, `stay calm. Everything's fine.' And the lights went to black, the comedians ran off the stage and in the wings on the other side of the stage I noticed two policemen with dogs on leashes. And I said, `Danny, why are the policemen over there with dogs?' And he said, `Oh, well, you know, they're just here just in case.' And I said, `In case what?' And he said, `If you actually show anything, they'll arrest you.' And yeah, we had everything timed so I played the final glissando on the piano and ripped my bra off exactly when the blackout occurred.
LUDDEN: And you're hoping the lighting guy is on the mark.
Ms. GOLDSBY: Yeah, right, exactly. So I was stripper, a piano-playing stripper in a very tame environment.
LUDDEN: Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of the new memoir, "Piano Girl: Lessons in Life, Music, and the Perfect Blue Hawaiian."
Thank you so much.
Ms. GOLDSBY: Thank you, Jennifer.
(Soundbite of nightclub)
Ms. GOLDSBY: Have a good time. I'll keep playing.
(Soundbite of piano music)
LUDDEN: You can read an excerpt from "Piano Girl" and hear Robin Meloy Goldsby on the dangers of those blue Hawaiian cocktails at our Web site, npr.org.
That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR news. I'm Jennifer Ludden.
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