From Vegas to the White House, on a trail of ivories

The pianist zipped through "Sleigh Ride" in the sumptuous casino lounge, his breezy rendition sailing by gamblers who'd sipped too many whiskey-and-eggnogs.

The jaunty melody competed with beeping and blinging slot machines named Zeus and Stinkin' Rich. One patron nodded off next to a still-smoldering cigarette. Another tried to accompany the piano, tipsily, with a harmonica.

But on this mid-December night, David Osborne endured the quirks of the Bellagio casino's Baccarat Bar with smiling cheer. He knew that on Monday, he was scheduled to play the White House. Again.

The casino pianist, somewhat improbably, is also a presidential pianist. Osborne has helmed White House holiday events during three administrations, briefly glimpsing commanders in chief unscripted and unvarnished.

One president and his wife wanted John Lennon tunes interspersed with Christmas favorites. Another burst into song himself. A vice president even tried to lure the pianist into a policy debate.

For lounge players such as Osborne, the White House is pretty much the ultimate gig. But like a lot of lounge scenes, the patter matters almost as much as the playing. And as in all show business venues, getting there depends a lot on who you know.

Osborne's entree into such a rarified world came through a mix of salesmanship and serendipity — and the help of a U.S. senator and a former president.

The pianist, 52, grew up in the small Oklahoma city of Miami (locals pronounce it "My-AM-uh"), infatuated with the rich tones of the piano at his Baptist church. "It sounded like a full orchestra," he said. While his older sister took piano lessons — his parents could only afford instruction for one of them — he pounded away by ear.

Eventually, he studied formally, played his way through graduate school and landed at a Marriott in Orlando, Fla. Over the years, he played events there for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, whose wife, Nancy, favored melodies by George Gershwin.

In the mid-1980s, Osborne heard that former President Jimmy Carter was scheduled to sign books at a nearby mall. The pianist had cast his first presidential ballot for Carter, whom he admired for his humanitarian efforts and plain-spoken manner. "I wanted to maybe play for him," he recalled.

Osborne drove to the mall with his recording of Baptist hymns and a note saying he hoped to play for Carter's Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga.

Carter's security team took the recording from Osborne. The pianist was deflated. A short time later, however, he got a call from Maranatha Baptist.

He wore a maroon tie and gray jacket and swallowed his jitters for the six-hour drive to Plains. His hands stopped shaking long enough to muscle through "Amazing Grace."

He must have pulled it off. The 39th president has repeatedly invited him back to Georgia for church services and birthdays. (Osborne hung onto the menu from Carter's 84th: arugula salad, seared scallops, a choice of chicken or sea bass.)

Something of a friendship formed. In his e-mail, the pianist has a folder marked "Jimmy." On his iPhone, there's video of Carter tooling around on a scooter. This year, Carter told the Washington Post he wanted Osborne to play at his funeral. (His press secretary said Carter was unavailable to comment for this story.)

By 1999, when Carter turned 75, Osborne had moved to Las Vegas, where he charmed tourists at Caesars Palace on a Steinway that Frank Sinatra once played. He helped dream up Carter's elaborate birthday gala that year, bringing some of the Caesars pizzazz to Georgia, including a Cleopatra lookalike and a handful of centurions.

Afterward, Carter sent a handwritten note, which Osborne displays in a living room packed with three pianos and music memorabilia: "You were the key & originator of the birthday gala — one of the most memorable events of my life. … Thank you again for sharing your talent, and your friendship, with us."

At the Carter birthday bash, the pianist had another stroke of luck: wowing Georgia Sen. Max Cleland by playing into the wee hours. "He seems to get more out of the piano than the piano has to give," Cleland said in an interview.

Osborne told Cleland about his long-held dream to play at the White House. Thanks to Cleland's prodding, he got an invite to a 1999 Clinton administration holiday event.

Again, Osborne fought back nerves. Do not speak to the president, he was told. Just play. And he did, offering "Evergreen" (for Bill) and "New York State of Mind" (for First Lady Hillary) as well-appointed dignitaries glided by.

Once the crowd scattered, the 42nd president approached the piano. Clinton mentioned how a writer of one of Osborne's selections, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," also hailed from Oklahoma. The musician was dumbfounded. The Clintonian love of detail was on display.

Later that night, at a second event, the pianist sat in the East Room at a 1938 mahogany-and-gold leaf Steinway with eagle legs, a gift to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Richard Nixon once played the same piano to accompany singer Pearl Bailey.

Clinton, who famously belted "Heartbreak Hotel" on a saxophone on the "The Arsenio Hall Show," sang along when the pianist played a Christmas carol — he can't remember which one. "His voice wasn't too bad," said Osborne, who was given a large plate of Christmas cookies to take home.

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, Osborne figured his annual Washington trips had ended. Not so. Sig Rogich, then an assistant to Bush, had enjoyed some of Osborne's albums, which are mainly sold at gift shops, and recommended him to the White House.

"I think the musicians in Las Vegas are as good as any in the world," said Rogich, now a political consultant here who plays guitar and listens to Rachmaninoff in his car. "They perform every night, sometimes twice a night, and always have to be at their best."

Osborne recalls Bush and First Lady Laura Bush as warm hosts, the president jocular and relaxed. One Christmas, when a bigwig asked Bush how he liked the pianist, the 43rd president pounded Osborne's chest with his fist and announced, "The boy can play!"

Vice President Dick Cheney was trickier. He asked the pianist his thoughts on the Iraq war, said Osborne, whose opinion Cheney might not have appreciated. The pianist demurred by saying he hoped to keep the holidays — and his performance — nonpartisan. Cheney laughed.

"That's good," Osborne recalled him replying.

When the Obamas moved to Washington, the pianist again turned to Cleland. The two had remained friendly, with the former Democratic senator stopping by the Bellagio. Cleland admired how the pianist — tucked into a corner with a bassist — could work through a chorus while chatting with gambler after gambler. "It's the doggonest thing," he said.

Cleland again linked up Osborne with the White House. This year, the pianist will entertain at one of 11 holiday open houses. "There is nothing, nothing, like playing there," Osborne said, his voice tinged with awe.

Last year, the first couple requested "Imagine," which is also one of Carter's favorites, the pianist said. Obama told the pianist he had to skip out early. "Please don't take it personally," Osborne recalled him saying.

The 44th president had another obligation. Something to do with healthcare.

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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