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San Diego's piano bars

Where karaoke is a dirty word and rap is “crap”

Scott Skinner: “It seems like they drink less nowadays.”
  • Scott Skinner: “It seems like they drink less nowadays.”

Scott Skinner — the Godfather

The Godfather Restaurant

7878 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Clairemont

There’s an iron man caressing the ivories over on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, and if you miss his act this weekend, don’t worry; he may still be playing there 40 years from now. Pianist Scott Skinner, 68, started playing at the Godfather in 1977 and hasn’t missed a note since.

In a town where tradition can mean four years, Skinner’s gig, spanning four decades, owes its incongruous continuity to the Balistreri family — patriarch-chef Isidoro and son Tony. “When I first started out, Isidoro had me come in on a Saturday afternoon and play a few songs. He hired me right on the spot and I played the next night. Since around 1980 it’s been Thursday through Sunday, with Wednesdays added in the summer. I recognize some people who used to come in the ’70s, moved away, and have come back recently. Usually, I can remember their names and the songs I used to play for them.”

Billy Joel? Overrated.

Billy Joel? Overrated.

I ask the bow-tied Skinner if the crowd’s changed since the disco era. “In the last few years, people have been bringing their smart phones or tablets, and they’ll spend more time with those than with their dining companions. It also seems like they drink less nowadays.”

However much they imbibe (and the last time I visited the restaurant, a gaggle of cackling women had apparently tilted more than a few) there aren’t many requests for “Free Bird.” But, Skinner notes, “Every once in a while, someone will ask for a Led Zeppelin song; there are three or four that I play, such as ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Goin’ to California.’ It’s kind of odd to play something like that in a restaurant, but it works.”

Paul Gregg at the Red Fox: “If they start to get out of line, using foul language, maybe trying to impress their buddies, I cut ’em off.”

Paul Gregg at the Red Fox: “If they start to get out of line, using foul language, maybe trying to impress their buddies, I cut ’em off.”

More often, it’s fare that one might expect at an old-fashioned Italian eatery — movie themes from Hollywood’s “golden age” and the inevitable hoary chestnuts from Rat Packers Sinatra and Martin.

Requests account for only about 10 percent of what he plays; the bulk comes courtesy of a by-memory repertoire. With nary a trace of pretense, he notes, “I tried to count the songs once. I’m sure that it’s at least 500, probably more. It goes back to the 1700s with Bach, the 1800s with Beethoven, and the 1920s with ragtime. I play some jazz, a lot of Broadway show tunes, and some pop and rock songs.”

But even the ever-affable Skinner has his limits. “I try to catch everything, but it’s awfully hard to do rap on the piano, and I don’t even try. A few years back, one fellow gave me the name of a country song with at least 20 words in the title. I think he made it up and was trying to be funny. I said, ‘I can’t play that.’... You can’t cover it all.” But, consistent with the Balistreri family’s earnest attempt to accommodate their guests — this ain’t no Olive Garden — he tries his best. “The other night, someone asked for the opening theme from Forrest Gump. Frank, the bartender, happened to be working at the front desk near my piano and heard the request. He looked it up on his phone and came up with the first page of the song. I don’t see as well as I used to, but I was able to play it, and I took off from there; I’m pretty good at improvising. The people were very, very happy.”

Archie Thompson: “I wonder what’s wrong with people. You’ve got great musicians playing great music right in front of you, and you’re staring at your phone.”

Archie Thompson: “I wonder what’s wrong with people. You’ve got great musicians playing great music right in front of you, and you’re staring at your phone.”

If you’ve ever been to a club or a bar where the breaks seem to overwhelm the sets, you’ll find Skinner’s approach unorthodox. “I start at 6:00 and play until 10:00 on Thursday, 10:30 on Friday and Saturday, often later. Sometimes — and maybe it’s not good for me or the customers — I don’t take any breaks at all.” If he does indulge in a hiatus, it’s a 15-minute respite after an hour or an hour and a half.

What to play next?

