Bob Retouched

Bob Smith: Playing for the Presidents

Bob Retouched

Serving six presidents as the official White House pianist, Bob Smith played during many special gatherings. But one VIP night during the Reagan Administration stands out in his mind. Gathered around the grand piano were Audrey Hepburn and her husband, Jimmy Stewart and his wife, and Cary Grant. “I said, `Ms. Hepburn, Mr. Grant, you folks were in some movies together. Do you have a favorite song between you that you enjoy?’” Both blurted out: “Charade!” Grant told him to play the song and everyone joined in singing.

Smith’s memorable evening had just begun. The dinner bell rang and the guests began to file in for dinner, all except for Grant. He told Smith he was in a “pensive mood,” and not in the mood to socialize. He said, “You know I was in that movie Night and Day, the story of Cole Porter?” Smith said, yes, he knew that. Grant asked Smith to play all the Cole Porter he knew. Fortunately, Smith had just done a Cole Porter show and was well prepared. Grant came and sat next to Smith on the piano bench. “Every time I go into a new song, I’m getting a narration, kind of liner notes of what Cole Porter found in the song or how [Grant] related to it when he was in the movie or little tidbits of trivia,” Smith said. “And he’s loving my playing. We did this for an hour and a half while people were dining. When I got through with the medley he said, `I’ve never heard all that music played together in one sitting. That was marvelous!’”

Smith retired in 2001, leaving the White House at the end of the Clinton Administration. His music career, however, continues. Three nights a week he plays in the Grille Restaurant and Piano Bar inside the Morrison House in Old Town Alexandria. His generosity towards other musicians and towards singers is legendary. At 7 p.m. every Tuesday night, he does a workshop for singers, “amateurs who are hungry and thirsty for the knowledge.” His open mic nights at the Morrison have built up a following of both singers and fans. On a recent night, members of the Washington Opera performed alongside beginning singers.

Many fans, however, come to the Grille Room to appreciate a skilled musician do what he does best, play the Great American Songbook with passion and style. “I thank God every night that I was fortunate enough to do this,” Smith said. “Why me?”

In 1970, the U.S. was fighting a war in Vietnam. Smith joined the army and after training in Kentucky, was on the staff of the Armed Forces School of Music in Norfolk. Originally from the Bay Area in California, Smith was waiting an assignment with the Sixth Army Band in San Francisco. While in Norfolk, Smith’s job was to accompany the singers, something that he was particularly good at and enjoyed.

“There was a trombone player named Patterson who was failing his instrument, but had a beautiful voice,” he said. Smith’s commanding officer called him in and asked: “Hey, Smitty! How’d you like to see Washington before you return to the West Coast?” So Smith agreed to go to D.C. with Patterson who would audition for the Army Chorus, a prestigious singing group that entertained at the White House, the State Department, and at other high level events. The bad news is that Patterson froze, unable to sing a single note. The good news: Smith came away with a new job, accompanist for the Army Chorus.

He let his family know that he wouldn’t be returning to the West Coast and began his Washington career that would include leader of a jazz band called the Army Blues, accompanist for the Army Chorale, a group that no longer exists, and ultimately, the official pianist at the White House. Smith remained in that job serving six presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon. “All of it was very interesting,” he said, something of an understatement. “Some of it I couldn’t believe. Some of the shenanigans that went on.”

Smith prefaced his presidential stories by saying he steered clear of politics. “Everything I’m saying about the presidents and first ladies has nothing to do with politics or how they did their jobs,” he said. “It’s just how we were able to work together. So I really got along with them.”

Smith’s initiation as White House pianist truly put him to the test. “I was asked to lead an eight-piece group in conjunction with Tricia Nixon’s engagement,” he said. Because musical groups never take breaks when playing at the White House, Smith brought additional musicians so that he could rotate people in and out, providing time for bathroom breaks and rest. Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, was an accomplished concert pianist. She came and sat with Smith (something that would often happen during his White House career) and, without any rehearsal, the two played a Mozart piece that everyone loved.

It was St. Patrick’s Day and one guest in particular had begun his celebrating early. Fred McMurray, who was enjoying tremendous success with his TV program My Three Sons, also played the saxophone. He sauntered over to the band and insisted on playing. Unsteady on his feet, McMurray fell into a chair and took the tenor saxophone offered by one of the band members. Smith asked McMurray what he wanted to play, suggesting the theme song from his show. “I hate that (expletive) song,” he told Smith. They finally decided on Stardust. “I set him up with an arpeggio and he starts playing,” Smith said. “It was horrible.” Nixon was getting ready to begin the duty dance where the president spends a short time dancing with each of the ladies present. Quickly sizing up the situation, Nixon marched over to the band and hissed at Smith: “Get rid of him!” Smith said, “Mr. President, this is going to cause a scene. I don’t know how to do this. He’s an honored guest.” Nixon told Smith to give the band a break. When Smith protested that the band never takes a break at the White House, Nixon barked: “They do when the president tells you to.” The musicians retreated to a room off the dance floor fitted with a two-way mirror. “As I turn around I see a Secret Service guy on each side of McMurray taking him out to Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Despite that inauspicious start, Smith thoroughly enjoyed working for Nixon. “He was very, very nice to me,” Smith said. “His wife was nice to me.” Pat Nixon, Smith recalled, would always ask in advance if playing at a White House function would be an inconvenience.”I would say, `Ma’am, I’m not going to say no to the president of the United States,’” Smith said.

