East Bay: Piano bar patrons take turns making melodies
Friday, January 14, 2005
Billy Joel’s song “Piano Man” meets the TV sitcom “Cheers” at the Alley Cat piano bar in Oakland and Marcello’s restaurant in Danville, where all the regulars know your name and your songs.
Instead of “The Piano Man” singing and entertaining the guests, the Alley Cat and Marcello’s are two of the few remaining venues in the East Bay where bar patrons can sing.
There are other restaurants and bars in the Bay Area that have pianists who play and sing, but there are few sing-along piano bars.
The unusual element to these two places is that seasoned singers, professionals and even those who previously only sang in the shower converge to listen to each other sing — and sometimes sing in unison.
The Alley Cat’s interior, with a picket fence separating some bar stalls, a pawn shop façade on one wall, rooftops above the bar area, a silhouette of a woman dressing in a window and dim lighting, gives the bar its alley feeling. Business cards taped and stapled on the walls are the main decorations.
Rod Dibble has been playing tunes from the 1920s to 1950s at the Alley Cat on Tuesday through Sunday nights since 1960.
Patrons sit around the piano bar and request songs that they know from memory, or they read the music from the many piano books available, with music ranging from Frank Sinatra’s signature melodies to Broadway hits.
At Marcello’s on Thursday through Sunday nights, Patti Leidecker plays a variety of music ranging from country-western, Broadway, pop and rock ‘n’ roll.
Usually, patrons sing from memory or bring in their own music scores. The piano is at the front of the restaurant, separated from the dining area.
Semicircular tables are affixed to the pianos at both locations. With stools around the tables, guests can sit and see the pianist and other guests. At both piano bars, singers take turns, and the pianists call on people to sing.
Dibble and Leidecker have worked at piano bars across the state and play from memory. By knowing their regulars well, they transpose the music according to the vocal pitch of the singer. They greet regulars and newcomers with smiles, creating a friendly and warm environment at both venues.
“When people get together to make music,” Dibble said, “they can’t be in a bad mood. You can’t sing if you are angry.”
It’s rare to see people of different ages sing the melodies made famous by Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett, but not at these piano bars.
Young singers learn from older singers who remember when the songs first appeared in the movies and know their history. Older singers introduce young guests to songs that they had never heard before.
Marcello’s co-owner, Germano Foschi, finds humor in this phenomenon. “Young people want to see what their parents sang when they were young, and they like to see old people having so much fun.”
Some regulars come several times a week and form strong friendships that they maintain outside of the piano bars.
Steve Grossman took his ailing 81-year-old father to the Alley Cat and “saw the weight of the world go off his shoulders when he sang.” During the stressful period of caring for his dying father, Grossman said the piano bar was “a great place to blow off steam.”
James Welch, a Marcello’s regular, has emphysema and travels from Pinole to Danville almost four nights a week with his girlfriend, Nona Flores, to sing with the help of his oxygen machine. With a tube next to his nose pumping in oxygen, he holds Flores’ hand while singing his favorite tunes.
Singing makes him practice a kind of breathing that forces oxygen from the air sacks and helps him breathe better. “Singing builds up my wind,” he said.
New singers, especially those who never sang in public before or are shy, feel comfortable with the encouragement from other singers.
Glenn Zahler found inspiration and support: “When I came to the Alley Cat five years ago, I only knew the melodies and not the words. Now I know 150 songs.”
– Marcello’s Cucina Toscana, 515 San Ramon Valley Blvd., Danville. (925) 838-8144, Piano Bar: 7-11 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 6:30- 10 p.m. Sunday.
– The Alley Cat, 3325 Grand Ave. Oakland. (510) 444-8505. Piano bar: 9 p. m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
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