“I decide on the spot, using these little formulas. For example, I’ll play a song that begins with the letter ‘a’, then one that begins with ‘b.’ Or maybe I’ll do one that starts in the key of C, then one in D-flat, then go up the scale. I repeat quite a few songs. I tend to kick things off with The Godfather theme; I play that twice a night. I try to inject some Italian songs so people don’t think I’m trying to avoid them. But there’s no instruction from Tony unless the nearest table requests that I don’t play as loud.”

Whatever the selection, the response is largely positive, if subdued. “I’ve never been booed, at least audibly, never seen anybody give me a thumbs down. Every once in awhile, they’ll applaud; it’s like in church.” And although Skinner draws a salary, tips are welcomed. “I got $100 once, and a guy left four bottles of Dom Perignon for the patrons to share.” On the other hand, he chuckles, “Someone once gave me $5 to quit playing.”

I ask Skinner, who says he’s never missed a night due to sickness, what accounts for the continuity, 40 years of playing in one establishment. “I look forward to going to work. My greatest satisfaction is interpreting a song in a way that only I could know. Also, I don’t have to spend time bringing a piano; I can just sit down and play.”

But he says there’s one enduring requirement. “If you come to the Godfather, be prepared to hear ‘Happy Birthday’ more than once. Sure, I try to make it different each time, build up the suspense so that it reaches a climax when they blow out the candles. But some kid will always come up to me and ask, ‘Is that all you play?’”

“Is the Godfather a good gig?” I ask. “How does playing at the Godfather compare with working a lounge like the Westgate’s?”

“I don’t think I’m under as much pressure here as I’d be at a place like that. Also, I’ve heard other pianists talking about their agents being unable to find them anything at all; it’s harder than it used to be.”

Laughing, he adds, “That’s one of the reasons I appreciate having been here and not being fired.”

Paul Gregg — Red Fox, Bistro 60

Red Fox Steakhouse

2200 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights

If you’re looking for still more keyboard traditionalists, take a cross-town jaunt to El Cajon Boulevard at Louisiana Street, where you’ll find Paul Gregg holding forth under the low ceiling of the Red Fox. Weekend nights, he’s been a fixture for nearly a decade, styling selections from the Great American Songbook as he dips into an internalized song list said to number in the thousands. And at 81, playing for 60 years, he’s had the time, tenacity, and talent to learn a lot of songs, honing his skills at a passel of San Diego County clubs before landing at the Fox.

Saturday night, I slide into a red leather booth as the second set starts. A 30-ish man, drink in hand, croons a couple of Dean Martin numbers; I think he’s done this before. The next guy isn’t half-bad himself. Next up is a striking brunette chanteuse who gets up from a table near me and, without a trace of fanfare, belts out a rendition of Cole Porter’s “Where or When,” followed by Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.” This is a serious jazz singer, I say to myself; Ella Fitzgerald, with hints of Sarah Vaughan, and maybe a dollop of Dinah Washington. This ain’t amateur hour, and it sure as hell isn’t The Gong Show.”

That’s why the Red Fox stands out. “It’s the last of the dinosaurs,” muses Gregg. “When I first came to San Diego, there were something like 27 piano bars in the county. We’re the last one after Albie’s closed down; they’re a dying breed in San Diego. Places that used to use live music all the time, even the Hotel Del, have karaoke nights. Sure, the acoustics are probably one of worst in town; and I don’t say that to be derogatory, but you can see what I mean: it’s low ceilings, all wood and glass, there’s no absorption.”

Gregg recounts local venues from his past. “I came to San Diego in ’73 and played in a trio at the Moonglow for a couple of years, with a drummer named Earl Famous — that’s his real name — and a trumpet player named Gino Cirrano, who’d played with some big bands. We were doing a lot of dance music, jazz, and standards. After that, I went up to Oceanside and played with Earl at Marty’s Valley Inn. Then I got a call from a union guy, Charlie Cannon, who was a business agent. He asked if I’d be willing to play solo at a place called the Fifth Amendment, which is now the Inn at the Park. I played there close to a year. Then I played at Billy Bones in Pacific Beach, and after that, the Surfer Lounge across from the Catamaran.”

At the Red Fox, it’s all about accommodating the singers, serious amateurs and polished pros alike, who flock to the microphone on weekend nights. “They come up to the piano and ask, ‘How do I get in line?’”

