Prince Charles and Dumfries House: A Modern Fairy Tale
6th April 2016
Words by Jonathan Wingate
Images by Lee Spinks
He may have been at The Ritz for 21 years, but a couple of hours before he sits down at The Palm Court’s beautiful Blüthner baby grand for his first performance of the day, Ian Gomes is brimming with boyish enthusiasm. “I’m 73 now, but even at my ripe old age, I still get a kick out of playing at The Ritz,” he says as the sun streams in over Green Park through the huge windows of The Wimborne Room. “To play here is the ultimate, so if I wasn’t working here already, I would give anything to do this because I actually get paid for doing something I truly love. Of course, I need to earn a living and at my age most people want to put their feet up, but really, I come here because I enjoy what I do. Music is like a heartbeat for me. I was recently coming back from a holiday with my wife and I said to her: ‘Darling, tomorrow’s Monday…I can’t wait to get back to the piano’. She thought I was absolutely mad.”
During his 50 years as a professional musician, Gomes has amassed his fair share of choice anecdotes, the most entertaining of which inevitably involve Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. He played for and with Sinatra for over a decade during the 1980s and 1990s whenever he was in London. “I was playing in the foyer of The Savoy and Mr Sinatra hung around and listened for a while. Later that night I got a call asking me to play for him. When I arrived he was sitting with Roger Moore, Glenn Ford and a few of his guests. At the end of the night, his London impresario, Harold Davison, came up to me and put some notes in my top pocket, but I gave the money back and said it was my pleasure just to play for the great man. Mr Davison looked at me and said, ‘If the boss says you’ve got to take it, you’ve got to take it.’ After I had finished playing, I checked to see how much he had given me. It was £2,000. “After that, I was the only pianist he ever called upon whenever he was here. I couldn’t believe it at first, but I eventually realised that he just really liked the way I played.
He used to call me Mr Piano Man: ‘Play a little blues, Mr Piano Man.’”He always asked me to play his favourite song, which was Michel Legrand’s How Do You Keep The Music Playing? He would often get up and sing it to his guests. It’s a song that has been incredibly important to me and I still play it all the time at The Ritz. One night, at about 4am, he was getting ready to leave and I got the biggest hug and a kiss on the cheek,” Gomes recalls, wiping a tear from his eye. “It was one of the best moments of my life. That was the last time I saw Sinatra.” As soon as Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay bought the hotel in 1995, they set about restoring the building to its awe-inspiring former glory and asked Gomes to come and work at The Ritz. “Since Sir Frederick and Sir David took over, everything has been brought back to the way it was when it was first built. It is once again the best hotel in the world and it is one of the few hotels where you still have to wear a jacket and tie to go to tea or to the restaurant. The Ritz has that really old-school approach and I think people appreciate that.”
As befits a man who specialises in tunes from music’s golden age, the Great American Songbook, Gomes is immaculately dressed in a crisp white tuxedo, black trousers and patent leather shoes you can see your reflection in. “I always try to look the part,” he explains. “When you walk into The Ritz, you feel like you leave the outside world behind you. It is literally like stepping back in time, so it is very important that the music I play and the way that I dress reflects the unique atmosphere of The Ritz.”
Afternoon tea at The Ritz may be an institution in itself, popular since Swiss hotelier César Ritz first opened its doors 110 years ago in May 1906, but after more than two decades, Gomes’s deliciously understated piano playing is as much a part of The Ritz experience as its inimitable neoclassical Louis XVI style. “People come here to have tea, lunch or dinner, so although they don’t really come to listen to the piano, it is lovely to hear it in the background. The chatter during a busy teatime sitting can be quite loud, but the music somehow always enhances the atmosphere. Because it is The Ritz, people don’t clap or sing along, they just politely nod their heads and smile. I certainly don’t encourage people to sing because you never know how good they are going to be. “Of course, I have made a few exceptions over the years,” Gomes smiles. “Well, you can’t say no to Tony Bennett, can you? Just before he was about to leave to give a concert at the Royal Albert Hall a couple of years ago, he started talking to me about Frank Sinatra and asked if I knew How Do You Keep The Music Playing? I began to play it and he started singing ever so quietly. He’s music royalty, just like Sinatra, and I’m just a piano player in a hotel, so for him to want to sing with me was incredibly moving.”
It’s hardly surprising that music runs through his veins. His father, Stanley Gomes, was first violinist of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra, the only one of its kind in the East. “We had legendary musicians such as Heifetz, Kreisler, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Menuhin and Barenboim all coming over to play. I didn’t really realise who they were when I was a child, but looking back on it, I have to pinch myself at the very thought that I saw all of these truly inspiring musicians. I went to every rehearsal and every concert. I always carried my dad’s violin and he would bring me on stage after every rehearsal and say: ‘This is my little son…he plays the piano’. “I could see that these musicians were incredibly dedicated, but sadly, I wasn’t,” Gomes recalls. “By my mid-teens, I was listening to singers such as Sinatra and Dean Martin and although I was a very good classical player, my father said to me: ‘Son, you’ll never be a concert pianist because you’re not dedicated enough. Give it up.’ My father taught me how to sing with my fingers when I played, which was the most important lesson I ever learned. I play, as the singer would sing the song. I don’t believe in embellishing the tunes with fancy showmanship, so everything I play is simple, elegant and classic, which is exactly what The Ritz is.”
Although Gomes had already made something of a name for himself with his own weekly show on All India Radio, on the advice of his father, he came to England in 1965. “I started working as a labourer in the day and playing in pubs at night, which was the best thing I ever did. The BBC was running a competition to find Britain’s best pub pianist and I won. The prize was a spot on the BBC, which brought me to the attention of The Savoy, who immediately asked me to work for them. If it hadn’t been for that, I think I would still be playing in pubs and clubs.” If you measure musical success in terms of awards, album sales and sell-out concerts, Gomes’s remarkable career may seem rather unremarkable, but if you look at his long list of illustrious admirers or witness the way he transforms the atmosphere with his timeless, ineffably moving playing, he truly is in a class of his own. He may not be a household name, but he is a musician of tremendous melodic sophistication who produces a beautiful tone from the piano, which makes his long, flowing lines glow with a lyrical luminescence.
“I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but whenever I come to The Ritz, all of the staff say ‘Here comes The Legend’,” Ian Gomes laughs as our time together comes to a close. “It makes me feel so proud because playing here is such an honour. I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else and I’m having such a good time. Every time I sit down at the piano, I look at everyone and think to myself ‘What can I play that will make them happy?’ That really is my joy.”