Almost everybody has seen it: Sailor Sabol’s spectacularly out-of-tune rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the February 2021 CPAC convention. Dozens of videos are circulating on social media, some of them presenting the performance a cappella as it was originally sung, some of them parodies with after-the-fact accompanists trying to follow Sabol as she wanders through at least four excruciating key changes.
But the funniest of them all—and the one that went the most viral by far—was the brainchild of Larry Goldings, the much-admired L.A.-based pianist, organist, and composer. In it he portrays both a hapless keyboard accompanist who shows up late for the gig, having missed rehearsal and soundcheck, and the show’s exasperated director, whose voice is heard in the accompanist’s headphones saying, “You’d better not screw this up!” The singer’s appalling rendition is hilarious (if painful) on its own, but Goldings’ quizzical looks, winces, growing sense of panic, and split-second key adjustments make his video a comedy classic. To date, it’s gotten more than 2.2 million views on Facebook alone, with thousands more on YouTube and other sites.
“I didn’t expect all this. It was just me, bored, trying to amuse myself,” Goldings said recently via Zoom. “I’ve always had a fascination with the musically bizarre. When you hear somebody who’s that naïve—the confidence, but it’s so ill-informed. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the Trump era.”
Reading the comments on the day he posted the video, Goldings noticed that several people thought it was real. “Somebody said, ‘Frankly, I’m surprised Larry would take a gig like that!’”
But most people got the joke. “The day the CPAC video went viral was the happiest day for me of the pandemic,” he said. “People were calling and texting me who I hadn’t heard from in months … Most comments I got were like, ‘I haven’t laughed this hard in a year.’”
The Grammy-nominated Goldings has released more than 20 albums under his own name; he’s also a film and TV composer, and he’s been James Taylor’s keyboardist for the last two decades. His work with Taylor has won him perhaps his widest fame—until now, anyway.
“The pandemic gave me more time to pursue it, but humor has always been central in my life,” said Goldings, who acknowledged loving Steve Martin and Monty Python as a kid. “My father turned me on to Victor Borge. I thought he was a genius. I also loved P.D.Q. Bach [a.k.a. Peter Schickele].”
Over the years, Goldings has made something of a habit out of accompanying bad singers for laughs. His unique brand of musical comedy began in the New York City phase of his career with his “discovery” of a would-be singer named Johnny “Bowtie” Barstow. In the early ’90s, he recalled, “I was the pianist for an open-mic at the Angry Squire in Chelsea. And this 20-year-old kid came in one night, signed up and got up there, full of confidence, in this ratty tux.” He sang tunes like “Thou Swell” and “Mack the Knife” with a swinging, ring-a-ding-ding attitude—and a profound musical disability. “He loved music but was tone-deaf and rhythm-deaf. He did have stage presence.”
According to Goldings, Barstow was awful in an entirely original way. “Instead of my reaction being, ‘Okay, we can never have this person up here again,’ it was, ‘You are invited anytime.’ Without even thinking about it, from his first notes—if you can call them notes—I immediately started trying to help him and follow him, and make him sound right.” Goldings began to record Barstow, surreptitiously at first, then with his cooperation for a full album of Christmas songs and standards, helped out by Goldings’ regular organ-trio partners, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart. A Bowtie Christmas and More became an underground hit. Its tracks, which defy easy description, can easily be found these days on YouTube.
“This just exposes me as a completely sick person,” Goldings said, laughing, “but I was just fascinated, and still am, by him and people like him.”
Goldings is even more infamous for another musical prank: his comic character Hans Groiner. This fictional Austrian musicologist is best described by his Twitter “bio,” which reads: “I am a scholar of Thelonious Monk. I improve his music by making it more relaxing, and less offensive to the ear.” Back in the mid-2000s, donning a black leather jacket and a blond wig he bought at Target, Goldings, as Groiner, made a series of videos in which he played de-flavorized, “corrected” Monk tunes like “Bemsha Swing” and “Well You Needn’t,” sounding more like Richard Clayderman than Monk. The videos, originally circulating on Myspace, became an Internet phenomenon among jazz cognoscenti and have earned tens of thousands of YouTube views. They even led to several live performances as Hans, including a couple of well-attended “master classes” at NYC’s Smalls and L.A.’s Blue Whale.
The CPAC video has launched a new phase of Goldings’ comedy. He followed up with another video featuring the same keyboard-playing character, whom he now refers to as “The Guy with the Gig.” The new one places him, thanks to green-screen magic and a friend with Adobe’s Premiere video editing software, inside the climactic scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where “the guy,” late as usual, has forgotten the sheet music for the famous five-note synthesizer theme needed to communicate with the aliens.
Happily, more comedy appears likely in Goldings’ future. “People in the biz have told me that, if I want to, I could turn it into something, not just a hobby,” he said. “You know, my wife was never really sold on me doing Hans. She said, ‘You don’t see Brad Mehldau doing that.’ I know it’s odd that I’ve spent so much time on it, but I can’t really help myself. If someone came along and said let’s develop this for a YouTube series, I would go for it.”