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.
It's a good thing that he didn't hang around for Zero. That would have been a real eye opener for him!
“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. “
For some reason this pleases me. Maybe I should dislike Nixon for it, but instead I am amused.
I love it!
Reminds me of a friend who shared a big apartment with two other guys in college. They had a problem with flies. One day, when only he and one of his housemates were home he put a posterboard on the refrigerator with all three of their names on it, and boxes to check off how many flies each had nailed each day. He gave the two of them credit for multiple flies, and when the third guy came home he told him they had started a contest and that he was way behind. The third guy was really upset that they started without him, and proceeded to swat flies all day, while my friend sat back and watched.
So the retirement of the WH pianist was ....(drumroll).... Bush’s fault (grin).
Love the Nixon story.
President Harry Truman tickling the ivories at the White House
The White House Pianist entertains us in the Cross Hall
Presidential Pianos Courtesy of the Pierce Piano Atlas
1st President - George Washington - Longman & Broderip Harpsichord; Schoen & Vinsen Pianoforte
2nd President - John Adams - Currier & Co.
3rd President - Thomas Jefferson - Astor Pianoforte
4th President - James Madison - Square Grand (name destroyed by fire)
5th President - James Monroe - Astor Piano
6th President - John Quincy Adams - Currier & Co.
7th President - Andrew Jackson - T. Gilbert & Co. Square Piano
8th President - Martin Van Buren - Hallet & Cumston Square Piano
9th President - William Henry Harrison - Haines Brothers
10th President - John Tyler - Thomas Tomkinson Upright Piano
11th President - James Knox Polk - Astor & Harwood Square Piano
12th President - Zachary Taylor - name unknown
13th President - Millard Fillmore - name unknown
14th President - Franklin Pierce - Chickering Square Piano
15th President - James Buchanan - Chickering Grand Piano
16th President - Abraham Lincoln - Chickering Square Piano & Chickering Upright
17th President - Andrew Johnson - Steinway & Sons Square Piano
18th President - Ulysses S. Grant - Melodeon
19th President - Rutherford B. Hayes - Bradbury Upright & Harpsichord (name destroyed by fire)
20th President - James A. Garfield - Hallet & Davis Upright
21st President - Chester A. Arthur - Piano cannot be located.
22nd President - Grover Cleavland - Combination Piano & Harpsichord (name destroyed by fire)
23rd President - Benjamin Harrison - J. & C. Fischer Upright Piano, Haines Brothers Square
24th President - Grover Cleveland - (same as above)
25th President - William McKinley - A. H. Gale Co. Square Piano
26th President - Theodore Roosevelt - Chickering Upright, Steinway Grand Piano
27th President - William Howard Taft - Baldwin Grand Piano
28th President - Woodrow Wilson - Ernst Rosenkranst Square Piano, Knabe Grand
29th President - Warren G. Harding - A. B. Chase Electric Player Piano
30th President - Calvin Coolidge - Sohmer Upright Piano
31st President - Herbert Hoover - Knabe Grand & A. B. Chase Grand
32nd President - Franklin D. Roosevelt - Hardman Grand
33rd President - Harry S. Truman - Steinway Grand, Baldwin Grand & Steinway Upright
34th President - Dwight D. Eisenhower - Hallet & Cumston Upright
35th President - John F. Kennedy - Ivers & Pond Grand Piano
36th President - Lyndon B. Johnson - Style L. Steinway, Knabe Console
37th President - Richard M. Nixon - Geo. P. Bent Upright, Baldwin Vertical
38th President - Gerald Ford - No personal piano
39th President - James (Jimmy) Carter - Ludden & Bates
40th President - Ronald Reagan - Steinway Grand
41st President - George Bush - Did not own personal piano.
42nd President - William (Bill) Clinton - Baldwin Grand in the Governor’s Mansion.
43rd President - George W. Bush - No personal piano. Steinway Grand in the White House residence.
I have the same piano as Herbert Hoover, a Knabe grand. A fine instrument.
The perfect singer’s piano. Beautiful mellow tone.
PS I had a dog that looked like that once, only black and white!
I’m not sure. ;(