In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
Josh Kantor has heard every hacky organ joke in the book. The organist for the Boston Red Sox since 2003, Kantor has spent dozens of nights (and some days) every year perched in a booth near the top of Fenway Park, whipping through both old stadium classics—“Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” a handful of Motown standards—and newer, more off-kilter tunes with aplomb. Kantor, who also works as a part-time librarian assistant at the Harvard Music Library, has become a bit of a fan favorite, taking requests from Red Sox faithful in the stands via Twitter and posting some of his takes to his YouTube account.
The A.V. Club talked to Kantor about his role within the Red Sox organization, his daily grind, and why he thinks that, even in the age of MP3s, baseball organists matter.
The A.V. Club: How did you become the organist for the Boston Red Sox?
Josh Kantor: I had been a piano player and an organ player for a long time in a variety of capacities with some different bands, had worked a lot with musical theater and had done a lot of accompaniments for improvisational theater, which proved to be great training.
At the beginning of 2003 when the Red Sox were holding auditions for the organist, I knew someone who was working for the team at the time, because he’s someone I had written songs with. He was familiar with my playing and my style and he knew that I was a big baseball fan. I think I had even mentioned to him at some point along the way because I had mentioned it a lot to people over the years that, “I bet baseball organist would be the coolest job in the world.” Ever since I was a little kid, I always thought that, thinking nothing would ever come of it. But he was in the position to recommend me to the audition committee, and that helped me get a foot in the door, and that enabled me to go in for a couple of rounds of auditions. And then they offered it to me at the end of that. That was at the beginning of 2003, and I’ve been very thrilled and honored to be doing it ever since.
AVC: Why did you get into the organ? That’s something that not that many people are that into, at least these days.
JK: Yeah, it’s a bit antiquated in a way. My understanding was that before the Beatles made every kid want to play an electric guitar, it was the most popular in-home instrument in the ’40s and ’50s and even a little bit into the ’60s. It was not at all uncommon to have one in the home and to have kids and adults playing it for fun.
I started playing piano when I was about 5 or 6, and I really liked it a lot. I wasn’t always very disciplined about practicing until I was a teenager, but I always really enjoyed it and I was always a huge fan of listening to a lot of different kinds of music. My parents exposed me to a lot of great music and then once I got a little older, I was able to discover some great stuff on my own. I was definitely drawn to a lot of organ music and a lot of organ players, particularly Booker T. Jones. He was maybe the first one I heard where I was like, “Oh, that is quite magical, and I want to know how to do that.”
I guess it was around college or maybe even a little after college that I got serious about playing the organ regularly. It’s really very similar to the piano. There are a lot of transferable skills, though there are a few little extra things you have to pay attention to particularly with foot pedals and changing sounds on the fly and that kind of thing.
By the time I had the audition, I was 30 years old and I kind of knew what I was doing. That was 13 years ago. I feel like I know a lot more now than I did then, and hopefully when I’m older, I’ll look back and think that I know that much more. But there are certain things with the baseball job that you’re never going to know or learn or be real proficient at until you’ve had some repetitions and had some practice and the hands-on activity of doing it. Especially for me, because I had never played for an audience of more than 500 or 600 people. Most of my audiences were far smaller than that, like 50 to 100 people. So there’s definitely a bit of an adjustment in terms of thinking about how you play to a giant sold-out stadium vs. how you play to a small club or small theater.
AVC: What was your tryout like? What did you have to do?
JK: They put me through the paces. They tested me on my different knowledge of a lot of different genres and eras of popular music. They asked to hear short examples from each of those that they named.
AVC: From memory?
JK: Yeah, yeah. Just like, “Play a Motown sound. Play a Tin Pan Alley song. Play a Sinatra song. Play a Beatles song. Play a disco song,” that kind of thing. They just went through a laundry list of those.
I play pretty much entirely by memory and by ear. There was a time in my life as a child when I was pretty good at reading sheet music, but I just haven’t kept up with it, and those skills have kind of deteriorated. But I have a lot of ear training, so I’m usually able to hear a song and play it back, which is just something that comes from a lot of practice.
