The 138th Kentucky Derby takes place this month. It’s always on the first Saturday in May, which reminds me of something that took place about 10 years ago.
It was a Friday, late in the afternoon, the day before the Derby, and I got a phone call from one of the club date offices here in NYC that I was working with at the time. It went out of business a few years ago, but for about 40 years it was one of the leading agencies in town, mostly high-end work.
Z., the woman who was office manager, called and was a bit on edge. She told me that one of their most important clients decided to have a party at the last moment; it would be about 20 people in an Italian restaurant called La Primavera, a well known place on the Upper East Side. The reason she was on edge, she told me, was that this client always used one of their pianist/singers, and all their regulars were already booked. I had been their regular guitarist since the early 1980’s so although I don’t sing, I got the call.
She gave me the details, and when she got off the phone she said, “Good luck.” I thought that was odd; I’d known her almost 20 years and she’d never said something like that before.
My start time was 6 p.m. and I showed up at La Primavera at 5:30. I’d played there before so I went straight downstairs to the private dining room.
As I walked into the room I heard a loud voice to my left. It was the host, a tall man bearing a striking resemblance to Tony Soprano. He was talking to two of his guests who had arrived early, and what I heard him say in a loud, laughing voice was, “Yeah, Mikey is now a made man. Isn’t that great!” If you know what a “made man” is, you can imagine how I had the feeling that I’d just overhead something I shouldn’t have.
But Tony looked over my way, smiled, and said, “C’mon in, guitar player!” (which he pronounced “guitah playah”). Seemed like a nice, affable guy.
A few minutes before start time, the waiter wheeled in a big screen TV. It was, after all, Kentucky Derby day, and we all watched the race. And what a two minutes that was. The intensity of shouting and cheering in the room was incredible, and for good reason. As I found out later, the “family” owned part of three horses in the race.
Once the race was over, the question on my mind was, what do I play for the mob? Thinking on that, I realized that Tony was not only a big affable guy, he seemed to have a good sense of humor. Therefore, to me, the perfect opening piece was already right there in my playbook, a perfect guitar piece, the theme from the movie “The Godfather” (not the theme from “The Sopranos,” which I didn’t know anyway). Perfect!
I got the nod from the maitre ‘d to start and there I was, playing this music for the mob, reading the part and smiling, and having a great time. Then, about halfway through the piece, I felt a presence in front of me, and I looked up. Standing there right in front of me, smoking a really big cigar, was a very large individual, about 6’5″ and maybe 275 pounds, and he did not look pleased.
In a really slow, heavy voice he said, “Play somethin’ else. Play some hip hop.” I took that to mean, stop playing “The Godfather,” now.
No problem. I can cadence out of a piece in one measure and that’s what I did. Big Boy walked away. Not knowing any hip-hop, the big question was now, “What do I play?”
When in doubt, play Carcassi Study #3 in A major. That is innocuous enough for any setting and to buy some time, but I realized these people were used to singer/pianists, and looking up I saw I was getting some not-so-O.K. looks from the crowd.
And then it dawned on me; if you are going to play for the mob, play…Sinatra!
And yes, ladies and gentleman, with thoughts of the card game scene in “Goodfellas” when Joe Pesci’s character shoots to death the young bartender, I sat there and played for my life.
One after another: “The Lady is A Tramp,” “Witchcraft,” “Strangers in the Night,” “My Way,” and “New York, New York.”
Then I played, “That’s Life.” That tune is tremendous fun to play on solo guitar, especially the triplets in the bridge. But what happened when I played it is a picture that I’ll never forget. The whole crew got up and started dancing, wildly. And singing, at the top of their lungs.
What I won’t forget was what the scene reminded me of. It reminded me of wolves baying at the moon.
All went well. Then Tony asked me to play a song I didn’t know: “Lemon Tree.” He later requested it twice more and seemed annoyed when I didn’t play it. Finally, dessert was served. I noticed that the room had become very quiet.
Still playing the guitar, I looked up and realized that Tony was staring at me. In a quiet but kind of deadly voice he said. “Hey banjo player, c’mere.” Sitting next to him on his left, the Hip Hop guy smirked.
The room suddenly became ghostly quiet.
All I could think of was Joe Pesci shooting that guy. And in a moment like that what you are then thinking is, how do I save my life? So here’s what I did: nothing. Nothing except put my head back down and keep playing the guitar. And the moment passed, and everyone started talking again.
And then at last, finally, it was 10 p.m., the end of the gig. Normally, when you play a private gig like that in that kind of setting, you pack up and before leaving go over to the host and say good night. You will often get a tip that can be hundreds of dollars.
No way. I wanted to keep on living! I packed up, and did the Splitsville thing right out the side door. The waiters understood. They were empathetic, they quietly smiled, and they nodded good night.
On Monday morning I called into the office and Z. got on the phone. I started to tell her it went fine, no overtime, but she interrupted and said, “Andrew, I was really worried about you!” I asked why and she told me to hold on, she’d put N., the agent who handled that account, on the phone. N., about 35, was a big tough-looking but gregarious guy who booked me a lot, especially at the Rainbow Room and Windows On The World.
And what he told me was this. That family was not only a mob family, it was one of the most dangerous of all of them. When the regular mob guys wanted a mobster to be whacked, these were the guys that usually got the call.
So, I told N. that it was kind of fun in a scary way, and that fortunately I figured out early on what to play for the mob…Sinatra!
He laughed and said, “It’s a good thing you did or they might have killed ya!”
I laughed and said, “You’re joking, right?”
And he said, “No.”
P.S. Enjoy the Kentucky Derby, y’all…(as we say in New York).
Guitarist Andrew Schulman first joined Local 802 in 1975. He has played steady engagements at the Plaza, the Mark and the InterContinental. His Web site is www.AbacaProductions.com