Sea to Shining Sea

1972. As a teenager, I was keen on seeing the world outside the confines of Pittsburgh, PA—a fine city in the seventies for football (go Steelers), hockey (go Penguins) and Baseball (go Pirates). We had a symphony orchestra (go Mahler), a handful of respected universities, and a rich cultural heritage that rode on the flashy black and gold coattails of steel and oil barons, the savory scent of pierogi, and a peculiar Pittsburgh-ese dialect that caused most of us to sound like second-rate hillbillies crossed with Scottish nobility. 

My family took vacations whenever my parents could scrape together enough money to haul us from the Golden Triangle to the distant shores of Lake Erie, Lake Chautauqua, Conneaut Lake, Lake Geneva. Lake people, we were. Usually my musician father had some sort of gig that financed these trips—a “sing for your supper” strategy that I admired early on and would one day adopt for my own travel purposes.

During the seventies, Mom worked as an executive secretary for a major steel company. Dad, who had a respectable career as drummer, worked around the clock. Money was tight but we managed to live stylishly on a budget. One of my friends—also from a working-class background—thought we were rich because we had matching towels in our bathroom. At our Chatham Village home on Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington (pronounced Mahnt Worshingtahn) we had cocktail hour every evening and sat down to a home-cooked dinner together before Dad dashed out the door to one of his many gigs (sometimes two a night). We argued and laughed and knew we were protected by some dumb luck version of light skin, decent parenting, humor, and adequate public-school education. Back then we didn’t call it middle-class white privilege—but that’s exactly what it was.

One summer our parents announced we would take five weeks off and drive cross country in our beige Plymouth station wagon (which may have had wood paneling) to learn more about our beautiful country and to experience first-hand its abundance of glory. Purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain, all that. Sea to shining sea. The trip, paid for by my mom’s small inheritance from my grandfather, was presented to the three kids in my family as the adventure of a lifetime. My parents could have used the money for a new car (without panels) or a cruise to nowhere for themselves, but, sensing, as most parents do, the silent ticking of the empty nest clock, they opted for one last family experience, a trip we might all remember.

No GPS, no seatbelts, no internet. We had an AAA Trip-Tick, a roof rack with suitcases strapped to it, and, thanks to dad (AKA Mr. Maps) a detailed plan of where we wanted to be and when.

I was fourteen at the time—head over heels in love with Mark Anthony Lazzaro, the sweet-talking handsome star of the South Hills High School football team. I had yard-long dirty blond hair, braces that gave me a headache, and a gilded, gauzy idea of the future that didn’t extend much beyond winning the next swim meet, showing up at cheerleading camp, or practicing my latest piano assignment—activities that would be impossible to accomplish during a five-week road trip.

Costume opportunity! I packed multiple sets of hot-pants with matching halter tops. I owned a few dresses called “sizzlers” with skirts so short they were sold with matching underpants. Along with a collection of swimsuits and one inappropriate slinky evening gown that I planned to wear in Las Vegas, that was the extent of my wardrobe. 

I have dozens of skewed recollections from that cross country trip. Almost half a century has slipped by since we piled into the car and— bouncing around like pubescent bean babies on the bench seat—set off to see the sights. Memories blur—but here are a few of them.

Heartbroken and missing Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I called him from a payphone somewhere in South Dakota. I had two dollars in change and intended to spend all of it on the call, but a giant bat flew into the phone booth. As much as I worshiped Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I wasn’t going to risk getting a bat tangled in in my hair, so I hung up on him while my sister, Badass Randy, sat in the car and laughed at me. Badass Randy has always adored bats.  

The Badlands (which might as well be called the Batlands) of South Dakota looked like the landscape of Mars. I whistled the theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and roamed through the pitted landscape like an outlaw in a sizzler dress.

We stopped in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and took a cable car into the Grand Tetons. From high in the sky we saw a moose running free. We went on a riding trip and Dad got a horse named Thunder who refused to move.  I wrote to Mark Anthony Lazzaro every single day.

The wild buffalo of Wyoming—hundreds of them!—approached our car and snorted in the windows. We went to a state park for a picnic and a little baseball activity. Dad, forgetting my unique inability to throw or catch anything, threw a fastball at me that grazed the top of my mitt, smashed into my fashionable aviator prescription glasses, and sliced my eyebrow wide open. Blood, so much blood. Dad almost fainted but Mom stayed remarkably calm (she has always been good in medical emergencies). My brother took one look at me and screamed: “She’s blind!”  We staggered into a Jackson Hole ER and they stitched me up. 

Dad dragged us to see the location commemorating Custer’s Last Stand (more precisely known as The Battle of Little Bighorn) on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana.  If you ask any teenage girl what’s on her list of fabulous places to visit, the General Custer Memorial might take last place. I was sporting a large bandage on my forehead and, aside from the hot pants, looked like one of the wounded soldiers depicted in the museum mural. Mortifying. It was 1972, so we were insensitive but didn’t know it, walking the battle ground with Dad making inappropriate jokes about Chief Giant Eagle and his second in command, Walking Bass. To support the Crow community, we stayed in a chain hotel on the Crow reservation. It was a huge inn, with no guests, except for us. Bugs were everywhere and I remember being sad. We stopped making jokes.

We visited Yellowstone and had a snowball fight in our summer clothes. Dad, his fishing rod ever present, managed to catch a few trout, which some of us ate for dinner. 

We cruised into Utah so we could drive really fast on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Without seatbelts we hurtled across the flats at what seemed like 500 MPH. The white family on the white ground speeding into the white sky toward a white horizon. We felt like we were fleeing the earth. I was scared and my eyes hurt from the glare. 

