Skip to comments.Memoirs of a W.H. Piano Man
Posted on 07/12/2010 7:12:00 PM PDT by Daffynition
Former White House pianist Bob Smith provided entertainment to presidents, their spouses and guests for more than 30 years. As such, he has plenty of stories to tell like the one from his White House debut, with the Army Band Chorus, at Tricia Nixons 1971 St. Patricks Day engagement party. My Three Sons star Fred MacMurray arrived at the event seemingly inebriated and took up the saxophone.
He was just horrible. ... The most awful thing you heard in your life, Smith recalled. President Richard Nixon asked Smith to get rid of him, and Smith, with help from the Secret Service, complied.
POLITICO heard this tale and more when we caught up with the pianist on a recent evening before his regular gig at the Morrison House Hotel in Old Town Alexandria. (Since retiring in 2000, he plays on Tuesdays and Saturdays, when he travels in from his home in Bowling Green, Va.) Before tucking in to play a mix of classics and jazz, Smith recalled some memorable moments from his relationships with a few White House occupants, from Nixon to Clinton.
After the engagement party, from the time they made Smith the official White House pianist, he was close with the Nixons. First lady Pat Nixon, Smith said, used to bypass protocol and call him directly on his home phone to ask him personally to play various eventsfrom background music at cocktail parties and receptions, to sitting in as accompanist to a hired musical act.
He would also join the Nixons on their yacht, the Sequoia. Smith would watch as Nixon would line up empty $300 bottles of wine, then take out "a funnel and a jug of Carlo Rossi and fill them up with wine to serve to the guests, Smith said, laughing. He said he saw Nixon do this about 20 times. Nixon would wink at Smith as he watched guests ooh and ahh over the cheap stuff, thinking it was high grade.
Nixon loved doing that, Smith laughed.
Later, he got along great with the Clintons. He and the president bonded over their shared love of playing music. Smith recalled several duets he played with Clinton on sax, an instrument that was always in reaching distance of the president.
He was in with the Gores, too.
So while Im doing saxophone things with [Clinton] at the White House, Id go over to the vice presidents house, [where] Tipper Gore had her drum set set-up outside in the living room next to the grand piano. Shed come over and say, Can I sit in?, Smith recalled. Tipper Gore was a very good player, he said.
Over the years, Smith also had numerous interactions with celebrity White House visitors, including Audrey Hepburn and Lena Horne, who sang along while he played. Cary Grant once skipped out of a White House dinner to sit outside the dining room at the piano with Smith. At the actors request, Smith said, the two played Cole Porter songs for over an hour.
Unlike Grant and Mrs. Nixon, Smith said none of the six presidents he played for requested specific songs, and left him to play music of his own choosing. Then-Vice President Walter Mondale, however, once lent Smith his recording of Bette Midlers Yellow Beach Umbrella so that he could learn how to play it.
Smith decided to retire when the Clintons moved out of the White House because, after playing for Bush 41 and spending time with the Bush family, he preferred leave before Bush 43 moved in.
President George H.W. Bush was very cool, Smith said. But there were too many times where I saw [his son, President George W. Bush,] over that time where he was less than statesmanlike, he laughed.
Nixon, actually, was a fine piano player:
And snappy shoes!