Stan Wiest recalls the day he arrived -- 90 minutes early -- to record his first CD in Manhattan at Euphoria Productions, where autographed photos of Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and other megastars line the walls.
At age 69, and despite tons of experience playing piano professionally, Wiest was nervous and in awe of his surroundings, amazed that the dream of a lifetime was about to come true. Shortly before the session began, the piano tuner rushed in, late because he had just come from a job at singer Tony Bennett's apartment. While getting the piano ready for Wiest, the tuner said it was the same one jazzman Chick Corea had used for an album.
"Can you imagine? This was all very intimidating," says Wiest, of Fort Salonga.
It was an intense eight hours of recording and re-recording (each song had to be played through with no mistakes). But on that day, earlier this year, Wiest's CD, "Music to Drive By," a collection of 24 standards -- including one of his favorites, "All the Things You Are" -- from the Great American Songbook, was born.
Completing the recordings in eight hours was "a feat," says Euphoria owner David Sokol, who was impressed by Wiest's performance. "The man knows every tune, he knows music history," Sokol says. "He's a serious musician and 'serious musician' is the highest compliment I can pay . . . I've heard the greatest musicians in the world, and Stan is excellent."
Dick Robinson, host of WHLI/1100 AM's "American Standards by the Sea," is also impressed by Wiest's piano stylings. "His album is a nice reflection of the American Songbook," he says. "I love that a song like 'Night and Day' is just piano. No trio, no big band, no singer. Stan does a wonderful job."
A LONG, COLORFUL CAREER
For Wiest, who has been playing for pay since he was 17, it was a dream more than half a century in the making. Since high school, he's been carving a career that's taken him from Jersey City dives to luxury New York City hotels, country clubs and high-end weddings.
On Thursday, he's scheduled to headline at Book Revue in Huntington (see box), where he'll talk about songs on the CD, play them on a sound system, and share stories from his colorful career -- including how he snagged a nearly priceless piano once owned by pianist-bandleader Eddy Duchin for the impossibly low sum of $450.
Though Wiest had long hoped to record an album, the opportunity never surfaced until about a year ago. Wiest had played at the Piping Rock Country Club in Locust Valley on Thursday nights for about 10 years (he now plays there only for special engagements). A club member who was a fan asked him to perform for his wife's birthday party and gave him a list of favorite songs. "For some, there were no piano versions; some I was not familiar with," Wiest says. So he downloaded the orchestrations, wrote original piano arrangements, memorized them, then played them at the party. By the end of the night, a crowd gathered around the piano, singing along.
The event had a great ripple effect. A week later, the client, whom Wiest refers to as his "guardian angel," called to say, "I want to give you as a Christmas present to my family and friends in Europe." He told him to make an album of the songs from his wife's party. Wiest checked out the cost for studio and recording time, manufacturing and royalty fees. When Wiest gave his client the grand total, the response was, "Just do it."
Wiest's benefactor, who spoke only if his name wasn't revealed, explains, "I like this guy so damn much and he needed a break, and he sure has come through. There are not many places left where you can hear really pretty music. Especially when you're driving along in the car."
The backer wouldn't say how much he spent on the album, and Wiest, respecting his client's request, declined to comment on the cost.
AN INAUSPICIOUS START
Wiest was no Mozart when he first started taking piano lessons at age 6. "There are people you hear about who are child prodigies. That was not me," he says. "I actually hated the piano more than you can imagine."
His first teacher, a nun at St. Ambrose School in Brooklyn, would whack his knuckles with a wooden ruler if he didn't curve his fingers properly. "I had constant red fingers," he says.
His second piano teacher fell asleep during lessons, and after about a year, Wiest's contempt for piano reached a crescendo when he took a nail and carved 'I hate piano' into the side of the one his family owned. "My father had a strap that he used on my rear end, so that for a number of days, I practiced standing up because I could not sit down," he says.
Wiest's parents tried creative punishment when he wouldn't do his lessons. "If you didn't practice on Monday, you had lima beans for dinner. Tuesday you had spinach, Wednesday you had cauliflower, Thursday you had broccoli," Wiest remembers. "And on Friday, I had a plate of what I didn't eat during the week."
It was Wiest's third teacher who finally ignited his passion for playing. "She was blond and about 6-foot-2, and I was this 12-year-old skinny kid, and I fell in love," Wiest says. "I took my first lesson and she said, 'I want you to go home and practice.' I said, 'How much?' She said, 'As much as you can.' I went home and practiced six hours a day."
If practice didn't make him perfect, it at least made him popular in high school. "People wanted me to play in their musical, in the chorus or in their band," he says. "I was a very shy, inhibited kid who never had this kind of attention."
His skill on the ivories earned him a full music scholarship to Hofstra University, although it took him four-and-a-half years to graduate. "At nights, I'd be playing in bars and clubs, so a lot of times I would sleep between classes in my car," he explains.
They weren't high-paying gigs, and by the time he graduated, he only had about $450 in the bank, but it was enough to make the most important purchase of his life. How he ended up with Duchin's 1910 Steinway Model B grand piano is one of many enchanted moments in his life, he says.
Making a snap decision as a newlywed to spend everything on the piano was made easier by his bride, Diane, who encouraged the purchase. The couple, who have been married for 46 years, met when they were teaching at Huntington High School. "I have the most wonderful wife in the world," says Wiest, who asked her to marry him on their first date. "She has never been afraid to say, 'Let's try it.' We have gone through tremendously bad times, and she has stuck with me through every single thing."
Like many musicians, Wiest left behind the beloved classical music he studied in college to get work. Early on, he played his share of dives and remembers one agent who booked him at The Blue Piano, a "midtown club." The agent failed to mention it was in midtown Jersey City; the night Wiest opened, there was a Black Panther riot.
Things began to improve in the early '70s, when he landed a job as music director and performer in a short-lived Off-Broadway show, "Stag Movie." Between club gigs, he took acting lessons and supplemented his income with roles on the TV soap opera "Another World -- Somerset" and also appeared in "Ginger," a forgotten crime flick.
Wiest got better bookings when he became his own agent, using the name Steve Charles, and was the pianist at Manhattan's Carlyle House, owned by real estate mogul Harry Helmsley. Every night for about six months, Wiest says, the maitre d' would hand him a list of 15 or so song requests from the boss. At Christmas, Helmsley expressed his gratitude and handed Wiest a $1 bill. "I was astounded," Wiest recalls. "He said, 'I'm a little short on cash today.' "
The next day, Helmsley's advertising manager gave Wiest an envelope. "I thought, this is it, my mortgage is going to be paid," he says. "I open it up and there are two passes to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. And then he said to me, 'but Stan, they expire in two weeks.' " They went unused.
In the early '80s, at the urging of his wife, Wiest started his own business, A. Stan Wiest Music (stanwiest.com). Since then, he has performed at galas for celebrities including Barbara Walters and talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael. He also handles bookings for his orchestra and is an agent for other musical acts.
Lately, his priority has been marketing the CD, and he and his backer are already thinking about a sequel. "I just hope that enough people around the country will like it and talk about it," Wiest says. "I would love for this to just explode."
MEET THE PIANIST
WHAT Hear selections from Stan Wiest's CD, "Music to Drive By." Wiest will talk about songs on the album and share anecdotes about his career.
WHEN | WHERE Thursday at 7 p.m., Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington.
INFO Free; CD for sale at $18.95, 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com