Chevy Chase Is a Marvelous King
He's not just a consummate comedic actor. He’s also an eloquent pianist, musician, and was actually the original drummer in the band Steely Dan. And that’s just part of what Chevy Chase revealed upon our meeting during his wonderful couple of evenings spent in the Polo Lounge. Our first encounter didn’t exactly begin well. I had been called in to play, substituting for Patricia Rice, a terrific pianist and soulful being, my friend and colleague. I hurried in behind a gentleman who had just reached the maitre d’ inside the front door, directly in front of me. “Good evening, Mr. Chase”, said Faisal, the maitre d’. (I’d figured it was him, he looked so familiar). “Is Patricia here?”, Chevy demanded. “No, I’m so so sorry”, said Faisal, “she’s taking the night off, but the person who's filling in for her is right behind you!" Chevy turned around to see me, and simply uttered a low, pained groan of disapproval, turned forward again, and walked in.
Clearly he was not pleased that his familiar regular wouldn’t be there tonight. Oh boy, I thought, this is going to get heavy. But I knew how to reel in my clients, I knew the kind of music he dug, the pianistic treats he would resonate with. And I pressed into action, playing as if he were the only person in the room. I pulled out all my razzle dazzle tools and carefully cooked up a platter of sonic delights for him. I began to see he not only appreciated it, but this also was a man of generous personality and warm spirit, even occasionally clapping, making me feel "listened to". I wonder if he knew I was trying intently to make him happy. He probably did, for the truth comes out in performing, and he's seen it all, if anyone has. Guilty, your honor, of a little bit of snake charming, shame on me!
He invited me over when I got up on a break. I was thrilled. We bonded over the timeless piano greats, talked all kinds of music, and before we went further he insisted on buying me a bit of nice wine. That’s when he told me of his early drumming days, and playing in a garage with Donald Fagen and Steely Dan during their incubation period. They had been friends from way back, but alas, Chevy had other growing commitments and yearnings, that soon led him far away from his drum set and any further playing or recording with the group. But even throughout his film career he’s always maintained his early musical roots, actually being a great and thoughtful pianist in his own right. In fact, he's one of the few guests to have played on the Polo Lounge Piano at some point in the past! I already knew this, and knew exactly who was listening to me when I started that night.
We talked on, had a ball, and I was struck by how gracious he was during the many times he was accosted by patrons for a picture, or interrupted for a group selfie. He never turned anyone down, and always had a kind word, accommodating everyone. The watchful security people were ready to intervene on his behalf to restore his privacy if necessary, but he didn’t mind it all, and let them know it was ok. His benevolence was so powerful it was as if it forced people to not push it, ask too much, nor clown around gratuitously. What a king. We talked about my father, and Chevy did a hilarious impression of him, using just his mouth. He asked me if pop was as sullen, intimidating and angry a person in real life as he was in films. “Oh, no”, I said, “he was really unaware of his own presence, and just loved being goofy ‘Dad Cobb’, in fact he hated bullies deeply”. “Oh me too!”, replied Chevy, with great conviction and satisfaction.
I went back to playing, and at the end of the night he asked me if I’d be back tomorrow, as he was staying a couple days in the hotel. How happy I was to say yes, that it was actually to be one of my regular nights. So, next evening he arrived after I had started playing, claimed his favorite little table, and promptly made arrangements to have a glass of Bordeaux sitting across the table from him—just waiting for me.