The piano man: Fredonia native’s musical journey
“The piano is a lonely instrument,” says pianist Don Rebic as we sit down in his house in Fredonia to talk about his musical journey over the past few decades, one that began with an upright player piano in the basement of this house and carried him to the brightest stages on Broadway.
Rebic has stayed here on and off for the last decade, tending to his parents in their late years (both have since passed on). The living room is large, open, with indescribable abstract oil paintings on the walls. It is barely furnished, and a black Steinway baby grand piano presents itself elegantly, unobtrusively in one corner.
To clarify the “lonely” piano: unlike other instruments, the piano stands alone as an independent force — one that does not depend on other instruments to complete itself in the scheme of music. It is a miniature orchestra inside a large, intricate box. From its depths have emerged some of the greatest musical works through the hands of the greatest composers — those who devoted more of their lives to their art than to any human.
An only child, Rebic moved to Fredonia when he was 7 years old after his father was transferred here by Niagara Mohawk from Southern Erie County. The family originally lived in the basement as his father, an industrious and self-reliant man of Croatian descent, constructed the house above them.
“The move to Fredonia was great for me,” said Rebic. In third grade I had the opportunity to study at the college with Juilliard graduate Ann Richardson, and years later, with Lucille Richardson, both world-class pianists.” During elementary and junior high, Rebic also advanced as a clarinetist, an instrument introduced to him by his first band teacher, Frank Farina.
Fredonia High School brought some new opportunities. “I really loved playing the piano, was very focused,” said Rebic. “I practiced probably three to four hours every day. But I also was a pretty normal kid. I played clarinet in the high school band, was in honor society, was on the golf team, had friends, especially Micky Mamp and Tom Gestwicki, who were into the rock music. I ended up playing in a rock band. We were called Blue Lamp. That was with Charlie Bandla and John Carlson on guitar, Frank Beach on bass, Ray Domanski on drums, and Dave Roberts sang. It was a blast, and man, were we loud! Like Spinal Tap loud! We played at the Hub in Fredonia and the Shorewood Country Club every week for quite a while.”
But the rock ‘n roll detour did not last long for Rebic the teenager. “I remember we had a gig at the high school in Westfield, which was pretty well advertised in the paper. Turns out my parents showed up. They’d never seen us before. Of course they didn’t stay long, and the next morning my father informed me that I was done playing rock music. He told me that if I wanted to become to have career in music, I would have to be able to hear. And he was right. I remember lying bed trying to sleep after a gig and my ears just kept ringing.”
After high school Rebic attended Oberlin College, a prestigious classical music school. After a year, he decided to change direction and pursue jazz. He set up an audition at Indiana University. After driving 15 hours straight through to Bloomington, the young man arrived late for his audition but caught the professor just as he was leaving his office. The man agreed to hear him play. Rebic was accepted on the spot and went on to finish his undergrad work there, keeping up the classical training under Abbey Simon while studying jazz with David Baker.
After Bloomington, Rebic moved on to Indianapolis where he worked in Top 40 bands covering the most popular music. In the process he accumulated a ton of equipment — a Hammond organ, Leslie speakers, amplifiers, synthesizers, and a Fender Rhodes electric piano. After a couple years on the club scene, Rebic received a call from a friend in New York City.
It was in the late 1970s when Rebic drove his station wagon to the Big Apple pulling a trailer full of band equipment. He rented a cheap apartment in Queens on the third floor. “There was no way I was hauling that stuff up and down those stairs,” says Rebic. “I sold most of it.”
For a serious young musician like Don Rebic, NYC was not about playing cover songs. Following leads, he began auditioning for shows and soon found himself playing piano for the first stage production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The show went on the road touring the East Coast and Midwest and ended up on Broadway for a limited run at the “Longacre Theater.” Don was conducting the show before it closed.
Soon after, Rebic was hired as piano accompanist for Bob Fosse’s production “Dancin.'” After a few months he was promoted to associate conductor of the pit band, and later to full conductor during the show’s first national tour. After that he was called for show after show, some lasting a while, some fizzling out right away. And then there was a long running of Rupert Holmes’ “Mystery of Edwin Drood” followed by another of Fosse’s big hits, “Sweet Charity” with Debbie Allen.
In addition to the shows, Rebic worked as accompanist for many stars, including Bette Midler, Liza Minelli, Melissa Manchester, Barbara Cook, Ricky Martin, and the great Leslie Uggams with whom he collaborated for over 25 years.
Despite all the good times, things could get a little dicey in the NYC music business. Rebic recalls performing with hot-tempered crooner Julius La Rosa at the Rainbow of Stars in the Rockefeller Center. “I remember one night (infamous mobster) John Gotti came in with two of his ‘accomplices.’ They sat for a few songs, then got up and left. A while later they came back for the rest of the show. After we finished Julius was really mad. He was cussing loudly about Gotti disrespecting him. I asked him to please calm down because I didn’t want to become collateral damage!”
Regarding his success in such a competitive market as New York, Rebic says, “It’s really hard to break in. But once you do, there are so many ways to go. What I am most proud of in my career is having worked with both Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon, who was winner of Academy, Emmy, and Tony awards. Those two are so great, so important.”
Success in the bright lights of the big city is never without a darker side. The nightlife can be perilous in many ways, and artists especially need be aware of traps hiding under all the trappings. I wonder if there comes a time when the pace and the intensity of competing on such a high level becomes less exciting and more exhausting, and that being in the thick of all that humanity can make one feel more alone. I would venture to guess that Don Rebic’s return to the motherland here might have something to do with a desire to channel his enormous talent into a creative process that provides personal inspiration and healing, for both himself and others.
Rebic is comfortable now receiving his pension from the Musicians Union. He continues to perform here and there, and he does digital recording work out of his home, collaborating with associates long-distance from NYC to LA. “I’m staying busy doing these projects and I don’t even have to leave the house.”
I leave the Rebic house now, having made a deal with him that I will come back soon and that he will perform for me Chopin’s Scherzo in Bb Minor. Just Don Rebic and his baby grand Steinway piano. What could be better than that?