Born in New York City in 1919, Dolph Traymon began studying piano at age 4. He made an immediate impression on his teacher by memorizing his entire first week's lessons. From that point on he never looked back, eventually earning admission to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Upon graduation from Juilliard in 1942, Dolph was called into active duty in the U. S. Army. There he became conductor for the Army band, which performed on Armed Service radio shows aired by the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Following his discharge in 1946, Dolph became a partner at Caro's, one of Manhasset, Long Island's most celebrated restaurants. There he expanded his repertoire as well as his reputation as an accomplished musician and accompanist. He met and married his wife Audrey in 1949, and they eventually made their home in the village of Locust Valley, NY. Dolph's career hit high gear in the 1950's and 60's, when he split his time between working as staff pianist for A.B.C. and traveling as accompanist for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Dorothy Lamour, Joel Gray, and Rudy Vallee.
A few years after the birth of their two daughters, Elissa and Tracey, Audrey and Dolph began to dream of opening their own restaurant together, one where Dolph's playing could accompany fine food and wine. The dream became a reality on January 20, 1973, when the Fife 'n Drum Restaurant first opened its doors on Main Street in Kent, CT. Since 1973, the Fife 'n Drum has won numerous dining awards, and has served as a gathering place for lovers of fine music and hospitality. Since 1992, it has been an annual recipient of the Best of Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator Magazine. Dolph continues to play piano in the restaurant six nights a week, to the delight of customers.
Humming a Few Bars Isn't Necessary for This Piano Player
The New York Times, Sunday, February 24, 2002
by Chris King
Dolph Traymon Is Still Playing Piano In His Own Restaurant, 32 Years After He Was Told He Would Never Make It Work
The Hartford Courant Saturday, January 15, 2005
by Rick Green
|On nights past at the Fife 'n Drum Restaurant in Kent, the great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who lived across the street, played imaginary conductor to the house pianist, while waving his arms over his dinner plate while the man played. The dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, the director Milos Forman and the artist Eric Sloane were known to share a table, enjoying dinner and the "Man of 10,000 Songs," as the Fife's piano man has described himself. The man who created this oasis of food and music 29 years ago, Dolph Traymon, still sits behind the piano five hours a night, six nights a week - at the age of 82. People visit his restaurant for the food, the wine list (which is perennially recognized by the Wine Spectator) and to stay at the Inn. They also beat a path to his piano.
Mr. Traymon may be a "man of 10,000 songs," able to remember the tunes people tend to request over long spans of years, but without question, he is a man of many stories. He accumulated his songbag from a wide range of experiences. As a teenager in the Depression, he performed in Catskills resorts. He was a young Italian who became "the fair-haired boy of all these places," he said.
In his late teens and early 20's he toured with Ozzie Nelson, meeting such figures from a bygone time as Lincoln Perry, otherwise known as Stepin Fetchit, and befriending another Italian musician, a younger singer named Frank Sinatra. During World War II, a colonel, impressed with his playing, ordered him to form an orchestra. His 47-piece soldier's band raised money for war bonds, sharing stages with Milton Berle and a "young, creative chorus girl" named Lucille Ball, he said. After the war he worked in the ABC studio orchestra and made recordings.
In the 50's and 60's his life was a series of "helter-skelter" tours with Peggy Lee and other singers that crossed the globe. Along the way he picked up a stage name, which became his real name. He was born Adolph Tramontana and known as Dolph from boyhood, but changed his last name to Traymon in 1947. "People couldn't pronounce Tramontana, " he said. "Now, performers have the damnedest names and nobody cares. Then, they did care. He has adapted to many changes in popular music, his medium, though he was trained in the classics during his childhood in New York. "The Beatles did a pretty credible job," he aid. "They were musical. I still play their songs. Elvis Presley I could have done without. I looked at all that and said, "It's not gonna stay.' But it did stay."
