My first introduction to Rocky was while standing smartly at an Admiral's inspection. I had been at the Argentia, Newfoundland Navy Base for two days and had spent that time polishing and shining and ironing and carefully shaving in preparation for that inspection. We were gathered in an aircraft hanger because it was cold and wet and windy outside. There must have been a thousand sailors standing ramrod straight as the Admiral and three or four aides, one with the evil clipboard, walked along and stared everyone in the eye before his eyes would roam over your uniformed torso.
My shoes were like glass and my uniform perfect as I stood awaiting the entourage. I felt horrible for the Second Class Petty Officer next to me and I dreaded the thrashing and voluminous scribbling on that clipboard he would get. He was rotund with his belly protruding through his uniform, his shoes were not shined and one the lace knots was coming undone. His version of standing at attention was leaning to the left a little as if to relieve some sort of hip pain. There were little sprouts of chin hair and he seemed to sniff a lot.
As the Admiral approached I sucked in mightily and locked my stare exactly forward. The Admiral stopped in front of me for two seconds, nodded and moved to Rocky.
"Hi Rocky. You doing okay?"
"Purty good Admiral. How 'bout yourself?"
"I've seen better days. They treating you all right?"
"Aw yeah. I've 'bout got everybody whipped into shape."
The Admiral smiled, reached and shook Rocky's hand, and moved on.
Rocky would become a dear friend.
I was assigned to the Navy tour band in Argentia as the drummer. Rocky was the pianist except for the times we had to perform while marching, then he marched playing the bass drum. He was a dumpy guy with fat fingers which a pianist cannot have and pretty much ignored regulations when they got in the way and he was in his sixties. At one time he was a Chief Petty Officer and got busted down for one reason or another. Then years later he got busted down again for some infraction or another -- all of which he waved off as of no consequence. But everyone was deferential to Rocky so I took it to heart when he called me over for a private conversation after I made a fool of myself at our first band rehearsal where I went overboard with drumsticks flying all over the place. Rocky gently explained that I had absolutely nothing to prove because I wouldn't be there if I wasn't qualified and that I should stop paying attention to myself while playing but instead I should be listening -- really listen to the music.
Who was this fat guy? On our next rehearsal piece he had a piano solo. He was so magnificent that the whole band turned to just watch him with his fat stubby fingers dancing across those keys like Fred Astaire. It hit me then that I was in the presence of a genius jazz pianist at a pretty remote base in Newfoundland, of all places, way up on the frigid North Atlantic. Stuff didn't compute.
Rocky had medals in a shoe box under his bed that I later learned he received for having two ships torpedoed out from under him in World War II. The second time he was in the water for over thirty hours clinging to debris before he was rescued. But that is not the story he would tell. His story would be about dear shipmates that died then.
One of our job requirements was to perform in a jazz combo at the Officers Club on Saturday nights. Free entertainment for the elite. Rocky explained that we needed to dress nice in a civilian suit. I showed up that first time dragging my drums behind me, and there stood Ricky in black slacks and a garish green sequined sport coat and bow tie. My reaction was, "Oh my God!"
We played standards until around 10:00 p.m., then Rocky stood up holding the microphone and told everyone to come and gather around. Officers, quite a few senior officer, in their pristine dress uniforms with their wives and girlfriends in beautiful dresses, obeyed Rocky's order. Then he sat down and adjusted his microphone and began playing a standard that everyone knew and began singing, and then hollered for everyone to sing, and for the next hour the audience sang and swayed with us ending with thunderous applause each time under the direction of this dumpy Second Class Petty Officer with the horrid green blazer. Who was this guy?
Rocky's home was near Newport Beach and his wife was still there. They talked on the phone every other evening. As Rocky and I became closer friends he would sometimes have me over and we would just talk. One of those evenings he excused himself to make a phone call home and his wife told him that Gerry was over and wanted to say hi and so he talked a bit with this guy named Gerry for a while and started talking about how he was sitting with an up and coming drummer and would he like to talk to him and Rocky handed the phone to me saying that Gerry Mulligan wanted to say hi.
A short time later I learned who Rocky was. On evening in the later part of November I stopped by to see Rocky. He was sitting at his desk with a scrapbook open with tears running down his cheeks. It was an anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination. Rocky saw the confusion and concern on my face. He quietly handed me the scrapbook and I sat down to look at the pictures.
There was Rocky in the White House sitting at the piano wearing that same green sequined blazer with Jackie Kennedy sitting on his lap and the President behind them laughing. Then another of Rocky and the President sitting together on the bench playing the piano together. Then it must have been in the Rose Garden and there was Rocky in an open shirt performing on a white piano with the Kennedy's standing and laughing and applauding. Then somewhere John Kennedy was playing the piano -- apparently not to well because Rocky and Jaquelin was standing arm in arm almost bent double from laughing. There were about fifty photos in the album. Rocky calmly explained that he was President Kennedy's personal pianist...a pianist for the family. It seems that the Kennedy's had seen Rocky perform somewhere with a Navy Band and ordered him transferred to the White House and had him promoted to Chief Petty Officer. Rocky said his only job was to be on call and when requested, usually on a Sunday afternoon, he would meet privately with the First Family and he would play and they would laugh and would have a warm couple of hours together.
Apparently the Navy did not like this arrangement and kept trying to order Rocky to other posts. The President blocked all of the orders and firmly let it be known that Rocky was to be left alone. After John Kennedy died, Rocky was transferred. I met him in Argentia, Newfoundland as he was approaching retirement.
I have spent hours searching Google for some mention, a picture, anything about Rocky and the President -- to no avail. I've spent a lot of time trying to learn of this friend of the jazz world online to no avail. How can this dumpy man with the green blazer who was such an accomplished pianist move in and out and through greatness disappear?
I have a ton of regret concerning Rocky. He told me to be sure and call him when I ever got married and he would play at my wedding. He had faded from memory and I didn't. He told me that drummers play loud and obnoxiously, but the best drummers listened and contributed with finesse. He was lonely in Newfoundland and I became his friend. I should have become his lifelong friend.
His name was Rocky Robatham...and I'm not even sure if that last name is spelled right. If you ever find anything about him, let me know.