New York is the greatest city in the world. Anything you want can be yours, as long as you have the money and the desire. And I had a little of one and a lot of the other. I wanted to hear some of the biggest musical stars of 1948. In person. This weekend. Sure enough, a quick scan of the listings and a couple of phone calls later, I'd lined it up. Three musical legends in three nights, all of whose biggest hits were damn near six decades old, and all of them over 90 years old. I broke out my snap-brim hat and got ready for a weekend of steaks, martinis and cigarettes. It was time to party like it's 1948.
As the big nights drew near, I got heavier into my vintage vibe. I stopped worrying about Hillary and Giuliani and started concentrating on the Truman/Dewey presidential election. I started calling people "Mack" and "Ace" and "Dollface." I upped my red meat and gin intake considerably, which left me wondering if all males in 1948 had such bloated, distended stomachs. I wasn't allowed to replace my computer at work with a vintage Smith-Corona, but I did try to take a few minutes out of each day to stare at my PC and say "Astonishing... simply astonishing," as if I had time-traveled into the space age.
I was ready.
NIGHT 1: TONY MARTIN (biggest 1948 hit: "It's Magic") at Feinstein's At The Regency.
By '48, this big-voiced baritone belter of hits like "I Get Ideas" and "There's No Tomorrow" had already been in the music biz for over a decade, scoring his first hits when Frank Sinatra was still an unknown singing waiter in New Jersey. The mere fact that he's still alive is pretty incredible, but performing? Two months shy of his 95th birthday? This I had to see.
Martin needed assistance getting to the stage, and for the first couple of songs he searched in vain for the right key and tempo like a geezer grabbing the mic at his granddaughter's wedding. But once he hit his stride, he just kept getting better and better. For a solid hour, Tony Martin kept the crowd in the palm of his hand. He stood for the whole show. He didn't blow a single lyric. His voice wasn't what it was in 1948 -- it's more delicate than overpowering now, and it takes a little bit longer to get to the high notes -- but it hardly mattered. He sang maybe the best versions of "Begin The Beguine" and "How Do You Keep The Music Playing" I've ever heard. And every now and then, his throat would open up and out would come a big, booming note that recalled the power he used to have, and which made the many geriatrics in the audience sigh and squeal.
As good as the singing was, the between-song patter was even better. "This is a song I did in a movie with Fred Astaire" -- in 1937. "I learned this song from Russ Columbo, who was a very dear friend of mine. I knew his father, too." Russ Columbo has been dead since 1934. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd said "Franz Schubert wrote this. We used to play pinochle together." Or "I originally performed this song for Charlemagne. He was on my team in Little League."
Given Martin's age, mere competence would have sufficed for most of the audience. Instead, he gave us magic. If you're only going to see one 95-year-old crooner, make it Tony Martin. And if there's another one out there, please let me know.
NIGHT 2: LES PAUL (biggest 1948 hit: "Lover") at Iridium.
Les Paul has had a Monday night residency at one club or another in New York for at least the last 25 years, and has called Iridium his home for the last decade or so. One of the most dazzling jazz guitarists of all time, arthritis has robbed the 92-year old Paul of the dexterity in his fingers, so while he still gets the same tone he had 60 years ago, he no longer has the speed to go with it; he saved almost all of his solos for the ballads.
Still, getting to hang out with the Thomas Edison of pop music for an hour and a half is far from a ripoff. After all, the man pretty much designed the electric guitar as we know it, and was the first major recording artist to use multi-track recording and pitch alteration. How ironic that one of the most talented musicians of the last century has made it possible for supremely untalented performers to make good records. I wonder if he blames himself for Britney Spears.
Not that he talked about that sort of thing during his chatty, relaxed, informal set. He kibitzed with the other members of the band, indulged in some lewd repartee with his comely female bassist (the sort of which I think you have to be born before 1930 to get away with), joked with the crowd, invited amateurs up from the audience to jam with him, and generally had a fine old time. So years from now, when my 89th birthday is but a receding memory, I can say to my grandchildren, "Yep, I saw Les Paul. And I paid $12 for a martini to boot. We thought that was a fortune back then." And it seems almost inconceivable that a 160-year-old Les Paul won't still be playing somewhere and holding court every Monday night.
NIGHT 3: IRVING FIELDS (biggest 1948 hit: "The Wedding Song") at Nino's Tuscany.
Irving Fields is probably the most legendary figure in music history to ever play piano in an Italian restaurant six days a week in his 93rd year on earth. Little did the calamari-munching patrons of Nino's Tuscany, a lovely, unassuming joint in the West 50s, know their background music was being supplied by a man who'd written hit songs covered by everyone from Dinah Shore to Frank Sinatra to Xavier Cugat. A man who, in 1947, wrote "Managua, Nicaragua," a song so popular it was taken to #1 on the charts by Freddy Martin AND Guy Lombardo. In 1959, this man recorded "Bagels And Bongos," a fusion of traditional Jewish melodies and Latin rhythms that was so successful he did almost half a dozen follow-ups, including the immortal "Pizza And Bongos."
And if that's not enough, Irving is the last of the great cocktail lounge pianists, from an era where every watering hole worth checking out had to have a guy playing jazzy, flowery variations on Porter and Gershwin classics, good enough to warrant close attention but unobtrusive enough to ignore if you wanted to talk to your date instead of listen. Mr. Fields played all the top rooms in this town in his day, from the Waldorf-Astoria to the Firebird Room, and for the last few years he's been happily purveying his craft at Nino's, which is across the street from his apartment. His hair may be white now, and he walks slower than he did back in '48, but nobody's told his fingers that the rest of him is 92 years old. He still plinks the keys with as much flair and finesse as he did 60 years ago.
Before starting the festivities, he ambled over to various tables taking requests -- every time he played one of mine, he looked over at me and gave me a sly smile and a nod. Walk up to him in the middle of a set and he can hold a conversation with you while playing a medley of Italian songs covering everything from "O Sole Mio" to the theme from The Godfather. Ask if you can buy one of the CDs he's got for sale on his piano, however, and he'll wrap up any song in four bars flat, the quicker to pocket your $16.95. It's almost as fun to watch as it is to listen to him play.
During one of his breaks, I tried to ask Irving about 1948 and what it was like to be in the musical vanguard back then. Instead, he started in with a series of R-rated doctor jokes, and then sang me some of his newest song, "Left Up-Right Down," which he thinks will be a smash if he can find the right singer to record it. If it does become a hit, it'll probably be the first in 50 years to have the word "pep" in it. It really was catchy, though -- I was humming the damn thing for hours afterwards.
On songwriting: "Have a melody which repeats itself with only slight variation -- that's how it gets into people's heads. That's what I did with "Managua, Nicaragua." On playing: "You have to start out playing the melody straight, so people know what song you're playing. Then you can do all the flashy things and variations. These kids [I had no idea whether he was referring to 20-year-olds or 80-year-olds], they start out, they're already out there, and you don't know what the hell they're playing."
He never did wind up telling me about 1948. And I suspect that I want to take a trip in the way-back machine a lot more than Irving, or Les Paul, or Tony Martin do. Their glory days may be behind them, but they seem to be doing just fine living in the present. Which is more than I can say for my 30-something self. Show me the way out of this century and I'll trade Tila Tequila for Cyd Charisse in a second.