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June 06, 2005


Bruce Foster's song "Look Out for #1," co-written with Tom Marolda, was on the soundtrack for the film "Staying Alive" and received a 1983 Grammy nomination for best song in a motion picture. "Trail of Broken Hearts," which he co-wrote with Marolda and Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, was sung by pop diva Cher and included on the soundtrack for the 1990 film "Days of Thunder."


Shore piano lounges offer escape from everyday worries
Published in the Asbury Park Press 06/5/05

Bruce Foster says his job is "to keep things moving." And, by gosh, the shaggy-haired pianist/singer at McLoone's Riverside is good at his job.

In the course of a single set at this comfy lounge on the Navesink River in Sea Bright, Foster, who holds forth from behind a gleaming black grand piano, mixes irrepressibly cheerful, charming small talk with an endless flow of songs.

As befits a descendant of composer Stephen Foster (as he states on his Web site), he plays striking saloon-style piano on a medley that includes "Beautiful Dreamer," "Camptown Races" and "Oh Susannah." Then he croons his way through the rock classic "Daydream," rolls through the pianistic intricacies of "Linus and Lucy" from the cartoon television special "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and sings a fine, soft cover of the challenging ballad "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from the Broadway musical "Pal Joey."

At one point, he even straps on a guitar and strums "Happy Birthday" at a guest's table.

"It's a full moon, and it's also spring, and it's also Easter weekend," the Oceanport resident says to his audience at McLoone's. "So if you have any favorite song that goes with the season or the weekend, let me know."
A regular McLoone's Friday-night attraction for the last 17 years, Foster is among the pianists who regularly work the Shore's cocktail lounges.

Armed with hundreds of songs, an easygoing manner and a willingness to put up with headaches including blizzards, bad sound and rude drunks, all for low pay, the cocktail pianist is part artist, part social host and part human jukebox.

He or she is focused on one goal: helping customers to escape their worldly cares and get mellow.

"I always say at the beginning of every gig I do, that if somebody had a bad day and they come to see me, they're going to forget about their problems," says Foster, a self-taught pianist and published composer. "I hope to make it an even better day for them."

Karolyn Wray of Sea Bright, sitting at the bar in McLoone's, is a big Foster fan.

"He is music," says Wray, a vice president of relocation and business development for Murphy Real Estate in Rumson. "And he gets into what he's doing. Look at how much fun everybody's having.

"You throw anything at him and he's going to pick it up and have fun with it."

The piano's power

Proprietors of 19th-century drinking establishments recognized that the percussive piano (an abbreviation for pianoforte, which is Italian for soft and loud), was the ultimate entertainment machine, capable of producing room-filling sounds palatable to a wide audience.

Even today, a piano's sheer symphonic power (its tonal range extends across seven octaves) and weight (even a small upright can weigh 300 pounds) makes an amplified guitar seem small and twangy by comparison.

Its versatility — a piano can sound rough or gentle, bitter or sweet, lyrical or savage — allows a single pianist to cover the gamut of Western music, making it the perfect instrument for entertaining audiences of mixed tastes in a lounge.

But lounges tend to pay poorly, making it hard to attract good players. Most pay between $100 and $200 a night, plus tips. Thus, a lounge engagement barely pays what a pianist can make in a couple of hours playing a private party at roughly $100 an hour.

"There are not a lot of practitioners out there" who can do justice to the format, says Tim McLoone, the owner of McLoone's Riverside and a former lounge pianist himself. "There are really only about a half-dozen of them."

Sturdy standards

Barbara King, like Foster, is another longtime McLoone's Riverside pianist, a staple of the place since it opened in 1986.

The Atlantic Highlands resident specializes in the kind of Great American Songbook standards that piano lounges seem designed for — with soaring melodies and smart lyrics ideal for relaxing and reflecting over a cocktail.

It's a Saturday night in early April, and the classics seem to roll out of her: "Our Love Is Here to Stay," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "They Can't Take That Away From Me." When that segment ends, she switches to Cole Porter's "At Long Last Love." She downshifts into the Hal David/Burt Bacharach song "This Guy's in Love With You," then closes the set with Brooks Bowman's "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)."

King's naturally husky voice is reminiscent of Diana Krall, the Canadian jazz pianist. Her approach and sound recall older acts of the 1940s and '50s — a bit of an incongruity in someone who came of age during the heyday of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, she says.

"There are a lot of young people that appreciate this kind of music," says King. "Michael Feinstein was doing this when he was young, and Harry Connick was doing it. And Rod Stewart is doing it now. Those artists are bringing some of their standards to younger people."

Though pop standards often are used as springboards for improvisational athleticism by jazz pianists, King never strays far from the melody, which expands her appeal to nonjazz fans.

King, who says she knows about 500 songs, got turned on to performing traditional pop classics as a teenager through her affection for Frank Sinatra's music.

"My uncle owned a music store, and through him I had a collection of Frank Sinatra records in the 10th grade," King says.

King, who moved to the Shore from Pennsylvania three decades ago, says she is particularly fond of playing rooms in which listeners actually sit around the piano, as they do in McLoone's.

"I like to talk to the people," she says. "However, I had to learn how to talk and play at the same time."

A rocker no more

At Eatontown's Old Orchard Manor, Richard Mitchell is pumping out a ragtime rendition of "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You."

The catchy, syncopated beat emanating from his baby grand has one diner, an elderly woman, beating out time on the table with her fork.

Mitchell, the Old Orchard's nonsinging alternate-Saturday pianoman, doesn't stay in that old-time groove long, though.

He plays his "folksy" segment — covers of Ian & Sylvia's "The Circle Game," Simon & Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" and Bob Dylan's "My Back Pages." He plays original, New Age piano music from his new, unreleased CD. He treats the mostly middle-age audience to a little show music — "Till There Was You" from "The Music Man."

