Irene worked as a musician in New York in its heyday, the 1970s and 80s. The Irene Hartfield Trio played some well-known watering holes in Manhattan: Jimmy Weston’s, Jilly’s, 8th Street Gallery, Red Onion, Buddy Rich’s club, and the Grand Finale, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Sneaky Pete’s in Hollywood, Florida, and The Summit Club in Caracas, Venezuela.
Irene also worked in the recording industry, both playing and singing, and played with some wonderful musician friends: Arnie Wise, Will Lee, Steve Gadd, Steve “Fonz” Gelfand, Jay Leonhardt, Stu Woods, George Sheck, Joe Corsello, Rick Petrone, and others.
Irene was part of the studio scene in the 70s, singing on commercials and recordings. She also produced some long-form commercial multi-media, creating the music that played during slideshows and video, singing live to the recorded track she had previously created.
For three years, Irene worked on Holland America cruise lines, sailing to Bermuda, the Caribbean and a world cruise starting in Brazil. Irene also spent a summer playing a month each in three cities in Sweden, a highlight of her career.
Now that Irene is back in her hometown of Ely, Minnesota, she participates in community productions, plays for two churches, and gigs as much as she can. Recently, Irene has been part of a duet with Jef Cierniak, an incredible guitarist (with an impressive resume) who is most playing bass with Irene, but can switch to guitar easily to play solos.
Irene has all the equipment to be “Keyboard 2” in a musical production (the programmed midi keyboard often available for Broadway musicals).
Irene Hartfield Trio in Venezuela
Here is an article that appeared in Irene’s hometown newspaper, the Ely Miner some time in the 1970s.
Irene Hartfield, a graduate of Ely Memorial High School and daughter of former Ely residents, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hartfield, visited Ely on her way back from Venezuela where she performed with the Irene Hartfield Trio for three weeks “en el Gran Salon” of the Summit Club [in Caracas].
According to Frank Sinatra, “She has a great set of pipes”! Her style has been compared to, among others, Carole King, Helen Reddy, Janis Joplin, and Barbra Streisand. Former Elyite, Irene Hartfield, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hartfield, now of West Linn, Oregon, says of her group, “We go out of our way not to copy other artists. Although we do basically ‘top 40’ material, we use arrangements that have an original sound and just the fact that we are a piano trio, as opposed to a group with guitars, makes us sound different than most rock groups.”
The Irene Hartfield Trio is composed of Arnie Wise, a former jazz drummer who has played with such jazz greats as Bill Evans, Morgana King, Charlie Byrd, and Joao and Astrud Gilberto of “Girl from Ipanema” fame and is respected as being one of the top ranking studio and club drummers in New York; Stu Woods on bass who, among other things, played on such well-known records as “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” and “Sweet Gypsy Rose” by Tony Orland and Dawn; and Irene herself who plays the piano and does the vocals.
The Trio, which is based in New York City, is just back from a three-week engagement in the main room of the Summit Club in Caracas, Venezuela where Tony Bennett is now appearing and coming attractions include Ike and Tina Turner, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Tijuana Brass.
Irene, a graduate of Ely Memorial High School, began taking piano lessons from Ina Dunstan when she was four years old, and throughout her high school years, spent much of her time accompanying school and community productions, including “Bye, Bye, Birdie”, “The Fantasticks”, and “Music Man.”
After two years at Gustavus Adolphus College, she began her career as a pianist in Aspen, Colorado, where she became acquainted with a group called the “Fall Guys.” The following spring, the Fall Guys appeared in Minneapolis and introduced Irene to their New York manager who offered her a job as organist and arranger for a group he managed.
When she arrived in Baltimore to join the group, she couldn’t get into the club where they were appearing because she was under 21. “It’s probably a good thing I didn’t get to hear them,” Irene remembers, “because if I’d known how bad they were, I’d have hopped the first plane back to Minnesota.” It wasn’t long before the group folded, but looking back she sees the experience as a turning point in her career because it was then that she began to sing. Although she had been hired as an instrumentalist, no one in the group had a vocal range capable of handling the soprano parts and Irene was drafted.
Little by little, she began to do more and more of the singing until a few years and three groups later, much to her own surprise, her reputation as a vocalist had surpassed her reputation as a pianist.
When the trio is in New York, they appear regularly at “Jilly’s”, a club located in the Broadway Theater District, where she has had an opportunity to meet such notables as Bill Evans, Paul McCartney’s drummer, Denny Seiwell, Frank Sinatra, Erroll Garner, Shelly Berman, David Frye, and Eric Weissberg of “Dueling Banjos” fame.
One event that the trio will long remember was when several members of the rock group “Sly and the Family Stone” brought in their instruments and sat in with the trio.
“Of course, I miss the trees, blue sky, and fresh air of Ely, but I really love New York –it’s exciting and you feel like you have your finger on the pulse of the world there.” Irene lives alone in a studio apartment in Manhattan. Besides the club work, she has also done several commercials which, while they may never make her famous, sure do help pay the rent.