HAMPDEN — Norm Lambert, the legendary pianist, radio personality and band leader known as “Mr. Music,” died Jan. 3 at his home at the age of 91.
Short of stature but long on talent, Lambert, who also played the accordion and the organ, became something of a local celebrity. He appeared at firefighters’ and police officers’ balls, nightclubs, private parties, civic organizations, conventions, fairs and church suppers throughout the state, wowing listeners with his remarkable talent for playing any song he was asked.
“He was never stumped,” recalled Bangor trumpeteer and band leader Hal Wheeler, who occasionally played with Lambert. “Even if a request was vague and obscure, somehow he knew it. It’s like he was born with all the music ever written inside his mind.”
Friends and colleagues on Monday hailed Lambert as a likable, unpretentious man and a consummate performer, known for watching people enter a room and then bursting into a song associated with them.
“Whenever he saw me he’d swing into the Amherst College song,” said Charles Bragg, 87, of Bangor. “He had an amazing gift.”
Lambert was “a master at making people feel good about themselves,” according to saxophonist Woody Woodman, who performed regularly with Lambert as part of the Bangor House Trio, featured at the Bangor House in the 1960s and ’70s.
A native of Waterville, Lambert began playing piano at age eight, and formed his own band when he was 14. He moved to Bangor in 1925 to play with the Cobby O’Brien Band. When the WLBZ Radio station opened in Bangor in 1926, he joined the staff as musical director and remained there for 27 years, hosting the popular weekly shows, “Console and Keyboard Melodies,” sponsored by the Maine Central Railroad, and “Nissen’s Blue Ribbon Minstrel Show.”
Lambert, who joined the staff at WABI-TV in 1955 for a few months, also played with the Clyde Lougee Flying Clouds, Tom Kane’s Jamoka Jazz Band and the Pearly Reynolds Commanders, before forming his own group, Norman Lambert and His Music. He became a staple at Kiwanis and Rotary meetings, where he’d play piano before and during dinner.
“You hardly ever went anywhere that Norm Lambert wasn’t playing,” said Richard K. Warren, former publisher of the Bangor Daily News and a 40-year member of the Rotary Club, who remembered Lambert’s vivacious dinner-time entertainment.
Awed at Lambert’s musical ability, Wheeler remembered how the musician would perform his radio theme song, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” using the organ for the melody and the piano for the arpeggios and embellishments.
“And I never heard him miss a note,” Wheeler said.
Eddie Owen, who was an announcer with WLBZ-Radio, recalled Lambert’s proficiency at sight reading.
“He could look at a sheet of music he’d never seen before and become familiar with it instantly,” said Owen.
Bob Jones, who played the drums with Lambert for 20 years, and Ward Shaw, a trumpeteer with Lambert for several years, both called him their mentor.
“The first time I got a call from Norm, it was like it was from Benny Goodman,” Jones, 72, said. “It was that big a deal.”
Shaw, 81, said Lambert was a pleasure to work with.
“A nice guy, real easygoing,” he recalled.
For pianist and entertainer Bill Trowell, 44, Lambert was a hero and an inspiration.
“A few people pass by your way in life that you never forget,” Trowell said. Lambert was one of those.
“We younger musicians all called him “Uncle Norman,” recalled Trowell, who was a small child when he’d watch Lambert perform at the Sportsmen’s Show at the old Bangor Auditorium.
“Everyone else would go to the fish tank or the lumbermen’s booth,” said Trowell. “But I’d stand and stare at Norm. He was a real natural, he’d set his hands on the keyboard and they just went.”
According to Trowell, whenever different entertainment acts would come to Bangor, they’d call the musicians’ union and ask for “the best pianist you have.”
“They’d always get Norman,” he said.