Richard Aitken, 68, cocktail lounge pianist

August 30, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Richard Aitken, a pianist whose mellow music graced Baltimore cocktail lounges for nearly four decades, died Wednesday of cancer at his Riderwood home. He was 68.

He played at some of the city's finest restaurants and clubs, including the Prime Rib, the 13th Floor at the Belvedere, the Chesapeake Restaurant, the Eager House and Danny's.

His last night at the piano was five weeks ago at McCafferty's Restaurant in Mount Washington.

"Was he ever popular," said Don McCafferty, owner of the restaurant.

"He was the classiest and nicest gentleman I ever met in my life. There was never any pretense about him, and he'll be hard to replace. His type is gone forever," he said.

"Dick had an elegance and warmth and a great capacity to entertain," said Steve Gavin, former News American "Man About Town" columnist. "He was part of that era of clubs and restaurants that extended north from Mount Vernon Place to Pennsylvania Station. He was part of cafe society when Charles Street was the lifeline of the city."

When Nick and Buzz Beler opened the Prime Rib in 1965, it was Mr. Aitken they asked to play the piano.

"And it brought him to the piano with the raised glass top so that Aitken's expressive hands can seem to swirl into the illusion of some proud flying Clipper ship, under full sail and flying grandly into the tide," wrote Mr. Gavin for the record liner notes of "Richard Aitken Rare Sounds at the Prime Rib."

On the recording, Mr. Aitken plays "Don't Rain on My Parade," his signature tune.

"He can suggest a variety of moods that can only be matched by Baltimore's weather. Regardless of mood, however, there is always the shining clarity of a late September forenoon," Mr. Gavin wrote.

By day, Mr. Aitken was a music teacher in the city schools during the 1960s, then in Baltimore County schools until he retired in 1991.

He would come home from school, eat dinner with his family and then put on a carefully pressed dinner jacket and pants, a crisp white shirt and a bow tie.

"I don't know how he did it for all those years," said his son, R. Randolph Aitken of Riderwood. "He'd be out until the wee hours of the morning and worked six days a week."

A descendant of Scottish poet Robert Burns and New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, Mr. Aitken was born in Hackensack, N.J., and graduated from high school there in 1946.

He studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and then at the Peabody Institute, where he earned a teacher's certificate in 1953, a bachelor's degree in 1955 and a master's degree in 1967.

He began his career playing piano in Block strip joints such as the 2 O'Clock Club and later at jazz joints in New York City. He also played for society orchestra leader Meyer Davis, whose "Navy" was booked on passenger liners.

He was a member of the S.S. America's orchestra, and after 39 trans-Atlantic crossings, decided to give up the sea for the smoky atmosphere of Eddie Leonard's musical spa on Charles Street, which in the 1950s was the city's pre-eminent jazz club.

Charley Harris of Baltimore, 80, who played bass for 14 years for Nat King Cole and later was a member of Mr. Aitken's trio, marveled at his inventory of songs.

"He knew thousands of tunes and played from memory and never used sheet music. He was serious about his music and was a real crowd pleaser," said Mr. Harris.

Mr. McCafferty remembered the night a customer requested a song. "[Mr. Aitken] replied that he hadn't played that song in 25 years and then launched into a perfect rendition of it."

In his off-hours, Mr. Aitken organized Sunday afternoon jazz concerts at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He was a member of the old University Club and the Johns Hopkins Club.

He was a member of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, 4 E. University Parkway, where a funeral will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

Other survivors include his wife of 45 years, the former Mary Wootsey Derr, and three brothers, Thomas J. Aitken of Cherry Hill, N.J., Robert B. Aitken of Paterson, N.J., and Joseph Aitken of St. Louis.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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