We went to Great Salt Lake where we swam in stinking, viscous water with swarms of tiny insects circling our bobbing heads. Dad said “Float like a cork!” about one thousand times. We stopped to see the Mormon Tabernacle but visitors were not welcome.

One part of the trip involved a five-day rafting trip on the Green River that may have started in Idaho or Utah or Wyoming. Several buff, sun-polished young men with large biceps navigated the rubber rafts through red-stoned canyons, telling us when to hold on tight. During the course of the trip, I developed a crush on Davey the skipper and temporarily forgot about Mark Anthony Lazzaro. 

Sleeping “under the stars” was part of the river trip—an idea that has never appealed to me, mainly because of, well, bats. An unexpected August monsoon also meant that sleeping under the stars meant sleeping in the mud. I got my first period and spent most of it concerned that Davey would see the wedge of pads and paper towels I had jammed in my hot-pants. Davey, I’m guessing, never looked in my direction. 

Wounded eyebrow, first period, mud-sleeping. How much outdoor trauma could one fourteen-year-old girl take? On the day we were to travel through the white-water corridor appropriately called Hell’s Half Mile, Davey warned us the passage would be extremely dangerous due to the rainstorm and speed of the water. He advised us to strap ourselves down. Davey was in the middle of the raft with the oars. My brother and dad were up front with two other passengers. Badass Randy and I were in the back with our mother. Mom traversed the length of the raft making sure each of us was secure—tied to the boat with multiple ropes and secure knots. I rolled my one functioning eye and tried to flirt with Davey. 

Mom—in a classic move from the motherhood playbook—was so concerned about her kids, that she didn’t bother to secure her own position, choosing to hold onto a thin piece of twine that was attached a heavy metal box of frozen chicken. Hell’s Half Mile lived up to its name—scary rapids, huge bolders, and actual valleys in the water’s surface. Mom, clinging to her twine, catapulted into the water. At first, we laughed. But then we couldn’t find her. She was under the raft, her claw-like hand still clutching the twine, which was connected to the chicken anvil, which was jammed against my left foot. Just what I needed—more blood and a missing mother. Davey, who never seemed to panic, panicked. Somehow, he convinced Mom to let go. Eventually, on the other side of Hell’s Half Mile, he fished her out.

Hell’s Half Mile was a very long way from Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle.

I slept in the mud under the stars that night, a roll of Bounty paper towels wedged in my pants, my foot throbbing, and thought: People pay to do this? Fifty years later, my periods have stopped, but I still have a scar on my ankle from the chicken box. 

To my relief, we moved on to the West Coast. We visited the family of an FBI agent in San Francisco and he took us to lunch in Chinatown and spoke Mandarin to the waiters. In 1972 we didn’t have Chinese food in Pittsburgh,  and this seemed beyond exotic. We swam in the Pacific and visited Disneyland. I remember the Small World ride and that God-awful song. I also recall my devastation when I realized I was way too tall to ever play the part of Tinkerbell, Snow White, or any other Disney princess. If I wanted to work at Disney—which seemed a reasonable career choice to me at the time—my only hope was a gig in a Goofy Costume, or maybe playing the piccolo in one of the bands.

Next stop, Las Vegas. Badass Randy and I wore hooker dresses (electric blue and lime-green Spandex) to see performances of Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight and the Pips, Steve and Edye. We stayed for three days—probably two days too long—and I spent most of the time feeling fake-glamorous on a lounge chair next to the huge pool at the Stardust Hotel. Dad gave each of us a few dollars in quarters and we played the slot machines. I won ten bucks on my first try and quit. I spent the money calling Mark Anthony Lazzaro from a payphone in the Stardust lobby.

Obstinate, sunburned, and fed up with my family, I refused to get out of the car to see the Grand Canyon. I actually slept through the Painted Desert, or pretended to, because I didn’t want to look at rainbow colored sand or another cactus. I pitched a teen-queen fit when Dad checked us into a seedy motel—the last one with a vacancy in Seven Flags, Arizona—and there were hundreds of crickets in the beds. Crickets! “Harmless,” he said. He moved us to another town, into a cricket-free truck stop with a pool that featured its own family of frogs. Wildlife. It was everywhere.  

Other memories rise to the surface now and then: Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Old Faithful, Lake Tahoe, Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, Yosemite, Wall Drug. Aside from the Chinese food and the damn frozen chicken on the rafting trip, I don’t really remember what we ate. I assume we stopped often at McDonalds. Plain hamburger, pickle and mustard, no fries, vanilla milkshake.

My parents were brave. Dad, determined to record our adventure, had purchased a Super-8 film camera before we left Pittsburgh. The first image in the film is one of my grandmother, her hand raised in a paralyzed, farewell salute—she didn’t understand the concept of a film camera, and posed like she would for a still photo.

I look back at the film now and marvel at our youthful selves, our ridiculous diving board shenanigans, my bandaged head, the buffalo. I keep returning to the start of the trip, the way my grandmother stood in the driveway, bidding farewell, attempting to stop time as the car rolls slowly away.

This land is our land. We saw potential and courage through the prism of privilege. We saw fruited plains, too many statues of white men, and manmade wonders built on the bent backs of immigrants. We crossed bridges and swam under the surface of emerald lakes. We hiked until our knees ached and rode weary horses over glittering, sunlit trails our ancestors had stolen from their rightful owners. We looked down from wind-whipped mountaintops and up from verdant fields into a sky that stretched to the stars and back. We watched waves crash against burning shores. Racism, intolerance, and ugliness were far from our minds.

I was an innocent teenage girl with a boyfriend, a good family, and a future.

I floated, like a cork.

****

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.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

Sliding Into Home

Mother-son road trip. It’s mid-summer and I’m on a jam-packed Condor Airlines flight, headed to Pittsburgh (my hometown) with my twenty-six-year old son. Just when I thought my days of traveling with kids had come to a grinding halt, here I am, in Economy Premium—the poor woman’s business class—sipping champagne from a paper cup (sneaked to us by a lovely flight attendant who’s a fan of my music) and toasting the promise of a perfect holiday. 

