Fenway Park organist Josh Kantor is a utilityman of sorts, playing keyboards for a number of outfits in addition to entertaining the Red Sox faithful. His highest-profile gig is with the fantastic national pastime-themed band the Baseball Project; his hidden-track rendition of the group’s “Panda And The Freak” is a highlight of its aptly titled third album, 3rd (Yep Roc). Kantor is guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our brand-new Q&A with him.
Kantor: In 2006, two years before he passed away, Alan Gordon (who wrote “Happy Together” for the Turtles and “Celebrate” for Three Dog Night) looked me up and sent me this incredible letter out of the blue. That was a tremendous thrill for me, and it was around that time (perhaps in part because of the letter) that I started thinking about a different tack with my playing.
For years, even after I started playing organ at Fenway Park, I would often turn down gigs by telling myself, “I’m not right for that; they’re looking for a real musician.” At some point along the way, I started asking myself, “What if I am a real musician?” I spent a couple years pondering that and starting to dip my toes in the water a little more. Eventually, I decided I would dive in and actively tell other musicians about my interest in playing and my availability. I wasn’t even a little bit good at doing that initially. I’m still not great at it, but I’ve gotten better. And I still encounter a lot of rejection, but I’ve gotten better at not letting that bum me out too much.
Slowly, very slowly, little things started happening here and there. Some were more enjoyable than others. I learned a lot of interesting things about playing with other people that were good things to learn. A few things started going really well. A few other things were so surreal that I couldn’t properly gauge whether they’d gone well, but either way, they made for entertaining stories. Some of those surreal moments are preserved on an obscure little website called YouTube, so if you want to, you can watch them below and decide if they make any more sense to you than they do to me.
I’ve played the monstrous organ at Symphony Hall in Boston on three occasions. The first time was in November 2004; James David Christie, the world-class organist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was also on the bill, so I was feeling a little intimidated. It turned out that he was (almost) as amazed by my lack of sheet music as I was by the complex annotations in his thick score. When the gig was booked a year in advance, I had no idea that it would come just days after the Red Sox would win their first World Series championship in 86 years, and I ended up receiving the longest and most undeserved standing ovation of my life. The second and third times were in May 2012, when long-time Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart said of me, “Perhaps the most popular and listened-to musician in all of Boston, and nobody knows what he looks like.”
For three of the last four opening days in the baseball season, I’ve been invited to play live old-timey ballpark organ music intermittently on ESPN’s SportsCenter broadcasts while the Red Sox were playing on the road. The first time, former NFL head coach Herm Edwards approached me during a commercial break and asked if I’d like to do something with him on the air. “Sure,” I replied. “What do you have in mind?” He thought about it for a second and said, “I’ll tell you what; you play, and I’ll talk.” “Perfect,” I said (that was when I realized that a good coach knows how to exploit the strengths of his available personnel without exposing their weaknesses). The camera’s red light came on, longtime SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn introduced Herm and me on the air, and our little “Groucho and Harpo” routine was born.
Two months ago, I played all 17 minutes of the Velvet Underground’s signature freak-out “Sister Ray” with the Baseball Project, Lenny Kaye and Jason Victor at a Lou Reed tribute at the Paramount Theatre in Austin while Alejandro Escovedo lurked over my shoulder. The Los Angeles Times said we “massacred” the song “in grand fashion.” Here is a two-minute clip. Adding to the surreal nature of this for me: Jason and I were teenage roommates and bandmates.
My friend Jon called me on a Saturday afternoon a few months ago and asked, “What are you doing this weekend?” “Not much,” I replied, “Why do you ask?” “Well,” he said, “we’re rehearsing today for a benefit show tomorrow; G.E. Smith, Simon Kirke, Trombone Shorty, Joan Osborne and a bunch of other folks are the bill, and the keyboard player can’t make it.” By day’s end, I had learned 20 songs, and the next night I was backing up Ms. Osborne on her smash hit.