I remember that they had, for the first audition—the main person on the committee was running late and he was stuck in a meeting somewhere in another office, and he called over and said, “I’m stuck here, but the window of this conference room faces out onto the ballpark, so just have the audio engineer turn on all the speakers of the ballpark, and I’ll just listen from here.” So my first audition was actually with all the speakers turned on in an empty stadium and for much of the neighborhood to hear. Now that’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t really faze me, but at the time, it certainly added to the nervousness of the audition process.
I didn’t hear anything for several weeks, so I figured they had maybe picked somebody else, and I kind of put it out of my mind. And then they called me one day and they said, “We’d like you to come for a callback “and “How soon can you come in for that?” I knew enough from previous auditions that when they say “callback” and “how soon,” that usually means you’re in the top two and they’re getting close to making a decision. So the second time I went in with them, I had a fair amount of confidence, which I think helped me. But again, I don’t know how many people they auditioned. I don’t know if I excelled or if I was maybe just the best of an otherwise average bunch. I don’t think they knew exactly what they were looking for. None of them were musicians. Maybe they were just hoping they would know it when they heard it. Like, “Oh yeah, we like this person’s style” or “We like the way they play.”
Plus, baseball knowledge is a part of the job. You have to be able to follow the action of the game and all the sort of obscure, arcane rules in order to know what’s happening. It helps you determine when to play and when not to play and how you’re going to plan what you’re going to play at certain times. That was in my favor because I had always been a big baseball fan growing up.
AVC: Did they have you at spring training games or was opening day your first day?
JK: No. Opening day was my first day, although it was rained out. So I guess opening day was sort of the next day, but it was definitely a trial by fire.
We did a couple of rehearsals with all of the audio/video crew—people who do cameras and lights and scoreboards and statistic and replays and all these different things—and me, and the DJ who plays the recorded music, and a public-address announcer and that kind of stuff. We all ran some simulations in the ballpark just so that we could get our timing down and get our cues working with each other. We all wear headsets and talk to each other and most of the department is people with experience in video production so they’re very used to that kind of thing. It’s a lot like a live television show, except that it’s just inside the arena. For me, that was all very new, so I had to get used to how that works.
They had told me, “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll sort of ease you in gradually.” And I thought, “Well, that’s great. I could use a little bit of easing in.” But then the first day that I showed up for the first game, they said, “Oh, yeah, by the way, slight change of plans. We’re going to need you to play for like 90 minutes straight during the team warm-ups before the opening ceremonies.” So that was a little bit terrifying. I remember going into the bathroom and splashing some cold water on my face. I met one of the announcers as I was leaving there, and he could see that I was very nervous, so he gave me some great reassuring words. He said, “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be great,” so that was helpful. And then I went and played and did the best I could. It was not an ideal way to start, but on the other hand, once I had done that, I felt like, “Well, now I’m probably ready for just about anything that they might throw at me,” and I did feel less nervous and more prepared.
You just have to constantly expect the unexpected. That is something you learn over time, and I ended up learning it pretty quickly just because of the element of danger that was there from day one.
AVC: How do you know what to play and when? And how do you know what songs will work?
JK: The answer to that question has evolved over time. It was definitely something I had given some thought to before I started because I wanted to come in and be really good, and I sought out advice from other major league organists who had been doing it for a long time, particularly Nancy Faust, who was the White Sox organist for 41 years. I really look up to her a lot. She was a hero to me when I was growing up and going to the games. She is widely regarded as the best of the bunch, and she was incredibly generous with her time and her ideas and sharing tips and tricks. She mentored me particularly when I was starting out, which was so helpful and so valuable.
Then it’s a lot of watch and learn. You have some preconceived notions about what kind of things you think will work in certain situations. Sometimes they turn out to be right, sometimes they turn out to be not right, and you learn from that along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to know.
It’s tough to gauge what kind of feedback you’re getting from people or whether it’s having the desired impact. Especially during those early years, I wasn’t getting a lot of direct feedback. I would very seldom hear from someone who works in the organization who would say they liked something or didn’t like something. Maybe a random fan at the game or a friend who was at the game would say, “Oh, I really liked when you played this song.” I would try to keep that stuff in mind and I tried to notice when I thought things were getting big responses from crowds. But crowds vary from night to night depending on if it’s a weekend or a weeknight or a day game or whether the team’s in first place or whether the team’s in last place. There are a million different factors and you just kind of accumulate that knowledge over a period of time.
