Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Notes From The Top

How Sonia Modes became the First Lady of piano in Columbus.

Sonia Modes is timeless.

It’s notable enough to make a living as a musician for almost three quarters of a century in a town like Columbus—add to that becoming a living part of the city’s history, and a fixture of classic Columbus dining.

Yes, nothing quite brings people together like a meal at The Top, where Modes’ piano playing is as iconic as the decor, as tasteful as the menu.

I call her timeless.

She calls herself grateful.

That singular adjective stuck with me during our 90-minute conversation at her East Side home. During our time together, Sonia used this word often to describe her life and more specifically her 68-year journey as a professional pianist in Central Ohio. During our conversation, I was shown photos (a who’s who of Columbus), accolades (Columbus Senior Music Hall of Fame) and proclamations (Sonia Modes Day in Bexley), and even got to play chopsticks on the Steinway Baby Grand her dad bought her as a child.

I’m grateful, too. How often do you get to trade notes with a Columbus legend?

She can remember hearing the piano as early as three, and was able to pick out simple melodies by ear—a gift she attributes to her violinist father. Sonia soon began taking piano lessons on the aforementioned Baby Grand, setting into motion what would become her lifelong passion. After graduating from University High School, Sonia enrolled at The Ohio State University as a music major. However, the lure of playing mid-century standards, pop, and show tunes would prove too tempting and Sonia (luckily for everyone reading this) decided to focus on her professional career.

What were you doing after your third year of undergrad? Sleeping in because you stayed out? Starting that corporate internship? Finishing your second sophomore year at Ohio State? (That’s the more important sophomore year…)

After three years of undergrad, Sonia began a career as a professional pianist at small bars and restaurants in the greater Columbus area. She was nervous, but having fun and it wasn’t uncommon for her mother and/or aunt to accompany her to jobs, for both support and security.

Eventually, Sonia landed a regular job at the now defunct Desert Inn, where she played her favorites (including Sinatra, Porter and Gershwin) regularly for 10 years. Immediately after that job ended, Sonia was scooped up by The Top Steakhouse where she has been consistently playing in some capacity since 1965—you know, when Lyndon B. Johnson was President.

At The Top, Sonia was busy perfecting her craft and took advantage of all available opportunities to play live. During this time it wasn’t uncommon for Sonia to work a luncheon followed by a cocktail party followed by her nightly gig. Life was busy, good and uncomplicated. And then Sonia married.

After five years at The Top, Sonia tied the knot and tried her hand at homemaking. However, her husband had a hectic work travel schedule and the music kept calling, so after six months she informed her husband that she was going back to work. The marriage lasted, but the homemaking didn’t and Sonia immediately found regular employment at the Grove City Holiday Inn where she was grateful to finally have the opportunity to play as part of a trio.

While being a part of a trio didn’t last long, it did pay off. As fate would have it, Columbus media magnate John Walton Wolfe happened to be in the crowd one particular evening and quickly stole Sonia away and slotted her for a regular gig at the Neil House hotel, where she played from 1972 until it was razed in 1980.

For those unfamiliar, which included myself until this interview, the Neil House hotel was a High Street institution that catered to celebrities, politicians and other powerbrokers. Backroom deals, three martini lunches and the launching or destruction of careers were the rule, not the exception. Suddenly The Sonia Modes Trio was the name on the marquee and she had more exposure and connections than she knew what to do with. She never worried about finding employment again.

THE ART OF MATCHMAKING

After the closing of the Neil House hotel, Sonia stayed true to The Top while working at other fabled Columbus clubs such as the Bexley Monk, Kahiki Supper Club, the Press Club at the Deshler Building, The Marriott Inn and even the Playboy Club, often seven nights a week.

While working at these clubs, Sonia developed a following—mostly because of the music but partly because word of her matchmaking abilities began to spread. She’s introduced (all free of charge) 44 couples who would eventually tie the knot. Is she clairvoyant? No, she said with an ornery grin. She can just “see things that others can’t.”

She consults the stars for this matchmaking process and upon learning I was married, immediately asked for my sign (Taurus) followed by my wife’s (Cancer). She assured me this was a good match because Cancers are adaptable even when their Taurus husbands are “little boys who never grow up.”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure she’s clairvoyant.

FULL CIRCLE AT THE TOP

Music has been Sonia’s life for 68 years, so it is fitting that The Top (where Bob Hope once told her she belongs in Hollywood) is where she continues to perform. Every Tuesday (starting at 6:30 p.m.) and Saturday (starting at 7:30 p.m.), you can find Sonia behind the keys on the west wall of The Top. Here she is accompanied by lounge singers Jayne Cabral Smith, Leslie Gantener and Justin DeWolfe and surrounded by patrons at the bar around her piano. Sometimes all three lounge singers are in attendance and sometimes just one.

Basically, it goes down like this: You walk into The Top, which seems like a 1950s New York Supper Club straight out of Mad Men. You either get a seat in the dining area (reservation recommended) or you get a seat at the bar, order a drink and watch as patrons from all around the restaurant shout requests for all of the old standards. The lounge singers field the requests, inform Sonia what key they would like and bam…away they go.

It’s a tribute to Sonia’s legacy that her peers value her contribution to the city and to the restaurant.

DeWolfe has been performing with Sonia for four years and drives the deeply religious Sonia to their performance every Saturday. She attributes her sanity and health to God and prays two hours daily. She makes sure to credit Top owners Denver and Regina Adkins for their support.

Sonia also plays for fellow residents at her retirement community. Here, she is accompanied by DeWolfe and just like at The Top, they take requests. On the evening I attended, I saw rousing renditions of Moon River, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Dream A Little Dream of Me, among others. As much as I enjoyed the evening (it’s hard not to enjoy time with Sonia), the residents enjoyed it more as they were transported back in time to the memories only music can rouse.

How long does Sonia plan on performing? “As long as God will let me,” she says. Since none of us know how long that will be, you would be well-served to get to The Top for the Sonia Modes experience. You will be treated to a classy meal, a classy evening and world-class music from a classy lady. And who knows? Maybe she can get you a date.

The Top is located at 2891 E Main St. in Bexley. For more, visit thetopsteakhouse.com.

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