Starting today, my Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column will appear in the paper every other Thursday. This week I pay tribute to Cy Walter, the greatest cocktail pianist who ever lived. Here’s an excerpt.
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It’s the grossest of understatements to say that cocktail pianists get no respect. They spend most of their lives playing for people who aren’t listening, a not-insignificant number of whom are either drunk or en route to being so. And while I never actually heard anyone ask for “Melancholy Baby” in the long-ago days when I gigged in bars, it’s usually safe to assume that when somebody does have a request, it’ll be for something you’ve played an octillion times. On the other hand, it’s also true that most cocktail pianists aren’t worth listening to, at least not very closely. Sometimes they’re just going through the motions (and who shall blame them?) and sometimes they simply aren’t very good. But a few such folk are true artists, and one of them, Cy Walter, was a very great one, among the finest popular pianists of the 20th century.
Walter, who died in 1968, spent most of his career playing in classy hotel lounges for Manhattanites who got dressed up to do their drinking. He was closely identified with the Drake Room of the now-defunct Drake Hotel, where he performed off and on from 1945 until his death and where his listeners included the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Noël Coward, Arthur Miller, Cole Porter, Jerome Robbins and Tennessee Williams. From 1945 to 1953 he was also a fixture on network radio, performing weekly on a series called “Piano Playhouse.” But his celebrity, such as it was, dried up when he died: Walter’s albums went out of print shortly thereafter, and from then on his name was known only to connoisseurs.
Mark Walter, Cy’s son, is trying to change all that. He started by launching an uncommonly well-stocked website that is the online equivalent of a primary-source biography of his father. Now he’s commemorated the centennial of Cy Walter’s birth by co-producing a pair of compact discs called “Sublimities” (both of which can be ordered from Amazon) that contain a total of 52 tracks by his father. Some are long-unavailable commercial recordings, others radio airchecks that have never before been released. On them Walter can be heard playing piano solos and duets (he frequently performed with Stan Freeman, a pianist of similar talent and stylistic inclination) and accompanying such singers as Marlene Dietrich, Mabel Mercer and Frank Sinatra. Most of the tunes are blue-chip standards, with a few original compositions by Walter thrown in for good measure. All are performed with a consummate elegance and technical wizardry that make you wonder how the man who recorded them could possibly have fallen into obscurity….
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Read the whole thing here.
Cy Walter plays “Dancing in the Dark,” by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, recorded in 1941: