David Carlson has loved the piano all of his life. Well, almost his entire life.

“I can’t vouch for how I felt from birth until age 3,” he told an audience that filled up much of the center section of the Liberty Theater Wednesday night during a Columbia Forum appearance.

Carlson, who was for many years the pianist for the Astoria Music Festival, Astoria First Presbyterian Church, the Cannon Beach Chorus and the Coaster Theatre, returned to the North Coast to perform and talk about his life. He and his wife, Kay, have lived in Albequerque, N.M. for nearly two years.

For more than an hour, Carlson entertained his audience with amusing anecdotes about his music career and played pieces on the piano ranging from Boogie Woogie to Bach.

His first brush with fame began at age 7 when his mother entered him in a talent show at Portland’s Paramount Theater. He played “Boogie Woogie” and won third place. The Andrews Sisters, who had a hit at the time, called “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” were at the performance, and Maxene Andrews picked up the young Carlson and kissed him.

That only encouraged his mother, Carlson said.

“From that point on, she took to the role of stage mother with a vengeance,” he said.

Carlson’s childhood was filled with performances – “The calendar was black with commitments,” he said – ranging from playing for prizes, participating in talent troupes, performing on radio and in the basement of the Meier and Frank department store.

“On one occasion, Mother took me to the airport to greet Liberace,” Carlson said. “A picture of me with the star appeared in The Oregonian. She was thrilled.”

At 13, he joined the musicians union and turned professional. His mother devised an act.

“I played with oranges in my hands; I played backward; and I played blindfolded.”

He played with others, too, including dancers, jugglers, comedians, singers, trained dogs, accrobats “and the occasional stripper.”

Schooling was secondary, Carlson said, and he had had no proper music lessons, except what his aunt Minnie taught him.

After winning a trip to Hollywood at 13 and meeting Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Carlson decided he wanted to stay. Three years later he moved there.

“My parents thought they were just sending me on vacation, but I simply refused to come home,” Carlson said.

To survive in Hollywood, Carlson played for singers making demo records and in restaurants. He enrolled in Hollywood Professional School, where he attended classes in the morning and auditioned in the afternoon.

Eventually, he found a job playing for Lawrence Welk and was featured on five of Welk’s television shows and toured with the musician.

At about that time, Carlson also recorded two albums, which are being remastered by a Florida company. Later, he formed a nightclub act with a singer, Ellen Sutton, who he had accompanied in Portland. When Carlson was drafted, Sutton introduced him to Col. Mark Azzolina, the head of music and entertainment production for Armed Forces Radio.

Carlson was assigned to a joint U.S.-Canadian band that toured 220 days a year for three years. The band also played on television, in the Hollywood Bowl and in Carnegie Hall.

Carlson met his wife, Kay, at an NCO (noncommissioned officers) club, and after his discharge in 1964, they were married. They have been married almost 50 years.

Although they lived in Arizona, “I traveled for work,” Carlson said.

Carlson talked about his friendship with retired university professor and professional musician Robert O’Connor, who, Carlson said, “opened up the world of classical music to me.”

He also prodded Carlson to get a formal education, and Carlson eventually attended the University of Arizona, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the University of Miami and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

He never quit playing music, however. He played a private club in Coconut Grove, which he described as a “notorious hotbed of South American drug dealers, the favorite spot for Miami’s rich and the “must-see” spot for visiting celebrities like Cher and Jackie Onassis.”

Carlson described his “New York years,” where he played at the Stork Club, and the time he spent on a Greek cruise ship, where he travelled to myriad places. He also played for three years at the World Trade Center and on club dates – one-night-only jobs, mostly private parties.

He once worked for New York financier Donald Trump, who had Carlson play on an orange Steinway in the lobby of the Trump Tower.

“Thousands of people streamed by, including Mr. Trump,” Carlson recalled. “He’s the only person in my life who ever told me to ‘play louder.’ At least he didn’t tell me, ‘You’re fired.’”

He recounted his friendship with Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc. After that anecdote, Carlson played one of Joan Kroc’s favorite pieces, “Zigeuner,” by Noel Coward.

Later came a stint with the Florida Symphonic Pops Orchestra, where he met composers and musicians Burt Bacharach, Marvin Hamlisch, Henry Mancini and Roger Williams and many singers, including Helen Reddy, Florence Henderson, Carol Lawrence and Jim Nabors.

“I’ve played concert halls, lobbies, bowling alleys, ships, poolsides, ballrooms, hotels, private homes, restaurants, penthouses, warehouses, auditoriums, theaters, churches, parks, radio and TV stations, food courts, rehearsal studios, basements, in aluminum geodesic domes, on an ice cap, on Youtube. … and once in the locked ward of a VA hospital,” Carlson said.

His entire life – except when he mowed lawns and caddied at the Gearhart Golf Course as a teenager – Carlson, 74, has earned a living from music.

“I once read that less than 2 percent of the members of the musicians union do that,” he said. “The financial challenge of living a freelance lifestyle can’t be understated. It requires a complete dedication and a steely resolve to just keep going.

“You have to learn to think of yourself as tenacious – instead of foolhardy – to face the amount of rejections, criticism and fear of unemployment that comes with the territory,” Carlson added.

A friend once advised him to “weave yourself into the musical life a community.”

“That happened for me when I moved to the Northwest Coast,” Carlson said.

He called his work with the North Coast organizations he played for “the most collaborative, interesting and rewarding work I’ve ever done.”

“I’ve appreciated and loved every minute of the work and the friendships. This seems like a good time to say, ‘Thank you very much.’”

At that, Carlson played “I’ve Got Rhythm,” by Ira Gershwin, and the audience gave him a standing ovation. They also stood up after his encore, “As Time Goes By.”

Following Carlson’s lecture, audience member Sue Meyers, who was in several musicals where Carlson was pianist, called the performance “fabulous.”

“It was really touching to hear him say that his North Coast experience was one of the best experiences of his life. This was special for sure,” Meyers said.

Sheila Shaffer, a performer and director at the Coaster Theatre, agreed.

“It brought me to tears,” she said. “Not only was it was absolutely technically perfect, it was emotional, too.

“We were so blessed to have him play at the Coaster,” Shaffer added. “He is so talented, and he’s such a nice man, too.”

   

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