Irving Fields: An NYC Classic

Jonathan Zeller

It's 1947. You're at a dark, smoky Greenwich Village jazz club, shuffling to the number one Billboard hit "Managua, Nicaragua."

It's the early 1960s. You swing by a Midtown record shop to pick up pioneering Jewish-Latin fusion LPs Bagels and Bongos and More Bagels and Bongos, featuring hits like "Havannah Negila."

Finally, it's 2009, and you join nearly 800,000 viewers in watching the "YouTube Dot Com Theme Song" which strikes metatextual pay dirt by explaining the website's charms.

Believe it or not, one artist has remained at center stage throughout this decades-long musical odyssey: NYC's legendary Irving Fields. The pianist and songwriter, who turned 94 on August 4, remains vivacious. He may sport the wrinkles and gray hair that come with age, but he still holds court over the piano Tuesdays through Sundays at Nino's Tuscany.

"The Food is Tops in Quality"
Fields relishes his role as an ambassador for Nino's. Dressed in a blazer and tie and chatting with the manager at a choice table before beginning his set, he's all class. Likewise Nino's—where guests are surrounded by exposed brick, hand-painted murals and, sometimes, famous company. Fields says Tony Bennett, Barbara Walters and Regis Philbin are regulars. Taking his place at the piano, the maestro completes the scene, tickling the keys with aplomb and likely soliciting requests from the tables.

He sees the audience-performer relationship as key to the Nino's experience. "Let's say someone asks, 'Could you play Chopin for me?'" he says. "I says, 'Of course,' and I add, 'How do you like Chopin? Medium, rare or well-done?' Now that's funny, because it's in a restaurant, so they're thinking of food, like a steak."

Fields knows what he's talking about when it comes to audience participation. At one of his 1950s shows, two couples made competing requests—one wanted Jewish music and the other, a rumba. "I said, 'I got an idea,'" Fields recalls. "'Let me put the Jewish music into a rumba rhythm.'" As it turned out, bagels went with bongos as well as they do with lox.

Further blending cuisine with composition, Fields has written a Nino's theme song (sample lyrics: "The food is tops in quality. / There's everything from A to Z."). And during NYC Restaurant Week, Nino's offers special prix-fixe prices on its meal-and-melody combo.

"You'll Find the Whole World for What You're Looking For"
Fields has embraced the many changes he's seen over the years. When he was young, his generation "didn't have iPods, all of these wonderful inventions. It's awesome when you think about it."

So it's fitting that Fields has bridged the gap between Tin Pan Alley sheet music and Web 2.0. A half-century after Bagels, Fields created another sensation when Canadian klezmer-hip-hop artist Josh Dolgin (aka "Socalled") suggested he write a song about YouTube. Fields didn't own a computer, but thought the website sounded interesting. In 15 minutes he penned some lyrics, and Dolgin videotaped a performance. "The rest," says the virtuoso, "is history." If the tune's nearly 800,000 views were record sales, it would have gone gold.

At first glance the production—Fields sings to the camcorder as his wife strolls to the kitchen in the background—might appear kitschy. But Fields undeniably still knows how to write a hit—old pro that he is, he understands that when it comes to music, some things never change.

Throughout his long career, melody has always been at the forefront of Fields' work—including the infectiously catchy YouTube song. Whether you're spinning wax or "push[ing] the button on the YouTube" (to borrow from his lyrics), the melody is what lingers on, says Fields. "George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, they will live on forever because they have beautiful melodies," he says, "and the melody is always a dominant force of what people will remember."

"Left, Up; Right, Down"
The YouTube song's origins prove that, with a positive attitude, even adversity can be put to excellent use. "All right," Fields says, "I had a hip replacement." (Like we said: positivity.) During rehabilitation, doctors told him to walk with his "left foot up and the right foot down." Soon, he heard a rhythm. "Left, up; right, down," he demonstrates, thumping his hands on the table at Nino's. Then it was a melody. He sings: "Left, up; right, down. / That's the way you go when you take a step. / Left, up; right, down. / Walk with confidence, walk with pep!" That tune, written in the hospital, became the basis for the YouTube song.

Doubters, if there be any, need only watch Fields perform. His fingers remain nimble, and his smile and mannerisms reflect a ceaseless need to entertain. His joy is clear in another video, where he leads a boisterous YouTube theme song sing-along with several diners—"I love it," he says at song's end, beaming.

To join the fun, take Fields's melodious advice: "Don't delay. / Reserve today / At Nino's Tuscany."