From the biography by Phyllis Mass Carter
It's 1975 - the time of unisex, shredded blue jeans, ungroomed hair, and rock "music", but at the Astor Lounge on St. Catherine Street West in Montreal, there is an air of relaxed sophistication and melodious sound sustained by The Gentleman at the Piano, Cliff Carter.
With a repertoire estimated at 3000 all-time favourite songs, Cliff enchants his audience with Rhapsody in Blue, Honeysuckle Rose and Stardust. He sings Mine Yiddishe Mamma in Yiddish and N'Oublie Jamais in French with a New York accent. If you like, he will sing, I Left My Heart in San Francisco in Chinese. In fact, Cliff will play almost anything you can name from the classics to the pops and standards of the 1940's and 1950's. He can summon up tunes from a time before the 1920's. You see, Cliff was born in Manhattan in 1902, and Tin Pan Alley was his back yard.
Cliff will play anything you can hum, even if it is intricate and he has never heard it before. What he will not play is - noise - that is "rock". And he decided early in his career that he would not let himself fall into a stereotype. He denies that anything he is playing is "jazz". But then, who is to say what jazz really is.
Cliff came to Montreal, Canada, in 1947, after having sung professionally from Java to Broadway where, in 1938, he conducted his own ten-piece band. He began his singing career long before that as an altar by at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. As a boy, he was the first person of colour to perform on the stage of the great Hippodrome Theatre. But it would be a long time after that before Cliff would earn his living as a professional performer. First he would work as an embroiderer, a cook on the Penn Railroad, a pin boy at a bowling alley, a shoe shine, a steward on a freighter travelling to South Africa, an assistant to a pharmacist and to a famous professional portrait photographer.
Having started out as a member of a refined middle-class family - a descendent of defiant slaves and far-sighted educators - he was acclaimed for his fine penmanship, foot-racing (track), ballroom dancing and fine embroidery and beadwork - a skill he learned at his mother's side as she taught underprivileged young ladies the craft.
The Great Depression cut deep. Cliff was too young for World War I and too old for World War II, so he went to work polishing torpedoes. This dangerous work almost cost him his eyesight.
He slept in the subways of New York and always kept a bar of soap in his pocket so he could wash up wherever he stopped. He could have gone home to his family but he was a man who believed in standing on his own two feet. Once he walked across several states to come to the bedside of his young sister who was dangerously ill. He didn't have the bus fare and, in those days, no one would offer a ride to a Negro.
At the age of 37, fate brought Cliff to a nightclub where he recognized the name on the billboard - Charlie Skeets. Charlie had been an altar boy at St. Augustine's too. Cliff sat in with Charlie night after night, watching his hands on the piano keys. One night, Charlie was "under the weather" and Cliff took over. With the guidance of Cliff's godfather, Charles "Lucky" Roberts - composer of Moonlight Cocktails - and with the encouragement of his friends, Cozy Cole and Fats Waller, Cliff practiced the piano until he had memorized hundreds of songs, but he never learned to read music.
Cliff played and sang and he travelled, doing gigs in nightclubs of every description, and private house parties for friends of Lucky - the Vanderbilts, the Harrimans, and Helen Borden of the Borden Milk Company. Along the way, he became acquainted with the greats of show business. He played, he sang and he composed. He was also responsible for taking care that the money paid to Lucky's bands for the parties reached his godfather intact.
Cliff Carter, The Gentleman at The Piano. I gave him that title. It was a perfect fit. An impeccable dresser, Cliff's elegance is enhanced by his dashing smile and sparkling eyes. He is gentle and polite One day, when I was very young, I caught sight of him from afar as he was walking down St. Catherine street in my direction. He moved so gracefully - a ballroom dancer. I just couldn't take my eyes off him. And then he smiled at me.
In his navy blazer with the Playboy Bunny crest and the crimson lining, he rises from the piano to kiss a lady's hand. Then he teases her about kissing her lips. When asked to play a particular number, he responds, "I don't know that one, but hum it for me and I'll see what I can do." or - pretending that the piece is too difficult - "That's all brother ! Now just finish your drink and go home." No one ever does. Then, of course, he plays the piece with aplomb.
One of Cliff's gimmicks is to start to play a rinky-dink version of Chop Sticks and, after a contemplative pause - burst into a swinging display of digital dexterity. The crowd loves it, They love him - tonight. Club audiences are fickle, though a few adoring fans follow for years.
The gentleman's talent is acclaimed by his peers. His fellow musicians treat him as their exemplar - a father figure. Until the early 1970's when I entered into his life seriously and ventured to become involved with his career, Cliff had received relatively little recognition. He had his own radio show for a while in Montreal years earlier when I was a teenager, but he did not have a business manager and he did not aspire to either fame or fortune. His friends and associates Art Tatem, Lionel Hampton, Billy Daniels, Duke Ellington, Liberace, Louis Armstrong, Cozy Cole, Cab Calloway and Court Basie all became international stars. Cliff remained contentedly in the background, a musician earning an honest living.
When I came on the scene in the 1970's, I brought Cliff to the attention of the media. He began to see his name in the newspapers regularly, and radio and television appearances followed. Still, he had never made a commercial record.
Then, in 1981, I came upon the CTV program Thrill of a Lifetime. Wow ! What if ? I sent a letter to Thrill of a Lifetime the way you buy a lottery ticket. I wish. I wish. When I got the telegram from the producers of Thrill of a Lifetime, I could hardly catch my breath. I had not even told Cliff about the program or my letter because I didn't want him to get his hopes up and be disappointed. But once in a very long while, dreams do come true. The people at Thrill of a Lifetime brought Cliff to the attention of RCA Records' Vice President, Ed Preston. An adventure followed. An unbelievable adventure.
Cliff's first record album, "Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter", was presented to him on the Thrill of a Lifetime television program in 1982. We had expected a "demo", but there on Thrill of a Lifetime, we saw that RCA had made a full professional album, almost overnight. I sat on a high stool near the stage in an indescribable state of amazement and joy. Cliff and I were both in tears. It was a thrill shared by 1.9 million Canadian television viewers.