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Before the Red Sox season comes to a close, we want to tip our baseball caps to one player in particular. This is a person who hasn't missed a home game in 12 years! He always plays well, even in big pressure games, before tens of thousands of Sox fans. And yet, you've probably never even seen him. But you have, without a doubt, heard him.
We're talking about Red Sox organist Josh Kantor. When he's not working in the music library at Harvard, or playing in one of his three rock bands, he can be found tucked into the back corner of the State Street Pavilion Club at Fenway Park, playing his digital organ.
Kantor says his work on game days begins long before the first pitch is thrown, and it usually starts with a medley.
"As people are filing in, there's a lot of sensory input that they're getting," says Kantor. "They might be seeing a video playing on the giant scoreboard, they might have the taste of a beer, the smell of a hot dog, the crack of the bat during batting practice...vendors sort of shouting in the stands. And then part of that is the organ music that's painting that audio picture."
"A lot of times what I'm playing is incidental," says Kantor. "It's definitely very much secondary to...the baseball game and other things that are happening, but it's part of creating a mood and an atmosphere."
You might think this is a dream job for a baseball fan. And it is, if you like playing the organ.
"I had a notion as early as around age 13," says Kantor. "That was around the time that I realized that I wasn't good enough at playing baseball. But, I thought, 'Oh, maybe if I get better at playing organ, maybe that's a way to have a job in the field of baseball.' And at the time I had just moved to the Chicago area and I sort of quickly became enchanted with the playing of Nancy Faust who was the White Sox organist for 41 years. Everybody kind of regards her as the best and most important stadium organist, but one of the things I remember from the first time we talked, after I got the job here, was she said, 'You know, always make sure you update the repertoire, add new songs, it really is worthwhile. You'll get good response from people and you'll remain relevant. Because if you want to do this for a long time, you'll play your way into irrelevance if you don't keep updating the song selections.' So, that was great advice from her."
And Kantor has followed that advice. His repertoire not only includes the classics, but also modern hits, like Pharrell Williams' "Happy."
And even though he's alone in a little corner of the stadium behind a pillar, he's also playing for more than 36,000 people on any given night.
"The first time, I was incredibly nervous, but I had given myself permission to be nervous. I figured, it's going to take a few games to get used to this. I had never played in front of more than probably 500 or 600 people before. And, because it was opening day, there was a lot of fanfare and celebration. We had Ray Charles here singing his iconic rendition of "America the Beautiful." We had Lou Rawls singing the National Anthem — those are sort of two of my all-time favorite performers and people who made me, as a kid, want to grow up to be a musician."
So, his first day on the job, Kantor was following Ray Charles and Lou Rawls.
"I didn't really know what all was going on, they were trying to keep these high-profile celebrity appearances under wraps so it was a surprise, even to me. And the producer said, 'OK, Ray Charles is going to come out, do his thing. Lou Rawls is going to come out, do his thing. And then, Josh, I'm going to need you to follow up with something after that.'"
"The intensity of that sort of purged all my nervousness all at once, and ever since then, I've managed to play pretty much, for the most part, free of nervousness. But, oftentimes, I'm reminded, most directly, that people are listening by getting the live feedback via Twitter. I take requests during the game from fans who are in the stands and that's always very enjoyable...They'll say, 'I'm here with my girlfriend, it's her birthday, she loves this song, can you play it for me?' And if I can fit it in and if it fits with the mood of what's happening in the game, then I will. I think it's a nice way to interact with the fans and enhance the experience of fans who are here enjoying the game, to know that they can talk to me directly and that I can play for them and I can accommodate their requests."
Fans can also connect with Kantor just by listening closely to the song choices. If something big happens in the game, he'll respond musically.
"There was a recent incident where there was a Yankees pitcher, Michael Pineda, and he was ejected from the game. He was using pine tar. Obviously it was a big moment. The crowd responded in a big fashion, and I took the opportunity to play an Elvis Presley song called 'Suspicious Minds' and it's nice, it worked well. I mean, the first lyrics of the song is, 'We're caught in a trap.' So I just sort of played that little introduction...and then went into the chorus from there. 'We can't go on with suspicious minds.' And it's the kind of thing that, if people are paying attention, and they recognize the song, they might hear the melody and hum along and think, like, 'Oh, yeah, I know that song. Oh, I get it. It's a little joke.' The DJ, who plays all our recorded music, my friend TJ Connolly, he and I talk a lot about, where's the line between being whimsical and being cruel? And he's coined a word that he calls 'crimsical.' We try to always land on the whimsical side, you know? We don't wish to be cruel or make personal attacks."
Ballparks have changed a lot in recent years — concessions and ticket prices have gone way up, recorded music and jumbo-trons have been added. The organists are one of the final lasting traditions of America's favorite pastime.
"I feel like it's a great honor and a great responsibility...Fenway [is] the oldest major league ballpark that's still standing, and the organ has been here for over 60 years. So, it has become one of those lasting traditions."
- "On Friday, Joshua Kantor will take the day off from work. Instead of heading to Harvard, where he works as a part-time librarian assistant, Kantor will be starting the year at his other job: playing the organ for Boston’s beloved baseball team, the Red Sox."
- "With the Sox back in the playoff picture, beards and all, Nate Thompson sat down with one of the organization’s unsung heroes; Fenway’s resident organist, Josh Kantor."
This segment aired on September 26, 2014.
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