When the Fox is packed, Gregg draws as many as 15 or 20 crooners. “Some are very, very good; you’ll be surprised at some of the singers that come in there.”

What about the not-so-good?

“Mel Brooks did something called the ‘2000-year-old man’ in which he said, ‘We have the greats and the near-greats.’ Well, so do we. Some are embarrassing. If they start to get out of line, using foul language, maybe trying to impress their buddies, I cut ’em off.”

I have the amplifier right next to me; all I have to do is bend over and move my right hand.”

The courtly Gregg, whose New England accent has withstood his long stint in San Diego, takes pride in his role as an accompanist.

“Singers tell me that I’m one of the best in town because I can take a song that was written in E flat and I can transform it on the fly for a singer who wants to sing in G or B flat.”

Gregg, who also plays at Bistro Sixty in the College Area on the last two Sundays of the month, estimates that requests make up about 35 percent of what he plays.

“For the last four or five years, I’ve worked weekends. When you play earlier in the week, you get to play more of what you want to play.” There’s no song that he refuses to play, but he admits, “I’m not up on the contemporary music, so I’ll tell them, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know it.’”

Notwithstanding the occasional unfulfilled request for a current chart-topper, Gregg says that the yen for tradition knows no age limits. “Some of the younger people surprise me; I didn’t think they were even aware of the artists from what some call the Great American Songbook. Get a lot of requests for Sinatra, and I’ll say, ‘You mean Nancy?’

‘No, no,’ a guy will say — ‘Frank!’”

Over the course of a night, up-tempo songs and ballads share equal billing. “The trumpet player I work with, Ed Rapacci, prefers to do up-tempo pieces because he just turned 85 and he no longer has the chops to sustain a note. But I love the ballads and I sing as well.

Gregg opines that there are health benefits not only from playing music, but also from listening to real musicians. “I met the president of Yamaha Piano, who was visiting from Japan. He stopped by Fredericka Manor, a retirement home in Chula Vista. They did a study that found that live music lowers seniors’ blood pressure. I asked the interpreter if [he] had a sense of humor and said that I could forgive him for the Second World War — but not for karaoke.”

Joe Cromwell — Red Fox

Red Fox Steakhouse

2200 El Cajon Boulevard, University Heights

On nights when Paul Gregg’s on a short sabbatical from the Red Fox, it’s Joe Cromwell’s turn. A comparative youngster at 67, he’s played there since July 2013, and like Gregg, he’s an alum of Kelly’s at the Town & Country Hotel, where he held forth 17 years. Although there’s some overlap in material, Cromwell’s tastes run to newer songs than what Gregg plays.

“I do a lot of Elton John and Billy Joel; my favorite era is the ’60s and ’70s. I really love big band stuff but didn’t grow up with it; I had to learn it. My most requested is ‘Piano Man,’ which I love. I do some country, like Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy,’ and one of my favorite songs is Floyd Cramer’s ‘Last Date.’ I play it the same way he did it. Also, I’ll do contemporary ballads like ‘The Rose’ and ‘The Way We Were,’ because the female singers like to sing those. A lot of the men like to sing the Beatles and Kenny Loggins. I do Erroll Garner’s ‘Misty’ all the time, Henry Mancini stuff, and songs like ‘As Time Goes By,’ ‘Honeysuckle Rose,’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ as well as some Scott Joplin rags.” He says he knows over 1000 tunes by heart, enough to meet almost any request from the singers in attendance.

“The singers run the gamut from the very bad to the very good. I’ve had people come up there who can’t put two notes together and others who are actually professional singers who put on quite a show. I have a motto: ‘There are always people better than you and worse than you.’ The other night I had this lady who was really, really drunk. When they get up there and start screaming or being total asses, try to make personal announcements over the microphone, then I cut ’em off.”

“But,” I ask Cromwell, “don’t you almost have to be drunk to work up the nerve to sing in public?”

“You probably don’t have to get drunk unless you’re new to it. People who love to do it don’t need alcohol. In fact, when I was at Kelly’s, bartenders there would complain that patrons wouldn’t do a lot of drinking because they wanted to sing.”

Don’t mention karaoke around Cromwell.