Nixon loved the presidential yacht, the Sequoia, and Smith frequently played during dinner parties on the boat. Smith got to see Nixon play a trick on his guests, refilling empty bottles of $200 wine with a less expensive vintage. “He would take the funnel and get it started; the help would do the rest,” Smith said. “And all the time he’s chuckling. The fun time would happen later when I was at the piano and had eye contact with him. The toast would start, `ladies and gentlemen to the president of the United States,’ raising their glasses. And by that time, everyone had seen the bottles of wine on their tables and so they knew they were in for a treat with this wonderful experience. And Nixon is looking on enjoying the moment, getting that Nixon look on his face, and looking at me, `we got ‘em again!’” Smith said that very few people ever saw that side of Nixon. “He wanted to appear very serious. But when he could let his hair down, he did.”

Smith didn’t get to know Gerald and Betty Ford during their brief time in the White House. And while he enjoyed Rosalynn Carter, Jimmy Carter ignored him. “I don’t know why because I got along real well with Walter Mondale his vice president,” he said. Mondale, according to Smith, was the only one to ever request songs. His favorites were Bette Midler and Glen Campbell and, on one occasion, he sent Smith home with a recording of Midler’s Yellow Beach Umbrella, so that the band could learn it before the next event at the vice president’s home. “I must have played it seven or eight times that night,” he said. Mondale was also responsible for finally getting Carter to pose with Smith for a photo.

Smith’s relationship with Nancy Reagan got off to a rocky start and never recovered. Prior to an event, he reported to the Yellow Oval Room, part of the first family’s private quarters. He heard the elevator and knew its occupant was either the president or the first lady. “All of a sudden this little diminutive lady comes out into the floor,” he recalled. He introduced himself and said he would be the pianist for the evening. She gave him a laundry list of what she expected: You will not speak to the guests, you will keep your eyes straight and forward, you will, you will...Ronald Reagan appeared in the room, having overheard the conversation. “He tells her, `Mommy, Sgt. Smith comes highly recommended. Let’s let him do his job. You come with me.’” As the Reagans left, one of the Secret Service men leaned over and whispered in Smith’s ear, “That was awfully close.” He agreed.

Smith’s relationship with President Reagan, however, was friendlier, partly because of the California connection. Whenever Smith was booked for an event, Reagan would ask him to show up an hour earlier. “We talked about everything,” Smith said. “He loved sports. We talked about his radio days, we talked about his TV days, we talked about his movies, about the kinds of music that he liked. Just a little bit of everything. He would occasionally ask me something about the country about how do you view this as a military member. He was just really interested. I never felt like I’m shaking his hand and he’s looking at the next person. He gave you full time and attention and I really respected that.”

Good times continued when George H.W. Bush and his family moved into the White House. Smith had already spent time with Bush when he was the vice president, sometimes traveling with him to Maine. “Barbara Bush was a tremendous matriarch, very smart, always in control,” Smith said. “She was the one in the president’s house who started the library there. Her big thing was combatting illiteracy and she was a good mother and a good wife. She was always very gracious towards her guests.”

Smith found common ground with Bill Clinton, who would often play the saxophone with Smith and the band. Smith also enjoyed working for Hillary. “As a matter of fact, anytime I go to the State Department she will always come over and talk to me and she’s usually on a time schedule and it makes her staff a little upset,” he said.

Of course working in such a high profile, high demand job had its drawbacks. “I never knew when I would be working,” said Smith. Tickets for the theater or plans for a vacation were often scuttled with the words: “The president needs you.”

Smith knew he wanted to be a musician from the time he was seven. He credits one of his early teachers, Lorraine Bishop, with teaching him to make a living as a musician. So, in addition to learning classical music, he learned the Great American Songbook. “One of the few natural resources that hasn’t been contaminated is the Great American Songbook,” he said. “What can you do to it but love it, appreciate it, and perform it.”

He laments the state of the music business today, with dwindling attendance and collective bargaining negotiations threatening the future of major orchestras. “Theater orchestra composers would write for 16 to 18 musicians; now, they’re writing for five. Or they’re writing for five and you have to deal with the box, the virtual orchestra.It’s a computer that plays the other parts. Now, a computer does what a computer does and when a computer messes up, how do you synchronize the other vocalists and musicians to make corrections? Its’a disaster.” Although young musicians and singers are eager to perform, will the jobs be there? “We have some stellar musicians in Washington who are sitting home on a Friday or Saturday night, people who have worked with the best names in the country.”

Does Smith have much memorabilia saved from all those White House days? “Not as much as I should,” he said. “I have a few pictures. I wasn’t a collector back then, didn’t appreciate it. Sometimes I kick myself.”

Then he leaned back and smiled. “But no one can take away these memories. I can still see the looks on some people’s faces. As Gershwin says, `you can’t take that away from me.’”

Visit Bob Smith’s website with updated information on his performance schedule.

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