Piano Dad

He was given no choice. My grandparents forced him to take piano lessons. And my dad hated it.

But then something clicked. His spirit and soul connected with the spirit and soul of that giant stringed instrument. His fingers figured out how to tickle the ivories, and his ears learned how steal any tune he heard, and send it through his heart and onto the keyboard. And he went from piano pouter to piano child prodigy.

My dad had a happy-go-lucky, jocular personality. And he could charm anyone. His motto all his life was, “Make someone smile at least once a day.”

And he could do that with a piano. Whenever he would spot a lonely old upright or grand, sitting dusty and forgotten in some corner, whether it be in a bar, a restaurant, or somebody’s home, he’d meander over inconspicuously, casually wipe the dust off with his hands, then sit down and start tapping out a slow, hesitant tune.

And then gradually, as his fingers found their rhythm, and as his soul resonated with the great musical beast before him, that tune would build. Before long he’d be in full form, pounding out old standbys, with improvised riffs and harmonies lifting the atmosphere.

A crowd would draw near, and he’d take requests. If he couldn’t remember the tune, he’d ask the requester to hum or sing a few lines. Then his ear would catch it and transform it to the ivories, and you’d swear he’d been playing that song all his life.

A few years before I was born, he was laid off from his job as a machinist. He had kids to clothe, mouths to feed, and bills to pay. So he walked into a bar in Los Angeles and asked what they’d pay him to play their piano.

They allowed him to play for tips.

Night after night the tip jar overflowed, as large crowds were drawn to the bar. He became so popular, it seemed perhaps my dad had discovered a new profession.

But one wassailing evening, after he’d finished burning up the keys, a couple of goons paid him a visit. They asked to see his union card. But he didn’t belong to the local musician’s union. So they gave him the unmistakable message that if he did not join quickly, his fingers would be fixed so that he’d never play a piano again.

Dad said, “to hell with it.” Aerojet was hiring machinists, and they wanted him. He refused to join that damned musician’s union. Instead his fingers returned to metal, and let the ivories be.

My mom and dad divorced when I was two. So when I grew up, he was that charming, funny guy who showed up once-in-awhile and took me to fun places like Disneyland. I loved him, and always felt glad to see him come, and sad to see him go.

When I was eleven years old I attended Cottonwood Elementary school. It was way out in the sticks, and was the last one-room school in Riverside County, California. This old schoolhouse, built in 1897, had a lonely, dusty old piano languishing in the corner. Our schoolteacher didn’t know how to play it, so our music lessons consisted of singing songs A Cappella.

Cottonwood Elementary, where I attended Sixth Grade.

Every morning our 27 little lungs, from first to sixth grade, belted out tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, such as The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, and Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.

One day I stepped inside the schoolhouse while on recess, and there was my dad, paying me a surprise visit. And with him were my brother and sisters, whom he’d pulled out of classes at their high school. He had to do this on the sly, as a surprise visit, because he was behind in child support. My mother had no idea he was in town.

After a few minutes of hugs and jokes, Dad spotted the piano. And true to form, he quietly gravitated toward it, casually wiped the dust with his hands, and started to play, sitting all alone at the keyboard. And his smile quota for the whole year must have been satisfied in that moment, with the beaming look that appeared on my schoolteacher’s face.

Before long my entire class, and my brother and sisters, were all singing songs from Oklahoma!, as Dad hammered out the tunes on the keyboard. He didn’t know all the songs, but we’d just start singing and he’d catch on quick. His fingers danced. The harmonies were lively and full. And our glee at finally being able to sing with that old piano, gave our faces ear-to-ear smiles.

The walls of that old schoolhouse were in danger of being shaken down, with the music we made that day, and I had never felt more proud of my dad than at that moment.

When Dad got into his late sixties, he realized that arthritis was robbing him of his ability to play. And he knew how much his kids loved to hear his music.

So he paid a professional studio to record him, playing his favorite tunes on their grand piano. He was only allowed one long take, from first tune to last. If his arthritic fingers caused him to screw up, too bad. He had to improvise a riff to cover for the error, and move on.

Fortunately, he could still force his stiff old digits to manipulate the keyboard for the duration. And soon, each of us kids got a CD of 30 piano tunes, courtesy of our maestro father.

My dad has been gone for seven years now. But sometimes when I miss him I play that CD. Thanks Dad, for such a wonderful gift.

And now I have a gift for him, on this Father’s Day. I want to help him fill his daily quota of making at least one person smile.

So for your listening pleasure (on the chance that you may like it), here is my dad’s rendition of Home on the Range:

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