My Celebrity Endorsements

Photo by Andreas Biesenbach

Halfway through the 2018 Christmas season, while running a Google search on my name (I only do this once a month, I swear), I stumbled upon my original composition, “First Snow,” included on a Spotify playlist put together by Kourtney Kardashian (or her people). For me, a sixty-one-year old solo pianist with no people and a decidedly non-trending repertoire of soothing music, this came as a bit of a yule shock. Hark. Jingle. Ho. A Kardashian Kristmas. For a moment I considered changing my name to Kobin Koldsby.

Kourtney & Kobin, ready for the holidays.

Worlds collide, thanks to the quirks of social media. Finding myself on the playlist of an Insta-princess like Kourtney did wonders for my ego. How did this happen?  I have neither the whittled waist nor the plump cheeks (all four of them) boasted by Ms. Kardashian. I am plenty old enough to be her mother. Her Kristmas photo featured her in an itsy-bitsy teensy-weensy silver leatherette bikini. My Christmas photo showed me wearing enough red velvet to cloak the wings of the Shubert Theatre. But, okay. She also featured Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby (let’s call them Krank and King) on her Kristmas playlist and they are hardly curvy of butt or young of years. In fact, they are dead, which makes me a spring chicken in comparison.

Wait. Maybe Kourtney was listening to the music instead of looking at the musician. Works for me. A new concept: music for listening. Our world has become so fixated on the visual that we often forget we have ears.

The Kardashian incident got me thinking about the many celebrities who have tap-danced through my life. I’ve played the piano in a lot of upscale joints over the last forty years, many of them populated by the world’s movers and shakers, has-beens, and shooting stars. Hotel musicians, you might have guessed,  have curb-side seats at the promi-parade. Star-spotting is a minor fringe benefit of the job, along with free drinks and unlimited pretzel nubs. We take what we can get.

Note: Celebrities come in all shapes in sizes, but most of them are thin.

Here’s where I start the heavy name dropping. Forgive me, but this is fun. My initial brush with on-the-job fame occurred during one of my first gigs at the Pittsburgh Hyatt. Jonathan Winters (not thin) and Art Garfunkel (thin) were at the bar, an unlikely pair, but there they were. They offered me a drink. I was underage—eighteen—and requested an orange juice. Mr. Winters sauntered to the piano carrying a large vodka with a splash of orange and laughed when I choked and sputtered my thanks. I played and sang “Fever” for him, a song that no self-respecting teenager should have in her repertoire.

At that same bar, I met Henry Mancini and pounded out one of his famous songs, “Charade,” in 5/4. He introduced himself as Hank and was very pleasant even though I had mangled his tune. He did not buy vodka for me.

The Pittsburgh Hyatt also hosted visiting National Hockey League players in town for Pittsburgh Penquins matches. I am sure they were talented skaters, but a handful of them were hard-drinking, loud-mouthed, and prone to the occasional in-my-face sexist comment. Back in 1978, if a famous athlete sasquatched his way to the piano, grinned at me, and said something like “nice tits,” I smiled nervously and thanked him, because I didn’t know what else to do. I wore tube tops and halter tops and evening gowns with low necklines and lower backs. In fact, I was sort of a Kourtney Kardashian for the seventies. When I see her posts I recognize some of my old outfits, although I never had the guts (or the six pack) to wear a leather bikini. I wonder if Kourtney ever took piano lessons. Maybe. Anyway, I was skeptical about hockey players until I moved to Manhattan and met Wayne Gretzky, who hung out at a swanky hotel where I played. A true gentleman.

Since we’re on the topic of athletes, let me mention that baseball star Jerry Royce was an honorable guy. And handsome. He liked my version of “So Far Away,” probably because he was on the road so often. New York Yankee’s manager Billy Martin was not so refined. He treated me with respect, but he often got into alcohol-fueled fistfights at the Grand Hyatt bar. One time he punched George Steinbrenner in the nose during my most sensitive Cole Porter medley. The brawl made the papers, but no one mentioned that my music had added cinematic flair to the slugfest.

There’s oh such a hungry yearnin’ burnin’ inside of me  . . .  Bam! Thwack! Boff!

