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Peter Nero: The Laughter and The Challenges

Victor L. Schermer By

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In July 2009, All About Jazz published an interview with legendary pianist and Philly Pops maestro Peter Nero. That interview jumped between his early musical development and his current 30-year tenure as founder and music director of the Philly Pops. There wasn't time then to ask him about what turned out to be the subject of the current interview, the long intervening period including his salad days as a pianist, an ongoing venture which he continues to pursue in addition to being director of the Pops.

On the occasion of this, his second All About Jazz interview, Nero seemed more in the mood to "free associate" than to give a chronology of his career, so he ranged from topic to topic like an improvising jazz musician, but always sticking to the tune—namely, his career from the 1960s to the present. As in Louis Malle's classic film, My Dinner with Andre (1981), the interview gives an intimate glimpse of Nero, going wherever his recollections take him.

It was a sheer delight to talk freely with a man of such remarkable accomplishments, who is also a warm, cordial individual with a sense of humor that he incorporates in his music. Reminiscences about Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Lynn Roberts, Marian McPartland, Billy Taylor, Bill Dana and Bob Newhart comingled with observations about his early struggles on the circuit, making the big time, and the joy of music. During the last part of the interview, Nero provided insights about his use of humor in music, a sideline which has charmed, shocked and surprised audiences from his early days to the present.

Chapter Index

  1. The Early Days Before Fame
  2. World War II Canteen Music
  3. More About Coming Up on the Circuit
  4. On the Rise
  5. More Asides
  6. Working with the Philly Pops
  7. Working the Audience: Humor and Music

The Early Days Before Fame

All About Jazz: In our previous interview, you shared your life story from your childhood and days as a music student up to where you were a contestant on a couple of TV music competitions, signed with an agent who gave you the name Peter Nero, and obtained your first record contract. In the decades following, you rose to the status of one of the most popular musicians in the world. Your rise must have seemed meteoric.

Peter Nero: However, I wasn't making any money back then when I started out.

AAJ: But didn't you have a best-selling record right at the starting gate?

PN: No. They were a success by record company standards, but in those days, they weren't that concerned about individual record sales; they were looking for at least a 20-year career for a pianist on records. They did it the slow, hard way. My first album sold only 35,000 copies. That barely covered costs because we used a 35-piece orchestra (the number 35 was just a coincidence.) Like the Hollywood film studios, the record companies nurtured the artists, brought them along, and looked towards a long future.

AAJ: They thought of you as a future investment and weren't concerned about sales at the beginning.

PN: They thought of all artists in that way. When I joined RCA Victor Records, they were looking for a long-term pianist, who turned out to be myself; a male vocalist, John Gary, who had a short but brilliant career; a female vocalist, Ann-Margaret (she broke in as a singer); a miscellaneous novelty group, the Limelighters, folk singers and comedians who played a lot of colleges; and a horn player, Al Hirt, who was down in New Orleans. And they set aside $100,000 per year for promotion money.

It's so different nowadays. If you're new, you have to walk in the door with a finished product. And if you sign with a big record company, if you don't sell a million copies, they'll drop you; and for your next record, you have to have the finished product and beg them to distribute it. So if I came up today, I wouldn't have the same advantages at all.

At that time, aspiring musicians like myself had to start out playing clubs. The first club I played in New York was the Embers, a good music room that featured instrumentalists, although Jonah Jones would sing once in a while when he wasn't playing trumpet choruses. After that I played Basin Street East, owned by the same people I think, and it was pretty much of a show setup. You'd play for 30 minutes or so and then there would be an intermission pianist, which is actually how I first broke into the business, playing intermission piano at the Hickory House at age 21.

AAJ: So you really started out the same way that hard core jazz musicians do, playing small clubs,

PN: Right. I started out playing saloons—they're called clubs but they're really saloons. Did I ever tell you about Jilly's?

AAJ: Wasn't that Sinatra's hangout?

PN: Yes, that was a great place for me to grow as a musician. At the other clubs, the pianos were crappy, and others discouraged me from playing jazz. At the Village Vanguard they had a trio playing jazz for dancing and I was playing intermission piano as people paid their bill.

AAJ: They had dancing at the Village Vanguard?

PN: Oh, yes!

AAJ: But it's a little hole in the wall!

PN: The maximum capacity said 150, but they squeezed over 200 people in there.

AAJ: Do you recall the owner, Max Gordon?

PN: Of course, and he also was a co-owner of the uptown club, The Blue Angel, and I played intermission piano there as well. Bart Howard, who wrote "Fly Me to the Moon," was their house pianist and I subbed for him. I got bored during the featured artist part of the show, usually a singer so I worked the lights to amuse myself.


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