The Legendary Noel Coward
By Stanley Paul
My job at Gatsby’s was going great, my repertoire was growing, and I even got mentioned in The New Yorker only six months into my professional career!
Then, just a few weeks before Christmas, the icing was put on the cake when Henry Hermann asked me, “Tell me, son, how’d you like to have your own trio?”
My voice couldn’t help but betray my excitement, “Are you serious?”
“There’s a catch though,” he explained. “You’ll have to leave here for a three-month engagement in Jamaica.”
The position I had at Gatsby’s was one that any piano player would have given his eye-teeth for, and I was scared to leave it. But I really wanted to be more than a piano player in a restaurant (even if that restaurant was pretty high class). This was an opportunity to have my own group… “a trio just like Bobby Short!”
So, I was booked at the Sunset Lodge in Montego Bay for an engagement that started on New Year’s Eve and ran until Spring… including room, board, and a few hundred bucks a week (not to mention round-trip airfare). I’d never even been on an airplane before (much less out of the country), and I reveled in it.
The Terrace at Sunset Lodge
Upon arriving in Jamaica I hired two local musicians – a bass player and a drummer – who were so excited to be playing with an American musician that they always showed up for work two hours early! (What they didn’t realize was that I knew less about what I was doing than they did.) Everything was exotic, even the mostly older, British clientele who seemed straight out of High Society magazine. If this wasn’t chic, nothing was!
John F. Kennedy at Sunset Lodge… Another Era!
One evening, Noel Coward himself walked in… and I couldn’t believe it. The Noel Coward! As I came to find out, he had a house on the island and often stopped in for dinner. “What an incredible coincidence!” I thought to myself, having only just learned a song that he’d written in the 1920s called A Room With A View. So, I decided to impress him by playing it… but when I got to the middle section, my mind went completely blank! I stumbled around a little, then changed to something else, hoping no one had noticed. (I was too embarrassed to even look up… I think even my elbows were sweating!)
Instead of mingling with the guests as I usually did when my break finally came, I slipped out the back. And there, I stood around in the kitchen, pacing back and forth, back and forth, calling myself every derogatory name I could think of, and hoping beyond hope that he’d be gone by the time I came back to the piano. And to my great relief, he was.
I never felt so stupid in my life, and I practiced that song so much over the next few days that I could play it in my sleep. A few weeks later he returned with a group of friends for dinner, and I knew it was my time for redemption. And so, I launched into the song again, this time playing through it seamlessly. Later, as I walked by his table, I heard a distinctive, sophisticated voice call out to me.
My blood froze. I stopped, turned, and faced him, completely motionless. Then, raising his glass, he said, “Young man, I see you’ve been practicing.”
I almost died! It was, however, another lesson in professional musicianship. I’d go out of my way from that point forward to research songs with some significance to visiting personalities and play a special tune for them whenever the opportunity presented itself (though only once I’d learned them, of course)!
I stayed in Jamaica until April, and then came back to New York having missed the winter. I wanted to put together another trio, but Mr. Hermann explained that there were no booking available for me in the city… with or without a trio. “I do have a part-time gig, though, if you want it. Three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, all the way to the end of the summer! Interested?’
So it was that I came to play at a popular restaurant called Emily Shaw’s in Pound Ridge, New York (fairly close to the city… only an hour or so away). I could commute by train or, sometimes, if it was too late, sleep overnight in a room at the top of the restaurant. “Better than selling suits…” I kept telling myself.
I was there for just a few weekends when a couple I’d seen a few times finally introduced themselves. (They were good customers, at least in my opinion, as they’d stick around for hours listening to me.) The husband called me over to their table one night, identified himself as Dr. William Nuland, and said, “You got a lotta talent there, son. You’re going to be a big hit someday! Really big! You could use the advice of somebody like me… somebody with connections. Believe me!”
“Call me Stanley,” I said, shaking both of their hands (and wondering just how much they’d had to drink). I was flattered, but I didn’t really take him seriously… after a few drinks, a lot of people thought they were booking agents!
The following week however, they returned to hear me again, and Dr. Nuland said, “I’d like to manage you someday Stanley… think you might be interested?”
