Sunday, June 20, 2010


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.

Now anyone familiar with jazz will immediately recognize this jazz great. This baritone sax performer took the jazz world by storm in the sixties and seventy's and was highly sought after by anyone who had anything to do with jazz. And he was on the phone asking to talk with me. I took the phone and I must have muttered something and he was kind and friendly and I have no earthly idea what was said except I know he said that Rocky is the one person that I can truly learn from and finally when I handed the phone back to Rocky I was dumbfounded.

It seems that Rocky and his wife are deep friends with every jazz performer in the world. They owned a large house in Newport and during the annual Newport Jazz Festival their house was the after hours gathering place and they would sit around and talk and drink and perform with Rocky on the piano. Rocky's wife was the 'mother' and caretaker of these people and they would stop by unannounced and always be welcomed with open arms.

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.



    I've been searching for the last hour, and that's as close as I got. I found a Robert "Rocky" Rowbotham mentioned in that obituary...this guy is hard to find! There are a lot of people listed on under R. Rowbotham, if you are so inclined to call around. If none of them are actually him, maybe one will know something of him? You can search by age, and the location is also listed.

    Keep at it! I would love to see you find your friend. He sounds like a great guy. :)

  2. Wow. What an amazing story. I am literally at a loss for words to describe how it makes me feel. It is amazing what twists and turns a life can take, and where we might find ourselves, and with whom. Fascinating. A bit sad, yet not tragic.

    Thank you for sharing this, and so well.


  3. What a lovely, touching, story about a slice of someone'a life. So much depth hidden from view. He would be worth finding.

  4. I really REALLY loved this brilliantly told story.I'll certainly have a bash at trying to trace darling Rocky.

    You know what might help? A photo of you in uniform... Corr!


  6. It is often true that genius and talent often reside in people and places we least expect.

  7. An Angel in disguise?
    Well told.

  8. Wow!
    Not only was this a fantastic story, you told it in an amazing manner! I was glued to it..It't too bad you don't know what became of him! I hope you can find out!

  9. Isn't it funny the amazing people that touch our lives? I hope you find Rocky. It was a wonderful tale and as usual, you told it brilliantly.


  10. Hi is amazing how some people can touch our lives in ways in which we can never forget. Though you did not maintain a life long relationship with Rocky you did maintain a lifetime connection in the way you respect, admire and remember his place in your life. Though you may not physically connect with him I believe emotionally you have with the tribute to him you wrote above.

  11. Wow what a story! To be with someone that had such a place in history, weird how there are no write ups about him.

    Well now there is, thanks to you!