CAROGA LAKE – Stan Wiest’s debut solo CD is titled “Music to Drive By,” and he has plenty of time to listen to the disc as he drives between his homes on Long Island and in Caroga Lake.
Weist has been playing piano professionally since he was a teenager, despite some unpleasant early experiences with the instrument. His first piano teacher was a nun who would rap him on the knuckles with a ruler if he failed to hold his hands in the correct position. His next teacher would fall asleep during his lessons, he said.
After young Stan carved “I hate the piano” into his piano at home in protest, his parents arranged for him to study with a new teacher, who turned out to be a gorgeous blonde woman.
“I went from hating it to practicing eight hours a day,” Wiest says, crediting his boyhood crush on his piano teacher – and her concern for his development – with launching his career.
“Because of her, I went to Hofstra University on a complete scholarship for music,” he said.
As a college student, Wiest studied classical music, but to earn a few bucks he played jazz standards and other popular music at venues in and around the New York metropolitan area.
When he was 23 and newly married, Wiest heard that a piano that once belonged to legendary big-band leader Eddie Duchin was going to be sold at auction. He went to the owners, an older couple, and asked if he could simply play the instrument for five minutes.
“I played the piano the entire morning, while they listened, and then they asked me if I’d like to stay for lunch,” he said. They invited him to continue to play the piano all afternoon, offered him dinner and let him play into the evening.
As he got up to say goodbye, the owners asked if he would like to bid on the piano, and Wiest admitted he couldn’t afford the priceless Steinway, as he had just $450 to his name.
“They asked, ‘Will you show up with a moving van and $450? If you do, you can have it.’,” he said.
The purchase of a piece of American music history was just one of Wiest’s many brushes with greatness over the years, as he went on to perform with and for many celebrities, including duets with Victor Borge and a tour with Irving Caesar, a lyricist known for his work with George Gershwin.
More recently, Wiest has spent several years out of the limelight, focusing more of his time and energy on his work as a wedding planner and consultant. A man who hired him to play piano at a birthday party enjoyed his performance so much that he offered to bankroll a recording project, and “Music to Drive By” was the result.
“It’s going to sound like the piano is right in the back seat of your car with you,” he said of the CD. A promotional event last week at a bookstore in Brooklyn attracted a big crowd, he said, including fans who remembered him from his nightclub appearances in the 1960s and ’70s.
He says he recorded the CD in a single eight-hour session, playing certain pieces over and over again to make sure they were perfect.
The disc, which features standards by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Glenn Miller and other greats, as well as a few more obscure pieces, is available on Amazon.com, iTunes and elsewhere.
Wiest said his backer, who wants to remain anonymous, has agreed to finance a second CD project, which is being planned now.
“It turned out to be a huge success,” he said, noting he was recently the subject of a feature in Newsday.
Wiest spends most of his time downstate, but he’s had a home on London Bridge Road in Caroga for the past 13 years and spends about a week there each month. He said the warmth and friendliness of people in Fulton County are a refreshing change from the stress and rudeness one encounters in the big city.
“Caroga Lake has made such a difference in me,” he said. “I think I have more friends up here than I do down there.”
Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at [email protected].