I worked very closely with the DJ, TJ Connelly, who’s fantastic. He also does the music for Patriots football, and he’s a real teammate and collaborator for me. We talk constantly on the headset before the game, during pregame and warm-ups, and during the game. We give each other cues and suggestions and feedback and after the game as we’re playing our songs as people are leaving, we make sure we both don’t play at the same time, for one thing. We just keep each other on our toes to be ready for things and talk about what we might want to try that might work or might not work, and we usually make a rough outline before each game. And then that all gets tossed out as soon as the game starts because things happen in the game that you can’t anticipate.
Still, the purpose of establishing an outline is more of an exercise to mentally get into the right frame of mind to be thinking about what you’re going to be doing and to not be distracted by other stimuli because there are tons of stimuli when you’re doing it. You’re listening to an audio monitor; you’re watching a video monitor; you’re watching the game; you’re watching the countdown clock during commercial breaks because you have to stop and start playing at certain times. In my case, I’m in a sort of semi-public area of the ballpark where fans can come over and chat, and so sometimes you’re literally having a conversation with someone while you’re learning a song or playing a song and trying to watch the game.
There’s just a lot to think about and a lot to manage. You want it to be great. You want it to be memorable. You want it to make a difference. You want it to impact the action of the game or the reaction of the crowd in some way that maybe motivates the game a certain way.
The other thing is that in the last four years or so, I’ve been taking song requests from fans via Twitter. Fans in the stands can send me their requests and I’ll do my very best to fit those songs in based on where I think they might fit within the context and the action of the game, and that’s been a really fun thing for me. It started as an experiment, and I’ve learned a lot from it. It’s worked out pretty well.
For me, one of the best parts is that now I get all that feedback that I was never getting before. People aren’t shy about telling me what they like and what they don’t like and what they want to hear. And a lot of times, they’ll keep me up to speed on things. For instance, I enjoy being able to play brand new pop hits the week or even the day they come out, but I’m not always aware of what they are. Other people will kind of make me aware of them. Someone will say, “Hey, the new Taylor Swift just dropped today. Here’s a link.” And I can listen to it and then I can play it. And then for the Taylor Swift fans in the crowd, that’s a cool, fun thing to hear, this ballpark organ instrumental cover on the day the single comes out.
The Twitter interaction has changed a lot. Now I probably get the majority of the ideas for which songs to play during the game from fans telling me what they want to hear, which is fun. It can be terrifying, because sometimes it’s a song I don’t know how to play or barely know how to play and I have to learn it as quickly as possible and try to make it sound good. But it’s a nice treat for the fans who are aware that that’s a thing that I do and who want to participate in that fun little interactive game.
That’s usually how I end up playing a lot of the stuff that’s more off the beaten path because mostly I play big hits, whether it’s new ones or old ones or really old ones. But sometimes people will ask for something that’s a little unusual either because they’re trying to be goofy or trying to trick me or just think it would be fun to hear. And so from time to time, I will play those songs, and I’ve gotten a little bit of a reputation of being the person who will sometimes indulge that sort of thing.
This video went up the other day of me playing a Death Cab [For Cutie] song at a game, and then I got a bunch of messages online from Death Cab fans saying, “Wow, cool thing.” It never occurred to me that it would work as a concept, to turn that song into an instrumental ballpark organ rendition.
AVC: What happens when you make a mistake? Do you just kind of muddle through it?
JK: I don’t think I’ve ever made a mistake so horrendous that people are like, “Wow, that’s bad. He clearly doesn’t know what’s going on.”
AVC: The plug never falls out of the wall or something?
JK: Yeah, because I’m on duty. I need to be alert. I need to pay attention. I need to be prepared. If there’s been something where I just missed a note or make a little flub or something, I keep going. You’re doing this live and on the fly and I’m really trying to embrace, for entertainment’s sake, the element of danger. It’s a little bit like the tightrope walker. When somebody sends a request and says, “Hey, will you play this song? I’m here with my girlfriend and it’s her birthday and it’s her favorite song” and it’s a song I’ve never heard before, I have like five minutes to listen to it and learn how to play it. So I try to make the songs as good and as faithful as possible, but if it’s not going to sound good, then I’m not going to do it.
