He's Playing Your Song Violinist Mel Scherr will play your favorite, and he knows what it is


The great Mel Sherr warms up by playing one of Vivaldi's four seasons. It's Spring and Saturday at the B & O Railroad Museum. The wedding guests aren't here yet, but the snow peas with salmon are. Under the canopy in the parking lot, the wind blows up the white skirts of tablecloths.

A car's boom box screams on Pratt Street. At the roundhouse, a train whistle shoots off its mouth. Wearing a bow tie that doubles as Mozart sheet music, Mr. Sherr answers with "Get Me to the Church on Time." His eyebrows rise with his bow's upswings, as if both were attached by a string.

The guests get to the reception on time. A man requests an obscure Hungarian tune. Foraging through his 2,000-song memory, the violinist finds the gypsy song. Then 80-year-old Mr. Sherr strolls on, slipping into the company of Hope Chambers from Florida. Something from "Fiddler on the Roof" for Hope.

"Oh, it's nice to be serenaded every once in awhile," says Ms. Chambers. "I love the violin when it's played like that -- not when my fifth-grade daughter was playing it."

For more than an hour, Mr. Sherr plays his gypsy tunes and war tunes and wedding tunes and show tunes.

"I Could Have Danced All Night"?

Of course.

"Amazing Grace"?

My pleasure, says Mr. Sherr. For more than 50 years, he has been a strolling violinist, an endangered profession these days.

Wherever people gather in pods, Mr. Sherr strolls to them with his violin anchored to his left shoulder. His black tuxedo is worn there, but his loyal Florsheims are spotless. Shoes are crucial for the strolling violinist -- shoes and showmanship.

As usual, Mr. Sherr plays to no applause.

"That's all right," he says. "They smile. That's all I want."


The name might be Sherr. "I'm not sure what my right name is." Melvin Sherr's parents were Lithuanian and they couldn't read or write English. His father, a trumpet player and tailor, took the name Sherr, which was German for sheers, his son thinks. Tailoring, sheers, Sherr . . . "Anyway," Mr. Sherr says, "it's the only name I know."

When Melvin Sherr turned 10 in 1924, his father told him to take violin lessons, which were not an elective in their Baltimore household. His son was going to be the next Mischa Elman. If that name doesn't ring a bell, it sounded a gong when the century was young. Mr. Elman, a child prodigy, was considered one of the two most important violinists in the world. Russian parents were dragging their kids off to violin lessons. The Russian Jewish community, in fact, became the world's main interpreter of violin music.

Mel hated violin lessons. "Guys were out on the street corner where I wanted to be." Then, he heard a recording of Mr. Elman's "Ave Maria." And wow.

Mel discovered more magic about the violin. As concert master for the high school orchestra at City College in Baltimore, he learned that his duties required his sanctioned absences from some classes. "I liked that idea."

In the 1930s, Mr. Sherr played nightclubs -- $18 a week at XTC uptown places such as the Owl Bar of the Belvedere Hotel and downtown places such as the 2 O'Clock Club on The Block. In those days, he played Coward, Porter, Berlin and Gershwin, of course. (Gershwin once wrote, "When we were three years old or so, We all began to play the fiddle, in darkest Russia . . .")

The violin was strictly part-time, though. Mr. Sherr never sought full-time symphony work. He sold kitchens to make real money. Drew up the kitchen plans himself. He married a woman named Lola, and "I tell crowds, 'I always play what Lola wants.' "

By the 1940s and 1950s, Mr. Sherr had left the bandstand. He played a lot of Jewish weddings, sometimes three a Sunday. And instead of watching people drink and talk among themselves, he strolled right up to them.

"Hello! I came to play your favorite song," is his signature opening line.

"You did? What is it?" people say.

Mr. Sherr knows what your favorite song is. While he's asking guests where they're from, he'll be guessing their age and era. He'll then pluck a song from his play list and play. Guests nod their heads and smile. Some blush. They now remember what they had forgotten, and they are transported. It's the art of The Stroll.

As a matter of pride, Mr. Sherr will not be stumped by requests. He will not interrupt conversation. He will not invade your privacy. He will avoid tables of all men. Mixed company is best. Women find the violin romantic, he says. It's been written that the violin can perceive our heart beat. It is one of the most demanding instrument and the instrument most resembling the human voice and spirit. "It does set the mood for a lot of things," Mr. Sherr says.

The violin is also the only instrument a musician can gracefully and effectively haul from table to table. Saxophonists and trumpeters don't stroll; those cool guys stay on the bandstand. Can't have a strolling pianist -- that's why piano bars exist. But the violin -- with its belly of pine, shallow ribs and indented waist -- can't weigh more than three pounds. It travels beautifully.

"Strolling violinists are a very European thing," says violinist Earl Carlyss, director of the chamber music department at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. "Before Muzak, you had people making music."

Strolling violinists do provide live background music. Maybe for this reason, some occasionally feel snubbed by symphony violinists.

"If they love music and want to make it," Mr. Carlyss says, "that's legitimate as far as I'm concerned."

At the Peppermill Restaurant in Lutherville, men still wear coats to lunch. Mr. Sherr looks too dapper for lunch, but why not make a little effort sometimes?

Here's the line on the violinist: 10 grandchildren, five children, four tuxedos, three violins and one wife of 53 years.

"He's able to make you think he's playing just for you," says Lola Sherr, the first and most important woman ever wooed by the man's music. "It makes women think he's flirting with them, but he really isn't.

"He's in love with me -- and the violin."

Mr. Sherr has made between $8,000 and $25,000 a year as a strolling violinist. He's also been a hired bow for big-name acts at the Lyric Opera House and Merriweather Post Pavilion. Mr. Sherr remembers playing for the Carpenters. They gave key rings to everyone in the orchestra. Very nice people.

Frank Sinatra's voice was still in shape when he played a benefit here for Spiro Agnew. Liza Minnelli made you sweat just watching her, Mr. Sherr says. And James Brown, who knows why the Godfather of Soul needed violinists when he played Baltimore years back.

"He hired 12 violins, and I was one of them. When that crowd got going, you could have left the violins home," says Mr. Sherr.

But those gigs were just old flings for Mr. Sherr. He doesn't belong on the bandstand. He was born to stroll, but he doesn't recommend it as a career. Have another job to fall back on; Mr. Sherr had kitchens.

The art of The Stroll is dying and artists are scarce. The crowds are aging with him, which is just as well.

"Youngsters are a problem," he says.

At 80, Mr. Sherr knows Harry Connick Jr. but not Hootie and the Blowfish. He can play, "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy, a kid will eat ivy too, wouldn't you?" He can't play Nirvana.

So, Mr. Sherr hangs with the older set. Some weeks, he's got three weddings or private parties. Other weeks, he stays home or travels the world with Lola. He charges at least $100 for a solo performance, but he usually works with other violinists or an accordion player. The fee is then around $350.

At the B & O, Mr. Sherr has brought along Anne Arundel County music teacher Debbie Derrickson. She warms up by giving her fingers a run-through on her violin. (Violinists ceaselessly search for better fingering.) She values the rare times she works with Mr. Sherr.

"He has impeccable taste and a knowledge base that seems bottomless," Ms. Derrickson says. "You have to have supreme confidence to do this. He would not have survived this long without it."

She starts to mention the technical things she learns by playing with him. Their eyes meet under the canopy in the parking lot. "He needs me. I have to go."

The limo has landed. Mr. Sherr plays "Moon River." He is accompanied by Ms. Derrickson, who stands slightly behind her boss. Sometimes she stops to watch him play.

"Amazing Grace"?

Of course.

"Sunrise, Sunset"?

My pleasure, says Mel Sherr, moving in and under the wedding crowd. So many people now, toasting and talking. There's no sight of Mr. Sherr; the strolling violinist is buried in the background.

Sweet tones are heard over the chit-chat and snow peas with salmon. Sweet Vivaldi.

It's Spring again.

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