What’s the key to success and longevity in the music industry? For one Local 802 member of 65 years it can be summed up in one old saying: “Give the people what they want.” For more than seven decades Irving Fields has been doing just that. From Miami Beach to the Catskills…from Bombay to London to Las Vegas to Tokyo…from the high seas to Carnegie Hall…Irving Fields has done it all. And he’s done it with style and a smile.
For nearly two hours I interviewed him in his Central Park South apartment with his wife, Ruth, and dozens of family photographs in attendance. He was as prepared for the interview as he is for a show. He was animated and energetic, polished and professional, self-effacing and self-confident, and he entertained me with a chronology of a professional career that began when he was fifteen. I’m certain he could easily have filled many more one-hour tapes.
Underlying his tales of performing for the rich and famous and his love for his craft is a work ethic he seems to have perfected. On the rare occasion that he doesn’t know a requested tune, he invites the listener to return the following night – Irving adds another song to his encyclopedic repertoire, and the customer leaves smiling.
Fields took his first piano lesson at the age of eight. “I didn’t like it,” he explains, “because I wanted to play punch ball and box ball, all those kid games outside.” His four sisters played piano and his brother played violin. “My folks wanted to keep the kids off the streets and get some culture in our lives.” He began to like music, he said, “after I composed my first little song. It gave me a sense of responsibility. I was eight or nine years old.”
Though classically trained, Irving was drawn to jazz. And so, like many of the popular orchestras of the radio era, he combined the two. “I loved the music of Morton Gould, Andre Kostelanetz and Meredith Willson…wonderful orchestras that combined great popular music in a classical style…symphonic jazz.” He fell in love with the combination of classics and jazz. “So I combined them and I found that I could arrange in a manner that made the piano sound like an orchestra. A piano is an orchestra.” Fields adds instruments up and down the scale to complement the melody and create a unique style that can only be described as BIG. “The foundation of good music,” he explains, “is melody. If a melody is great you can put any rhythm or tempo to it. I can take a number like “As Time Goes By” and play it as a waltz or a tango, because the melody is there.”
One of Fields’ signature styles developed when, at eighteen and earning $10 a week, he worked on his first cruise. The ship stopped in Havana and San Juan, and he was hooked on Latin music. “It just got under my skin, and I brought it home to New York.” Fields formed a trio and later an octet, and found work at the Savoy Lounge. New York was discovering Latin rhythm, thanks to great bands like Xavier Cugat and a young man from the Lower East Side.
In 1941 he was drafted into the army and wound up in Fort Dix, New Jersey, to await his fate. “Thousands of other inductees are standing around on a hot-as-hell summer day waiting for some general to show up. A captain yells, ‘Can anyone here entertain?’ I said sure. So I did a sing-along and everybody had a great time.” After the general showed up the captain told Fields, “We’re putting you in Special Services.”
“I asked, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I didn’t know what it meant, and they all got hysterical. But it was like going from hell to heaven.” He formed an ethnically diverse Latin group, and spent his army tenure entertaining. While on leave in Florida to visit his vacationing parents, he met an agent who booked bands for several Florida hotels, who made Irving promise to contact him upon his discharge. At Miami’s Versailles Hotel, with Latin music the rage, he formed another eight-piece orchestra, and began a career in hotels that continues to this day. During his stay in Miami, Fields wrote one of his most popular tunes, “Miami Beach Rumba.”
Back in New York City in the late 1940s and into the ’50s, he worked at the Crest Room on East 56th Street and continued in the Latin style with a trio. “The first time I met Cugat, he spoke to me in Spanish. I said, ‘Mr. Cugat, I’m not Spanish, I’m American. I know Spanish songs but I don’t know the language.’ He was shocked.” Cugat offered him a job with his band, but Fields declined.
His agent, Leonard Green, brought in an RCA Victor representative to listen to Fields’ band and he was soon signed to his first recording contract, billed as the Irving Campos Trio. “Campos means fields, in Spanish,” he said, explaining some promotional material, “so in very small letters they had ‘Irving Fields’ and in even smaller letters they had, ‘new artist: Elvis Presley.”
As an RCA Victor artist Irving recorded a mixture of popular, Latin and classical. “I took ‘Poet and Peasant’ Overture and played it as a rumba…it became ‘Poet and Peasant Rumberture’…classical and jazz.” Within eight or nine months he was making the Billboard, Variety and Cashbox top ten most popular trio lists. From there, he says, “everything was open to me.” He appeared on the Milton Berle, Kate Smith and Jackie Gleason shows, at the Roxy Theatre, London Palladium and in Las Vegas.
Fields and RCA parted company over a dispute involving what kind of music he should record and he began producing on his own. “I was working in Boston and heard some beautiful melodies on a Jewish radio program. I decided to try them with a Latin tempo.” Fields brought his bongo player, bass player and drummer into a Boston recording studio, took the demo to Decca Records, and was offered a lucrative contract.
In a Boston deli, over a bagels-and-lox sandwich, he was asked what he planned to title the album of Jewish favorites. “I’m taking a bite of the bagel and it came to me: ‘Bagels and Bongos’.” Decca prompted Fields to expand on the successful formula and “Pizzas and Bongo,” “Champagne and Bongos” and “Bikinis and Bongos” were born – Italian, French and Hawaiian music with a Latin beat! He has also written and recorded “Managua, Nicaragua,” “Chantez, Chantez,” “Take Her to Jamaica,” and an album titled Children’s Favorites, which included “Who Put the Banana in the Piano?” and “The Purpose of the Porpoise.”
In the days when many New York hotels did live radio broadcasts, Fields found a home at the Park Sheraton, and stayed there 16 years. Tired of travelling and touring to promote his records and with dance music fading, he became a solo pianist. He has been a fixture in Manhattan hotels since, but has also appeared at such hot spots as the Coconut Grove.
In an article I read several years ago Bobby Short described himself as a saloon piano player. I asked Irving how he would describe himself. He replied, “People ask me why I don’t go to Feinstein’s [Feinstein’s at the Regency] or the Firebird [Café]. Why would I want to do that for three or four weeks, then have to find another job? I’d rather stay in one place as a cocktail pianist or pianist-in-residence, and have a steady job. I guess Bobby feels the same way.”
He has been “pianist-in-residence” at many of New York’s flagship hotels and now “resides” at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South. Fields thoroughly enjoys working there, doesn’t seem to mind the one-block commute, and credits owner Leona Helmsley with helping to revive hotel music in these troubled times. “I work in hotels, tourists come to hotels and they want to hear show tunes, so I play show tunes. They want Sinatra and Billy Joel.” He gives the customer what they want – and he gives it to them BIG. He’s working this summer at the Hudson Valley Resort in Kerhonkson, N.Y., but he’ll be back at the Park Lane on Sept. 19.
Irving Fields has always enjoyed a good relationship with Local 802 and counts several long-time business reps as friends and fans. As I leave, he hands me an eight by ten glossy photo of himself in a white dinner jacket…pure style with an ageless smile.