Red Sox

Rhythm of the game: How Fenway Park organist Josh Kantor plays fan requests on the fly

"To make people happy and create memories, lasting memories for people and for families and for generations, it's just a huge honor."

Josh Kantor at his organ in Fenway Park. Jim Davis/Globe Staff
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When “Sweet Caroline” isn’t providing some crowd camaraderie at Fenway Park, there’s Josh Kantor, bringing the ambiance to America’s most beloved ballpark with the timeless pep of his organ.

And when Kantor’s go-to, game day staples aren’t piping through the grandstand, well, the crowd may get a little surprise.

Take, for instance, the last week in July: With the Red Sox at home, fans heard an eclectic mix, ranging from nostalgia-laden numbers like Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Beauty School Dropout” from the musical “Grease,” to 2007’s No. 1 hit “Stronger” by Kayne West, “[untitled]” by indie rock royalty Neutral Milk Hotel, and Megan Thee Stallion’s trendsetting “Hot Girl Summer.”

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The common thread? All were among nearly 80 tunes requested by Sox fans that week alone — and Kantor was more than happy to oblige.

For the past decade, Kantor has taken requests, mainly through Twitter, for Fenway’s soundtrack: A practice that leaves the Boston music veteran deciphering a sizable number of both beloved hits and sentimental deep cuts in real time.

“I was sort of in a vacuum in terms of picking songs and in terms of getting feedback,” Kantor recently recalled to Boston.com of his eight years on the job before he began taking requests. “So even though the job is a lot more challenging now because of the constantly having to learn songs and juggle and communicate with people and squeeze things in, it’s also much more fun and rewarding.”

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Amid the rhythm of the game, Kantor takes in requests, listens to the songs, and pulls out the melodies he soon plays before a full-house crowd of over 37,000. He estimates he typically receives between 10 and 15 song requests per game.

He relies solely on his ear: Kantor doesn’t read sheet music and, even if he did, it’s just not available for some songs, like, say, the latest Taylor Swift single, he said.

Generally, his fingers can map out the notes he hears after listening to something once or twice.

Kantor tries to “find that melody, find out what’s interesting about the song — where’s the hook or where’s the thing that will make people snap their fingers, tap their toes, sing along.”

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Sometimes he’ll transpose a tune into a different key, or take a downtempo song and play it a bit faster for a revved-up crowd.

“Some songs I know well, when the request comes in. Some I know a little bit. Some I know very little, and some I know not at all,” Kantor said.

“Sometimes people will leave it kind of open ended, you know, they’ll say like, ‘Can you play anything by Prince?’ and so I know that there are a handful of Prince songs that I can do with my eyes closed without any practice, and then I know there are others that I don’t know as well and are more challenging for me,” he added. “And so, just for my own, I don’t know, for my own weird compulsion to make things harder than they need to be, I mix it up.

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“So if there’s one I played recently that I know well, I will force myself to learn a different one that I don’t know well, and try to give the people who come regularly as much variety as possible,” he said.

The repertoire of popular requests tends to shift every year or two. Some are the latest Top 40 staples and some are blasts from the past that, for whatever reason — perhaps prominently featured in a blockbuster movie or having a resurgence in the bar scene — have re-entered the popular music landscape, according to Kantor.

For a while, Kantor was fielding requests for ’80s bops like Toto’s “Africa” or “Come On Eileen,” the 1983 breakout hit by Dexys Midnight Runners, which both saw resurgences fueled by vocal internet fanbases, millennials, and Gen. Z in the 2010s.

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For the most part, Kantor tries to stick to the hits. After all, he is playing to “a baseball-first crowd,” he said.

On occasion, Kantor will get a request for genres that he can’t turn on a dime, like hard bop jazz or classical standards, he said.

But there are some exceptions.

“I think part of the formula, for lack of a better term, is like there’s some small (portion), maybe 5 percent, are the deep cuts and those are for, you know, the real hardcore music fans or the people who are like, ‘This is so exciting: I can’t believe … I’m hearing this song that is clearly not a hit but as maybe sort of an underground cult favorite. I can’t believe I’m … (hearing it) being played on an organ at a ballpark,'” Kantor said. “And that’s fun for people.”

There is, indelibly, a memory-making role Kantor plays, whether it’s in his job description or not.

Some requests are naturally more personal than others. Just earlier this week, Kantor fulfilled one from a father asking to hear his 7-year-old son’s favorite song — the Rolling Stones classic, “Jumping Jack Flash” — as he brought him to his first-ever Sox game.

Kantor calls it a “special privilege.”

“When your job is to make people happy and create memories, lasting memories for people and for families and for generations, it’s just a huge honor,” he said. “You know the emotion of it is a little overwhelming at times if I stopped to think about it enough.”

Kantor admits he often doesn’t remember which songs he played for specific requests (he keeps lists for his own records), but the stories surrounding some of them tend to stick out in his memory a bit more.

“People do message me and come visit me frequently to say, ‘You know, you probably don’t remember, but five years ago you played this song for me. I was on my first date with this woman and now we’re married, we have a kid, and we brought to the kid to Fenway,'” Kantor said. “And the truth is, like, I don’t remember that specific request because it was a million requests ago. But the fact that they remember it and it means so much to them is extremely meaningful to me.”

This week, the Sox were on the road, taking on the Yankees in the Bronx before they are scheduled to be back in town for the Texas Rangers on Friday.

Undoubtedly, Kantor will be ready for the next batch of eager fans with a clean slate, their requests turning over anew.

Yes, at Fenway Park, even the organist goes back to the top of the order, ready to field his next play.

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