He also started a family when he was a traveling musician. In 1949, he eloped with his wife, Audrey. They soon had two daughters, Elissa and Tracey. He has memories of balancing Elissa on bar tops while he played. He and his wife lived on Long Island. In 1971, Mrs. Traymon, who worked for a greeting card company at the time, was visiting clients in Kent. She asked her husband to meet her there for lunch. But, he said, "there was no place to have lunch. One coffee shop, but the place was so filthy I wouldn't drink a glass of water there." His wife suggested that they settle down there and open a restaurant with a piano bar. "And," Mr. Traymon said, "you know the power of a woman." "We opened with no advertisement on a Saturday night," he recalled, "and you couldn't get in the door. Four weeks later, I wanted to sell; thought I didn't belong there. But here I am 29 years later." Harry Bly has been dining at the Fife and listening to its pianist since the restaurant first opened. Now he and his wife, Jane, live just across the Housatonic River and state line in Millbrook, N.Y., but they still patronize the Fife. "It was always special, " Mr. Bly said. "It's still an oasis."
Never at a loss for tunes, the 'Man of 10,000 Songs' plays on. Since 1997 Mr. Traymon has been able to concentrate completely on music. That is when his daughter, Elissa Potts, assumed management of the restaurant, which has an eclectic menu that includes sandwiches, table-made Caesar salad and French specialties. Now Mr. Traymon is free to spend his time working on Off Broadway musicals and memorizing repertory for a solo recital he is planning for the spring. He is going back to the classics of his youth, Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes. "I'm practicing like when I was a kid," he said with a gleam. Every night except Tuesday (when the Fife closes) he leaves the house he and Audrey, 71 share next door to the restaurant and then takes his seat at the piano to play torch songs, Beatles tunes, sometimes a snippet of Chopin or Mendelssohn. A sign hangs near his piano: "Entertainment for Man & Horse."
The crowd is likely to be local and lively, with a smattering of folks who made a pilgrimage just to hear him play. Paul Newman might occupy a table. The Broadway star Patti Lupone might appear and join the piano man for a song. For all the luminaries who know him by name, Mr. Traymon never lost touch with the guys from his sextet at Abraham Lincoln High School in Bensonhurst.
"We all stayed friends all these years," he said. "You can't buy that." Only one of those band mates, Nat Crone, remains among the living. "All the guys my age are gone, " he said. "You don't live forever. I'd like to go 10 more years. Who says? My mother went to 92. I have so much to live for." His younger daughter, Tracey Whitehead, said "music is his passion. I can always tell his mood by how he is playing. If he is furious, God help the piano or the people listening."
At the Fife, fury seldom affects Mr. Traymon's performance. He breezes gently between eras and genres. He is a crowd pleaser, but foremost he pleases himself. Mr. Traymon said: "I always loved being a musician. It has always been the first thing in my life. I told my wife: 'You are marrying a musician. I'll be a musician until the day I die.' "
|So this piano player drags his celebrity boss out to the country, hours from New York City, and tells her he's got this cool idea for a high-class restaurant in Kent where he would play every night and treat his customers like royalty. "Ridiculous," responded Miss Peggy Lee. She saw the cows and the beat-up buildings by the railroad tracks, and the singer offered a few more blunt words for the well paid pianist, a stubborn guy with gentle fingers by the name of Dolph Traymon. "You must be crazy," Traymon recalled her saying, the New York edge still evident in his voice, even after so many years in the Litchfield Hills. "You are going to give up what you are making now to do this?"
Crazy, ridiculous even. But Traymon had grown weary of the endless lonely nights in big - city hotels, of kissing his kids goodnight by telephone, of wondering where a guy who likes show tunes, jazz, and the classics ends up after years on the road. More than three decades after the dissing from Peggy Lee, Traymon is still caressing the keys late into the night, six days a week, at age 85. And he is still loving it, still packing them in, still mixing the Chopin with the Cole Porter, the Irving Berlin with the Beatles.
