Yogi Berra, a cheap accordion, and me

Watching the various birthday tributes for Yogi Berra, who turned 90 earlier this week, made me remember my own (brief) encounter with the baseball legend, which occurred in less-than-ideal circumstances, at least from a musical point of view.

On December, in the mid-1990s, I picked up the phone to hear my good friend, Chip, ask me if I was available to play piano Saturday night. Chip is the leader of a high-energy dance band that specializes in playing Motown, Disco and Rock music for weddings and parties. They’re a hot band, and Chip is a good, fair person, with more than a hint of a wild streak. I would sometimes play keyboards for the band when Chip couldn’t make it himself.

Chip explained that his band was booked to play a wedding reception at an upscale country club in New Jersey. Since the date was so near Christmas, the happy couple wanted one of the band’s singers to perform “O Holy Night” in the main hall during the ceremony. Chip asked me to play piano for this song. Then I would continue to play background music during the cocktail hour, before a small group of vocalists walked among the guests singing Christmas carols. He also asked me to wear a tuxedo and told me that Yogi Berra would be among the guests.

So Saturday night comes and I dutifully drive out to New Jersey. I arrive at the fancy club to see Chip standing out in front, waiting for me. He walks up, leans in, and asks, “Are you ready for anything?” Well, lucky for me I am the kind of person who’s ready for anything, so I smile and nod. Chip then informs me that the club couldn’t move their grand piano into the main room for the ceremony, but not to worry: he went out and bought me an accordion. An accordion??? (I don’t play accordion!)

Chip had found out about the piano situation the day before, so he had gone down to a NYC music store and asked for “the cheapest accordion you got.” The salesman showed Chip a small concertina and said, “I’ll sell it to ya for $100 but the buttons don’t work.” Chip told the guy “it’s OK, my friend doesn’t know how to use the buttons anyway,” paid the $100, and my short career as an accordionist began (although I didn’t know it yet)!

I walked into the club where an elegantly dressed string quartet was playing chamber music as the guests arrived. Chip produced the shiny red accordion which proved to be a little too small for my fingers to navigate comfortably. I quickly discovered that the piano part for O Holy Night sounded horrible on this instrument, since my fingers would get stuck between the keys and I couldn’t find a way to play legato. (I guess the buttons would have smoothed out the sound, but as I’ve said, this wasn’t an option at this point!)

30 minutes later, the wedding ceremony began. As Chip cued me to begin playing, I took a look around at the wedding party, waiting to hear this special song during the most important day of their lives. But instead of the beautiful, arpeggiated piano chords, out came the wheezy, nasal single notes of “eek-eek-eek eek-eek-eek” as the vocalist began to croon the glorious melody. Behind me I could hear the string quartet frantically trying to contain their laughter while the bride, groom, and hundreds of guests lovingly gazed upon us, seemingly oblivious to the thin sounds coming from my “instrument.” It’s said that “people listen with their eyes” and this proved to be true. We looked good, so we sounded good!

The ceremony mercifully ended quickly and I discovered the real reason Chip bought the accordion: he wanted me to “stroll” around the room during the cocktail hour, performing carols with the vocalists. Christmas caroling for 45 minutes.

We had a great time bringing holiday joy to the event, and thankfully the accordion couldn’t be heard very well above the din of conversation. But by far, the highlight for me was when I turned a corner, mid-chord, and came face-to-face with the great man himself: Yogi Berra. He was shorter than I anticipated and looked a little frail. He was about 75 years old at the time and looked dapper in his tuxedo, drink in hand. He looked at me, I looked at him, and we both gave each other a little nod and kept on our separate ways. But that was enough for me. What a moment!

Was I “ready for anything?” Are you kidding? Was I ready for a small, tiny connection with a legendary slice of baseball history? You bet I was!!!

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