Legendary City pianist Irving Fields died on August 20. He was 101.
Fields who wrote and performed hundreds of original songs, had celebrated his Aug. 4 birthday less than three weeks ago.
He became a household name in 1959 with his best-selling album “Bagels and Bongos,” which sold more than 2 million copies and blended traditional Jewish melodies with the hip-swaying Cuban rhythms he learned as a musician playing on Caribbean-bound cruise ships.
When the album sold tens of thousands of copies, he recorded a sequel and then moved on to Latinizing Italian standards (“Pizza and Bongos”), Hawaiian melodies (“Bikinis and Bongos”) and French songs (“Champagne and Bongos”).
With lyrics by Albert Gamse — “I’ll save Havana for mañana” was one line — it became a staple of 1950s and ’60s bar mitzvahs. The Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat turned it into a hit in 1947, and Tito Puente recorded it as well. Fifty years later, Woody Allen used it in his film “Deconstructing Harry.” (John Camacho is also credited with a hand in the composing.)
Yet in the last decades of his life he was better known as a New York City lounge pianist, still performing as recently as March at spots near his Central Park South home, like the dining room of the Park Lane Hotel, the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel and Nino’s Tuscany Steakhouse. Though he sometimes played to near-empty rooms or ones with distracted customers, he was a restless man who could not stop working.
Though depending on a walker to get around, his fingers hobbled by arthritis, he continued to find his way to the keyboard, stylish in a blue blazer and pocket square, his customary two-olive vodka martini perched on top of the piano. (He also liked to keep a pile of fliers there, with titles like “Secrets for Longevity” and tips like “Eat four hours before bedtime (you’ll digest better).”)