Summer fun! Once again, we have convinced ourselves that it’s a wise idea to stuff our long bodies into a gravity-defying metal tube, breathe the spit-back air of three hundred tired passengers, and fly into the flailing arms of a country that seems more akin to the dream of home, less like the real deal. 

“Isn’t a condor a type of vulture?” says Curtis. 

“Don’t ask me,” I say. “My knowledge of vultures is limited to Tarzan movies and one ill-fated trip on a golf cart in the Bahamas; the cart got stuck on a rock and we were surrounded by vultures that turned out to be wild turkeys. But they looked like vultures. Not pretty. Thought I was gonna get my eyes pecked out.”

“Condor, the Vulture of Airlines. Imagine the marketing guy who decided to name an airline after a bird of prey.” says Curtis. “He had one job.”

“Cheers,” I say. “Look at this. Enough legroom!” Curtis is six feet, six inches tall. He needs a lot of legroom.

“It’s a miracle,” he says. “Score one for the vultures.”

Our friendly music fan/flight attendant slips some Belgian chocolate to us from Business Class. We receive extra blankets, extra pillows, extra champagne and a Condor swag bag. I’m a little concerned we might cause an uprising in Economy Premium (who’s the bitch in row six with the free truffles?), but as my dad says, “if you’ve got the cards, play ‘em.” 

*****

1994, baby Curtis, age18 months

Twenty-five years ago, I flew across the Atlantic with my son for the first time. We were moving to Germany to begin a new life. Full of nervous energy, apprehension, and an all-American spirit of adventure, I boarded the plane in Pittsburgh with an eighteen-month-old toddler, a diaper bag, and a purse that contained exactly one Chanel lipstick, a copy of Peter Rabbit, nine matchbox cars, and Scruffy the stuffed bear. In 1994 non-passengers could still walk to the gate of the airplane to wave goodbye to their loved ones. My dad—known as “Pap” to his grandchildren—sweet-talked a flight attendant into letting him accompany us onto the plane so he could spend more time with Curtis, the world’s tallest toddler, and help us get settled onboard. I always made it a point to buy a ticket for the baby—he might have been young enough to share my seat for free, but he was way too lanky and active for the lap option. 

Dad hugged us both, then said to Curtis:

“If you need anything, anything at all, remember—don’t call me!”

Curtis laughed, opened a package of crackers, and yelled, “Pap!”

“That’s right,” my dad said. “I’m your Pap.”

Curtis and I had stayed with my parents for a month while John­­—my hard-working bass-player husband—recorded a couple of albums in New York City and supervised the movers packing up our apartment. Curtis and I were scheduled to fly from Pittsburgh to JFK airport, meet John, and board the plane for Germany. 

I had flown out of JFK a hundred times but forgot that each airline had its own terminal. I assumed John would enthusiastically meet us at the gate and help me get the stroller, the baby, and the luggage to the next flight. Curtis and I disembarked, but John wasn’t there.  We didn’t have cell phones back then, so I had no way to reach him. Our bags were not checked through to Germany, so I needed to collect them and find my way to the Lufthansa terminal. 

We stood curbside for twenty minutes, waiting, waiting, waiting for John. I had been jilted before, but didn’t expect to be stood up by my husband on the very day we were moving to a foreign country.

“What should we do?” I asked Curtis, who, at the age of one was already exhibiting managerial skills. “Where’s your daddy?”

“Call Pap!” he said.

“Gotta take the bus, lady,” said the man at the info counter. “The Terminal Express—it’s the fastest way to get from here to there.”

Terminal Express. Is there any two-word combination in the English language that I dread more? With the help of a kind, muscle-bound stranger, I piled our luggage and stroller on the Terminal Express, a jalopy with peeling paint, no seats, and a snarly, stout man at the wheel. We drove around in potholed circles for fifteen minutes until we arrived at Lufthansa. 

“Hurry up, lady,” the driver shouted as I struggled to drag my belongings and the baby down the steps of the bus. “We ain’t got all day.”

“Call Pap!” Curtis shouted. Aside from throwing a cracker at the Terminal Express driver, my son was surprisingly good-natured about the way our day was proceeding. He had missed his afternoon nap and it was now early evening—the time when toddlers are most likely to exhibit honey badger traits. I was feeling a little testy, myself.

I spotted John pacing in the Lufthansa terminal, looking at his watch.

“Daddy!” yelled Curtis.

“Where have you been?” John said to me. “I’ve been waiting here for an hour.”

“We were waiting at the US Air terminal for you. We had to take the Terminal Express. With all this stuff. I thought you would meet us when we got off the first flight.”

“Yeah, but we’re flying out from this terminal Why would I meet you there?”

“I have the baby!”

“I have the bass!” 

“Call Pap!” said Curtis. 

I spied the bass—in its refrigerator-sized fiberglass case—hulking in the corner, waiting to be carted off to the plane. John had a point; the case was huge; it would not have fared well on the Terminal Express. 

Baby, bass, ready, steady, go.

“We’re checked in,” he said. “But the woman at the counter said we don’t need a seat for the baby. He’s under two and the flight is not full. We’ll have plenty of room.”

“What? You didn’t buy the seat for the baby? We always buy a seat for the baby. Plus, we’re not even paying for this flight; it’s not like it’s costing us anything.”

“Relax. Why should the employer spend more money than necessary? It’s business class—lots of room. We’ll be fine. The check-in clerk said there was an empty seat next to us.”

I did not trust this. Not one bit. The waiting area looked like we were about to fight for the last chopper out of Saigon. 

