Reinventing an Artistic Life

Member Profile: Bob Gerardi

Volume CVIII, No. 3March, 2008

Ken Rizzo

Just like music, our careers change through time. In this issues “Beat on the Street”, you can read how the musical lives of some Local 802 members have evolved. Below, Executive Board member and bassist Ken Rizzo interviews fellow union member Bob Gerardi and explores where Gerardi’s musical path has taken him.

Robert Gerardi joined Local 802 in 1958. I met him in 2001 at Lehman College’s 802 Program. That was during what I count as his ninth self-reinvention. Bob is the quintessential survivor in the music business.

“I would have to say that my main survival technique is the fact that I constantly took courses and studied to both learn more about my craft and profession, and to meet people and broaden my horizons,” Bob told me. “More importantly, I am a member of, and active in, my unions, guilds and professional organizations.”

He is also humble; no arrogance there.

Bob has worn a myriad of hats in his career. A partial list includes: pianist; singer; entertainment director for hotels and night clubs; composer for films, TV and jingles; bandleader; record producer; record company owner; actor; and public school music teacher. Accordingly, the walls of his studio are blanketed with photographs, LP’s, CD’s, videotapes, sheet music, charts and books; a grand piano is covered with manuscripts, including his most recent choral arrangement; racks of recording equipment are on standby.

Knowing that he had written the book “Opportunities in Music Careers” (McGraw-Hill, 2002), I naturally thought that he possessed a prescience regarding business trends and expectations. But his is a much more practical story that comprises wrong turns, chance meetings, and a large dose of chutzpah. Concomitantly, his success is as much a result of artistry as it is of his infectious affability, brilliant self-awareness, and generosity of spirit.

We spoke at length recently. Actually, I listened.

His first job out of high school was that of civil engineer for the city. During those eight years, Bob was still working in music and taking courses at night. “I always wanted to be a singer and an actor, like a Sinatra.” So he quit that job and survived by doing music and acting gigs.

In the late 50’s, his rock band The Rockin’ Chairs had two top-10 hits — “A Kiss is a Kiss” and “Memories of Love.” Eventually, this success led to a deal with CBS Records, “until Clive Davis got fired and I was out in the cold; no deal.” In order to survive this, he started his own record company, Starkay Records, and had a minor hit with “Find Me a Lover.”

Going all out to be a major player, he invested heavily in his nightclub act and had been working briefly in the Catskills when suddenly all the work up there died. “It caught me by surprise.”

Subsequently, he managed to get a job at Gil Hodges’ Grand Slam Lounge in Brooklyn. Through his vision — and, again, chutzpah — he convinced the management to convert the room into a nightclub. “I got to do my show and I booked the talent in there. It was like my home for seven years while I continued to study acting, voice, piano — and composition with Hall Overton.”

Similarly, Bob transformed his next gig, pianist/singer at the New York Hilton. Ultimately, he grew the job into music director of the now-defunct Sybils nightclub.

As these cycles began to wane, Bob focused for a time on acting and club dates. He had his own club date office for years, and though successful, “I just didn’t like the business itself. There were several things that I hated to do — ‘Mala Femina’ and ‘My Way;’ you know, the kinds of songs that demand applause. I always wanted to do more artsy things.” So, although from the outside a good business choice, he again offers an example where he chose to honor his internal cues.

Much came to Bob through networking. He had long been a member of the Friars Club when a prominent producer/director overheard him speaking about composing music using the budding technology of the time — the late 80’s. He approached Bob and asked him if he could compose the music for a TV show. “I said, ‘Sure!’ I had never done it, but, you see, I’ve never said no.”

From that gig, Bob began learning the craft of TV and film composing. That led to more TV shows, acting and composing, and to scoring jingles. “When I was on the set, I always found a way to talk to the producers. I’d tell them, ‘by the way, I composed this or that.’ Gave them a sales pitch.” Soon, he was able to form his own jingle company.

Bob points out that there were no clear divisions. “Everything was working in concert. I’m acting, doing voiceovers, composing, studying [both] film at N.Y.U. and jazz piano with Don Friedman.”

As composition became more and more his focus, Friedman suggested that he study at Lehman College, with John Corigliano. (That’s where I enter the story and experience Gerardi’s magic and generosity first hand.)

Bob dived into this new profession — being a student — with all the vigor and spirit of his past endeavors. “Going back to school, I fell in love with it; and I really got involved with being a student and becoming a music teacher. Now I teach high school…and I love it.” Bob teaches chorus, orchestra and music appreciation at Queens High School for the Sciences at York College. He also teaches film music courses at N.Y.U.

Several themes emerged from that sit-down with my old classmate: reinvention, continual study, taking chances, affiliation, being multifaceted. “Luck has a lot to do with it. Being in the right place, being personable; aggressive may be the wrong word, but there is an aggression about knowing that you can do something. That rubs off on people. They say, ‘I believe in this guy.’”

Still, I had one last question: “Is teaching your final reinvention?”

“Oh no!” he answered immediately. “After I retire from teaching, I will continue my acting career, do some plays and films. I’ll play the old guy.”

Bob Gerardi: a life in music and art — and it looks as if it were all a brilliant plan.