“For me, the word ‘karaoke’ is a dirty word. Sometimes, people come in and hear singing and say, ‘Oh — they’ve got a karaoke machine.’ No, not karaoke — you’re not following a machine and a bouncing ball. You’re following a live musician who’s playing in your key and who’s accompanying you while you sing. You can’t get that with a machine.”

If you’ve ever tried to sing karaoke, you’re stuck with whatever key they give you; plus, if you want to style the song by changing the tempo, only a live musician can do that for you.”

I ask Cromwell, “Are you ever stumped?”

“Sometimes I won’t know a song by title when someone requests it, but I’ll say, ‘Sing a few bars,’ and I’ll recognize it.”

Nonetheless, there’s material he prefers not to play.

“I’m not a hardcore jazz pianist. Standards and big band are often termed jazz, but people like Dave Brubeck, Wynton Marsalis — that’s not my style, so when people ask for that, I tell them I’m not real comfortable playing it.”

And, he says, certain genres of music aren’t amenable to a piano-only rendition.

“If someone comes in and asks me to play heavy metal like Metallica or Guns ’n’ Roses, I can’t do that. People will yell out ‘Free Bird,’ but I say, ‘Nope, can’t play that.’”

There’s not much yelling on some evenings.

“Mondays and Tuesdays, it’s real quiet.”

But, says Cromwell, it pays to stick around.

“One thing that’s unique about the Red Fox is that we go from 9 to 1, and sometimes around midnight we’ll get a rush, mostly the college crowd. That’s why the owners like the late hours, because they like to be the last place somebody goes at night. As you get closer to the weekend, it’s jam-packed; you can’t even walk a straight line to get to the bathroom sometimes.”

But not all the patrons are focused on the music.

“On Monday nights, people from an improv comedy place come in after their show. We could be playing rap and they wouldn’t know the difference. They’re not into what we’re doing, and don’t put any money in the tip jar either. I prefer some enthusiasm because it gives you energy and makes the night go by faster. Some nights when it’s just dead, with just a few people at the bar and a few in the restaurant, I look at the clock and it seems like it hasn’t moved.”

As for pay, Cromwell is candid.

“Tips are an important part. They do pay me all right, but they don’t overwhelm me. I like to say, ‘If you have a favorite request, write it on the back of your favorite president and bring it up.’ Just a little joke to give them the idea to tip. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. Most of the singers will tip. Once got a 100-dollar bill, and there are regulars who’ll throw in a 20. One guy consistently comes in and gives me $10. But some, mostly the younger patrons, just walk out the door and wave at you, like, ‘Thanks a lot...whatever.’”

As much as Cromwell enjoys his gig at the Red Fox, he harbors no illusions.

“I don’t think the future looks all that great for what we do, because of how everything is being automated these days. Karaoke is still around, and DJs have put a lot of live musicians out of business. I used to play at a lot of weddings and parties, but they don’t hire bands much anymore because they can hire a DJ for about a fourth of the cost. And the DJs play for the millennials, who are into the hip-hop, rap, that kind of stuff. I call rap ‘crap’; it’s not music. So what we do is going to go by the wayside. In San Diego, the piano-bar thing is fading out; I hate to say it, but it is.”

It’s not just karaoke and rap that draw Cromwell’s ire. Dueling pianos also make his shit list.

“They’re a gimmick where you have two piano players who play the same song. It’s a shill game where they’ll say, ‘Throw some money in and we’ll play.’ They’ll play a few bars of it and then say, ‘Throw some more money in and we’ll play the rest of the song,’ and then they’ll say, ‘Anyone who doesn’t want to hear the song, throw some money in and we’ll stop playing it.’ I’m not sure if they ever get through an entire song. I’ve known a couple of guys who do that, and in terms of tips, they make in one night what I make in a month. It’s prostituting yourself in a way. We’re all here to make a living, but I like to give the audience a bang for their buck, play a song completely. Also, the dueling-piano guys, while they’re probably pretty good players, will try to get people up there who’ve never sung before and embarrass them. It’s mostly big parties who want to get wild and crazy.”

