10/16/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 16, 2012

At Age 97, The Last Of The Great Cocktail Pianists Looks Back On His Life & Career

At age 97, more than eight decades into his remarkable career, Irving Fields is the last of the original generation of cocktail pianists who tickled the ivories in Manhattan's swankiest nightspots in the 1930s and '40s. He's also a songwriter whose tunes have been performed and recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Dean Martin, Xavier Cugat, and Guy Lombardo, who had a #1 hit in 1947 with Fields' most famous composition, "Managua, Nicaragua." He's made countless singles and dozens of albums, from 78-RPM records to MP3s, most of them with his trio. Their 1959 LP "Bagels And Bongos," combining Latin rhythms with traditional Jewish melodies, was a pioneering fusion of what's known today as "world music. Amazingly, Irving Fields is still writing and recording today, as well as performing six nights a week at a restaurant/bar a few steps from his midtown Manhattan apartment.

Irving's autobiography, "The Pianos I Have Known" (edited by Aaron Joy and published by Roman Midnight Music), on which I worked with him, was published this summer. This excerpt from the book discusses the founding of his trio and his first recording contract, just after World War II, when his career really started to take off -- a mere 66 years ago!

My greatest success was as the leader of the Irving Fields Trio: a bassist, a drummer and me, on my piano. I'd started with that lineup out of necessity in the [Armed Forces] Special Services [during World War II] because I couldn't find enough good musicians for an orchestra. But I liked our sound so much that when I got out of the army, I still had that trio sound in my head and wanted to hear it come alive again.

I'd done a lot of concerts in the Army with the trio. For fox trots and slower numbers, the drummer would play his standard drum kit. But when we played Latin music, he would get on the bongos. We could do all kinds of Latin rhythms and the soldiers loved all of it.

I liked having a strong rhythm section because it gave me more freedom at the piano to do my "pyrotechnics" as I no longer needed to worry about the bass end so much. Trios at that time didn't usually have a rhythm section, and they primarily played music for listening while you ate your dinner or drank your cocktail. But, because we had a strong beat, we could emphasize it for dancing or tone it down for listening.

When I got out of the Army, I decided to stick with the piano-bass-drums trio. If it worked for the soldiers I figured it would work for everyone else back home. I went to the Musicians Union, and I found a drummer by the name of Michael Bruno and a bass player by the name of Henry Senick, who had a tone like a beautiful cello. We wound up playing together for nearly forty years! I'm still surprised when I think about how long we were together.

Henry, Michael and I bounced around for a while before we found our first successes in Miami Beach, first at the Versailles Hotel and then at the Cadillac Hotel. A man by the name of Joe Lieber saw us at the Cadillac. He owned Knickerbocker Meats, which had the best meats in New York, and he was planning to open up a dual restaurant/nightclub in Manhattan.

After our set, he came up to me and said, "I want you to open up my new place. It'll have a dance floor and I want you to play dance music." That's how we wound up at the Crest Room on 56 East 56th St., and that's where things really started to happen. I became better known with the trio than I'd ever been as a solo act. After a while, I started to think my name was Irving Fields Trio!

I don't know if I invented the piano-bass-drums lineup for nightclub trios, but I don't think anyone was doing it before I brought my trio to the Crest Room. Traditionally, it had been piano-guitar-bass or horn-piano-drums or some such configuration. The King Cole Trio didn't have a drummer, Benny Goodman's trio didn't have a bass, and so on. Today, when you go to a nightclub or a cocktail lounge and see a trio, you expect to see piano, bass and drums.
It's funny - not long after my trio made its debut at the Crest Room, the Nat King Cole trio got a bongo player, Jack Costanzo. I can't help but wonder if I maybe had something to do with that. You never know!

An A & R man for RCA Victor Records came into the Crest Room at that time and listened to us play. The guy was the head of the Latin department, but he was an Irishman, with a brogue and everything! But, he loved Latin music and he knew all the Latin bands. He was in charge of signing acts to RCA Victor's Latin label.

He heard me play, and he couldn't believe that a group called the very non-ethnic sounding Irving Fields Trio had such an authentic Cuban sound. He signed me up to do four sides, or songs, for $25 a side, with the promise that if they did well, they would "talk terms" and sign me to a contract. I recorded "Tico Tico," "Begin The Beguine," some Latin song that I'd never heard of, and my own composition, "Miami Beach Rhumba."

RCA Victor initially decided to release my records on their Latin label, which meant that you could buy my music in Latin America but in New York, where my trio was playing, they were only available in neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem, where few of my fans lived.

In fact, on my early records, I was called "Campos El Pianista." "Campos" means "Fields" in Spanish, so it was "Fields The Pianist" in Spanish. Later on, they were credited to "Irving Fields with The Campos Trio." It was RCA Victor's idea, to make it seem like I was Spanish.

The trick worked so well that Xavier Cugat, the great Latin bandleader, must have assumed that I was Cuban. In between sets one night he came up and spoke to me in Spanish! I said, "Mr. Cugat, I don't understand Spanish, but I love Latin music."

He said, "You play like a Cuban! You must have Cuban blood!"

I said, "I guess that makes me a Span-Yid!"

"Cugie" liked my playing so much that he wanted me to join his orchestra as a solo pianist. I'd get a few featured numbers with the band and get to show off my "pyrotechnics". If he had asked me a few months earlier who knows what I would have said and done, but at this time I didn't accept his offer. My trio was clicking on all cylinders now, and I wanted to see how far I could go on my own. I have no regrets about the path I chose but sometimes I can't help but wonder what might have been if I'd gone with Cugie!

Even though my version of "Miami Beach Rhumba" didn't come out on RCA Victor's black label for pop music, it still attracted a lot of cover versions - Xavier Cugat, Freddy Martin, Kay Kyser, Carmen Miranda, and countless other versions on different labels. From then on, it was my signature song and my theme song on all my radio shows, and continues toget covered by jazz and Latin bands.

The success of "Miami Beach Rhumba" turned my trio into one of the big acts in town, and the Crest Room became one of the "in" spots in New York City. It didn't hurt that the steaks were excellent, but people were coming in to hear my music. Latin dancing was very hot in 1946, and because my trio was one of the only acts playing authentic Latin music, all the dance teachers would bring their students to the Crest Room.

The Crest Room was a madhouse. Celebrities started coming to see me. Ava Gardner would come by regularly, and she'd throw off her shoes and dance barefoot - maybe that's why she did that movie The Barefoot Contessa!

My normal working hours at the Crest Room were 10 PM-3 AM. Afterward we'd go to Lindy's or Reuben's for ham steak and eggs, and we'd meet all the people who worked in the nightclubs and all the celebrities and so forth. I remember one night, it was 3:00 in the morning, the place was still packed, and most of the people were intoxicated. I was packing up when a man came over to me. He'd been a fan of mine for many years. He was a nice, quiet gentleman, and he was very intoxicated. He came very close to me, and said, slurring, "You're not quitting now, are you?"

I said, "I play from 10-3, my set's over."

He said, "I want you to play a coupla more songs."

"I can't do that. They want to close the restaurant. I always play all your favorite songs. Next time you come...."

"I wan' ya to play now!" Then he stuck a gun in my belly!

At first I thought it was a toy gun but it was the real thing. It was worse because this guy was drunk. What could I do but play for another half hour? When I was done, he gave me a kiss on the cheek and a $100 bill. Turns out he was an off-duty detective who had his gun with him.

When he came in again, I mentioned the incident, and he got very quiet. "I don't remember doing that!" But, I sure remembered it!