When I lived in New York City, the rich and famous became recurring, familiar characters in my struggling artist’s story. It’s hard to live paycheck to paycheck when surrounded by pomp, privilege, and prosperity. Playing the piano in a posh Manhattan hotel constantly reminded me—that even though I was the focal point of the cocktail lounge—I remained on the outside looking in, a wallflower at the celebrity ball, a little drunk on the mingled scents of arrogance and smoked almonds.

Trumpet’s in the Hyatt at Grand Central—a smoke-filled lair of debauchery owned, back then, by our current US president—provided a hideaway for prominent people who wanted to smoke cigars and avoid the paparazzi. In contrast, the Marriott Marquis at Times Square served as a playground for celebrities hoping to be seen. Look at me, look at me, look at me now. I met Rosemary Clooney there. She seemed grateful that I knew she was a legendary singer and not the lady from the toilet paper commercial. Anthony Newley was a frequent guest, generous with drinks and praise, and inspirational for a songwriter like me. Neil Diamond seemed a little uppity and very concerned with his hair.

My all-time favorite Marriott glam guest was Tina Louise, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. Talk about thin. She was the Kourtney Kardashian of the sixties—and from the looks of her in 1986, she wasn’t about to relinquish her crown. I don’t know what Ms. Louise is up to these days, but I bet she’s still wearing her Ginger wig and that mink coat. That’s gotta be a wig, right?

I played at the Marriott for seven years and had a theory that eventually everyone in the world would drift through that atrium lobby. Tumbleweed clumps of humanity—not just celebrities, but also crazy people and old boyfriends—fluffed past the Yamaha grand. I’m grateful no one took a shot at me; I was a sitting Piano Girl duck in that vast lounge, surrounded by dying Ficus trees, last-gasp celebs, and balconies that would have been perfect perches for snipers.

Living in New York City eventually immunized me against celebrity crushes. I often spotted Christopher Reeve on 57thStreet. Every single time I would think: Wow, that guy looks like Superman, oh wait, he is SupermanAny New Yorker will tell you that Robin Williams sightings were once common. I would see these guys, register their greatness, and keep moving. No eye contact, no weird vibes, just a potholed concrete playing field upon which we lightly treaded.

After moving to Europe, I spent fourteen years playing at a German castle—an exclusive hotel property that attracted a discerning clientele. Over the years, Bono, Robbie Williams, Daniel Barenboim, and heads of state from numerous first-world countries stayed with us or dined in the Michelin three-star restaurant. Lionel Richie was a frequent, cheerful guest. Hello? Is it me you’re looking for? Evidently not.

During the World Cup championship, the entire Brazilian soccer team lived in the castle, hung out next to the piano, and applauded politely while I self-consciously plowed through my limited list of Jobim tunes. Then they lost a crucial match and went home without saying goodbye. Heidi Klum and Seal, who showed up every now and then, once stopped by the piano so Seal could sing “Greensleeves” to his daughter, the baby seal. He was wearing a white suit, a good wardrobe choice if you have skin the color of polished ebony. He was the most dashing, dazzling man I’d ever seen. And he could sing.

Celebrity hat trick: One night I played at the castle for Queen Silvia of Sweden, a German Olympic swimmer named Franziska van Almsick, and Nick Nolte, who entered the bar with his own pre-made cocktail in a sippy cup. He looked sinister and handsome in his black trench coat and aviator shades, and he grumbled a few words of encouragement in my direction. I was grateful for his attention since neither the queen nor the swimmer had registered my presence. During this same period, an Omani princess was residing at the castle in a group of suites the royal family had rented for several months. She listened to me from her private indoor balcony and sent notes and requests via her security chief. Before the princess returned to her heart-shaped palace in the middle of the desert, she gave me a chunk of gold the size of my thumb. And now she sends me a Christmas card every year. I have yet to receive a Christmas card from Mr. Nolte or any other Hollywood celebrity, but I remain optimistic.

I do not kid myself; I know, and have always known, that I’m in the service industry.

