The ‘Rabbi of Rumba’ Still Playing at 98
What do Michael Feinstein, Mayor Bloomberg, Angela Lansbury, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and Barbara Walters, have in common? They were among the roster of [mailed-in] well-wishers joining the crush of notables and friends helping celebrate songwriter-pianist Irving Fields’s 98th birthday on August 1 at Nino’s Tuscany Steakhouse on West 58th Street where, for the past 11 years, Fields has been entertaining a loyal following.
A few days after the birthday crush, Fields joshed about having sung his tribute to the Statue of Liberty —‘Here’s to the Lady’— “in my adenoidal tenor which had changed to laryngitis,” He reminded me that he is featured playing the title song in the documentary “Hava Nagila” and that “after World War II I wrote two of my biggest hits which are now standards — ‘Miami Beach Rumba’ and ‘Managua Nicaragua, ‘” which made him a hero in Nicaragua and, as he said, “put the country on the map.”
Among my memorable Fields moments is the November 1993 Hadassah-sponsored cocktail reception for its member and “Woman of the Year”— Ivana Trump — held at her about-to-move out-of marble and gilt 65th-floor triplex atop Trump Tower. As Hadassah boosters Ruth Westheimer — standing atop a satin-covered gilt chair — and actress Tovah Feldshuh looked on, Fields — in a white suit, seated at a white baby grand at the foot of a marble staircase [to an upper floor] serenaded Ivana Trump and her children Ivanka and Donnie.
In anticipation of his 98th, the Yiddish Artists & Friends Actors Club held a gala in his honor on June 17 at Sutton Place Synagogue. As he once told me, “It has been a long trip from my debut at ten in a Yiddish musical called “Der Galitzianer Khasene” (The Galician Wedding) to seven concerts at Carnegie Hall. Fields a/k/a “The Rabbi of Rhumba,” touted his 1959 LP “Bagels & Bongos.” which he told me, “five years ago was replicated as a CD and is now a worldwide hit.”
Fields was ecstatic about having been presented with a Congressional “Lifetime Achievement Award” by U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. He chuckled: “My aim now is to do a concert at the White House to show that a 98-year guy can still play like a 28-year old. I think that I now play better than 40 years ago…I can do things [on the piano] I could not do 40 years ago.” And I will vouch for that! The energy and power, the speed and agility of his fingers as he entertains five nights a week at Nino’s is astonishing.
More than a songwriter-composer-pianist extraordinaire, Fields has also penned a series of bon mots (or as they say in Yiddish vertlekh) which may possibly be part of the answer: “Keep busy. If you retire find a hobby…. Retire is retard…. When you get up in the morning, tell yourself you will be pleasant to everybody.” And most significantly: “There is no language barrier with music. With music you are never alone. There would never be any wars if music was a religion.”