Popular songs from another era — Stan Wiest has them. Stories about show business, he has them too.
The veteran pianist spends most of his time in Fort Salonga, a Suffolk County hamlet on the north shore of Long Island. He runs A. Stan Wiest Music, which schedules musicians for wedding receptions and corporate events.
Wiest leads his own band for wedding celebrations. When he’s out of his tuxedo, he likes spending time at his second home in Caroga Lake in Fulton County. The talkative musician made conversation about his first solo piano recording, “Music to Drive By,” what it’s like to play at weddings and life in Caroga Lake.
Q: How did the new CD happen?
A: I am 69 years old, I have been performing and earning my living at this since I was 17 years old. I’ve traveled around the country and I have always wanted to do a solo piano recording. It was totally unexpected. A gentleman at Piping Rock Country Club wanted me to play at his wife’s birthday party and he said later, “I want to give you as a Christmas present. Record an album . . . just do it.”
Q: What are people going to hear on the album?
A: They’re not going to hear rap, they’re not going to hear anything Top 40 on the radio. They’re going to hear very elegant music from the Great American Song Book era, beautiful Broadway shows, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and there will be songs in there they probably have not heard in many, many years.
Q: Do you think it’s too bad these old songs don’t get a lot of play these days?
A: You have a whole different trend with the current generation where they’ve grown up in the club scene, grown up with the DJ kind of performances. So a lot of them are totally unfamiliar with this kind of music.
When I play weddings and if I’m on the piano for the cocktail hour, I’ll perform this kind of music and it will be a shock to them in a very pleasant way. And when I meet with a client at my office, I’ll bring them to the piano and I’ll play these types of selections and the brides are shocked because they’ve never heard anything like this . . . but they immediately realize it’s very elegant and they want that for their wedding cocktail hour. For the couples that are older that are maybe in second marriages or anniversary celebrations, that’s the music they want for the receptions.
Q: We’ve heard there’s a story behind your 1910 Steinway piano. Can you share it?
A: I think I was about 23 years old, just married a year and like all newlyweds, I had absolutely no money in the world. My entire bank account was like $450. My piano tuner called me up and said, “Stan, on Wednesday there’s an estate on Great Neck in Long Island that’s running an auction and one of the items is Eddy Duchin’s personal piano . . . you’re never going to be able to afford this, but I’m giving you the address. Tomorrow morning, first thing in the morning, ring the bell and see if you can worm your way into the house just to play the piano for five minutes.”
I rang the bell and they let me in . . . I played the piano from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. I said, “I cannot thank you enough, this has been the greatest day of my life. Thank you for being so kind.”
They said, “Would you like to take part in the auction on Wednesday?” And I said I could not even come anywhere near the opening bid. They asked me, “How much money do you have?” I said, “I have all of $450, and they walked out of the room, and I thought at that point that I insulted the people and I figured maybe I should just leave, close the door and leave because I embarrassed them. Ten minutes later they came back in the room and said, “Would you bring us $450 cash tomorrow and a moving truck, and the piano is yours.”
I said, “I can’t accept this, this is a priceless instrument.” And they repeated it . . . the next day, first thing, I came up with a moving truck, $450 and I now own Eddie Duchin’s piano. Money was no object with these people. I guess by playing it morning, afternoon and night, they realized they really wanted somebody who would greatly appreciate the piano. And I do.
Q: Ever think you’d like this piano to go to someone as passionate about music as you are some day?
A: I’ve never even considered that. Because this has absolutely been the love of my life. Every musician who comes to my place and plays it, they say, “Gee, Stan, if you’re ever thinking of selling this . . .” and I say, “This conversation has just ended.”
Q: How did your Caroga Lake connection start?
A: This is going on 13 years. We would vacation every year in Vermont, and the last time we did the trip, it was about an 81⁄2-hour, 9-hour trip. It was just kind of tiring by the time we got back. We said maybe we should look for a place to rent, something just a little bit closer. So my wife, Diane, started looking through the papers and she found an ad about this place in Caroga Lake . . . it was an old farmhouse built in the 1800s that had been renovated on about five acres of land, very private. We went up there, looked at the house . . . we were inside and within two minutes, she just gave me this look, and I could just tell by the look she wanted it. This was the first house we looked at, we were not intending to buy, we were strictly looking to rent. We so fell in love with Caroga Lake, I made him an offer on the spot, four days later he called me back and accepted the offer.
Q: What do you like most about Caroga Lake?
A: The serenity. The people are incredibly nice. The New York metropolitan area is very frantic, everything is on a rushed schedule, everybody is in a hurry to get someplace. Unfortunately, in the downstate metropolitan area, there’s a lot of rudeness on the part of people. In Caroga Lake, it’s completely the opposite. Everybody is incredibly friendly, nice, no rush.
Q: Can you give us a show biz story?
A: I used to record for Roulette Records, and the lawyer for Roulette Records was sponsoring a party for Sammy Davis Jr. at his penthouse when Sammy opened in “Golden Boy” on Broadway. And he wanted me to lead a trio at the party. He said to me, “Stan, Sammy has a friend who is a hack piano player and he likes to sit in and do duets, so sometime during the party, let this gentleman just join you, just put up with him.”
About an hour into it, the lawyer came up and said, “Stan, Sammy’s friend is here, just please put up with him.” The gentleman sits down next to me and I look to my right and it’s Victor Borge, one of the world’s greatest pianists . . . for the next hour, we did duets at the piano.
Q: What’s the most fun about doing a wedding show?
A: I think when you can do a function where you’ve got everyone dancing and at the end of the function the bride can just throw her arms around you and say, “Thank you for making this the most wonderful day of my life.” I think that’s just an incredible joy.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at email@example.com.