On pianos, organs and singing a song

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We bought a piano a couple of years ago from a little shop in Southeast Portland called Immortal Piano. It was not for me, nor for Sara, but for our boys. We simply want them to enjoy having a piano in the house, to learn to read music and be able to pull out a tune somewhere down the road when the occasion arises.

This morning, catching up on last Sunday’s paper, I read this great little story about that very shop. It turns out that owner Martha Taylor – who, based only on our word, kindly let us pay for our piano over three months – has a secret mission: To keep America going. By that, she means keep kids interested in music, keep the artisanship of these old pianos alive, keep folks singing a song. 

Then this evening, Leo and I were checking out videos of musicians playing the Hammond B3 when I felt a sudden urge to search for video of organist Ernie Hays playing “Saint Louis Blues”, a W.C. Handy song. Hays played the organ for every major sports team in St. Louis when I was growing up. He played primarily for the Blues and the Cardinals before retiring in 2010.

That 1914 song was one of my favorite tunes as a kid, though I didn’t know it had a name. I only knew it as chords and notes that would float through the smoke and the atmosphere of the Checkerdome during a break in play or between periods at hockey games. Tucked in a booth near the rafters, beneath the yellowing sheets that spanned the upper reaches of that old barn, Hays’ fingers skated across the keyboard, filling the arena with magic energy.

I’m pretty sure I learned to whistle trying to force that tune past my lips. In my mind, I was playing it on an organ or a piano or an accordion. Only in my mind.

I found what is said to be Hays playing “Saint Louis Blues”. It certainly sounds like him. I also found out that he died this past Fall. I know he’s been missed at baseball games the past few seasons, but I wasn’t expecting to find out that this icon of my childhood and beyond, this man who’d caused so many fans to stir, to cheer, to clap and to sing, was gone at the age of 77.

Leo pointed to a video of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” so I clicked on it. It’s Hays leading the crowd in song during the seventh-inning stretch at the Old Busch Stadium. That stadium is now gone. The Checkerdome was torn down decades ago. What seems to last, however, is song. Proof that we need song is right there in that video where this man, who started taking piano lessons at the age of seven, has nearly 50,000 people standing and singing together. 

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all content © Tim LaBarge 2013

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