Irving Fields, Composer Who Infused Songs With Latin Rhythms, Dies at 101
By JOSEPH BERGERAUG. 22, 2016
Irving Fields performing at Nino’s Tuscany Steakhouse in 2004. Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
There was a time in the middle of the last century when piano-playing children in certain quarters of the Bronx and Brooklyn were often asked to entertain guests with a song called “Miami Beach Rhumba,” an improbable combination of zesty Latin dance rhythms and musical inflections born of the shtetls and ghettos of Eastern Europe.
The composer of that song was Irving Fields, who died on Saturday at 101 at his home in Manhattan, and his career was as improbable as his songs.
In his younger days, Mr. Fields specialized in Latinizing standards. He and a trio started with an album for Decca Records called “Bagels and Bongos,” which whimsically transformed melancholy Yiddish chestnuts like “Raisins and Almonds” and “My Yiddishe Momme” into cha-chas or mambos.
When the album sold tens of thousands of copies, he recorded a sequel and then moved on to Latinizing Italian standards (“Pizza and Bongos”), Hawaiian melodies (“Bikinis and Bongos”) and French songs (“Champagne and Bongos”).
He also composed songs, the most famous of which was “Miami Beach Rhumba,” a 1946 number about a traveler who starts out for Havana and ends up in the Jewish Riviera of the song’s title.
With lyrics by Albert Gamse — “I’ll save Havana for mañana” was one line — it became a staple of 1950s and ’60s bar mitzvahs. The Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat turned it into a hit in 1947, and Tito Puente recorded it as well. Fifty years later, Woody Allen used it in his film “Deconstructing Harry.” (John Camacho is also credited with a hand in the composing.)
Other Fields collaborations included “Managua, Nicaragua,” a hit for Guy Lombardo, and “Chantez, Chantez,” a sprightly melody that Dinah Shore recorded in 1957.
Yet in the last decades of his life he was better known as a New York City lounge pianist, still performing as recently as March at spots near his Central Park South home, like the dining room of the Park Lane Hotel, the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel and Nino’s Tuscany Steakhouse. Though he sometimes played to near-empty rooms or ones with distracted customers, he was a restless man who could not stop working.
“I love what I do, and the piano is my best friend,” he told an interviewer.
Though depending on a walker to get around, his fingers hobbled by arthritis, he continued to find his way to the keyboard, stylish in a blue blazer and pocket square, his customary two-olive vodka martini perched on top of the piano. (He also liked to keep a pile of fliers there, with titles like “Secrets for Longevity” and tips like “Eat four hours before bedtime (you’ll digest better).”)
Mr. Fields could play almost any request, especially if it was for a Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers or Porter tune. If a woman said she was from Texas, he would run off a medley that might start with “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
In his younger days, Mr. Fields specialized in Latinizing standards. In the album “Bagels and Bongos,” whimsically melancholy Yiddish chestnuts were transformed into cha-chas or mambos. Decca Records
“People ask me, ‘How do you remember so many notes?’” he once said. “It just comes to me. It’s like God is in my mind.”
He even became something of a phenomenon among the internet generation, when, by his account, at a fan’s request, he took 15 minutes to compose “YouTube Dot Com Theme Song.” It has had close to 900,000 views.
Mr. Fields was born Yitzhak Schwartz on Aug. 4, 1915, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the youngest of six children (all of whom lived into their 90s). He grew up there and in Coney Island and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn.
His father, Max, a carpenter who sang in local choirs, was from Pinsk in Belarus, and his mother, Eva, was from Minsk, also in Belarus; he once wrote a song playing with the cities’ rhyming names.
Pressured to start taking piano lessons at 8 years old, he found repeating scales monotonous but later credited the exercises with sharpening his playing and making it seem more casual.
He also sang in a choir behind the famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, and began pecking out popular songs and Yiddish vaudeville tunes. While still a teenager, he put together a band that was hired to play parties. He also took piano jobs on cruise ships headed for Havana and San Juan, engendering a passion for Latin music.
Mr. Fields and groups of various sizes played the Manhattan clubs that were a hallmark of swank 1940s and ‘50s night life, places like the Copacabana, the Latin Quarter, El Morocco and the Mermaid Room. He remembered Ava Gardner dancing barefoot to his Latin songs and Edward G. Robinson asking him to play Viennese waltzes. As television infiltrated more American households, he appeared on shows hosted by Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason and Kate Smith.
In his telling, his late-in-life lounge career had many origins. In one story, the hotelier Leona Helmsley, who had heard him play “I’m Just Wild About Harry” — she had been married to the real estate magnate Harry Helmsley — told him, “I’ll break your fingers if you don’t become my house pianist.” He soon began playing the Park Lane.
Mr. Fields is survived by his wife, Ruth, who confirmed his death, along with a son, Mark; a daughter, Diane Shaffran; a stepdaughter, Penny Dechowitz; a stepson, Peter Dechowitz; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
He and Ruth, 14 years his junior, lived for the last half century in a tidy apartment that did not have a piano. On those occasions when he needed to play for a visitor, as he did when a New York Times reporter showed up in May 2015, he would take an elevator upstairs to a neighbor’s apartment.
“You think I need to practice — at my age?” he said.