I’ve been doing it long enough to where if it’s a pop song, I feel like I can hang with it. The pop milieu is kind of finite in a way. Once you’ve learned how to play thousands and thousands of songs, you borrow tricks from one song to pull into another song to make it work. I read this Miles Davis thing a long time ago where he said, “If you make a mistake, then you should make the same mistake in the same part of the song the next time it comes around because then people think you did it on purpose.” So whenever I make a mistake, I’m reminded of that and I’m tempted to follow his advice.
AVC: You’re doing 81 games a year, plus playoffs?
JK: Yeah, 81 home games, and then hopefully if were lucky there are playoff games in addition to that.
AVC: Are you full-time or are you contract? Are you paid by the Red Sox?
JK: I get paid by the Boston Red Sox. I receive an hourly wage, which is a pretty small hourly wage, but I love the work, so that’s why I keep going back.
AVC: You’re not getting Big Papi money?
JK: Oh, I’m not even getting pay-the-bills money. I work an office job, and I do a ton of freelance music work as well.
AVC: What’s your schedule like on a game day?
JK: On a game day, I get to the park two hours before the game starts. So if it’s a weeknight, most of the games start at 7:10 p.m. I’ll get there around 5:10. I’ll check in briefly with the DJ. We’ll spend a few minutes talking about our game plan, if you will, for that evening. Sometimes it’s a very, very short conversation. Sometimes it’s a little more in depth. I’ll grab a quick bite in the employee cafeteria.
AVC: How’s the food?
JK: The food is fine. It’s not hot dogs and Cracker Jacks. It’s more like a cafeteria. And I’m a vegetarian, so I do my best to try to eat healthy there and everything. The gates open for fans to start coming in 90 minutes before the game starts, so that’s at 5:40. That’s when I start playing.
Usually for about 45 minutes or so, I’ll just play a medley of different pop hits, and whatever I’m in the mood to play or whatever people have said, “Hey, I’m getting there early. I’d love to hear you play this song.” I try to mix that up as much as I possibly can for my own benefit of not having to play the same thing all the time, but also for the benefit of people who come regularly, especially the die-hard fans who love coming early every night. I don’t want to subject them to the same thing every night, so it’s fun to mix it up.
Sometimes I’ll play songs that are thematically connected in some way to something that’s happening in that stretch of the season or something about the weather or whatever the thing might be. There’s one day a year when Cleveland comes to town that I will spend the entire pre-game and the in-game playing covers of songs from Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame-inducted artists in tribute to Cleveland, or if it’s Detroit in town, I’ll do an entire night of Motown songs. Or if it’s some other city that has a strong, well-known musical heritage, I may pay tribute in that kind of way. So I try to mix it up. If I’m feeling super ambitious, which is maybe only once in a rare while, I’ll cover an entire well-known album from start to finish, but that’s a lot of work. So I don’t do that kind of thing often, but I’m always thinking of ones to try, and every once in awhile, I’ll do it.
Sometimes the DJ and I will pick a theme for a particular game, and maybe it’s inspired by something that is happening in the pre-game ceremony. Once a year, they have what they call Nuns Day, and they invite several hundred nuns to come watch the game. This is a tradition that goes way back for a long time. So the DJ and I will play songs that in some way make reference to nunhood or sisterhood or something to that effect.
Earlier this year, they brought back a ton of players from the 1986 Red Sox team that won the American League pennant, and they honored them on the field in a ceremony before the game. So during the pre-game and all throughout the game, I played all songs that were hits in 1986. That was a fun thing to do. So we try to have it be fun and engaging and interesting.
Anyway, I play a lengthy medley during practice before the game, and then we run some public service announcements, and then we do our pregame ceremonies. And sometimes I’ll play a little bit for that in between as various VIPs and dignitaries are being escorted on and off the field. And then we do the ceremonial first pitch and the national anthem and all these different kinds of things.
Once the game is underway, I’m watching the game and I’m paying attention for wherever cues might be where I might be called upon to play something. I’m in constant contact, especially during that time, with the DJ coordinating who’s going to do what throughout the game and monitoring my feed to see if I’m getting any requests. And then I’ll spend time learning them if I have to and then at the end of the night, play a couple of songs as people are filing out, and that’s pretty much it. I pack up and punch out and walk home and try to go to bed.