“Book!” yelled Curtis. I read the Tale of Peter Rabbit to him for the 15thtime that day. He was very suspicious of Mr. McGregor. 

We boarded, and the plane was completely full. Obviously, the Lufthansa clerk had been anxious to sell our seat to a disgruntled business-class passenger. 

Curtis, for the first time in his life, would be a lap baby, another dreaded two-word combination, right up there with terminal bus

*****

If you’re a career musician, chances are you’ve flown around the world a few times. You’ve logged miles you’ll never be allowed to use; you’ve pigged out on excessively salted food, sipped canned tomato juice, and guzzled wine even though you swore you would avoid alcohol while in the air. You’ve probably experienced lost suitcases, damaged instruments, and the stomach-drop thud of realizing you’ve left your Kindle in the seat pocket. You may well have become adept at dealing with jet lag, flooded toilet facilities, dry-air induced nosebleeds, digestive disorders, missed flights, and overly-chatty borderline-perv neighbors who fall asleep and drool on your shoulder. It’s part of the devil’s deal a musician makes when she signs up to travel the world.

These things do not, however, prepare you for flying with a toddler. 

Back to our story.

*****

In 1994, a nine-hour flight with a non-sleeping lap baby meant 540 minutes of close-quartered Romper Room. In-seat entertainment systems and noise cancelling headphones were five years in the future. Unless I wanted to crane my child’s neck so he could watch an airplane-censored version of Natural Born Killers on the Business Class shared movie screen, there was little to do than read him repeated versions of Peter Rabbit and hope that he didn’t take out the eyeball of a business class passenger by flinging Matchbox cars across the aisle. We walked a lot, possibly fifty laps of the plane.  Up, down. Up, down.

Note: The active toddler deemed adorable by other passengers at the beginning of a nine-hour journey loses his appeal about two hours in, even if he is wearing a very cute sailor hat and carrying Scruffy the bear. 

“When’s our little friend going to sleep?” asked a stressed flight attendant.

“Call Pap!” shouted Curtis.

Maybe there was hidden sugar in his crackers. Maybe there was speed in the airplane food. The kid was cranked and ready for action. 

By the time we flew over Greenland we were all starting to crack. The business class passengers had paid for a seat that promised a tranquil flying experience. Instead, they were ducking flung toys and brushing cracker crumbs off their shoulders.

“GET OFF MY PROPERTY!” shouted Mr. McGregor.

I was booted from business class and perp-walked, with my son and Scruffy the bear, to sit in a flight attendant’s jump-seat, back by the toilet. 

“I’m so sorry,” John said when he came back to check on us. “Guess we should have kept that extra seat.”

I glared at him, strapped myself in, vowed to stay calm, ordered another Bloody Mary, and cracked open the Peter Rabbit book. I was really starting to hate that frigging rabbit.

One more time, with feeling.

My dear, squirmimg child never slept that night—not one wink. The nine-hour flight lasted approximately three weeks. By the time we retrieved our bags, he was a whack-a-toddler version of Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, running in loops and popping up everywhere I looked. At one point he jumped on the luggage belt, intent on discovering what was hidden behind the rubber fringe. Maybe he thought Mr. McGregor was back there.

We collected our bags, the bass, the baby, and Scruffy the bear—we were now in full Slovenian traveling circus mode—and wheeled ourselves into the reception area where two drivers were waiting for us.  

One of the drivers pointed at the fiberglass bass trunk and said: “What’s that supposed to be?”

We climbed into a Mercedes van and sped into Germany’s dawn. 

“Please,” I said to our driver. “Please slow down.”

“Fast!” yelled Curtis. “Go fast!”

**

Bing, bang, boom. The night that lasted three weeks transitioned seamlessly into two and a half decades that flew by in double time, triple time, tempo tantrum. And here I am with my son again, on the long-haul trip from Frankfurt to Pittsburgh—sipping champagne in a paper cup and waxing nostalgic about that first flight, the one that delivered us to a new life in a new land.

John and I have raised two children in Europe, benefitted from excellent health care, and reaped the rewards of the education system available to Germany’s residents. Curtis is now twenty-six, and his fabulous sister, Julia (who has always been very good at sleeping on planes) is twenty-three. John and I have been privileged to create rewarding careers for ourselves in a country that respects the arts. We didn’t know any of this in 1994 when we packed up our lives and leapt across the pond. We were young, ready for a change, and 100 percent sure that love would see us through. It has, and it will.

And now there’s this on the airplane: After dinner, our favorite flight attendant halts the inflight entertainment. In German she says: “Condor Airlines is pleased to welcome renowned pianist Robin Meloy Goldsby onboard today’s flight to Pittsburgh . . .” She speaks about my albums, my streaming platforms, and highlights of my career. It’s extremely flattering—this has never happened to me before—but I’m a little concerned about a passenger revolt. It’s one thing for her to give us free truffles, another to interrupt their enjoyment of Mary Poppins Returns or the entire fourth season of Friends.

What a difference a couple of decades can make. The first time I flew this route with my son we almost ended up in airport jail for disturbing the peace. This time, they’re glad we’re onboard. 

“Seriously?” Curtis says. “They’re announcing you on the plane?”

Just when we think her speech is over, the flight attendant begins again, this time in English. We slink down in our seats to avoid the judgmental stares of our fellow passengers, even though a small part of me wants to jump up and shout, “Hey! I’m the piano player!  She’s talking about me!”

Then, at the end, she says this: “Robin lives in Germany, but today, she’s headed home. To Pittsburgh.”

My heart swells. Happiness, pride, relief, confusion—I don’t know what.

We land, thank the flight attendant for her kindness, and go through immigration. I look at my strong adult son and recall the hot-mess mama drama of the day we left Pittsburgh—exactly twenty-five years ago this month—and get a little choked up.