My recent foray to Buckingham Palace to play for Prince Charles is well documented, as is my NPR All Things Considered appearance opposite Bill Clinton, and my five-minute concert performance for Angela Merkel (she smiled at me once and was wearing a lavender blazer). I’ve whipped these stories into frothy musical tales that work nicely at dinner parties when there’s a conversation lull.

I still play for VIPs and pop-up legends as they traverse my musical sphere and do whatever it is that famous people do. But times have changed. The presence of a pianist in a five-star hotel lobby seems shocking these days, even to those accustomed to daily pampering. A skilled musician playing a grand piano in a fancy-pants lodge, wrapping the room in a warm mantle of ambient joy, was once a widely-accepted practice, an expected perk of five-star accommodation. Now we’re a rarity—petite, long-fingered dinosaurs gracefully fighting extinction.

But there’s hope. Music may have taken a heavy hit in the live-performance category, but it’s more available than ever in the streaming world. And that’s how I’ve found myself on the playlists of lovers, dreamers, and stars. This sounds like a rejected lyric from “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s not.

My old friend Tobin Bell, the generous, talented star of the Jigsaw psycho-drama horror film series, often tweets about my music to his gazillion followers. As a result, I have a cult following of Saw fans, most of whom are under twenty-five. Having a teenage audience might not keep me young, but it’s given me some street cred with my kids.

Another note: My music is featured regularly on conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck’s playlists. I can’t help but wonder why a self-proclaimed “angry man”—whose latest book is called Addicted to Rage—would include my placid arrangement of “Feed the Birds” on his list of favorite tracks. Maybe he needs to balance all that wrath. I’m happy to help. Maybe he’ll fall asleep and stop ranting.

Forget the celebs for a minute: I regularly receive mail from non-famous listeners who have used my music for childbirth, funerals, hospital stays, and weddings. A twenty-two-year old university student reported that my music helped her get through a grueling final semester. My super-smart lawyer friend, Peter, has played my albums to help him stay calm and prepare for his own classical piano recitals. An elderly woman named Margie claimed my music improved her bowling scores. I just received a letter from a man who has been listening while rebuilding his life after the recent fires in California ravaged his home.  These endorsements are of the highest order, and I treasure each one of them.

Then there are the deathbed testimonies.

“Exactly what track was Mr. Eggrich-Bimmelstein listening to when he passed away?” my husband once asked (with one raised eyebrow). I had told him about the death of one of my elderly fans—a ninety-six-year old gentlemen who crossed over while listening to one specific tune of mine, on repeat for his final forty-eight hours.

See, that’s the thing—when faced with an important transition in life, most of us choose to listen, not look. Mr. Eggrich-Bimmelstein wasn’t staring at Instagram photos of bikini-clad sex kittens when he slipped away—he was listening to a piece of music that helped him keep moving forward. In this case, it was one of my tunes. But it could have just as easily been Bach or the Beatles (or Krank or King).

And so we circle back to Kourtney. Her photos make me uneasy, or envious—or a little of both—but I admire her audacity, her willingness to celebrate her sexuality, the irony in her face-tuned “casual” photos, her desire to stand apart from the roaring, boring crowd. If Instagram had existed when I was her age, I might have done the same thing; I was thin enough and I would have looked great with that Valencia filter. Instead, I played the piano—my launchpad into adult life. It helped me figure out who I wanted to be. It still does. Ms. Kardashian, using a different platform, has embarked on a similar voyage of self-discovery, one that involves hashtags and lash extensions. Good for her.

How does my low-key music fit in with Kourtney’s razzle-dazzle hip-hopping ab-pumping leatherette lifestyle? A desire for simplicity, perhaps. A higher bowling score? Or maybe, like the rest of us, she needs some downtime and a way to move forward. All that posing can be exhausting.

*****

Featured photos by @kourtneykardash, Julia Goldsby, and James Kezman.

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;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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Comments

  1. Gail Goldsby Reid says

    Wow! Amazing all the people whose lives you’ve touched with music. I hope some of them have written in their journals about the delightful pianist they encountered at such-and-such a place. I, too, have used your beautiful work as lovely background for showers and funeral meals (!) and ‘ladies who lunch’. No celebrities involved….but listeners who have enjoyed. Love you, dear!