How has this possibly lasted since 1973? Well, try to think of a classy dinner place in Connecticut these days where you can find a top - shelf wine list, French entrees and a dapper gentleman playing piano. Add a spicy stable of celebrity customers, die hard New England yankees and free - spending New York weekenders, and it's possible to see why Traymon's Fife 'n Drum Restaurant and Inn has become a not-to-miss landmark in historic Kent.
On New Year's Eve, Broadway actress and Kent resident Patti Lupone stopped in to sing with Traymon. If you ask, he'll tell you stories about Vladimir Horowitz or Robert Redford or Jimmy Cagney or Gregory Peck, customers all. But Traymon's charm isn't that he can brag about how Isaac Stern liked to come in to just quietly read a book, or the times Billy Martin wandered in. It's that he is actually looking forward to yet another night playing one of the two Steinways - one in the bar, the other in a dining room - he keeps at the restaurant.
"I like the idea of doing things," Traymon said of one recent evening before playing as his daughter, Elissa Traymon Potts, who now runs the restaurant, hustled about the dining room. "If I sat around and did nothing, do you know what would happen? My fingers would get arthritic, and they would carry me away." There seems to be scant chance of that. On a recent Monday evening, Traymon, his piano playing effortless, looked Johnny Carson - sharp in crisp shirt, tie and blazer. He's about to celebrate 32 years on Route 7, and with a new CD out benefiting the local Marvelwood School, Traymon has becomesomething of an ageless icon around Kent, a town of just under 3,000 about two hours' drive from Manhattan.
The "Fife" is a local salon of sorts, where politicos retire for a few pops after the town meeting and where newcomers must show up to sample the Caesar salad, prepared table side, and request a favorite song to go with their pinot. Susie Williams, a longtime regular, who sat at the bar one recent evening, said when she meets someone new to town, invariably she will "send them to the Fife." "You know what I like about it? It's a safe place to go. It's homey. It's a comfortable place to be," said Williams. Still, in a town that traces its history to 1739, Traymon's restaurant remains something of a new addition. 'He's only been here 32 years," she explained.
Born Adolph Tramontana to a musical Brooklyn family, Dolph grew up a city boy, playing the piano from age 5. Early on, he performed in the Catskills and while in the service during World War II, led a military stage band. For a Juilliard graduate who spent the '40s and '50s hopping among orchestras - Frank Sinatra, Ozzie Nelson and ABC are a few - it wasn't exactly easy to make the piano jump to a piano bar, or, more accurately, a country restaurant with a bar. But in the early 1970's, his wife Audrey, brought him to this hill town on the Housatonic River, a place she had discovered while working in sales for a greeting card company. It didn't take long for Traymon to realize that playing this gig would be a little different.
"Playing in a club is one thing. Playing in a bar by yourself is a whole different world. You've got guys who drink. They've had a few cocktails. They want a song." Traymon recalls of those early years, "Let me tell you something: It took a lot of doing." To get ready, he worked in a friend's cafe for nine months, honing his new act before the restaurant opened. Meanwhile, he and Audrey transformed an old "gin mill" into a respectable restaurant. He named it Fife 'n Drum after someone at a party, full of his New York musician friends, said the name sounded like it had the right ring for a place out on the New England frontier. "When I first came here, I wasn't part of the town. They were against me. I was a New Yorker," Traymon said of Kent. "They didn't trust New Yorkers. Now, my daughter is involved with everything that goes on, and I am too. You can't beat that."
Audrey runs the inn's gift shop, and she and Dolph eat dinner nightly in the restaurant. After all these years, and night could hand Dolph a surprise or two, including what he will play from the thousands of songs he has committed to memory. "I have no idea till I sit down," Traymon promised a visitor. "I'm the boss, so I do anything I want to do. But before, I wasn't the boss. If Peggy wanted me at 7 o'clock in the morning, I had to be there," he said. "Now it doesn't matter. I do what I want to do, and I have a great time as a result of it."
Every night. Ridiculous.