Irving Fields got his first break at 16, singing on “Amateur Hour,” the national radio show. He won first prize: $50 — a lot of money in 1932. “When I got back to our apartment in Brooklyn, my whole family was there, and I threw the money up in the air. Fifty one-dollar bills blowing in the air, a thrill for me,” he recalled.
Fields has made his living in show business ever since. After encountering Latin music in the ‘40s as a concert pianist on a cruise ship that docked in Havana and San Juan, “I went crazy, and I brought it back to America,” he recalls. His fusion of popular Yiddish melodies with Latin rhythms (think “Mazeltov Merengue”) inspired waves of imitators. “Miami Beach Rumba” and “Managua, Nicaragua” were both on the Hit Parade, establishing Fields as a composer, and an arranger, and pianist. Since then he’s performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall — most recently in Fall, 2009, when his trademark Latin-Jewish music had a resurgence — to clubs and hotels around the world. You can hear him now, six nights a week, at Nino’s Tuscany on West 58th Street in Manhattan.
There have been good years and leaner ones. As Fields entered his 80s, he’d occasionally masquerade as his own manager when calling around for the next gig. (Listen to Fields telling this story in the audio clip below.)
“They’d say, ‘Irving Fields, Oh, he’s been around a long time, yeah I’ve heard him play. Gee, how old is he?’ “Oh, Mr. Fields, he’s about 65” — ’cause people said I always looked 20 years younger. ‘Oh yeah, really? He’s still around?’ I used to hide my age to get a job because I thought they wouldn’t hire me because I’m in my 80s. They’d think, “Well he can hardly walk, he can hardly play.” Now that I’m in my 90s I flaunt my age. I tell them how old I am, and I’m proud of it. And I play better than ever and I keep the people happy, and they’re happy with me.”
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In the 50’s you played at a restaurant in Dayton… Kinkles… You often sat with us and even let me sit with you at the piano and even taught me how to play the piano. I still have, after 50+ years, the record you gave me with the “Mack the Knife Concerto” on it… my favorite song.