Truth be told, I kind of miss Scruffy the bear.

“We should call Pap,” Curtis says as he pulls my heavy suitcase off the belt. “I want to let him know I’m in town.”

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.

 Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s 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. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Limelight

Give Me the Night.

In 1982 Dale Cinski was twelve-years old and obsessed with the guitar. He idolized George Benson and tried to imitate his style by listening to and playing along with George’s records. With the help of his cousin, drummer Spider Rondinelli, Dale copped tickets to a Benson concert at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. He wrangled his way backstage and told George how much he loved playing the Ibanez GB-10 (Benson’s signature guitar). Two years later, Dale–exhibiting an unusual amount of pluck for a teen guitarist—showed up at George’s hotel and played a song called “Being With You” from Benson’s In Your Eyes album.

“Man,” said George to Dale, “You’ve got some chops.”

Boom. George Benson became Dale Cinski’s mentor.

Uncle George is now seventy-five. Dale is forty-eight. They visit each other at George’s home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, hang out whenever George is in Pittsburgh, and stay in touch on the phone. The two of them have played a gazillion notes over the last three decades—George in stadiums and the world’s best concert halls, Dale in decidedly more modest venues.

Dale—married to my sister, Badass Randy—is a welcome addition to our family of rhythm section players. John (my husband), Randy, Dale, and I arrived in Paris on Sunday to attend George’s concert, cancelled at the last minute due to George’s gorge irritée (sore throat). Oh, the perils and responsibilities of fame. Like most musicians, if I get sick, I either soldier through the gig or call a sub and lose a few hundred bucks. No one throws a fit. When George cancels, he disappoints throngs of fans, loses tens of thousands of dollars, and causes his entire touring company to fall into panic mode. That’s a lot of pressure for one aging guitar player.

The older I get, the more I respect the tenacity required to balance prominence with virtuosity. George Benson is clearly an artist dedicated to the craft of making music, but he’s also a stalwart celebrity, keen on maintaining his judiciously-groomed notoriety.  George has been walking the celebrity tightrope for decades and, aside from the current gorge irritée, has remained ready, steady, and in the game. I can’t wait to meet him.

I truly admire musicians—famous or not—with careers that span decades. As my dad likes to point out: “It’s easy to have a hit; it’s much more difficult to have a career.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with a hit.

We make our own fun in Paris while we wait for George’s voice to return. We know we won’t get to hear a concert, but at least—thanks to Dale—we’ll get to hang out with him. Julia, my photographer daughter, joins us so she can spend more time with Randy and Dale. The five of us visit the steamy grounds of the Louvre, wander through the scorched Jardin des Tuileries, gaze at the Monet water lily panels at Musée de l’Orangerie, and spend two hundred Euros on falafel at an upscale Lebanese restaurant that caters to the rare, starving vegan stumbling through city lanes in search of sustenance. To escape the extreme heat, we book a Canal Saint-Martin river rat cruise and find ourselves—after passing through a dozen antiquated but functional locks—floating underneath city streets with shards of daylight cutting through circular overhead windows. It’s the coolest I’ve been in a month and despite the gloom, doom, and musty-dusty-rusty smell of it all, I’m happy.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Two days after the missed concert, George calls Dale and schedules a cocktail-party meet and greet for all of us. Julia opts out so she can go search for rumored Banksy paintings recently sighted on Paris streets. We jump in an Uber and arrive at the hotel where the band is staying. George’s voice has returned. He’s thrilled to see Dale again, and happy to talk to all of us about music and life; the gig he played with John and Lionel Hampton at Carnegie Hall back in the eighties; the Crawford Grill and his Pittsburgh roots; about his dear mother, a nurse, who once cared for my father in a Pittsburgh hospital; about the music business in Germany.

After a low-key, but inspirational hour with him we’re joined by a couple of George’s rhythm section players, most notably bassist Stanley Banks, who has held down the low end of Benson’s sound for decades. Stanley has recently lost over 100 pounds by eating raw vegan food, so our conversation veers back and forth between bass lines and recipes for almond milk smoothies.

 

Stanley Banks and John Goldsby

As the evening stretches out, two teenage gypsy-guitar players show up to play for George, each of them out Django-ing the other. George cheers them on, offers a few tips, and suggests alternate changes to the tune. Then George plays for the kids. What a thing—a legendary guitarist giving a master class in a Paris bar.

“This is what he does,” Dale says to me. “He helps young musicians. These kids are like me, thirty five years ago. They’re never going to forget this night.”

I turn to George and express my admiration and he says: “Hey baby, these kids are the future of music. It’s my duty to guide them.”

Go, George.

The hotel lounge is now full of fans and friends, clustered around Uncle George and hanging on every note. It’s a scene. At my request (and with Stanley’s urging), he plays his version of “People,” even though other guests in the bar—unaware there’s a superstar playing a private concert for anyone who wants to listen—complain that they can’t hear the television broadcast of the World Cup soccer match.

“The music is too loud!” says one of them.

“You’re blocking the television!” says another.

George graciously picks up the bar tab and we go to dinner with his entourage, including the Benson management team, the Gypsy-guitar brothers, a nightclub promoter, and two lovely—but slightly desperate—young women who appear to be from an escort agency. We dine at a Japanese places (close to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées) where everyone sits around a grill and a ninja chef throws meat and fish in the air before chopping it with the French version of the Ginsu knife.

