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So many memories spring to mind when remembering the late great singer-pianist Scott Traudt, but what some think of first is his characteristic laugh. It was a glorious guffaw and sounded rather like "HAW haw haw haw haw," a chortle at its weakest and a raucous roar at maximum. It was always impossible not to know that Scott was in an audience, based solely on the very sound of it.
Regrettably, other memories come with a good deal of anger and sorrow; his untimely demise in 1994 at the age of thirty-three from alcohol-induced pancreatitis left so very many people with a feeling of powerlessness and wishing they could have done more to prevent it, and even worse to know that it was imminently unavoidable.
Born in 1960 into a close-knit family in the upstate New York village of Red Hook, in Dutchess County, Traudt showed an extreme flair and showmanship as an instrumentalist and vocalist, and emigrated southward to New York City upon reaching very early adulthood in 1984. It was within two short years that he began not only performing regularly at the Duplex (which at that point had just been sold by the team of Erv Raible and the late Rob Hoskins to the equally-illustrious duo of Larry Shumel and Rick Panson), but he also settled in as the premiere musical director for the legendary drag entertainer Ruby Rims. "The first time I met Scott was in 1986," Rims tells me. "He played piano one afternoon and I adored him, and I got Rick Panson to hire him for Happy Hour twice a week. He played for quite a few months, and then I decided to do another set of shows upstairs. My pianist up to that point was Richard Burke. who could no longer play. So I had Scott play my shows, and it was marvelous."
Popular piano bar waitron Lauren Mufson has a similar memory. "I can't remember where I first met Scott, but it was probably at Brandy's when he came by to visit Jimmy Luzar. But I remember my first impression: utterly adorable. He was the sweetest, kindest spirit. When I first met him, he was a skinny slip of a thing, with a sassy dirty blond shag haircut. Ooooh, how that hair evolved into platinum insanity!" she chuckles. "We worked together at Rose's Turn and Don't Tell Mama for I don't know how long. One of my sweetest memories of him was sitting in his apartment on the couch, and listening as he waxed poetic about Diana Ross, his absolute favorite; how underrated she was as a singer, how stunningly beautiful she was. He loved, Loved, LOVED her." She adds, "As he did a number of pretty, talented female friends of his. He had moon-eyed crushes on his girls: me, Lauren Echo, Elaine Brier and Elena Bennett, amongst others. He made us laugh until it hurt, and wanted to please so desperately. I vividly recall him asking, 'Did I play that OK for you?' And the aforementioned Lauren Echo has her own memory. "I walked into the Duplex in 1990," she says, "and saw Traudt playing the piano. I immediately fell in love! His voice, his playing, and his personality. And his adorable, handsome, beautiful eyes and FABULOUS smile were one of a kind, and completely engaging. He invited me up to sing at some point during the evening, and, well...I quickly became a regular. And the rest is history!" she finishes. Elena Bennett adds, "I think I might have been underaged when I met him, at the original Broadway Baby, although he didn't recall it that way. But from moment one, he was like a brother to me, and the best pianist. He really understood me; it's like he was somehow in my soul. The first song I ever sang with him was 'God Bless The Child.' Scott would give you a smile while you were singing, and it would shine across Manhattan," she finishes. "For a mere babe in the woods of the cabaret jungle like myself, it was a blessing and a gift."
When asked which song strikes folks as Traudt's most memorable rendition, "Forever Young" seems to come up again and again. "I would have to say that I remember most vividly his rendition of that," Echo says, "but for the rest of my life I will also never forget "After You," a Dionne Warwick tune that we sang together. I could go on and on; there was 'You’ve Got A Friend,' 'Emotion,' 'Then Came You,' 'Say A Little Prayer,' and I also cannot ever forget his silky-smooth vocals on 'The Search is Over.'" Rims adds, "My favorite song he did was 'Forever Young.' In 1993, he played it for me on my fortieth birthday at Eighty Eight's. My mom and I sat there and held hands, and I thought, at that time, that I would stay forever young, as I had been diagnosed with AIDS a year before that."
Naturally, Traudt's dearest friends have other cherished memories. "I remember the night his two younger twin brothers came down to the Duplex," Bennett tells me. "They were just cute as buttons, and the love they had for Scott was just so tangible and amazing." Other memories extend beyond their experiences with him in cabaret and piano bars. "Oh," says Echo, "there were the nights he would walk me home to my apartment on Perry Street, and we would just laugh and laugh. I recall great moments as 'brother and sister,' a beautiful connection and one that I will never forget. All I know is that any and every time I spent with Traudt was special. He was one of a kind, that’s for sure!" Rims adds, "My two most amusing memories of him would have to be when he played for me the first time I was on Phil Donahue's show. I can still watch the tape that show and see him in his sneakers, I believe they were PF Flyers, with a smile that will always melt my heart. The other," he continues, "was when we played in Provincetown in 1987. We stayed an extra day but it rained, and we had to come home to work at the Duplex, but the flight was delayed. We were called to get on this little rinky-dink of a plane, and they asked me how much I weighed. Scott roared with laughter, and he roared even more when they told me I couldn't get on the plane, but he could, I told him to go ahead, and he got home before I did. When I got home, everyone asked me, "Hey, Ruby, how much do you weigh?" and "Ridden in any planes lately, Ruby?"