Archie Thompson — Truluck’s, Grant Grill, Eddie V’s

Truluck's

The Aventine, 8990 University Center Lane, La Jolla

In the meantime, over at Truluck’s at UTC, Archie Thompson is putting on a showcase, and I wish the crowd would pay more attention. It’s not that I’d want them to abandon their clams casino or shrimp cocktail — hey, it’s a high-toned seafood joint, after all. But Thompson’s a genuine triple threat, a trifecta of Dave McKenna–esque piano stylings, serious throwback vocalizing, and did I mention the tenor sax action? Listen, I’ll be Frank, Sinatra (yeah, that’s Archie singing “Summer Wind” as if he just docked down at Nassau in 1959); the little missus and I had merely intended to snag some half-priced cocktails and a few crustaceans, when we stumbled upon Thompson.

I request “My One and Only Love” and, of course, he knows it. Then it’s “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Georgia” (pretty nice Ray Charles stylings for UTC, friends), “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “I’m Walkin.’” It’s honest-to-god jazz standards, boogie-woogie, and a touch of soul. This guy wears the porkpie hat like he earned it — and, by Jove, it sure sounds like he has. Just when I’m settling into Waller, wait — it’s a seamless segue into Kern’s “All the Things You Are.” I turn around and now it’s the blues, Chicago, New Orleans, but a reality check says we’re in a place some real estaters call “the Golden Triangle.” It’s Archie, and I’m still in San Diego. How about a little “Wine and Roses”? Swingin’ Mancini, anyone?

What’s this big-time guy doing here — and how can we persuade him to stay? The crowd’s oblivious, and I’m getting a little miffed by their indifference. “I Get a Kick Out of You”— full Porter lyrics, and a soupçon of Sinatra snippets, to boot. Guy must be trying to impress with his repertoire and range because I’m on my third pissoir foray and this guy ain’t slowin’ down.

And then there’s the church connection.

“On Saturdays I do a ‘double,’” says Thompson. “I lead Jazz Vespers at the First Presbyterian Church downtown; then I play at Eddie V’s later in the evening. We’ve been doing it for about six years. We start at 4:30 with a half hour of music and feature a guest every week, including some of the top jazz musicians in town, like Holly Hofmann, Bob Voss, and Eric Cannon. So many of the really good musicians in San Diego have church gigs. We do a little more gospel at the church. We read the crowd; one night, it might be a little more jazzy, another night, a little more blues, and another night, more R&B. The service follows that, and it includes more music — all sorts of jazz, jazzed-up hymns, and gospel. We get a mixture of people, including the homeless from the rescue mission. We do plenty of gospel tunes, and I have the freedom to perform whatever songs we like. If it fits in a worship service, we do it. You might hear a Bill Withers tune or a jazz standard like ‘Song for My Father,’ by Horace Silver, or Tad Jones’s ‘A Child Is Born.’”

I ask Thompson, “How did you get to be the ‘house band’ at the church?”

He explains, “I was referred to the pastor here from another church I was performing at. Jerry Andrews, the pastor at First Pres’, came and saw the band at Croce’s and liked what he heard. He was looking for a Saturday service as an outreach to the urban community. I told him, ‘I’m just a guy performing in the local tavern; why do you want me?’ And he said, ‘Because you’re the guy performing in the local tavern.’ [First Presbyterian] is my headquarters now; I have my studio set up [there] and do my recording [there.]”

When it comes to audience reaction, Thompson is equivocal.

“I don’t really care whether they pay attention or not; I just enjoy playing. That being said, I wonder what’s wrong with people. You’ve got great musicians playing great music right in front of you, and you’re staring at your phone. I play for the people who are paying attention; every night there’s somebody. The way I look at a successful night is, there are three aspects: you make some good tips, you get a good response from the crowd, you feel like you’ve played well and expressed yourself artistically. If you get all three, that’s a trifecta. If you get two out of three, that’s pretty good, and one’s okay. Usually,” he chuckles, “you get one or two. We’ve had a couple of really good nights — it’s mostly inebriated folks who are responsible — but players do much better at karaoke, sing-along, and dueling-piano joints where there’s some politics involved; I don’t make much money on tips.”

Grant Grill

326 Broadway, Downtown San Diego

I ask Thompson about his Grant Grill gigs.