"Thirty years ago, I was single," Mitchell says. "I had long, shoulder-length hair and was playing hard-rock songs. Now I'm married, I have no hair and I'm playing "More' to senior citizens.

"But I'm still playing music."

Mitchell, whose stage name is "Flyin' Rich Mitchell," is not a dazzling technician, but he infuses his playing with so much warmth and sensitivity that diners are prompted to look up at him with interest from their filet mignon and roasted Atlantic salmon.

It is a gratifying moment in a world where applause and other more obvious forms of acknowledgment can't be expected.

"I don't think; I play by feel," Mitchell says between numbers, tapping his heart.

A self-taught pianist, Mitchell says he can play between 250 and 300 songs. On the rare occasion when he can't play a request, he says, "I'll play something by that artist, and that makes them happy."

Occasionally, a special effort to learn an oft-requested song pays dividends.

"I got a request for the song "Stardust,' " he recalls. "So I went out and bought the CD by Nat "King' Cole (to learn it). The very next night, somebody requested it. I played a fragment of it and that was good enough for a $10 tip."

Mitchell, 52, of West Long Branch, says he ended his 37-year career as a rock musician and became a lounge pianist to simplify his life.

"I was in bands. It got to where we were rehearsing more than gigging," he recalls. "There were seven people in the band, so I didn't make too much money.

"Plus I'd get home at 2:30 in the morning. I've got two kids, so I decided to go solo. Now I make more money, I'm home by 10 (and) there are no more rehearsals."

Besides the Old Orchard, his other standing engagement is The Raven & The Peach restaurant in Fair Haven, alternating Saturdays. He plays at A'Vanti, a restaurant in Oceanport, on Fridays.

Bartender Jill Morgan says Mitchell connects well with the Old Orchard crowd.

"The people love him. He's not too loud," Morgan says. "He plays music they like to hear. He's got a perfect tone."

Making a connection

Joyce Spadoro knows she could make more money working in wedding bands than she does playing the lounge at The Breakers, an oceanfront resort hotel in Spring Lake.

"But I really like the intimacy of a small room and a grand piano," says Spadoro, who has played the Seashell Lounge just about every Friday and Saturday for 12 years.

"Not that I wouldn't like Carnegie Hall and a grand piano," she says with a laugh.

Spadoro, of Long Branch, says the most gratifying aspect of working the keys of her white grand piano in the lounge is "the feeling of singing directly to people and really being able to connect with them.

"You can see people's eyes — you can see if they're responding, if they're laughing, if they're crying. It can be very moving, when people respond to your music," Spadoro says.

A full-time musician for 25 years, Spadoro was a student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire majoring in English when she started to think about shifting gears and becoming a full-time musician.

"I was attracted to jazz and to writing," she recalls. "I had listened to jazz as a girl. My brothers introduced me to Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane."

"I decided I had to go to school and learn this stuff."

Though she is an entertainer, Spadoro lets her audience know she has limits. For example, she refuses to allow groups in the audience to "hire" her for the night by giving her a tip to provide background music for a private singalong.

"This is my career, and I've got to be authentic," she says. "I'm an artist, and even when I do other people's music, I want to bring something to the table, something that's real for me."

Experimental approach

Jazz pianist Morris Nanton is in his usual corner at The Quay in Sea Bright this Sunday morning, giving "L'il Darlin,' " a well-known tune from the Count Basie Orchestra's repertoire, a workout.

In Nanton's hands, the song becomes an easy blues. The Perth Amboy resident digs a solid rhythmic foundation that allows him to embellish the melody with lightning-fast finger rolls.

"I like to experiment. Things start to evolve," Nanton says between sets at the Quay's Sunday jazz brunch.

For more than four decades, Nanton has been the leader of the Morris Nanton Trio, which has recorded for the Prestige and Warner Bros. labels and occasionally plays Shanghai Jazz in Madison.

As his audience chows down their omelets, beef and desserts, Nanton, who doesn't sing, serves up a nonstop feast of classics: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "My One and Only Love" and "Just the Way You Look Tonight."

Accustomed to the noisy audience at the Quay, Nanton is cool with the situation.

"You've got to roll with the punches," he says. "I enjoy playing all the time. When I sit down at the piano, I have no regrets."

Showcasing his strengths

Foster has the audience exactly where he wants them: listening, enjoying themselves, having fun.

He is not a vocal gymnast. But Foster knows how to showcase his strengths, just kissing the high notes on the challenging ballad "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

"Anybody catch the moonrise tonight?" he asks the crowd at McLoone's. "It was spectacular — yeah, it was beautiful," he echoes back to one of the patrons seated around his piano.

"Everyone appreciates him who comes in here," says bartender Lauren Nesfield. "He's very personable and very knowledgeable about everything he plays. He also makes it fun. He's very talented."

Foster, who also works at the Ocean Place Resort & Spa in Long Branch regularly, plays McLoone's lounge as if it were his living room.

It seems schizophrenic, he admits, that he has two dynamic musical lives — the successful lounge entertainer and the accomplished singer/songwriter.

His song "Look Out for #1," co-written with Tom Marolda, was on the soundtrack for the film "Staying Alive" and received a 1983 Grammy nomination for best song in a motion picture. "Trail of Broken Hearts," which he co-wrote with Marolda and Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, was sung by pop diva Cher and included on the soundtrack for the 1990 film "Days of Thunder."

Foster also played keyboards on Kiss' debut album and several Gladys Knight and the Pips albums in the 1970s.

"If I'm doing a club date and people are here to relax, I try not to pontificate that I've had any accomplishments," says Foster. "I try to divorce myself from my career as a songwriter and not have an ego when I'm at the piano."

Posted by riesambo at June 6, 2005 10:32 AM