George Bugatti: Songs Come to Life for Me

by Bobbie Katz

For acclaimed singer-musician George Bugatti, a piano is not just an instrument for getting his talent to the public; it also holds the keys to his very existence.

After moving from his native New York to Los Angeles in 1989, Bugatti was discovered by comedian and ”The Tonight Show” host Steve Allen — who also produced Bugatti’s first CD — while performing in the piano bar at The Peninsula Beverly Hills.

That’s also where the young artist met Tony Bennett, who became his friend and mentor, and who, in a rare move, brought him up onstage to sing with him some years later when he was performing in Thousand Oaks, California.

Then, fortuitously, Steve Wynn came into the piano bar and personally brought Bugatti to Las Vegas to open the Fontana Room when the Bellagio opened in 1998. It was there that Paul Anka saw Bugatti perform and put Bugatti’s self-produced CD, Bugatti Live on the Strip, on his record label, Paul Anka Productions.

“A piano bar is what saved me,” earnestly explained Bugatti, who has performed at The Bootlegger Bistro on Friday and Saturday nights for nearly three years and also presents George Bugatti’s Piano Bar in Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts three times a year.

“I used to be a classical pianist, but I had a terrible accident to my right hand and lost all movement and feeling in it after surgery. I got the movement back, but I still can’t feel anything to this day.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I adapted so that I could accompany myself on piano. That’s when I started singing in piano bars. As I tell the audiences at The Bootlegger, I ended up meeting everyone in a piano bar, including my four wives.”

Bugatti, who thrives on singing his interpretation of songs from the Great American Songbook, says that the idea for George Bugatti’s Piano Bar came to him one night while performing at The Bootlegger. Even though the popular locals spot is not a traditional piano bar, he noticed that people wanted to sit close to the piano and hear about the songs he was singing, just like in the old days in the up-close-and-personal venues in which he performed in New York.

“I enjoy the closeness and the intimacy at The Bootlegger,” he acknowledged. “I can see the entire room, and I love that. I get specific requests. The songs come to life for me, and I share the stories behind the songs, which never gets old for me. I think I’ve expanded my definition of the Great American Songbook. In my case, it now includes any song with great lyrics, and great melody and chord changes.”

Taking his experiences at The Bootlegger to another level, Bugatti’s idea behind the concept he has introduced at The Smith Center is to book artists whom he has met in piano bars in which he has played.

In February, George Bugatti’s Piano Bar presented John O’Hurley in the Cabaret Jazz, and in May, Antonia Bennett, daughter of Tony Bennett, was brought in to perform. Bugatti opens each show by singing three to four songs and talking about his experiences in piano bars in New York and LA, as well as how he met the featured artist. He then brings the performer onstage to do his or her show. Bugatti himself has performed in Cabaret Jazz twice.

Bugatti’s career isn’t limited to intimate venues, however. He recently finished a 25-city tour of performing arts centers with his show “Portraits of America” in which he sings well-known songs about various cities, and he continues to tour with “Wizard of Song,” a show he produced with Sam Arlen, son of the famed songwriter Harold Arlen whose music the show highlights. Bugatti also has another show in development called “Billboard Chartbusters,” which takes in songs from the charts in the ’50s through the ’80s.

When it comes to performance, Bugatti continues to raise the bar.

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