AVC: And maybe do it again the next day.
JK: Yeah, often do it again the next day.
AVC: Are you watching the game on a monitor?
JK: I’m watching the game live on the field, but I also have a monitor that I watch because the vantage point where I sit doesn’t have a great view of the field, so the monitor helps me see some angles I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see on the field from my perch.
AVC: What kind of organ are you playing? Is it a special fancy organ?
JK: It’s a Yamaha Electone AR 100, the mid-1990s model. I’ve been very happy with it. No two organ models are alike, so I’ve spent a lot of time learning all the ins and outs of that one. How to program it, how to tweak it to really get the kinds of sounds that I want to get that evoke ballpark traditions but that also allow for modern repertoire to work. It’s certainly the one I’ve become most comfortable with. I have a very similar model at home that I do a lot of practicing on when I’m trying to get things prepared sometimes for games.
AVC: Are you sick of organ jokes? Do you hear a lot of those?
JK: Yes, I am. Well, I wouldn’t say I’m sick of them, but they’re not funny. I don’t hear a ton of them, but every once in a while, I hear one. Some people will tweet them to me, and then I try to very politely say, “Knock yourself out. Have fun. Just so you know, I’m probably not going to laugh, but don’t take that personally.” It’s just that I’ve heard them all too many times.
AVC: Have you gotten any feedback from players? The owners of the Red Sox? Do you have a World Series ring?
JK: Oh yeah, I do. The third time they won the World Series, they took pity on me and gave me a ring. I did not make the cut the first two times in terms of being an important enough person in the organization, but that was a very nice gesture on their part, and it’s a nice conversation piece if nothing else. I wear it sometimes for when I play at club shows, and people get a kick out of seeing it.
AVC: Have you gotten requests from players?
JK: Once in a rare while. The DJ gets tons of player requests because it’s a very popular trend right now with most of the teams that the players will pick an individual theme song that they want to have for their entrance into the game or for when they come up to bat, and they overwhelmingly want recorded tracks of their favorite songs. So they will contact the DJ and arrange with him for those songs to be cued up and ready to go.
I think in my 14 years, I can probably recall maybe three instances where a Red Sox player expressed an interest in hearing an organ version of something for their little moment in the spotlight. So it’s exceedingly rare. It’s something that’s not really so much on the players’ radar, and that’s fine. They have a million other things to worry about that are more important than me.
As far as owners and executives and that kind of thing, that’s also rarely. Every once in a while, one of the higher-up people will mention to me that they heard something I played and that they really liked it. That’s always nice when that happens.
I remember one occasion—I think it was my first year, about the same song. One person said, “I love it. You should do that again.” And the other person said, “I hated it. You really shouldn’t do that anymore.” So I wasn’t quite sure what to do at that point, but that’s how it goes sometimes, I guess.
AVC: Are some songs harder to play than others on the organ? Like, are hip-hop songs harder to play? Are there songs that you haven’t really been able to figure out?
JK: Hip-hop does pose certain challenges in terms of instrumental covering. I’ve figured out how to make it work with some stuff, but if you’re playing in a band and you’re a backing player, then there are all different ways you can play the organ. But if you’re playing as a lead and a soloist, you have to feature the melody. So you have to play tunes that are melodious, and a lot of hip-hop stuff tends to not have as much of that melodiousness. It’s more rhythm-based. Now a lot of times, you have great hooks in the choruses or great samples that have fantastic melodies, and so you can reference those. That’s usually my approach to hip-hop songs when I’m learning them or when I get requests for them, to focus on whatever that killer hook is in the chorus or whatever the sample is that’s driving the thing. It’s difficult to mimic the lyrical flow of hip-hop through an organ melody. It’s not going to come across as recognizable.
Still, I try to mix those songs in as much as I can when I think it will work, and it’s nice to be able to do that. Particularly with the samples, sometimes you almost kill two birds with one stone, because there are two generations of fans who recognize the song, maybe one from the original version and then one from the sample version. That’s always a nice thing because when you’re covering pop songs, people tend to recognize and enjoy and most appreciate the songs from their youth. So if you play a song that’s from the youth of two different generations, then you get maybe twice as many people who will be into it. Fenway is very much an all-ages kind of place, literally from very youngest to very oldest and everything in between, so I try to accommodate all those eras and all those musical tastes as best I can.
