Pianist Jimmy Lyon (1921-1984) was known for his work as Mabel Mercer’s accompanist to the wider public. During his career, Jimmy performed with Stan Kenton, The Benny Goodman Sextet and for nine-year at the Blue Angel. For those in the “Big Apple”, Jimmy Lyon was the pianist in Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. According to a 1981 article written by journalist Lillian Ross in the New Yorker magazine, Mr. Lyon had a huge repertoire of songs which he could recall and instantly arrange at a moment’s notice.
Jimmy Lyon also had another distinction. He owned and performed on Cole Porter’s Steinway grand piano. The composer had lived at the Waldorf for the last 25 years of his life. Needless to say Jimmy Lyon became recognized not only through this association but also as a unique interpreter of Cole Porter’s songs.
I first met Jimmy in 1981 while he was performing at Broadway Joe’s Steakhouse on West 46th street in New York City. He was still appearing nightly at the Waldorf Astoria as well. After finishing each night at the Waldorf he would taxi over to the West Side and take his seat behind the piano at Broadway Joe’s until the early hours of the morning. I asked him once why he chose to work so many hours and he told me that it was partly for financial reasons, -(he needed the extra money), and partly because Broadway Joe’s was more of a cabaret-style atmosphere where he could allow his many friends and fans (me included) to get up and sing. Broadway Joe’s Steakhouse was a one-of-a-kind venue. To begin with, it was owned by newspaper journalist, Sidney Zion and his wife Elsa. Together they created a private party-like atmosphere that made you feel as though you had been invited to their home. The restaurant had a retro 40’s design with original deco murals and dozens of Al Hirschfeld caricatures of famous newspaper journalists lining the walls. Sidney once told me that when the restaurant changed hands each time, the artwork was part of the sale and accounted for most of the sale price. Each night, after I finished performing I rushed over to Broadway Joe’s, like so many other musicians, and sat in with Jimmy for hours. What I liked best about singing with Jimmy, (aside from his extraordinary style and repertoire) was his ability to accompany a vocalist in a way that made the vocalist look and sound better, while he remained in the background. Jimmy once told me that he was passionate about playing but was never much for notoriety or fanfare. Those of us who knew him well knew that at any time he could have easily become known as one of the “jazz greats” if that had been his desire. The endless list of well know musicians who used to stop by to play and sing with Jimmy was staggering. Among them were, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ruby Braf Bucky Pizzarelli, Dave McKenna, and on and on. Often Jimmy’s wife Chris was present and she would sing, if gently prodded, to Jimmy’s accompaniment. I remember hearing her sing, Jerome Kern’s, “Folk Who Live ON The Hill.” It was a wonderful arrangement and she was a terrific singer.
In 1984 Jimmy was performing in Boston at the Copley Plaza Hotel. He invited me to fly up on one of the weekends to sing with him. I was totally flattered and of course I agreed.
That Summer, I asked Jimmy if he would consider working out with me on a weekly basis; me singing to his accompaniment. I felt that rehearsing with him would help me to come up with fresh ideas for my own performances. We made a deal. He said that he had a number of students interested in studying with him, but no place to teach in Manhattan. I lived only a block away from Broadway Joe’s, so he agreed to teach me free of charge in exchange for using my piano and my apartment as a studio. It was a perfect deal, but unfortunately short-lived. One evening I showed up at Broadway Joe’s and Jimmy was resting in the apartment above the restaurant. He was not feeling well and he was trying to relax. I offered to finish his evening and he accepted the offer. He was totally appreciative and I was more than happy to help. That next week, he went to see the doctor and learned that he had cancer which was very far advanced. Within a few months he was gone. I lost a friend and we all lost one of the most amazing pianists. To this day, I think of Jimmy every time I play a Cole Porter song.
Source: http://edmascari.com/emblog/, Personal Conversations.
There are so few recordings of Jimmy.
Here’s Jimmy accompanying Mable Mercer at “Cleo’s: in New York City.