The Presidential Pianist
David Osborne keeps the politics to a minimum as he keeps Commanders in Chief entertained
Wed, Feb 24, 2010 (4:23 p.m.)
Photo: Bill Hughes
David Osborne needed to postpone the conversation for a half hour or so.
"The White House is calling," he says with a trace of giddiness in his voice. "They want to know if I want to come meet the president tomorrow morning at Green Valley High School." Totally understandable. In fact, it fit perfectly into the raison d'etre of any interview with this man, a pianist who plays in bars at the Bellagio five nights a week.
Surprisingly, though, Osborne seemed excited. It's not like he's new at this; he's a regular at the White House. He's played at Christmastime there pretty much every year since late in Bill Clinton's second term, has Jimmy Carter's cell number and e-mail address on his iPhone, and has tickled the ivories at one location or another for six presidents.
"It never gets old," he says later when the arrangements for his Obama meet-and-greet were squared away. "Each and every time, it's so exciting. I can't even really tell you why."
Osborne, 51, has a deep respect for all the presidents he's played for, including George W. Bush. After all, Osborne has played Bush's White House more times than the others, if only because he only made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in 1999.
Not bad for a small-town kid from Miami, Oklahoma, (pronounced My-am-uh) who first laid eyes on a piano at church at age 4. By 11, he had won a Liberace competition and met the flamboyant Vegas icon, at 12 he was playing professionally on keyboards as entertainment at Walmart, and in 1976 he was rated the best high-school pianist in the country when he won the MTNA National Piano Competition.
It was a bit of a Billy Elliot-style upbringing, though. Osborne's macho dad wasn't impressed by his son's non-athletic pursuits, regardless of how well-regarded he was, and his mother never seemed pleased.
"You were [considered] bi or gay, which I'm neither, if you play piano from a little town in Oklahoma," Osborne says. "People there... it was a football town. You're sad that people feel that way, because everybody can't be a sports star or a he-man."
Whatever ribbing or ostracism Osborne endured now seems well worth it. He'd go on to study music at Juilliard and then his career path took him to several top resorts in Orlando. In the 1980s, if there was a significant political fundraiser or function that required a pianist in central Florida, Osborne was the guy they called.
His presidential connections started with Jimmy Carter. In 1986, he stood in line for two hours at a book-signing event and passed along a recording of his work to the 39th president. He figured he'd never hear from him again, but Carter's pastor in Plains, Georgia, invited Osborne to play at the church. He did, and a friendship with Carter flourished to the point that Osborne would go on in 1999 to organize Carter's star-studded 75th birthday party concert.
Meanwhile, by the early 1990s, Osborne was making his way to Vegas via St. Louis. Legendary pianist Roger Williams heard him at a hotel and told him he belonged on the Strip. Off he went to Caesars Palace, to play for nearly 10 years in the Palace Court, the late, great gourmet room frequented by Diana Ross, Berry Gordy, Julio Iglesias and whoever else mattered in Vegas at the time. Recording deals followed, his CDs were put into gift shops all over the country and he became a best-selling pianist with more than 5 million copies of his work sold.
He's amassed some presidential anecdotes along the way. He played at a birthday celebration in Florida for Ronald Reagan in 1990 when the Gipper, beginning to exhibit more outward signs of Alzheimer's disease, had cake all over his clothes. One time at the Clinton White House, Osborne got lost and was rescued and led to the East Room by none other than the Big Dog himself. Bush was so impressed that, in that overgrown frat-boy manner of his, he repeatedly punched Osborne in the chest and declared, "the boy can play." The stories go right up to the Obamas' first Christmas.
"Michelle had a tree up there, it was a make-a-wish tree, and you could write on a colored piece of paper what you wished for ... and rolled it up, tucked it in a honeycomb-cardboard sleeve," he says. "It made the tree very colorful and it was all biodegradable, all very green-friendly. It was very different."
There's been the unexpected political awkwardness. Osborne, who attended Oral Roberts University and has appeared on Pat Robertson's 700 Club, is a fairly liberal fellow. Most uncomfortable was a 2003 dinner at the White House where he was grilled by then-Vice President Dick Cheney for his views of the Iraq war and abortion.
"He kept really asking me, I think it was because Patricia Heaton was there and they were giving her kudos for being in Hollywood and being Republican and being really far to the right on a lot of recalls," Osborne recalled. "I answered those questions and I got right into the music and that saved me."
Osborne's abiding respect for the White House is reflected in the photos and mementos throughout his Henderson home.
His respect for Caesars Palace continues as well, despite his departure after Harrah's took over and kept shoving him into smaller, less-prestigious and less-classy venues. By the time he finally acceded to overtures from Bellagio to come over in 2006, Harrah's had shut down the Palace Court and Osborne was playing in their coffee shop-slash-buffet.
Now the man who plays for presidents is also serenading loungers in the Petrossian Bar on the edge of the Bellagio Lobby and in the Baccarat Bar in the casino. It's a heckuva gig.
"It's not only one of the great places in Las Vegas, it's one of the great places to play in the world," he says. "It seems like a magical place. I can sit and stare at the Chihuly glass for hours and lose myself into it."
Indeed, Osborne's mind has to wander as the tanned, tuxedoed pianist runs through a songbook that includes "Chariots of Fire," "Hotel California" and "The Lady Is A Tramp," not because he loves those pieces, but because they're crowd-pleasers that generate tips.
Osborne admits he has grander ambitions, not to mention two small children, the youngest 7 months old, to support. His five-year contract with the Bellagio is up soon, and while he expects to stick around there, he also hopes he can parlay his impressive résumé and association with fame into full-time concert touring. That, he says, is where the money and artistry are.
The Bellagio "takes good care of me," he says, but concert pianists can make more than $10,000 a gig. It's also a little more gratifying if only because audiences are focused on the performance and not, say, waiting for spouses to come down for a dinner reservation.
Still, Osborne's not complaining. Presidents visit Vegas often and he gets to meet them here, always a pleasure. Last week, for instance, he got to tell Obama, to his face, to keep fighting for health-insurance reform, and how proud he was of the president.
And what did Obama reply?
"Oh, he just said 'thank you very much,'" Osborne says, "and, 'I'll see you this Christmas.'"