After dinner, the promoter invites us to a trendy nightclub around the corner. It’s one of those velvet rope places with beautiful, thin, Europeans in fifty shades of anthracite. They slouch, lurk, and look bored, chic, and perfect. We, on the other hand, are a mixed bag of fashion do-s and don’t-s. George, our designated celebrity, looks sleek in his cobalt-blue silk jacket and gold medallion, and his team fits right in with their hip gangsta-rapper outfits (one of them has a pirate scarf on his head). As one might expect, the escort girls are decked out in short skirts and high heels. The Gypsy-guitar teenagers look good because they are sixteen, wearing black, and have faces that resemble freshly peeled eggs.  But the chic quotient goes downhill fast when it comes to the rest of us.  Randy and I, in our misguided attempt to make a Boho fashion statement, resemble Great Aunt Edna and her spinster sister Gertie, headed to a hoe-down. Dale’s shirt is floral and foppish and suits him in a Jimmy Buffet meets Sting kind of way. John, in what may be the French fashion faux-pas of the decade, is wearing a Lands End golf shirt and chinos.

Because we are with George, the buff bouncer lifts the velvet rope and lets us cross the threshold. I can’t help but notice that George’s musicians have not joined us for this part of the evening’s festivities. Maybe that’s part of being an A-list sideman. You get to eat a room-service club sandwich and go to bed at a respectable hour.

“I’m trying to channel Rihanna but it’s not working,” I say, worrying whether or not I have sake stains on my dress. “I thought tonight would be a simple bar hang, not a trip to Paris’s most exclusive nightclub.”

“This is so wrong,” says John. “Look at me. I haven’t even mastered the French tuck. I am the middle-aged dad poster guy.”

“Not true, brother,” says Dale. “At this time next week all of Paris will be wearing those Lands End golf shirts. You’ll start a trend. Bass player chic.”

“Plus,” says Randy. “You have fabulous hair.”

“Karl Lagerfeld would cringe,” I say.

“Who’s he?” says John.

With the judgmental eyes of the Paris fashion police upon us, we follow the club promoter and the escort girls through the heavy padded doors, down a padded staircase and into a padded private VIP area best described as a padded velvet womb. It’s the second time today I’ve found myself underneath Paris—once on water, this time on shaky ground.

The club throbs with techno music, the kind of stuff most musicians hate, but here we are, in the VIP section, with strapping male-waiters waving sparklers and pouring huge tumblers of champagne from magnums of Dom Perignon. I am suddenly extremely tired. I should have stayed back at the hotel with Stanley. He’s probably eating a chopped salad and watching CNN. The blaring music rattles my teeth. We have to shout in each other’s ears.

“More bass in the place!” yells John.

“I am thirty years too old and thirty pounds too heavy for this joint,” I say.

“Right!” says John. I like to think he can’t hear me. “This is the kind of place I have spent my life avoiding,” he shouts.

The escort girls start to dance for us. Enough. I join them. I might be sixty and dressed like I stepped out of a 1996 Talbot’s catalog, but I can jiggle my trunk junk with the best of them, especially after consuming a bucket of sake and three-hundred bucks worth of champagne. As my 102-year-old Piano-Girl friend Emily Remington recently said: “I might be old, but I’m not cold.” Screw the sunset and wisdom of age and the Golden Girls and dignity and all that—I’m dancing. The walls are padded and so am I. Randy gets up and joins me. We do the hoochie-koochie dance with our two Parisian escorts. Hoe-down, throw down. John makes a video and sends it to Julia, who, in a classic case of opposite world, is back at the apartment editing photos of French art while her mother is clubbing.

“WTF?” she texts back.

Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. In spite of the thumping music, the dancing girls, the mini-fireworks, and the champagne, George—having completed his celebrity duties for the evening—takes a nap. It’s not easy being a star. Especially if all you really want to do is play the blues.

Dale looks at George and says to me: “I really love this guy. He means the world to me.”

“Does this happen all the time?” I ask Dale. “The party thing? I mean, why doesn’t George just say no to all this stuff?”

“He can’t,” Dale says. “It’s part of who he is. Every night is a scene—doesn’t matter if it’s Pittsburgh, Paradise Valley or Paris. I don’t know how he holds it together, but he does.”

Dale nudges George awake, embraces him, and says goodbye. Our booty-shake decelerates to a shuffle and we exit the club, stage left. We’ve seen three sides of George tonight: the caring, consummate artist, the educator, and the indomitable celebrity determined to stay in the public eye. I don’t envy his balancing act. Limelight is an unflattering color for most of us. But it suits Mr. Benson.

Two in the morning. I haven’t been out this late since my New York days. I’ve grown soft around the middle, and the hard-lipped edge of the clammy July night rubs me where it hurts.

We return to Cologne the next day. George, made of smoke, mirrors, and a hefty dose of artistic drive and septuagenarian grit, recovers completely and—lifted by the loyalty of his adoring fans and his passion for music—performs his next concert within a week.

*****

Dale Cinski’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Check out his tribute to George tribute here:

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.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about 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 channels.

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Sing! Finding the Backbeat and Holding On Tight


Robin Meloy Goldsby has a few things to say about singers, and, this time around, they’re all good.

John and I enter the Burgerhaus Forum in Overath, Germany. Tonight Julia is singing with the Paul Klee High School Choir, a feisty group of kids between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, who meet once a week in the evenings to learn new songs, study new harmonies, and tackle new challenges. That’s what they tell themselves, anyway. Mainly, for the last two years, they’ve been having a hell of a lot of fun with music. They call themselves The Singin’ Pauls.

The concert is scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM. We’re fifteen minutes early and the hall is already full—around 500 enthusiastic fans have shown up to listen to the choir. I look around and see a smattering of parents and grandparents, but I’m most impressed by the huge number of schoolmates crowding into the venue. Kids cheering for their musical friends! In Germany we don’t have school-sponsored athletic competitions. But we have this, and I’m grateful. We root for musicians instead of the athletes. It’s a little like having the halftime show without the football game. No linebackers, no pom-poms, no referees. Just music.

