TIVERTON — When someone puts you on the spot and asks you to sing for a U.S. president — right now — strong improvisational skills come in handy.
Fortunately for Bonnie Strickman of Tiverton, she’s a jazz singer. Winging it comes with the territory.
Some time after his presidency, Bill Clinton came to lend support to local Democrats at a Providence fund-raiser.
“I had just been back in Rhode island and I had a gig at The Gatehouse in Providence. We had a lot of reservations on the books — there’s nothing like friends — and my mom and dad were still alive and they came with all their friends,” recalled Ms. Strickman, who was living in New York at the time but would travel to Rhode Island for the occasional gig.
“The Gatehouse then got called to do a fund-raiser with Bill Clinton. Because I had so many reservations on the book, they kept me but they moved me upstairs in this private room,” she said.
The political fund-raiser was downstairs and the Secret Service was everywhere, said Ms. Strickman, who remembers joking with the band about Mr. Clinton coming up to sit in on saxophone. As it turned out, she’d be the one making the trip.
“In the middle of the evening, when we took a break, the owner took me by the hand and led me through the back, through the kitchen,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going on. He said, ‘I want you to sing for Bill Clinton.’”
Downstairs, Ms. Strickman was led to a different band that had been booked to play for the former president. She didn’t know any of the musicians.
“I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to sing?’ This is scary stuff.”
But professional musicians speak a universal language, and Ms. Strickman called out a key signature. “Someone to Watch Over Me” in A-flat, she told the piano player.
Just as she started to sing, the wait staff began serving the main course. Ms. Strickman felt certain that Mr. Clinton wasn’t paying attention.
“But I finish singing, and all of a sudden he jumps to his feet and starts clapping over his head. He was being silly and supportive and nice, and everyone else starts clapping.”
Then, Mr. Clinton motioned her over to his table. Ms. Strickman struggled to get through the maze of tables which were jammed closely together. All eyes were upon her. “The place is absolutely quiet — ‘How’s she gonna get there?’”
But the former president came to her rescue. He put one arm around her waist, took her hand with the other and gently guided her over.
As a photographer ran over to get a shot of them together, Mr. Clinton turned to Ms. Strickman and told her, “I love that song.”
He’d been listening after all.