The Bellagio’s tuxedoed pianist David Osborne will fly to Washington today to perform for President Barack Obama’s family for the fifth year in a row, on the White House’s Eagle Steinway.
“That piano is so big, you hear it all over the White House. It’s huge!” Osborne says.
Osborne has played holiday parties for the Bushes, Clintons and Obamas, and he still plays for his friend Jimmy Carter regularly.
This week, he performs at a bipartisan event in the White House on Thursday, followed by a 2½-hour gig of Christmas songs and pop hits for the Obama family on Friday. On Monday, he plays on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Here’s how White House gigs typically go:
He walks through gates, shuttled by greeters and security, stands in holding areas and hallways (where he must not wander), walks past 25 to 30 Christmas trees altogether, until he sits at a piano in a room where Obama often addresses America.
Mr. and Mrs. Obama normally ask how his kids are doing, by name.
“He’s such a brilliant, nice man,” Osborne says. “And they’re such a wonderful family. She’ll always grab me and say, ‘How was your year this year?’ ”
The president will remind Osborne to play “Overjoyed,” because Michelle Obama loves Stevie Wonder.
Osborne reserves two songs for her mother, Marian Robinson.
“I’m going to be doing a Rachmaninoff piece called ‘Prelude in G Minor’ that her mother likes.
“She’ll come down the steps while I’m playing. It sounds a little corny, but I’ll go into ‘Mrs. Robinson’ ” — the Simon and Garfunkel classic — “she loves that.”
“Obama will roll his eyes at me,” Osborne says and laughs.
“He doesn’t do it in a mean way. He has that smile, and he’ll fold his arms. He’s really a down-to-earth person. People really don’t know how nice he is.”
Osborne says presidential families of both parties always present themselves humbly and ask questions along the lines of “Is everybody treating you nice?” “What did you most like about the decorations this year?” “What are your plans for the future?”
“They (presidential families) are really into people’s individuality. I think we can all learn from that. It’s a ‘Enough about me, let’s hear about you’ type of thing. I love that.”
He says former President Bill Clinton was “so loose and fun and jovial … you’d almost forget he was the president.”
“He would even sing along with us, carols. Clinton has a great voice.”
Once in the Clinton White House, a staffer advised Osborne not to over-chat the president. But then?
“About three songs in, Clinton comes over,” Osborne says. “He sat down on the bench with me and said, ‘Let me see that lick. What was that last lick you did?’ ”
The lick was Osborne’s chromatic run from the top of the piano keys all the way down, during arpeggios in “The Christmas Song.”
But Osborne is closest to Carter, my own favorite living president. Osborne performed for Carter recently. Their visit was cut short because Carter had to get back to work.
“He went to build houses with Garth Brooks” for Habitat for Humanity, Osborne says. “He built houses for eight hours a day, for three weeks, at 89 years old. He’s an amazing man.”
Osborne returns Dec. 19 to the Bellagio, where he is preparing a New Year’s Eve gig of champagne and Chopin.
Doug Elfman’s column appears Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He also writes for Neon on Fridays. Email him at email@example.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.