Sun Valley Resort’s resident pianist, Joe Fos, reflects on 28 years on the bench. Words by Betsy Andrews. Photos by Kirsten Shultz.
Sitting on the bench—the piano bench, that is—becomes the diminutive Fos. He’s been Sun Valley’s pianist-in-residence for nearly three decades. A Juilliard-trained prodigy, he leads the Joe Fos Trio six nights a week in jazz and light classical arrangements at the Sun Valley Lodge’s famous Duchin Room.
Those who automatically think “elevator music” are sorely mistaken. Fos, who performed with the Sun Valley Symphony for many years, startles listeners with a breadth of repertoire and richness of melody that calls to mind water rippling over stones—water that really knows what it’s doing. At midnight on a Saturday in the polished wood-paneled Duchin, with glassware sparkling and mirrors reflecting dancing couples and casual groups, Fos holds court. He turns to laugh with his drummer, Paul Kuross, and puts his head down over the keyboard. It becomes instantly apparent why the marquee at the King James on La Cienega Boulevard in Beverly Hills, where Fos headlined in the mid-60s, read, “The 14 Fingers of Joe Fos.”
“I was playing with my back to the door,” recalls Fos. “I felt someone come up behind me and say, ‘Yup, 14 fingers,’ and I turned around, and there was Robert Goulet.” The Broadway star sang with him that night, and later they collaborated on a recording.
Fos is no stranger to the attention of famous entertainers. The 14-year-old native of San Diego, California, was playing softball near the Hotel del Coronado when he heard about an audition being held that afternoon at the hotel. The winner would play with Liberace on his television program. One of the ball players said, “Why don’t you try out?” So he did. His parents’ foresight paid off, as he won against 150 competitors. “So I was a guest soloist,” Fos says, grinning broadly. “I even did a duet with him.”
Fos is, therefore, unfazed by the steady stream of famous faces that appear in the low glow of the Duchin or in the stands at the Sun Valley Ice Show, during which his trio performs. “All these years, I’ve met some wonderful people,” he states emphatically. “Jean-Claude Killy, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Janet Leigh, Ann Sothern, of course.” But of course! He chuckles, remembering a special program he did with three-time world skating champion Robin Cousins and actress Jamie Lee Curtis. “Jamie Lee wore this beautiful outfit. I think it was a million-dollar dress. I remember it came in an armored car.”
soloist at the Sun Valley Ice Show, he has met legends such as Brian
Boitano, Victor Petrenko and Scott Hamilton. The gold-medalist twirling
atop his piano was skater Nancy Kerrigan and—okay—she wasn’t really
skating on the piano, but Disney was shooting Disney’s Fantasy on Ice, and
on television, a miniaturized Kerrigan appeared to be whizzing across the
top of his concert grand by candlelight.
“It was 12 or 13 degrees and I was wearing a leather jacket and loafers,” he reminisces. “When I first arrived, it was so cold I couldn’t get my car started. A gentleman came over and offered to help. He introduced himself as Wally Huffman” (Sun Valley Company’s general manager). Fos came at the request of resort owner Earl Holding, who also owned the Westgate Hotel in San Diego, where Fos was entertainment director. When Holding acquired Sun Valley Company in 1977, he wanted “Eddy Duchin-type music,” recalls Fos. Duchin, the famous piano showman and orchestra leader of the 1930s, had been friends with Sun Valley Resort founder Averell Harriman. His son, Peter, also a renowned musician, played in Sun Valley during the resort’s golden years.
Fos stayed the winter, and at the season’s end, Holding’s wife, Carol, asked if he might like to see what summer was like. Fos agreed. “Every season she asked if I wanted to stay,” he chuckles. And every season he said “yes.”
Between Liberace and his love affair with Sun Valley, Fos has led the colorful life of a talented musician. While still in high school, he auditioned teens from all over San Diego and put together a 12-piece band called the Melody Makers that played about two engagements a week. Among Fos’ recruits were Johnnie Garen, “a 16-year-old phenom,” who became a fixture of the Los Angeles music scene, and Gary Lafebre, who went on to play with jazz great Stan Kenton. The only problem was that, with so many band members, they couldn’t make much money.
during his debut with the San Diego Symphony, he was so excited that when
he heard the downbeat, “it scared me to death. ‘Holy cow,’ I thought. ‘I
forgot to come in.’ Oh, it was exciting.” His face shines with the memory.
He studied music at San Diego State College and won a scholarship to the
Juilliard School of Music in New York City. There, he studied under Rosina
Lhévinne. (Another student of Lhévinne’s, Van Cliburn, always made a point
to see Fos play when he visited San Diego.)
Then he snaps his fingers rhythmically and croons, “We did stuff like … Do ba do be … I ain’t got nobody … . The band leader was terrible and we traveled with two showgirls that couldn’t dance.” Nonetheless, they played venues like Harrah’s in Las Vegas before the band leader got into a fight one night. They were cancelled and the band, mercifully, split up. Things got better after that. He headlined up and down Los Angeles’ restaurant row, and owned his own nightclub in San Diego for six years.
Today, Fos is active in fall’s annual Sun Valley Swing ’n’ Dixie Jazz Jamboree, which he helped Tom Hazzard establish in 1990. “The first year we just crossed our fingers,” he recalls, but the jamboree quickly became one of the best festivals of its genre. Fos works hard to keep it that way. His eyes sparkle as he describes the “Pianorama,” during which 30 pianists from various orchestras play solos. “They do whatever they feel like doing,” he exclaims. “It’s one of the best things ever.”
He performed with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony early on, but he explains, chuckling, “now that the orchestra’s gotten so big, I’m eating popcorn with everyone else.” He still appears as guest soloist for the annual symphony benefit dinner.
While Fos loved the backstage excitement at the symphony, he laments that, onstage, he couldn’t really see his audience. “You play, and then it’s all over.” It’s obvious that he relishes the intimate setting of the Duchin Room, where he visits with guests and laughs with his band members. He looks like he’s having the time of his life.
Six years ago, Crystal Cruises invited Fos to play onboard during Sun Valley’s slack season, so now each spring he and his wife, Patricia, travel the world for six weeks. His eyes shine as he lists the fabulous things he’s seen, from the Great Wall of China to Catherine the Great’s palace in Russia. In an African village whose name escapes him, Fos followed the sound of distant music through narrow, dusty streets to an old adobe church. There, sitting at an ancient pump organ, was a little boy playing Bach. Even if the boy couldn’t understand his words, the encouragement in Fos’ voice must have been unmistakable as he told the child, “Keep playing. You’re doing great.”
Back at home, Fos’ enthusiasm for his vocation transcends words, as does his music. “Sun Valley is just like magic for so many people,” he says, radiating pleasure that he is part of that magic.