“Sure, someday. That’d be great!” I responded, but I was really just trying to be polite. I was barely making a living as it was, let alone able to afford the money to hire a manager!
“I know the perfect agent for you too,” Dr. Nuland continued. “Name’s Joe Glaser. Ever hear of him?”
“Joe Glaser!” I thought. Of course I’d heard of him! He headed up one of the biggest talent agencies in the United States. (That a doctor from the suburbs knew someone like him wasn’t likely.) And even if he did, Joe Glaser handled only major stars. That certainly wasn’t me.
All summer long, the Nulands continued to bring different people to hear me. When I’d look their way from the piano, they’d be nodding and smiling, raising a glass to offer a toast. I guessed they were having a pretty good time.
The summer gig at Emily Shaw’s came to an end in the fall of 1961, and Henry Hermann was able to get me a full-time job. This time, it was at a new restaurant called the Ponsette Room in the Wellington Hotel on Seventh Avenue and 55th Street. They didn’t need a trio – it was just myself and a bass player named Lou Franco – but at least I was back in the city.
Then six months later in March of 1962 my career moved to an entirely new plane. While I was still working at the Ponsette Room, Dr. Nuland called and told me he actually had set up an appointment with Joe Glaser himself! I couldn’t believe it! All this time I thought he was only a doctor with a whole lot more show business connections in his mind than in reality. But a few days later, we met in the waiting room of Associated Booking Corporation office, and were then ushered in to meet the famous Joe Glaser in his big office overlooking the city’s skyline. He greeted us with loudest voice this side of a cruise boat’s horn!
“I hear you play the piano pretty good!” he announced, then grabbed the ringing phone. “God damn it, I told you… THEY DON’T GET LOUIS ARMSTRONG! He’s booked for Europe!” he screamed. Then he rocketed the phone into its cradle and turned to me.
“So where have you been playing? Do you play jazz? Christ, you are young, aren’t you?” the voice boomed. Then back to the phone, Oscar, “God damn it, tell ’em they’ve only got Dinah for two weeks… period. After that she’s booked in Vegas!” He shouted, hung up, then picked up as if there had been no interruption.
“Kid, I don’t know what we can do for you. Does Noel Kramer have your photographs and bio? I’m busy now. Good to meet you, kid.” And we were done. I hadn’t said a word.
We were led out of his office and I just stood there, while Dr. Nuland was chattering with other Associated Booking Corporation agents. I was completely out of it, not knowing what to think. In those days, a musical agency like Associated Booking was almost like a major Hollywood studio. They had a lot of power, and were able to swing deals and make things happen pretty quickly.
445 Park Ave. (The Office of Associated Booking Corp.)
When we left, I had no idea whether something would come of all this or not. But what an experience! Louis Armstrong! And that had to be Dinah Washington he was talking about! Definitely the big leagues. But how had Dr. Nuland been able to arrange that appointment with Joe Glaser himself? It was incredible.
Until that moment I hadn’t understood the marvelous intriguing mind of Dr. Nuland. The doctor and his wife had been bringing a variety of key people into the Wellington to hear me, never telling me they were from Associated Booking Corporation. He’d casually introduce them as though they were friends of his, just ordinary people that happened to be with him on that night. Dr. Nuland was thinking I’d freeze up if I knew who they really were, and he was probably right. First he’d brought Noel Kramer, who was one of the agents, and then Oscar Cohen, who reported directly to Joe Glaser, was introduced as another one of Dr. Nuland’s friends.
A few weeks later I was told by Associated Booking that I’d be opening at Basin Street East. It was one of the hottest nightclubs in the city, and I’d be sharing the bill with the McGuire Sisters, who were at the height of their fame. I was to be the filler act, and as guests were being seated and ordering their drinks, I’d be playing as part of a trio.
The McGuire Sisters
I’ll never forget the buzz in the room that accompanied Phyllis McGuire’s boyfriend as he frequented the club: the notorious Sam Giancana.
Phyllis and Her Notorious Boyfriend.
Filler or not, it was the biggest step my career had taken to date. Great exposure and working in such a famous place! I was on my way!