Chickens and Antiques
I arrive in Charleston, South Carolina, on a balmy February evening after a fifteen-hour travel extravaganza that has led me from Frankfurt, Germany, through Detroit, and into the cushioned arms of Low Country hospitality. I’m here to play a couple of solo piano concerts. My host, a southern gentleman who works as a church organist, concert promoter, and hotel pianist, greets me at the airport. His name is Tom Bailey. I know from emails and phone calls he is neither an ax murderer nor a Trump supporter, but still, I worry. I’m tired enough that most of my trust issues evaporate into the salty night without a second thought as Tom, a dapper guy in a gorgeous suit, grabs my suitcase. We hop in his Nissan, and away we go.
Tom and his partner Steve live in Summerville in a rambling home they share with two dogs (Loopy and Buster) and twenty chickens. The chattering chickens reside outside and pretty much never shut up, but I could sleep through anything at this point. I have a glass of wine, tour the labyrinth of chicken-themed, antique-filled rooms, and head up to the guest suite where I fall into a four-poster bed and dream of Pat Conroy and roosters.
To avoid performing with jet lag, I’ve arrived in Charleston six days before my first concert. Other, more seasoned artists don’t fret about travel fatigue, but I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday and I function best when my head is not plopping onto the keyboard.
Tom Bailey fills my pre-concert days with cocktail parties, dinners, and “meet and greet” sessions with fans and friends. He has created a minor buzz about me, so I get star treatment. This is something new and different, but I go along with the program and soak up the love. Being a sponge is fun. I eat too much and drink too much. I have cramps in my cheeks from smiling.
Note to my liberal friends: At no time during my stay does Lindsey Graham jump out from behind a potted palmetto. South Carolina might be a red state, but the citizens of the greater Charleston area, at least the ones I meet, are a civilized mish-mash of black-white-old-young-straight-gay-jewish-christian-muslim-happy.
It seems I have once again found myself in an American Bubbleland. I’ll take it.
My Funny Valentine
On Valentine’s Day, Tom—who knows a million songs and plays them all with bouncy bravado—works the Swamp Fox Room at the Francis Marion Hotel, a five-star joint in downtown Charleston. Steve and Tom have invited three pianists—Nancy, Hermeine, and Patricia— to have dinner with me. They are stunning, aging, and funny; they are also kick-ass pianists. After dinner, Tom invites them to play. I listen in amazement as Hermeine romps through a version of “Embraceable You” with a Brahms-y rolling left hand that sounds like the tide. Wow. Hermeine plays more notes in four bars than I play in an entire set. As I take my turn at the piano I feel an inkling of impostor syndrome creeping under the collar of my stretchy black travel dress.
I play tinka tinka and hope my minimalistic approach will carry me through. Hermeine, Patricia, and Nancy are Charleston’s Golden Piano Girls. I feel like I’ve known them forever. That’s the nice thing about the Musician’s Club—we’re family, even if we’re meeting for the first time. I’m in a party of seven, and five of us play the piano. Among us, we have three hundred years of stories.
How many pianists does it take to play “My Funny Valentine?” Evidently, all of us.
Emily Remington, as far as I know, is the world’s most senior Piano Girl. One hundred years old and still snappy! After turning down the volume on her Vladimir Ashkenazy recording (more Brahms), she greets Tom and me in her apartment. We happily sip afternoon cocktails, eat crackers and brie, and trade tales about the music business. Miss Emily, appalled by the current political situation in the USA, reminisces about the choirs she conducted in 1962, one black, one white. After Kennedy’s assassination, she fought to integrate the choirs and have them sing together for his memorial. A teenage Jessye Norman was a soloist for the performance. Tom says that Miss Emily, fearing the hatred of white supremacists, stood in front of Jessye during her solo to protect her from crowd violence.
“To think we’ve returned to such awful thinking,” she says. “It depresses me.”
I remind Miss Emily of Carrie Fisher’s brilliant comment: Take your broken heart and make it into art. “That’s what you did, Miss Emily, back in 1962,” I say. “And other artists will follow in your footsteps.”
“At least we still have that,” she says. “Music.”
We discuss musician wardrobe malfunctions—she once had a strapless dress fall down while conducting a symphony orchestra—and I lament about my failure to find a strapless bra that hoists the twins to a respectable height without cutting off my oxygen.
“Well, I have a gift for you!” she says. She stands up, and with the aid of a walker, cruises into her bedroom, where she reaches into the top drawer of her lingerie chest and pulls out a black strapless bra. “Here,” she says. “Take it. My strapless bra days are behind me.”
I like that she had that bra at the ready, as if she was willing to slip on a slinky sequined dress, grab her gig bag, and hit the boards running. One hundred years old, and still thinking like a Piano Girl.
Note to opera buffs: Jessye Norman sang to Miss Emily on her 100th birthday.
Tom and Steve take me to a vintage clothing shop and buy me a full-length velvet cape with a red satin lining and beaded shoulders. Perhaps my nun-ish wardrobe has disappointed them, or maybe they are hoping I’ll make a Liberace entrance at my concert on Saturday.
