A highlight of summer for the past few years is a picnic dinner with Bob Milne at the piano courtesy of friends Julia and Charles Eisendrath. This year’s soiree in northern Michigan was even more special. A peach-colored lake to the west; a full moon rising in the east; fried chicken and ripe tomatoes served on a wagon hooked to an old fashioned tractor. Quintessential Charlevoix. And Bob introduced “Tennessee,” a lovely song he recently wrote.
During cocktails, Bob told me about his new creation. He and Linda were driving their old white van/motor home to his next gig. (He finds his own wheels more reliable than the airlines.) “A melody kept playing in my head,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from. It was as though I found it.” The words were there, too. He hummed the tune for Linda, then later wrote it down.
Bob is super smart. (He can keep 4 symphonies playing in his head at once. A neurologist/psychiatrist is studying his brain.) He’s deemed the world’s best ragtime piano player—check out his website for more. Though an opera he wrote has yet to be produced, it looks as though this song could be. The stars aligned recently when Bob played “Tennessee” at an informal gathering in California. In the audience was a man who loved the song and owns a recording studio in Syracuse and whose son is a music producer. Another fan that day was a talented fiddler who suggested his band perform the song. Supposed to happen soon. (Fingers crossed.)
Bob tells fascinating stories about the music he plays. This time, as he sat in front of the Eisendraths’ old player piano, he talked about Frank Sinatra’s “September Song.” Specifically, he told about an experience involving the song and his friend Neil Armstrong.
Carol Armstrong had planned an 80th birthday party for her retired astronaut husband. Armstrong expected 6 for dinner at a club in Cincinnati. His wife surprised him with a party for 300.
On a stage outside, Bob played background music. The guest of honor showed up about an hour late, thinking there was no need to rush. He plopped down on the bench beside Bob and asked, “What’s going on?”
Bob said, “Happy Birthday, sir.”
After dinner, Armstrong ambled to the stage holding some sheet music. He propped the pages on the piano, then realized they were upside down and out of order. He moved them around.
Turns out the legendary astronaut had been practicing “September Song” whenever his wife left the house. On the dimly lit stage, barely able to see the sheet music, Neil Armstrong said, “This is for Carol.” He plunked the piano keys with one finger and sang, “And these few precious days I’ll spend with you…”
Bob said, “I don’t think he hit a single right note, on the piano or with his voice, but everyone sensed the truth and devotion behind the words.”
After, the first man to land on the moon said to Bob, “That was the most embarrassing moment of my life.”
Bob replied, “You are fearless. You traveled 100,000 miles and stepped out of a door from which you might not have returned. You’ve never played the piano in your life yet you walked out in front of 300 people. And you did the one thing every musician hopes to do: you brought your whole audience to tears. Congratulations, sir. Don’t ever look back.”
Armstrong died 2 years later, in 2012. Bob says his widow scattered his ashes into the ocean from the deck of a naval destroyer. In the background, “September Song” was playing.
Thanks again, Charles & Julia, for a stellar evening. Good luck, Bob, with “Tennessee.” And thanks for a concert and a story that were, as Nat King Cole would have put it, “Unforgettable.”