No seats!  It’s fifteen minutes until show time and the joint is packed. What to do. We may have lived in the German countryside for almost nineteen years, but we’ve maintained a few of our hard-won Manhattan skills. John and I can find a cab, a parking place, or an empty seat in just about any situation. We have good “available space” karma—a talent that comes from squeezing into crowded Times Square subway trains during rush hour.

“Look! There. Front row, left side. Two seats. Go.” We advance towards the seats and snag them just in time.

“I don’t know,” says John as he sets up his video equipment. “Julia might not be so thrilled to see us in the first row. Especially since I have the camera.”

What?” I say. “The only other choice is the very last row. We’re American parents. We’re supposed to be pushy, remember?  We’re staying in the front.”

At this point I spot Curtis, Julia’s brother, right behind us, with a couple of his friends. He’s proud of his sister.

Anticipation bounces around the hall. John finishes setting up his Zoom camera and we’re ready to go. The house lights dim. Forty kids march onstage and take their places. All shapes and sizes: Goths and good girls, hippies and Emos, German, Turkish, French, Iranian, Palestinian, and, yes, American. They face the audience. I can’t decide if they look old or young.  Julia stays out front—she has a solo in the first song. She messes with the microphone cable, then turns around. That’s when she sees us in the front row—John with his camera, and me, bursting into tears.  Where these tears come from I have no idea. I could blame it on my mother (she’s a champion weeper and I seem to have inherited this trait from her), or menopause, or the whole circle of life thing, which sets me off pretty often these days, but really there’s no excuse. It’s a high school choir concert for heaven’s sake—a medium sized group of big kids trying to stay cool. That’s it. Their sweet, expectant faces are killing me. This is not casual crying with ladylike tears; these are big shoulder-shaking sobs.

Julia laughs when she sees us. Then she rolls her eyes, just a little. There are 500 people here, she’s preparing to sing a solo, her dad, with his goofy grin, is aiming a camera at her, her mother is having a change-of-life breakdown, and she’s completely calm. She looks like she’s hanging out in a playground with friends. Which, in a way, is exactly what she’s doing.

The audience cheers for the choir before they’re even sung a note. Frau Hövel, the Maestra, raises her baton. Herr Müller, the co-director of the choir and the accompanist, strikes the first notes on the piano. Forty voices join together and the room fills with music. Imperfect, but somehow just right.

**

Della Henderson Rawsthorne, my paternal grandmother, was an accomplished singer—a contralto—and the musical director at the Haven Heights Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The church paid her a decent salary to show up once a week for rehearsals, to select the music for the Sunday services, and to conduct the church choir. For much of my childhood, I spent Sundays and religious holidays watching her in the choir loft, holding together an aging but enthusiastic throng of warblers, brayers, and chirps, all of them heaven and hell bent on making it through the week’s hymns without a misfire, a croak, or one Hallelujah too many. Grandma, her deep and powerful voice booming through the sanctuary, covered up a multitude of musical sins with her own musical valor. Daring and inventive, she led her singers through an inspired repertoire of Methodist music—”Up from the Grave He Arose!” was my favorite—assigning solos to both the strong and the weak, pumping her arm in time to the organ music, plucking notes like daffodils out of her weedy garden of singers.

I admired Grandma’s skill and her bravery, but the choir itself? High comedy. I might have been nine years old, but I knew funny when I saw it. Whenever Orville Rudolph—a robust tenor who always sang about a quarter-step sharp—stood up for a solo, my brother, sister, and I would bite our cheeks and turn purple in our attempts to avoid laughing out loud. The “fall on your knees” part of “Oh, Holy Night” rivaled anything we had ever seen or heard on The Ed Sullivan Show.  We learned to double over in the wooden pew and pretend to tie our shoelaces during the solo sections, our mother clutching her hymnal and glaring at us, our shoulders shaking with silent guffaws. Mom also thought Orville was pretty funny, but at the advanced age of thirty-two, she knew a thing or two about gracious restraint. My Dad just raised his eyebrows when Orville hit the high notes, which made us laugh even harder.

I feel kind of bad about it now—really, who were we to giggle at anyone’s honest attempt to praise the Lord, or anything else, through music?  I hope Orville made it to his own version of choir heaven. I hope he has gotten to sing lots of solos.  I also hope, for my grandmother’s sake, that they’ve installed auto-tune in God’s control room.

**

RMG, back in 2007, with the kids in the Paul Klee Gymnasium International Choir.

RMG, back in 2007, with the kids in the Paul Klee Gymnasium International Choir.

For five years, I was the volunteer choir director of the Paul Klee High School International Choir in Overath, Germany. I slid into the job when my kids were in Junior High and I realized there weren’t enough music teachers to cover the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade choir. What, no choir? I had little choral experience myself, but I played the piano, I had written a bunch of kids’ songs, and I honestly thought, how hard could it be?

Well.

Every Wednesday for five years I met with thirty kids, most of them eleven, twelve, or thirteen years old. My own kids were in the mix. We spoke and sang in English, mainly because I didn’t want anyone, especially a twelve year German, laughing at my Colonel Klink accent.

Not that I’m complaining, but thirty twelve-year-old kids can make a lot of noise. There was a set of drums next to the entrance to the choir room. Here is a fact: It is impossible for a sixth-grade boy to walk past a set of drums without bashing the ride cymbal. Twice. Nothing, not even bribes with chocolate, will stop a boy from doing this.

Each Wednesday, before leaving the house for our five o’clock rehearsal, I took two Tylenol and a hot bath. Preventive medicine. I developed a thick skin, thicker eardrums, and newfound respect for teachers. I worked two hours a week with these kids; I couldn’t imagine the constitutions of the brave men and women who showed up Monday through Friday, eight hours at a shot.

