The Joy of Music
The 13th Floor Pianist has lived a storied life
Published: November 20, 2013
Tommy Joy, the full-time house singer and pianist at the 13th Floor, doesn’t like giving his age. He knows the business he’s in is all about appearances.
“I would prefer my age not to be mentioned,” he says on a late Monday afternoon inside the venue on the top floor of the Belvedere Hotel, seats away from the baby grand piano he plays six nights of the week. “This is a funny business. People got their preconceived ideas: ‘I don’t want to hire [you] because that’s the wrong age.’ You can do this until you’re 90.”
Although, if one wanted, it would be easy enough to date Joy. Astute observers might appreciate the experience of a man who matches his red silk tie with a red silk pocket square. Elder statesmen of Baltimore could calculate his age based on the price of a meal in Little Italy, where Joy was born. He remembers paying $3.95 for dinner.
But tracing the arc of Joy’s musical history, a career spent covering jazz songs composed in the 1930s through the early 1950s, is enough to give his age away.
For 40 years he has performed in venues around the country—Hawaii and Texas are the only states he has not performed in—first as a singer fronting bands, and then as a singer and pianist. He started singing around age 13 and dropped out of high school at age 16, spending almost two years in the U.S. Army, during which time, he says, he saw combat in the Vietnam War.
When he returned home, he moved to Tampa Bay, Fla.—for the golfing—and taught himself piano. He spent 17 years traveling around the U.S. doing tunes by composers and singers from the Great American Songbook: Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, George Gershwin, Bing Crosby. In the summers, he would return to the Baltimore area. He sang for nine years with Emil “Zim” Zemarel’s 16-piece big band. (Zemarel passed away in 1999.) Joy once sang “These Foolish Things” for former New York Yankee Mickey Mantle in Tampa—and one time in Jamestown, N.Y., Johnny Cash took the stage to tell the audience how much he enjoyed Joy’s playing. And sang two nights in Manhattan with Lionel Hampton’s band, right after the St. Regis Hotel reopened in 1991.
He was born Thomas Rizzo, the son of two Italian immigrants from Naples who met in Baltimore, and had his name changed by a club owner in New York City who thought customers were confusing Tommy Rizzo for Tony Rizzo, the boxer who had a match just down the street. The owner had j-o-y available for the overhead marquee, and Tommy Joy was born.
“I’m one of the last crooners in this world,” Joy says. “There’s not many left.”
That he is. Joy’s speaking voice is soothing and melodic, and when he sings “Fly Me to the Moon,” it’s almost as if Sinatra had been resurrected. Funny business or not, Joy’s crooning capabilities are the reason he’s back in Baltimore. Joy worked at the old 13th Floor as both a singer and pianist in the late 1980s, when all men had to wear jackets, and an old doorman named Major kept a reserve of black polyester blazers in different sizes for the ignorant and unkempt. Shortly before the renovated 13th Floor reopened in 2012, Joy got a call from the owners while working a gig at a hotel in Charlotte, N.C., a six-week job had that morphed into seven years. He left that job, unusual for any working musician, and with “a handshake deal,” he began again behind the baby grand atop the Belvedere Hotel on Oct. 3, 2012.
“The old adage is: When you’re on a job, you don’t leave a job until you’re fired—’cause you don’t know,” he says. “This was the exception. The opportunity to come back here, to come back to Baltimore, and to come back to the 13th Floor.” He says he plans to stay at the 13th Floor for as long as they’re paying him.
Having steady work is paramount. During one of his stints in Baltimore in the late 1990s, Joy—who played the part of “country club singer” in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film Avalon—turned down the role playing an Italian singer in a night club for a new HBO series. He had just set up six nights of work a week, four in Little Italy, and two at the Sheraton Hotel in Towson. The HBO series? The Sopranos.
It’s not an easy life, as Joy will tell you. His only son, Nick, can sing, but Joy pushed him away from show business.
“I used to tell my son this: ‘Watch me closely. Observe how I live my life; observe how I do everything. You do the opposite, and you’ll be fine.’”
But Joy feels fortunate, and in talking to him, one gets the sense that he doesn’t like giving his age because he considers himself preserved, not stuck, in time. There’s something ageless about his presence. Something that can’t be dated, no matter how many times he peppers his speech with the phrase “back in those days.”
“I’ve been very, very lucky to sing the music I sing and the type of music I play,” he says. “The Great American Songbook. The best songs ever written.”
He leans back, smiles, and with a glint in his eye, strikes his final chord.
“You can’t get better than that.”
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