“I like playing a nice, upscale, intimate lounge. That’s what I prefer. I’ve refined my niche. I don’t like big venues, I don’t care to play concerts, I don’t want to play outdoors, and I don’t care to tour. Too big a venue, I don’t enjoy. I like being close to the people and feeding off of them, reading the crowd.”

Pianist, vocalist, or sax player?

“Put vocalist last,” laughs Thompson.

Piano influences?

“Absolutely. I love Ray Charles, Ramsey Louis, Count Basie. Another keyboardist that really influenced me was jazz organist Jimmy Smith.”

Elaborating on his venue selectivity, he states, “The places I play aren’t really the sing-along type places. I’m in the fine-dining establishments, there to set the tone, the ambience, for the diners and bar customers. It’s background music. Hopefully people are engaged in the music, but if they’re not, that’s okay. When I took the gig at Truluck’s, one of conditions was that the management get rid of the stools around the piano. I’d played at Humphrey’s for 12 years where they had the same setup. Not only did they agree to do it, but they did it company-wide at their 11 other restaurants. If you want to set the tone for the whole restaurant [seating at the piano] doesn’t work. Because people at the piano bar want sing-along type stuff, they might be drinking a little more.” Thompson laughs. “Fun for them, but it kills the vibe; I’m not into the sing-along thing; I have a strict ‘no sit-in’ policy. Here’s the thing: Nine times out of ten it turns out horribly, and who gets blamed? Here’s a person who doesn’t know how to sing, doesn’t know when to come in, and he’s lookin’ back at you, like, ‘Come on — you’re messin’ up.’ At the end of the day, it’s no fun for me; I don’t want to back up amateurs.”

When I ask Thompson, a San Diego native, about the pecuniary aspects of playing the piano for a living, he answers, “I’ll just say this: I’ve played music my entire life and never had a ‘day job.’ I’ve been playing music here professionally 40 years, since I was 14, and I’ve worked five to seven nights a week for decades. Supported a family as the sole breadwinner, own a home. But it’s not just playing the lounges. I also write and produce songs for TV, films, and commercials, as well as do bookings for other acts. There’s freedom to pursue other things. I put these three or four things together and always have a couple bucks in my pocket.”

Thompson evinces a fondness for the American Songbook standards.

“We know a ton; there’s so much you can do with them — a bossa, a funky boogaloo — whatever.” He also sports a strong affinity for Mose Allison. “That type of bluesy jazz is kind of where I’m comin’ from. I’m not really a crooner, and I can relate to his conversational style of singing. He’s inspired me....

“To me, the golden age was from 1955 to 1970. I like everything that was going on musically in the ’60s — the soul, jazz, blues, R&B, and rock, even the country. We’ll do modern songs, but we’ll play them our own way — everything from Frank Sinatra to Foo Fighters, including stuff that’s on the charts right now. But most modern pop is pretty bad.”

When it comes to pop-schlock, Thompson doesn’t veil his disdain. “Are there songs you just refuse to do?”

“Oh, yeah. The number-one request is ‘Piano Man.’ I’ve never played it, because it glorifies failure. He’s singing about playing in a tavern; but when you first start out, you don’t want to play at the local tavern — you want to play Carnegie Hall.” He laughs. “It would depress me to sing that song. I won’t play Billy Joel, Elton John, or Jimmy Buffett; those are the three ‘no-no’s. And people get mad; they don’t believe me when they ask me to play ‘Piano Man’ and I say ‘no.’ ‘Of course you do,’ they’ll whine. ‘Why can’t you do it?’ I say, ‘I could, but I won’t. I’m sure there’s something else I play that you might like.’ But sometimes ‘Piano Man’ is all they want — that and ‘Benny and the Jets.’ That’s, like, the worst song ever recorded; it’s horrible. When I first started my solo act, I made a conscious decision not to play those, because that’s what everybody did. I wanted to set myself apart. As I’ve matured, it’s become more of a statement for me. But I will do ‘Free Bird.’ The big joke is, ‘Do not yell out “Free Bird.” If you do, watch out, because we’ll play that damned thing for 20 minutes, and you’ll be sorry you asked for it.’”

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