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Playing Piano Bar In The 60's
A Special Time
Remember when you went to a restaurant and looked into the cocktail lounge and saw a grand piano with a padded railing going around it and people sitting with their drinks, talking, singing, and a piano player tickling the keys with a lyrical melody? This was pretty prevalent in the 60's and I was one of those piano guys. This lens has a few stories about that experience. I've also included some pictures of piano bars, past and present, since I'm actually still playing whenever I can.Photo: If the owner of this photo will come forth, I'll give you a credit. I couldn't resist it......
Walking Thru The Yellow Pages........
I got my first piano job by simply going through the yellow pages and calling 30 restaurants in Glendale, California. I got two or three auditions out of the thirty and landed my first gig. My first piano job was at a nameless small bar on Brand Blvd. and as I remember the room, I believe the piano was built right into the main bar, which made for some interesting maneuvering at times. One experience that stands out was a very drunk gentleman asking me to play a song, and if I didn't, he made it very clear that he would take a swing at me. I wasn't sure what to do and I guess I didn't play the right song, so he took a swing at me.....and I remember my left hand reaching for his forehead and pushing him off. He dropped to the floor, completely out of my site....I guess he was really drunk! Mind you, this was my first night playing, and I was getting the tremendous sum of $15.
Ricky's Restaurant and those $20 tips........
After a few nights playing at the Club Nameless, somebody heard me and offered me a job up the street at the intersection of Brand and Broadway. It was an Italian restaurant called Ricky's and they actually had a separate piano bar setup with a Baldwin Acrysonic spinet piano (see picture at right). The Acrysonic was a piano that jazz players liked because of it's quick action, and Ricky's actually kept it tuned. The owner of Ricky's was a guy by the same name. He spoke very broken english, but we got along great and he seemed to like my music.
There was an older lady in her 60's that used to come in and sat by herself at the bar. She came up to the piano and asked me to play "The Hawaiian Wedding Song" and I almost fainted when she put a $20 bill into my large brandy snifter. This happened multiple times over multiple nights and when I saw her come in through the door, I would begin playing that song. I found out later that she owned a coffee plantation in South America, and was quite wealthy, but a very lonely and private person.
Ricky's was interesting in that some nights there would be a handful of people and other nights it was jam packed and the patrons applauded after every song. I remember taking breaks and putting my nickel or dine in the very large and elaborate jukebox and selecing "Fly Me To The Moon" by pianist Kai Winding. In those days I was very much into Erroll Garner, Pete Jolly and Dave Bruebeck. I didn't read music very well but I actually learned "Blue Rondo A La Turk" in 11/3 time, from the music. I learned to play by copying arrangements from the lp's of these great jazz men. I had a good memory for tunes which made it easier to play by ear, with a list of song titles in front of me. I still do that today.
Piano Bars on Amazon
After playing at Ricky's for awhile I got a job at a bar on Colorado Blvd, near the first Bob's Big Boy restaurant. Since I can't remember it's name let's call it "The Boom Boom Room". The exterior had some sort of sue-do bamboo and palm trees painted on it, and the inside was covered in real bamboo, sliced in half, and attached to all of the walls. It was charming and had a billiards platform in the back that always seemed to have a game going on.
An interesting couple owned the business, the husband Wally, was always smiling and or sleeping or maybe "passed out" in one of their booths a lot and the wife was strictly business and seemed to run things. By that time I had a duo and was playing with a drummer named Joe. His fort-ay was playing "Caravan", very loudly. He also seemed to have a business that operated out the trunk of his large Packard Clipper sedan. His product was pharmaceutical in nature, in very large jars. I was pretty young and naive about these things.
On one occasion the bar was taken over by a "Hells Angels" biker group and I was asked by a gentleman in spikes and chains to stop playing the piano so that they could run the juke box. I complied to his wishes and Wally was sleeping or something in a booth and missed out on most of the fun that night. There weren't any fights and I played pool with a couple of biker's - I must have looked cute in my sport jacket and tie.
I got most of my jobs from people hearing me play and a lady in town that owned two (count em) bars "The Brass Rail" and "The Gold Rail" hired me to play at the Brass and later at the Gold. It was my first union gig and it payed $50 a night. I had to go into Hollywood and join The Musician's Union, Local 47. This, folks, was the big time. I don't remember very much about this phase, but I was working at an art factory during the day and playing piano at night. I had found an old hotel that had a small two room, two story penthouse apartment with a bedroom that had the entire hotel roof as it's private patio. The rent was $50 a month. I could look across two city blocks and see Johnny Mathis' penthouse apartment that he was playing 2k a month for. I was renting a piano at the time, but couldn't had to play softly so as not to disturb the other tenants.
The Beatnick Influences
Hollywood was about a 20 minute drive from Glendale, so I used to check out clubs and restaurants there. Occasionally we would visit a coffee house such as Pandora's Box and others on The Sunset Strip. There was one on Highland Ave. called the Oasis and I would sit in on their old upright piano from time to time. The patrons were definitely the love generation, guys with long hair and beards, bell bottom pants, and very colorful ponchos. Lots of chess boards, expresso, poetry, singing, and sounds from dulcimers, pan flutes, drums and piano. There was a place called "The Garrett" on the Sunset Strip that had Jack Kerouac poetry with a jazz group behind it.
Munching Away in Munchkin Land
I have lots of memories of great food during that time. There was the Saratoga Restaurant, Imperial Gardens, Ciro's, Mogambo on the Sunset Strip. Hamburger Hamlet, Canter's Deli, and Barny's Beanery in Hollywood. Laury's Prime Rib, and The Captain's Table on La Cienega Drive. The Smoke House, Alphonses, Hungry Tiger, The Money Tree, China Trader, Jerry's Deli, in The San Fernando Valley.
When you play piano bar, one's eating schedule becomes different. For example, a typical evening shift would start at 9 pm and end at 1 am. Then whoever you happen to be hanging out with says "Let's go out to breakfast"! So we would go to an all night coffee shop. These were fairly common in Hollywood. Denny's comes to mind. There was one coffeeshop/bar (I think it was called "The Parrot Cage") in Hollywood that served breakfast and then had after hours jazz sessions, so we would go to that (usually on weekends). Some of those sessions were interesting, I actually caught Oscar Peterson playing there once.
Hanging Out in Newport Beach
About the time I was playing at Ricky's in Glendale, I met a girl named Diane through the son of an artist friend of my mother's. We started dating and she asked if I wanted to share the rent with her. She was living on Balboa Island, just below Newport Beach, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. So for about a year I was living at two addresses one in Glendale and the other on Balboa Island. Commuting was interesting, because I was still working at the art factory in Burbank and playing piano bar at a place in Newport Beach called the Golden Anchor. I would sometimes sit in at other places like Sid's Blue Beat and The Barristers, The Newporter Inn, and another (senior moment) place on Lido Isle.
Alas....as much as I loved the beach, I broke up with Diane and met a lady named Barbara who was to become my wife for 34 years. I married Barbara in 1966 and she was an actress who needed to be centrally located to all of the film studios, so we lived in the San Fernando Valley from then on. We didn't actually have a piano when we first got married, but Barbara realized my need for one and we found an old upright Haines Bros. student piano that had great action and I was happy again. I occasionally sat in and played local short gigs, but most of my emphasis was on making art, not music. The 60's were eventually over, and we moved into a new decade.
And Now For A Few Piano Bar Pictures........
Piano Bar Pic #2
Piano Bar Pic #3
Piano Bar Pic #4
Piano Music on Amazon
Very relaxing solo piano music by J. Norman Stewart