Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

The guy was a powerhouse on the piano, you could tell, big hands deftly pounding out original blues and boogie beats, but hanging back, not wanting to steal the show, not just yet, waiting for later, when he could really lay it down without offending anyone.

It was the ’70s, a time period in Aspen’s history that every party boy who was here claims not to remember, but they’re mostly full of crap. I mean, if they’re still alive. A lot of good things were happening in those days, especially on the music scene, and we got to be a part of it. Including a connection with the Rolling Stones.

Chris Winter, renowned European drummer, regular with the internationally-famous Hazy Osterwald Jet Set, decided to stick around after Osterwald’s last whirlwind, worldwide tour, which auspiciously ended at the Red Onion. Burned-out and tired of traveling, Chris wanted nothing more than to be a Western cowboy, to become a horseman, and he moved onto Buck Deane’s thoroughbred farm in Carbondale to do just exactly that.

Being a neophyte piano player, I was more than thrilled to have Chris around, just for the pointers he could offer, and in addition to gigs with Buck (it was after the Buckin’ Strings), we often struck out on our own, playing for beer and tips anywhere we could find a piano and an audience.

After a couple of years of living on the ranch, Chris fell in love and decided to get married. His chapter in the Roaring Fork Valley was nearing its end, but not before a huge wedding bash at the T-Lazy-7, which was, if nothing else, a great jam session, composed of most of Aspen’s prodigiously talented musicians.

Having established good rapport and being friends of the first order, Chris asked if I would play the piano at his wedding. That was a huge honor, as he had his choice of musicians, and I took my job seriously. In addition to Wagner’s “Wedding March,” he requested, quite specifically, “Send in the Clowns,” a song not only indicative of how Chris felt, but of our whole philosophy during those mind-warping years. “Isn’t it queer, losing my timing this late in my career? And where are the clowns? There ought to be clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.”

If you know much about the Rolling Stones, you know that Ian Stewart has always been considered the “sixth Stone,” a moniker richly deserved, for had it not been for Stu’s big chin and clean-cut appearance, he would’ve died a full-on Stone. Or the Stones might have died without Stu’s quiet, behind-the-scenes prodding to stay focused. Although not a live stage presence, most piano riffs on Stone’s albums prior to 1985 were provided by Ian Stewart, and Stewart was a popular pianist in his own right, having toured Europe with various boogie and blues groups in the ’70s and ’80s.

Stewart and other notables had flown over from England for Chris’ wedding and provided the cutting edge for a party that lasted a very long time. For me, it was a privilege to play with so many valley musicians, but sharing the stage with Ian Stewart that day has remained one of the highlights of my life. We traded off on Lou Deane’s magnificent grand piano in the old lodge before fire claimed it all, with Stewart, ever the nice guy, asking me my method of learning this or that, and asking my advice from time to time. “Come on, Stu, you’re the piano player.”

We were working on a trip to visit Stu when word came that he’d suffered a fatal heart attack. We held our own wake, listening to him play the original “Rocket 88” on vinyl and in the end, we drunkenly serenaded his memory with “Send in the Clowns.”

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at