“Whatever they’re paying these teachers,” I said to John, “It’s not nearly enough.”

“You have a job,” John said. “Why are you doing this?”

I really didn’t have an acceptable answer.

“I have two simple goals,” I told John, dodging the question. “First, I want to teach them to clap on two and four.” German kids are programmed to clap on one and three, which has the undesired effect of turning everything, even the funkiest piece of music ever written, into a Wagnerian march. “Second,” I said, “I want them to sing and say the “th” sound properly. If I can do that, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

Getting “two and four” wasn’t so easy—it took months of backbeat practice—but eventually they nailed it. They started to swing, just a little. The “th” fell into place a bit faster. The “th” sound doesn’t exist in the German language, and, most of the time, it ends up sounding like a “z.” I wrote a tongue twister for them to practice: Thelma the thick-headed thief had three hundred and thirty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty-three threatening thoughts.

Zelma transformed into Thelma, we found the backbeat, and we were groovin’.

They sang at many concerts, and I watched in complete amazement as these kids—shy, insecure, and standing on the slippery slope of puberty—learned to take pride in their teamwork. What they lacked in musical ability they made up for in eagerness.  One of the “real” music teachers at the school tried to convince me to hold auditions each year—for the sake of quality control—but I refused. Anyone who wanted to sing was welcome.

“This isn’t about music,” I told him. “It’s about fun. Singing makes for happy kids. It’s almost impossible to sing with a group and be grumpy at the same time. These kids need to have fun. School is serious enough.” I’m sure I sounded a little too American for the system, but, as a volunteer, I got to set the rules.

My choir kids never got much beyond two-part harmony, but they were loud, smiling, and full of joy. We had choreography, a healthy amount of “two” and “four” clapping, and a series of soloists with back-up singers. During the final year we started to look like a sixth-grade Las Vegas act. Instead of sequins and feathers we wore red t-shirts. Curtis would play congas or drums, John, when he was available, would show up and play the bass. Eventually, Julia took over at the piano. Aside from the chocolate, the kids hardly needed me for anything at all. They had found each other. Music was their navigation system.

We practiced, we performed, we had a ball. As a teacher, I was pretty relaxed. I had one firm rule. No one was allowed to laugh at anyone else. Our choir room was a safe place, the sacred ground of artistic expression, a space where the kids could be bigger versions of themselves. No laughing, unless we were all doing it together. Orville Rudolph, after all those years, had come back to haunt me.

Five years, a hundred headaches, and twenty concerts later, I reluctantly stepped down. The music faculty had added several new teachers to the staff, my own kids had moved on to the middle and upper classes at the school, and, well, it was time. There’s not a high school kid alive who wants her mother hanging out in the school music room. We made a big splash at our last school concert, then kept meeting for the rest of the semester, just to sing and finish the term with style. For the final session, I invited parents and friends for a farewell musical soirée. I thought it would be a good excuse to eat brownies and a nice way to say auf Wiedersehen. We prepared some tunes from High School Musical, a few of my originals, “The Girl from Ipanema” in Portuguese (with the help of a Brazilian choir mom), “Kansas City,” “Seasons of Love,” and, because the kids requested it, “My Heart Will Go On,” also known as the dreaded Titanic theme.

Five minutes before we were scheduled to start our presentation, Janina, a very pretty and extremely bashful girl who had been with me for two years, came to my side.

“Robin,” she whispered. “I am ready.”

“Ready for what?” I said. I had discovered over the years that a kid this age assumes the entire world knows what she’s thinking.

“My solo. I am ready to sing a solo.”

If Janina had told me she had booked a round trip ticket to Reno I would not have been more surprised.

“Really? That’s great! Just great! Which song do you want to sing?”

“Titanic,” she said. “The second verse. I practiced it.”

“You’ve got it Janina,” I said. “Kids, stay out of Janina’s way on the second verse. She’s going to sing it solo. Solo!”

They cheered for her.

The concert was a huge success. We sang and danced and stomped. We got to the last tune of the set, the Titanic theme, and I announced that Janina would be the soloist. I saw her mother’s jaw drop. We started the song. When it came time for the second verse, Janina stepped forward, with three girls holding her up on each side. Her voice was Helium-high and tiny, but I swear it was the loudest and proudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

**

Four years later, here I am, not at the piano, but in the front row, happy to be a normal parent enjoying the show. Tonight’s concert will offer us a little Cold Play, a Beatles tune—”Penny Lane,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an instrumental version of “My Funny Valentine,” “Stand By Me,” “Circle of Life,” “Skyfall,” and a few hip songs I’ve never heard and will probably never hear again.

Julia and the choir start the evening with a tune called “Happy Ending.” The Mama Rose in me wants to shout, “Sing out, Louise!” but the close proximity of the male members of my family keeps me in check. I get control of my sobbing about halfway through the song. I look around.  Many of my sixth grade choir kids are now singing with this senior group. They’re young adults now, most of them capable of walking past a drum set without hitting the ride cymbal, all of them stretched out and dressed up and ready for anything.  A year or two short of graduation, these kids face a complicated world, but for now, while they’re singing, there’s reason to celebrate.

The audience claps along—finding the backbeat!—and I sit back and watch time roll by like too many sixteenth-notes, my husband beside me, my grown son in the row behind me, my daughter center stage, Grandma Rawsthorne somewhere in the room. Now I know why I’m crying. When this evening is over, where will the flawed and glorious music go? Poof. I hate when good things disappear. I want right now to last forever.

I hope these kids will hold onto their songs. I hope they’ll keep singing for themselves and each other.

Look. There, in the second row onstage. It’s Janina, just as pretty, but no longer shy. She’s singing her heart out.

**

To see John’s front row video of the choir:

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm: A Novel, and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl.