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(Dave Caruso has quickly become one of our favorite musicians here at Pure Pop Radio. We’ve reviewed his current album, Cardboard Vegas Roundabout, and his previous EP, Elizabeth Parker (we loved both of them) Read our combo review here. We’re currently giving away nine copies of Roundabout–click here for details. We’re basically mad for Dave Caruso, who has written a wonderful, insightful, from-the-trenches look at playing for music-minded folks in restaurants and piano bars. One day, we hope to see Dave in action. Until then, there’s this, and we think you’ll really dig it. So, over to you: Play us a song, Dave!)
The Diary of a Piano Man, Yesterday and Today | by Dave Caruso
In 1988, fresh off a 12-year stint with my three brothers in the Caruso band and more than a decade before I would be introduced to dueling pianos, I auditioned at my first solo piano bar, in a downriver Michigan restaurant called Colombos.
I met the owner and the manager after lunch, when the restaurant was empty. They sat some distance away, asked me a couple of questions and had me play a few songs. The owner, an older guy who I rarely saw without a drink in his hand, spoke dryly and didn’t smile much, as if he wanted me to feel like I was in some kind of hot seat. The younger chef/manager sensed this and he worked to put me at ease after each comment or question from the owner. I got the impression that the manager already knew about me and felt I’d be right for the job, which would be to try to attract diners in the 25-40 age group. It turned out that my hunch was right–playing for the owner was a just formality. I nailed the audition and soon I settled in for a 10-month run.
For four nights a week at Colombos, an elderly gentleman would play old-fashioned, instrumental piano standards from about 4-7pm. After that, I would take over, singing and playing pop music requests for the late diners, who would often wind up joining me on high stools around the piano, at a custom-molded bar.
Every night at our shift change, the old-school pianist would smile perfunctorily in my direction as he left the piano. But during my first break, while “making love to his tonic and gin” (our first after-work drink was always free), he’d always struggle to hide his disapproval. He resented this young upstart pedaling music which he considered less legitimate (especially during the prime entertainment hours!) by the likes of Elton John, Billy Joel, the Beatles, Jim Croce, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Barry Manilow (whose “Mandy” was a more popular request than “Piano Man” at that time!), the Monkees, the Eagles and Don McLean. I’m pretty sure my shoulder-length hair, ear ring, black jeans and Beatles boots didn’t impress him, either. That’s OK. Sure, he could play Gershwin, but he couldn’t work an audience or do sing-along. (Neither could I, come to think of it. But that was about to change.)
Despite being new to piano bar entertainment, I built a modest clientele pretty quickly. Every night, “the regular crowd shuffled in” to ask me to play them a memory. These were mostly married couples (not a single real-estate novelist among them!) stopping in several times a month for dinner, passing me requests and “put[ting] bread in my jar” late into the evening. They would often suggest staple artists and songs for me to add to my repertoire. That helped me get acquainted with artists who didn’t get much airplay at the Caruso household, like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Carole King, Patsy Cline, and Janis Joplin.
Although years of reading music, ear training and practice had already given me the ability to play almost any song I’ve heard without music or memorization, even when “I’m not really sure how it goes,” managing all those lyrics was a different story. Having to field a ton of new song requests with little prep time meant that memorizing lyrics would be out of the question. As a result, my lyric books grew into several giant three-ring binders which I transported in a big, heavy valise.
My first lyric book (which was red) contained my collection of standards (Burt Bacharach, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, “Misty,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Beyond the Sea,” other crooner songs and show tunes like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which had recently been remade by Sam Harris on the TV show “Star Search”.) My trumpet-playing dad had encouraged his sons to learn a few standards for playing at weddings, so I already had several of these under my belt. A second, green book contained only songs by the Beatles, together and separately. My black binder contained everything else, running the gamut from “Build Me Up Buttercup” to “Nights in White Satin” to the theme song from the TV show Cheers (“Where Everybody Knows Your Name”) to “What’s So Funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Each page in my lyric books contained one song lyric, either typed on my typewriter or written out by hand. A few of the pages were photocopied from Song Hits, a lyric magazine that was sold on newsstands. Moving the heavy books between the valise and the piano’s music stand (which was designed to support sheet music and slim folios) was a klunky venture. Awkwardness aside, I learned a lot of music and techniques at Colombos that would serve me well in dueling pianos.
My country music catalog was admittedly light, but I compensated (okay,fine–I cheated) by playing songs by crossover artists like John Denver and Kenny Rogers and even songs by the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, which usually had a country flavor. Other than that, I pretty much played everything, which would later lead to me to adopt my dueling pianos moniker, “The Man of a Thousand Songs.”
During the last weeks of my Colombos engagement, I added an Alesis HR-16 drum machine to the mix, which I programmed to accompany me on select songs like Billy Joel’s “Root Beer Rag,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” These drum patterns would become the foundation for my sequenced/live show throughout the ’90s.
I grew up with a used Grinnell console (tall upright) that my parents bought from a relative. Colombos’ house piano was a black baby grand made by Young Chang, a Korean piano manufacturer. Although Young Chang is listed as one of the top six piano brands sold in the U.S. in the past 20 years, I had never played (or heard of) a Young Chang piano before that time and I haven’t since.
So imagine my surprise when last month (some 26 years later), I walked in to play my second-ever, semi-regular solo show on a house piano– this time at Key Largo Restaurant in Waterford, MI–and their piano happened to be a Young Chang baby grand, just like at Colombos! How weird is that?
So now at Key Largo, just like back in 1988, I’m making music from a huge mix of genres and decades while combining the acoustic sounds of a live grand piano and vocal with occasional backing beats and audio tracks. It lets me make all kinds of cool sonic and arrangement choices in songs like David Bowie’s “Changes,” Gwen Stefani’s “Cool,” the Plain White Tees’ “Hey there Delilah,” Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” or my own music.
One of the things I like best about playing live as a solo entertainer is the freedom to experiment. In a band, you’re confined to only playing songs that everyone in the band has learned. By playing solo, I can stretch out.
When I’m playing a baby grand (as opposed to a pro electronic keyboard), something sort of magical happens. The real strings and hammers inside make a difference which you can hear, and which affects my performance. You can really hear the difference on songs like Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” or my own “I’m Not Finished Yet” (from my Elizabeth Parker EP) and “It’s a Great Day for the Angels” (from Cardboard Vegas Roundabout).
One of my favorite ways to hook listeners is to make interesting medleys and what I call “one-two punches.” Medleys have gotten a bad rep over the years. But a clever combination of tunes can be just as interesting for the listener as it is for the performer. One of my favorite medley creations is the Church’s “Under the Milky Way,” followed by George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” People who know both songs and recognize how perfectly they dovetail together always give me a big, knowing smile for finding that match-up. A one-two punch is when you follow one song with another that the audience will recognize as related in some way. An example would be when I play “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and follow it up with “Our House” by Madness. They’re two very different songs with the same title, but they’re both popular and people don’t expect to hear you play the second one without a band.
Compared with my gig in 1988, Key Largo’s public address system sounds better, the piano is far newer (I started performing on it just a few days after it arrived!) and my backing beats and audio tracks are much higher quality. My iPad holds all the lyrics I need without bulky binders. And today I have 26 additional years of song material, entertainment experience and (hopefully) musical maturity.
We’re quite simply mad for Dave Caruso and his music–so much so that we’re giving away nine, count ’em, nine autographed copies of Cardboard VegasRoundabout, Dave’s latest CD (click here to read our glowing review). If you’d like to win one, simply fill in the form below and type “Dave!” in the Comments box. We’ve extended the deadline for entering to noon ET on Monday, October 6. Only one entry per person, please. Good luck! And enjoy the wonderful world of Dave Caruso!
(We’re giving away nine copies of this great album, by the way. See the contest form at the end of this page for details.)
God knows how these things happen, but they do, they really do, and thank God they do because we’d have to invent this kind of thing if they didn’t.This kind of thing, this magical musical mixture exhibiting the tasty influences of Barry Manilow, the Carpenters, the Beach Boys and, hey why not, Paul McCartney, is a thing of beauty, an artful excursion that can and will enrich your life, take you to your happy places and prove to you that good things absolutely do come in all manner of packages–small, medium, large and beyond.
Here lies the magnificent sound of Dave Caruso, whose skills as a maker of music that speaks to you and takes you to a higher place are without peer as they are within you and cannot exist without you. Dave Caruso’s lovely, melodic songs are of a place that hardly exists in today’s world of processed and premeditated music that populates the radio airwaves. These songs are crafted with care, note by note, lyrically tuned to evoke emotion, and sent off into the world only when they’re right with themselves and right for the world.
By which I mean they either feel right or they stay home, under the covers to bake a little longer, until the thing of it–the heart and soul of it–is beating in synch. Songs like the Beach Boys homage (with Carpenters shadings) “Champion,” on Dave’s new album, Cardboard Vegas Roundabout, stand out as the album’s fuel. These beautiful melodies, sharp musicianship and gorgeous, multi-part harmonies take listeners away. Likewise, the astounding tight harmony singing that kicks off and populates the beautiful “I’ve Tried to Write You” makes everything else in your life irrelevant for the four minutes and sixteen seconds it takes for the song to play.
The aura of Barry Manilow shapes the very seventies vibe of the upbeat “The Art of Erica.” It’s a radio song if ever I heard one, a serious contender for a concert staple delivered to adoring, screaming fans who shake, rattle and roll at the sound of its first notes and marvel as they are bathed in the warmth of the closing Beatles chord.
Saving the best for last, Dave rolls out a powerful, solo take on a soulful, light gospel number, “It’s a Great Day for the Angels.” Powered by some keen Carole King-esque piano, Dave’s strong vocals (lead and background) and some tasty synth shading, this song promises to be covered by scores of artists looking for that signature number to feature in their shows, albeit a signature song that has someone else’s signature. It’s a beauty.
Cardboard Vegas Roundabout, start to finish, is as fine a soft pop experience as exists today, but it’s only half of the story. The deluxe edition of this album features a second disc, packed tight with alternate versions, different mixes and demos. It’s the kind of thing collectors drool over, and as you will now be counting yourself as a Caruso fan, you too will be drooling. Amongst the treasures on Slip Road (the regular album is known as Main Road) are a stripped-down version of “Champion” that puts the deserved spotlight on Caruso’s incredible vocals (and ups the Carpenters effect), and a stripped-down version of the proper album’s opener, the bossa nova-esque “Mystery & Sweetness,” that also puts Dave’s voice in the spotlight. And rightly so.
The magic exhibited on Cardboard Vegas Roundabout was also evident on Dave’s equally-astounding EP Elizabeth Parker, released in 2004. By turns jangly (the opening, Byrds-like title track), pure poppy (the Elvis Costello tip of the hat “I Can’t be on Time”), Beatley (especially on the perfect-for-A Hard Day’s Night samba-esque acoustic ballad, “If I Died Today”), and rocky (the organic, propulsive “Letter to My Ex”), this is as good as Roundabout, and just as essential.
Kudos to Dave for putting together a solid, visual package for Roundabout that you can hold in your hands and admire. The 12-page booklet even includes the lyrics to the songs and full musician credits. As you might expect, Dave plays a trillion instruments, and all of them swell.
For those of you who already know Dave’s music, and for the rest of you to whom Dave is a new favorite, Roundabout will become a treasured part of your music collection. You will be doing yourself a huge favor by picking up everything Dave has released–a visit to Dave’s website will set you up.
And now, because I am in love, love, love with Dave’s music, I’ve decided to give away nine, count ’em, nine autographed copies of Cardboard Vegas Roundabout. If you’d like to win one, simply fill in the form below and type “Dave!” in the Comments box. Deadline for entering is noon ET on Monday, September 29. Only one entry per person, please. Good luck! And enjoy the wonderful world of Dave Caruso!