“Tom,” I say. “I don’t think I can wear this while I play.” I yank the jeweled clasp that pinches the fat on my neck and threatens to strangle me. Death by beading.
“No, no,” he says. “You walk onstage and then drop the cape dramatically next to the piano before you sit down. Fabulous!”
Tom and Steve are fabulous. I now own the cape. I wonder if it has super powers. Sure, Liberace liked his capes, but so did James Brown and Batman. I am in good company.
Note to soul fans: James Brown, born in South Carolina, employed a “Cape Man.” Cape Man’s soul function was to run onstage when Brown was collapsing from excessive emotional exertion and too many hip thrusts. Cape Man would dramatically place the cape on Brown’s slumped and twitching shoulders, thus bestowing Brown with enough energy to go on with the show.
I am currently taking applications for my own personal Cape Man.
I am sitting with Tom in a Summerville restaurant called Oscar’s. He tells me we are meeting “some agent” for lunch. I go along with the program because at this point I’m on remote control and know that anyone Tom introduces to me will be funny, smart, and entertaining. Even an agent.
Tom tells me about his funeral gigs. Sometimes he plays three or four funerals a week, in addition to his hotel and church jobs. When I ask him if the funerals get depressing he says: “No. The organ is in a closet and I have a video feed of whoever is conducting the service. No casket viewing, no grieving people—I just go in my closet and play the gig. Sometimes I take a sandwich with me.”
This morning, while Tom was playing in his funeral closet, I called Robin Spielberg, my piano BFF, just to check in and tell her what’s going on. She would love it here! Robin lives in rural Pennsylvania and I could tell she was in a vehicle so I asked where she was going. “It’s a trip to nowhere,” she said. It’s been almost ten years since we’ve seen each other, even though we communicate daily. Busy, busy, Piano Girl lives. I miss her.
The server asks about our drink orders. Wine or no wine? With all the socializing and bar-hopping the week has turned a bit hazy around the edges, but that’s a good thing. I’m often accused of exaggeration (I like to think of it as a gift for fiction) and I’m sure no one from my real life will believe the things I’ve been experiencing in Charleston—the chickens, Miss Emily, the cape, the way Charleston teems with musicians and gigs . . . I order the wine and chat with Tom about the piano business and funerals, waiting for “some agent” to show up.
Surprise! In walks Robin Spielberg and her handsome husband, Larry, who actually is a talent agent (one of the good guys). Knock me over with a feather. How Tom and Robin managed to keep this a secret baffles me. I usually sniff out covert activity weeks before it happens. Ask my children. In the spy versus spy game, I am queen. Not this time. I have been out-played by two piano players.
We squeal, we cry, we are a surprise-party cliché. We order more wine. Spielberg is beautiful and full of life and understands so much about what I do for a living. She is here and I am over the moon happy. The first thing I do when we get back to Tom’s house is show her the cape. She agrees: It’s fabulous.
The next day we drink dill-pickle flavored Bloody Marys, eat a little lunch, then go to a dress store and buy matching southern belle evening gowns. On sale. Now I have something to wear with the cape. And the bra. And if anyone ever calls us to do a two-piano show, we’re all set.
The first concert takes place at St. Theresa the Little Flower Catholic Church in Summerville. Tom runs a series there, called Third Sunday at Three.
Steinway has provided a gorgeous Model B. It sits front and center under a glorious (but gruesome) mosaic of Jesus on the cross. I’m not sure this is the appropriate place to tell stories about my life as a cocktail lounge pianist, but I’m here, hundreds of people have shown up and I figure I’ve got enough spirituality in my music to make up for my atheist tendencies. Live and let live and all that.
My dressing room is the priest’s vestry. Forget about the cape! Robes and scarves in glorious colors hang in the priest’s closet. And look at those rosary beads. This is bling city. I’m suspicious of most organized religion, but I’ve always been a fan of Pope-wear. I’m temped to borrow the lime green cassock for my entrance but Spielberg talks me out of it. Look at us: a Jewish gal from New Jersey and a Pittsburgh atheist with German residency hanging out in the priest’s vestry of a South Carolina catholic church.
Ah, music. The great unifier.
We gaze at the special sink for holy water but we do not drink.
The concert goes well. My hands are cold for the first chunk of music (the vestry was chilly) but I recover and warm up for the rest of the program. The audience rolls along with me, laughing when they’re supposed to. I read my story about playing an endless version of the Titanic theme at a private party in a German castle, and Tom sits in at the piano for me and provides the perfect soundtrack. People here love him, and because they love him, they accept me.
I sign a lot of books and CDs and head to the post-concert shindig at Tom and Steve’s home. Eighty people show up for the party. Tom has hired service staff and a pianist. The food is plentiful; the bar is well stocked. They serve a Low Country boil called Frogmore Stew, which I am happy to report does not contain frogs—just giant shrimp, potatoes, corn on the cob, and sausage. Maybe it should be called Frogless Stew. I drink a goblet of wine and pose for photos. I’m starving, but I can’t very well eat corn on the cob while I’m having my photo taken. That’s a little too Ellie Mae Clampet, even for me.
