By Dave Hoekstra Of The Chicago Sun-Times
There are a thousand things to do when visiting New York, but you must stop at Nino’s Tuscany on West 58th Street. A lovely piano player named Irving Fields — fields these dreams between 7 and 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
Fields, 97, is the oldest piano player in New York.
“I’m the oldest piano player anywhere,” he crowed during a recent set break.
Fields plays and sings the standards — “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)” — and if you give him a nice tip, he’ll segue into “Miami Beach Rhumba,” a hit for legendary Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat.
Nino’s is a nice New York steakhouse and visitors are reminded of that by slabs of steaks that are in the front window near Fields’ piano. Fields performs in front of a framed painting of a cow.
I play better now than ever before,” Fields said. “I play with more feeling. I do things I couldn’t do years ago. I take chances. I play more classical music, and my fingers are like lightning. I have arthritis and carpal tunnel in these two fingers,” he said as he held up his left hand. “It’s difficult to button a shirt, but they work when I play the piano. Music keeps me young. If I play one note I get five years younger. If I play two notes I get 10 years younger. If I play a whole concerto, I’m not even born — like Benjamin Button (the F. Scott Fitzgerald character who ages in reverse).”
Fields has fans who range from Regis Philbin to Nino’s neighbor Donald Trump, who has said, “Irving has said that work is a blessing, especially when you like your work.”
From 1988-91 Fields played piano in the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, then owned by Trump. Trump was something of a Fields groupie. Fields, in turn wrote songs for Ivana Trump. After the Trumps divorced, Trump sold the hotel in 1995. “When it changed management all the music went out,” Fields said. “I was available.”
Fields is sharp as a tack, or at least sharper than Clint Eastwood at the RNC. He said he knows thousands of songs and has recorded more than 80 albums.
“I started playing when I was 8 years old and I didn’t like it because I had to play boring scales,” he said before voicing up and down the boring scales. “I wanted to play a melody. So I wrote a little song and it gave me a sense of responsibility. I took part in something.”
Fields was born in New York City. His father, Max, was a carpenter who moved the family to Coney Island when Fields was young.
“The first money I made was selling confetti and streamers during Mardi Gras on Surf Avenue in Coney Island,” Fields said. “I made about 70 cents a day which was a lot of money.”
His father also sang in cantors choirs. “I had a good voice too,” Fields said. “But my voice changed. I became a laryngitis baritone.” (In 1930, Fields won first place on “The Fred Allen Amateur Hour” radio program, which included $50 and a week’s gig at the Roxy Theatre; call it the “American Idol” of its day.)
Fields lives in New York City’s Central Park neighborhood with Ruth, his bride of 30 years. In December 2004, they went to Nino’s for a drink when the steakhouse had just opened. Fields was 89; he was hired for the piano bar.
“It’s been a wonderful stand,” said Fields, who wore a black-and-white tie accented with cleft notes. “I have people come from all over the world and the hotels recommend this [place] because there’s not too many piano bars left in New York City. And I play classical, opera, jazz, pop. I can play nine out of 10 requests. I don’t understand why there aren’t more piano bars across the country. It’s so intimate.”
In 1959, Fields reached Abba proportions by selling more than 2 million copies of “Bagels & Bongos,” which he recorded with his trio for Decca Records. Naturally, in 1960 he recorded the follow-up, “More Bagles & Bongos,” and later the Latin-tinged “Bikinis & Bongos.” Fields set “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoren” to a mambo beat.
The bongo repertoire has engaged a new audience of hipsters who come to Nino’s to pay homage to Fields.
“ ‘Bagels and Bongos’ was born at the Copley Hotel in Boston,” he said. “Someone asked me to play a Jewish melody. Someone next to them asked for dance music. So I combined them. After I started doing that someone asked for a rhumba. So I played Jewish dance music in a rhumba tempo. Everybody said, ‘What is that?’ So I recorded 15 Jewish songs in different Latin rhythms; rhumba, cha-cha, merengue, samba.”
And the beat goes on in the piano bars that are tucked into New York’s majestic neighborhoods.