AVC: Do you keep track of what you play?
JK: No, not as much as I should. I used to be a little better at it. I do have to do occasional reporting to the performance rights organizations, to give them representative samples of what I’m doing so that our team’s licensing fees can cover royalties that are due to composers of those works. But I’ve gotten worse about tracking what I play as time has gone on just because with the Twitter request thing, they’ve become so disposable. I get a request and I learn it and then I forget it as soon as the next request comes in. If I felt like it really worked well or I really enjoyed some aspect of it, I’ll jot it down on a piece of paper. The problem is, I now have this notebook full of all these scraps of paper with my horrible little handwriting. I keep saying one of these days, I’m going to go through all this and I’m going to organize it and put it on an iPad and I’ll be able to have a neat alphabetical list and be able to sort things either by genre or artist or be able to touch the screen and have my cheat sheet notes come up for how to play the song, but as time goes on that’s becoming a more Herculean task, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get to it, which is a shame in a way. But on the other hand, if people keep sending songs, and I keep playing them, it’s self-sustaining on that level, even if it’s not really archived in any way.
AVC: What do you see as the goal of your job? To keep the atmosphere light, to entertain the people in the stands?
JK: That’s a huge part of it. In an overarching sense, that’s sort of what it is.
What I do is very secondary to the event and the activity. People are there to watch a baseball game first and foremost. I am one of many contributors to the overall atmosphere and environment of that, in a way that I love and in a way that’s sacred for me.
I’ve done a lot of study and research about the history of ballpark organ music in Boston and in other cities. [I] have tried to borrow from and preserve the best and most beloved traditions of that, as well as updating it and having it evolve and be this thing that’s relevant in the modern age, whether it’s through playing newer songs or taking requests or whatever the thing is.
I think my sense of what my role is or my overall objectives are has changed a bit over time as I’ve found my way and gotten comfortable. In the beginning, I wasn’t trying to make any waves. I was like, “If I just sort of copy what John Kiley did before me.” He was the Red Sox organist for 37 years, and he was a very beloved figure. He also played organ for decades for the local basketball and hockey teams, and that was in an era before there was a DJ, so he really was the show as far as the music goes. He retired over 25 years ago, but there are still a lot of old-timers who remember him fondly and will tell me old stories about him, so I thought if there’s anything I can do that he would have done, that’s great.
AVC: Why are baseball organists important?
JK: They’re very important because they have played an active role in baseball traditions for over 75 years now at most major league stadiums. It is something that is an element and presentation that fans associate as being part of the game of baseball, part of the tradition. Baseball is—as far as the various major sports in America—the one with the most illustrious history and tradition, and the organ connects to that.
For some people, it’s a nostalgia thing. Going into a ballgame allows them to go back in time to remember a more carefree time in their life, maybe a time when their parents or their grandparents took them to the game and took care of them and made sure they had a fun time. Maybe the organ is part of the association and the memory for that. So in some ways, I’m helping to conjure that for people and the other organists who do it are helping to conjure that as well.
In general, I think any time a venue makes a space for the presentation of live music, it’s a good thing. Recorded music is terrific, but live music is also terrific and important, and we’re in an era right now that’s favoring recorded over live, though maybe that will change over time. I don’t know. It used to be different, but I’m invested in preserving the live performance aspect of it, and I think a lot of other organists believe in that and a lot of fans believe in that and that is encouraging. Now there are opportunities to revitalize it a bit.
In the early ’70s when Nancy Faust was a young organist starting, a lot of people were saying it was old fashioned and staid and the standard repertoire of all the old Broadway finale tunes was not keeping up with the times, so she started playing all this cool soul and R&B and rock music. Some folks bristled at it, but a lot of other folks said that was really cool that she did that. Even up into her 60s when she retired, she was always learning new songs and keeping it fresh in that way, and so she gave me a lot of great advice about that. I have tried to do that, and I think having the online piece of it just adds a way for people to participate and to appreciate it in ways that are fun and in ways that they couldn’t really have previously.