Note: Posing for a cell phone photo takes three times longer than posing for a real camera, especially when senior citizens are involved. Commonly heard phrases include:
It’s all black.
It didn’t click.
Where do I push?
It’s all fuzzy.
The Medical Emergency
I go on the veranda to have my photo taken with a guy named Chris, just as Miss Sarah, a retired volunteer librarian using a walker, struggles to get down the steps. Miss Sarah is elderly and has just had a knee replacement. Miss Sarah’s husband takes her walker and his own cane and tries to follow her down the steps. He is also carrying multiple copies of my books—way too much stuff for a nonagenarian on a staircase with an opiate-impaired wife.
I grab Chris and we get hold of Miss Sarah just before she takes a dive. I’m in front of her; Chris is behind her. We get her down the steps, but she is dizzy and nauseated and ready to toss her Frogmore cookies. I know this feeling all too well. It will pass, but her advanced age calls for something more proactive than a reassuring pat on the back. I don’t want anyone, especially sweet Miss Sarah, going down for the count on the night of my big event. Piano Girl Program Kills Popular Librarian is not a headline I care to see.
“Tom!” I yell, after running back into the house. It’s hard to find him in this French-farce maze of rooms. “Miss Sarah needs medical attention. Call an ambulance!”
“Miss Sarah! Miss Sarah! The librarian! On the veranda!”
I feel like I’ve been dropped into the second act of a Tennessee Williams play. I’m even developing a slight twang.
The paramedics come, a little too slowly for my taste, but hey, it’s the south. Miss Sarah is fine—she has experienced an opiate-induced blood pressure drop—and will be delivered back to her rehab facility. One of her fellow librarians asks me to sign Miss Sarah’s books before they drive away. This should be the last thing anyone is worrying about, but who am I to argue? I love this woman. Get well soon, Miss Sarah!
I glance at the waiting paramedics and scrawl my signature as quickly as possible. I never get that photo with Chris. But I do snag some corn when the crowd thins out.
The Ultimate Music Machine
Steinway & Sons Charleston and BMW sponsor the second event, held at a sleek and shiny BMW showroom on the outskirts of the city. David Vail, Steinway Director, delivers a Model “D” for the concert. I’m more comfortable here than I was yesterday at the church. For one thing, I don’t have Jesus hanging over my head for the comedy portion of my show. And I prefer my audience in chairs rather than pews. Tonight’s audience is close-up and a little punchy from the cocktail reception. The cars on the periphery of the stage area, in gleaming shades of powder and pewter, look pretty and powerful.
Miss Emily, our resident centenarian, wearing a festive zebra-print frock, perches in the second row with a glass of wine. She missed my church gig yesterday because she produces her own concert series at the senior residence where she lives. When I’m introduced, I bow at her feet in tribute. Then I wonder what kind of bra she is wearing. This woman knows her undergarments.
I glide through the show, marveling at the instrument in front of me. I can’t play a wrong note on this piano—Steinway technician John Krucke has groomed it till it sings. I could stay here forever. But I don’t because the show is over and we have dinner reservations and I’m hungry.
Before we leave I talk to audience member Charles Miller, the organist who jumped in to accompany President Obama during his unanticipated “Amazing Grace” moment at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church memorial service. I watched that ceremony live from Germany, and although I was weeping, I remember noting the amazing grace of that amazingly graceful organist. He overcame his grief, did his job, and lifted all of us to a better place—a beautiful moment in a tragic setting, buoyed by the bravery of one musician.
“You are my hero,” I say to Charles after my concert. “I’m curious. What key did Obama sing in?”
“He was between E and Eb,” says Charles. “But I pushed him down to Eb.”
Wow. No cape necessary. While I’m talking to Charles and signing books, a hugely talented fourteen-year old named Caleb sits down at the “D” and starts playing Bach. My God—this room is swollen with music. Caleb balances at the beginning of his career; Miss Emily has leaned comfortably into the end of hers. The rest of us stand somewhere in the middle, grateful benefactors of our musical pasts, protectors of what’s to come.
Is everyone in this town a musician? Seems like.
It’s time to move on. Thank you, Charleston. You have plenty of music in your fine city, but you’ve welcomed me as if you can never get enough. Your southern charm took me by surprise.
Next stop: Pittsburgh. But first, let’s eat.
Note to music fans: The former mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, set out to make Charleston a world-class city by focusing on the city’s vibrant cultural life. It worked. Music is everywhere and venues—both large and small—are full. The current mayor of Charleston, John Tecklenburg, is a jazz pianist.
Special thanks to Tom Bailey, Steve Jackson. Robin Spielberg, Larry Kosson, David Vail, John Krucke, David Archer, Pat Huffman, and Emily Remington. And much gratitude to Tom Bailey’s circle of friends for making me feel so welcome. Can’t wait to see you all again!
Coming next month: The Pittsburgh Party
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!
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