Two names come up again and again in tandem with Traudt, those of his two best friends, Bob Quinn and Murray Cox. Once nicknamed "The Three Musketeers of Piano Bar Row," both would also meet with an early end to their lives and shuffle off their mortal coil at a too-young stage. "I remember so many nights," Mufson says, "of hanging with Bob and Murray and Scott, talking about EVERYTHING. Silly, intense, family life and personal anecdotes." Rims echoes, "I went to visit him that Christmas Day at St. Vincent's when he was in rehab. Murray and I were sitting with him and talking, and I had been diagnosed not long before. Murray asked me how I was doing, and Traudt said, 'Oh, please. He'll outlive both of us.'" He concludes with a touch of irony, "How bittersweet it is to say that he was right." Bennett also adds, "My only happiness is in the knowledge that the three of them are up there taking care of Ricky Ritzel's mother." And Echo concludes, "Though a tragedy, I know Scott is up there, loving and laughing and drinking a pretty pink cocktail with Murray and Bob. His beautiful voice and spirit is only a thought away, and easy to recall at any moment. For me, that’s the gift."
Of course such a death that might have been preventable comes with regrets and sad memories. "I regret that Scott could not stop drinking," Rims tells me. "My saddest memory is visiting him at St Vincent's when he was in a coma. His belly was huge under the thin blanket, and his face still beautiful. I kept hoping he'd just burst out laughing." "I really had no regrets," Bennett says, "until the very end. He did what he wanted to do, and I didn't know about any of it." Mufson contributes, "It was tragic watching such a dear, loving, lovable person kill himself at such a young age. He absolutely could not stop drinking, and he seemed pretty resigned to that fact. But he had a heart the size of Texas. I loved him very much, and remembering him makes me smile a big, silly grin. He's someone who smiled through a lot of pain. He also had a TREMENDOUS amount of fun along the way." And Echo concludes, "He lived his life. He shared with us a great gift. And he was sick, and frankly it sucks! But I remember becoming profoundly aware of what was going on, and having an intense conversation with him and basically begging him to get help. I don’t recall much except for speaking with him, the night or two nights before he died. I have little memory of what we spoke about. Looking back now, I would have done more or attempted to do more, but that’s always the case with a situation such as this. Ultimately, it went down the way it did, and had there been more to do from everyone who loved him, it would have been done."
In one of his final triumphant turns on the cabaret stage, Traudt opted to perform a show with his four favorite female singers of the time, namely Bennett, Mufson, Echo, and Elaine Brier, which drew copious critical acclaim and became one of the hits of the 1993 season. What are the memories that stick out the most for the ladies involved? "Well, " Bennett tells me, "initially, he and Elaine didn't get along. She and I have known each other since we were children, because our fathers were close acquaintances. I finally went to him and said, 'You hae no concept of how wonderful she is. Give her a little time and you'll understand her.' Which is exactly what happened." Echo adds, "Working with him on the show with Lauren, Elena and Elaine, was a blast. I recall having a great time, learning fabulous songs and feeling a great sense of dedication to all of our craft. We put on a hell of a show! And," she concludes, "I think about him so very often and miss him. It would have been a wonderful to have the chance to work with him again. I definitely miss those days, and wish it were possible to step back in time and experience, once again, the wonderful gift that Scott brought to us. Sometimes it seems like a dream that it all took place the way it did, but it really did."
A closing thought comes from Stephen Miller, a long-time manager of the legendary piano bar and supper club The Five Oaks, where Traudt entertained for so many years. Faced with his own trials and tribulations at the time of Traudt's death, the gentleman says, "The greatest gift I was able to take from that portion of time, is that he turned out to be a huge inspiration in my own life for positive action, and for that I will always be thankful." These are indeed words to live by. And, possibly, a huge part of the reason why Scott Traudt continues to live on in the hearts and minds of so many.
On this the day before Thanksgiving 2009, as I count my blessings, I am truly grateful to have known Scott Traudt and to have called him my friend. Take care everyone and have a great Holiday.
Art Credit: Bud Kerr
Bud Kerr painted the panel that hung on stage at Scott Traudt's memorial service, portions of which are pictured here throughout this column.