Tuesday, February 19, 2019


Here's a look at Campagnola, the last place Bobby Cole played. You can see the piano in front of the big glass window that looked onto 1st Avenue. People sat at the bar to drink, and when he was around, swivel around to watch him play and sing. Some took their drinks and stood around the piano. Some snagged those tables close to him. Most of the dining area was in the back; more and more tables. 

If you're wondering about the name, "Campagnola" basically means "country-style." A "campagnola" is a farm girl, an earthy woman perhaps, who has old-world values. The place was not owned by an Italian, but by a guy named Murray Wilson, who managed some boxers, had an interest in restaurants, and in 1982, opened a place that eventually served authentic enough cuisine to make it an uptown favorite. I never met the guy. The staff were mostly Italian, and the guy who managed the joint and that Bobby answered to was named Salvatore.

Other than the bartender, it seemed Wilson was dedicated to hiring authentic Italians for his "Campagnola." Whether some of Wilson's financing came from authentic if not dangerous people in Little Italy, let's not speculate. Don't speculate, and don't leave a speck on your plate...

Oh look. What's on the plate? Antipasto? Appetizer? To be Sinatra...er, to be Frank, when lady and I would be there, we'd sometimes order anything that seemed like a snack.

We'd arrive well after the dinner hour, usually closer to 11,  and the excuse for not going bankrupt in the place was that we'd already eaten a big meal. PS, a "snack" at this place was like the price of a meal elsewhere. Another alternative was dessert and some wine or sparkling water. But if you had the habit of referring to sparkling water by the best known brand name, you were asking for trouble. "No wine, just a Perrier." A stern, if not murderous look accompanied the grim reply: "No Perrier. PELLEGRINO!"Ay, THAT's ITALIAN!

Getting back to the name of the place, despite being on the tony Upper East Side, Campagnola was, and is, a very ordinary-looking place from the outside. If not a "country" inn, it does look homey, doesn't it? 

The place really came alive on the weekends, when Bobby showed up. Well, usually. If he missed a night or two, he was forgiven. 

You don’t know what you got until you lose it. In a way, that applied to Bobby, who certainly tried the patience of some people while he was still around. It’s an irony that one of his favorite songs was “After You’ve Gone.” 

It was even money that “After You’ve Gone” would be on the set list when you saw Bobby. When he was about to take a break during a set, Bobby tended to lapse into another favorite, a few minutes of “Take the A Train” done as an Errol Garner-styled instrumental. Maybe he was wishing that a few of the noisier and rowdier denizens of Campagnola would indeed, take the A-train so he could come back to the piano and be surrounded by people seriously listening to him. (Of course the A-train was on the west side of town, and any affluent customer seeking to get to one of Harlem’s swankier jazz clubs and eateries catering to rich tourists, would take a cab.) 

Campagnola had its regulars, and often celebrities. Sometimes a famous lady was there to, uh, rendezvous with Bobby Cole. (I ain't namin' names). Hoi polloi just "smellin' where they're dwellin'" were in for a shock if they walked in expecting Olive Garden prices. Those types needed to walk in and ask for an estimate on dinner! Stake yourself to a steak, and you'd be paying $40 or $50. Salmon or sole, $25 to $35. Maybe you'd find a pasta dish for $22. An appetizer could even be $20. Get yourself a couple of drinks and you'd be more wobbly from the lightness of your wallet. Meanwhile if you were ordering in Italian, you might stare down and not be sure what the hell the waiter had put in front of you.

But Bobby Cole was at the piano, and you'd hear "The Big Hurt" and "Say It Isn't So" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" and "After You've Gone," and then you'd go back out into the night, full of food, booze and good music. You could look back from across the street, and be thankful for a good time.

(PS, the corner deli where Bobby disappeared on breaks to get a bottle of beer is still there but Tasti D Lite has GONE...) The original owner of the place, Murray Wilson, died in 2010. The restaurant is now under new ownership. 

It was after seeing Bobby so many times at venues where chestnuts like "After You've Gone" was likely to be played and maybe a Beatles tune or an Elton John item was thrown in, I ventured this question: “Why don’t you play your original songs?” The wry reply would’ve been because he was, in his word, “I’m in the people pleasing business.” People wanted to hear familiar favorites. Probably closer to the truth was that he didn’t want to see or hear people ignoring his own most intimate and creative creations.

I think when “A Point of View” first came out, he promoted it by singing some of his originals. He recalled a time in Pittsburgh when he sang “Growing Old,” and saw a man with tears glistening down his face. He told me that generally it would have to be a very special and intimate venue, late at night, when he’d perform some of the tunes he’d finished working on. 

One night when Campagnola was empty, and he was about to leave, he paused, and for me and my lady, he returned to the piano. “This is an original song that’s not on that album,” he said (referring to the beloved “A Point of View”).  He said, “It might be on the new one, ‘The Hole in the Corner Man.’” He gave a Brando-like curled smile. “How’s THAT for a title,” he mused. He added with a touch of self-deprecating irony “And the title of this song is ‘So Sleeps the Pride.’ What a title, huh…” And then came those hypnotic opening notes, and a song that laid bare the soul of the performer…this performer…any performer.

Some performers are appreciated in their lifetime, and even more so after they’ve gone. Here’s one of the live tracks from Campagnola, caught via portable cassette recorder, circa 1996. 

There'll come a time, now don't forget it
There'll come a time, when you'll regret it
Some day when you'll grow lonely
Your heart will break like mine and you'll want me only
After you've gone, after you've gone away



Marie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marie said...

I just saw this! Thank you for giving us your recollections of Campagnola. AND for sharing "After You've Gone." I'm sharing a link to the Bobby Cole fanpage. You are a treasure.

Rich said...

Are you okay? Are you coming back?

Timmy said...

oh, God... What did you die too?

Ill Folks said...

It was what, the great thinker Sean Connery who said "Never say never again?" I'm not sure whether the blog should begin and end with Bobby Cole. I do appreciate that, like Phil Ochs, there's a "small circle of friends" that have enjoyed the work!

Marie said...

I'm glad you've made contact. It sure looked like you had retired. Welcome back.

Steve way up in Northern New Engladn said...

It's more than a small group. We may not comment but we are strong fans. Mostly glad that you are well.