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What It's Like to Be a Dueling Piano Bar Player, Part 1

What It's Like to Be a Dueling Piano Bar Player, Part 1

We can all agree that there’s not much that’s cooler than dueling pianos. You can imagine that during our time as a dueling piano bar in Asheville, one of the most eclectic cities in the country, we have amassed some pretty outrageous stories. 

Here is part one of our series on stories from dueling piano musicians at Off The Wagon!

Dueling Piano Artist: Eddie Hathaway

One of our piano players, Eddie Hathaway, has seen it all!

“I have been a sing-a-long, dueling piano entertainer for over half of my life. And just like real life, it has its ups and downs. But also, like real life, it has been more positive than negative.”

Story One

“I have sung to and celebrated with a woman who got up on stage and ripped her wig off to reveal a bald head because she was finally in remission from her cancer.”

Story Two

“I have celebrated countless numbers of guys getting married, one of which I subsequently sent a few registry wedding gifts to because his group was so much fun, spent a boatload of money, and totally added to the atmosphere of the night.”

Story Three

“But sometimes someone takes it way too personally. It happened to me a few months ago. And because I could sense from her that she was not comfortable with how I "roasted" her, I spoke to her friends in private, saying to them, surely one of you guys (meaning her friends) knew what we did here to just have fun? 

It made me feel sick to my stomach that I had actually made someone feel so uncomfortable when all I ever want to do is make people feel good and have fun. So again, a lot like real life. And again, I have been doing this job for over half my life, and I just turned 60 years old. And I still could not imagine myself doing anything else.”

Eddie has certainly had some interesting experiences as a dueling piano player at Off The Wagon!

Dueling Piano Artist: Jess Mills (co-owner)

Jess Mills, one of the co-owners of Off The Wagon Dueling Piano Bar, as you might imagine, has countless great stories!

Story One

“When I was a kid, I spent many of my days visiting my cousins (small town and they were only a bike ride away). One of my younger cousins found out I could play “Great Balls of Fire,” and it was the only piano song any of us knew that wasn’t classical.  So he would ask for it over and over again, and I got so annoyed at being asked for the same song, but he loved it, and they would all dance crazy to it like only small children (and drunk adults) can. 

I had no idea that I was already learning about my career in those moments, playing what people wanted to hear and being asked to do it over and over. I think about it every time I play that song, which is at least once a night.  I didn’t know how lucky I was to have a built-in audience already – but man, am I grateful now! 

Looking back over my life, I realize how great it is that I get to be with people who are having one of their best times with us. Night after night, I’m trying to bring them fun and camaraderie. We leave behind politics and drama and just enjoy singing songs together. And if that’s “Great Balls of Fire” or any of the other favorites - I will do it ten times a night if I need to, just to make sure they’re loving their evening.”

Story Two

“When I went to college, it was to get a degree as a classical pianist. I had this assumption that if I worked hard enough to play the music that I was so passionate about, the audience would share that with me. I worked and worked and worked on my absolute favorite composition of all time, the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto. I spent over a year learning and memorizing it.

Then it came time for the performance – it was the second half of my Senior Recital.  I had over 200 people in the audience, which was pretty huge for a recital at my college. I felt on top of the world – until, near the end of the work (somewhere around 40 minutes long, as I recall), I looked out at the crowd.  There were maybe 20 people that were into it like I was.

The rest were obviously wondering just how long this concert was going to be. If they were still awake, that is, which many of them weren’t.

That’s not what I wanted out of music. Nor did I want to teach – especially not the classical music that people didn’t really want to listen to.

I dabbled in Jazz for a couple of years after graduating. Fronted a Jazz combo. Wrote 1920s and 30s style songs.  It was better – nobody fell asleep. They actually paid me to play at various functions (sometimes even minimum wage!).  But the most common comment was, “you guys sound great, but can you turn it down so we can talk?”

Still not what I wanted out of music.  Some friends insisted on dragging me to a dueling piano bar.  I did NOT want to go.  “Isn’t that like, old show tunes played by guys who can’t perform anywhere else?” I said.

“No, it’s fun!” they told me.  

So I reluctantly went but knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it. I walked in and had to reorient myself to what a musical show really was.  Here was a packed crowd, all singing along at the top of their lungs. Here were high-energy entertainers, guys who could sing, play piano, play drums and bass, tell jokes, and talk to the crowd. Here was a giant musical party. 

This, THIS was what I had been looking for in music. The chance to share a moment with people through music – all of us feeling the same thing, all of us connecting through music. It wasn’t just a bunch of people quietly watching as one person showed off. Everybody was a part of it; the pianists were just the ringleaders of the most fun circus in town.

That night I talked to the Entertainment Director and told him I wanted to do this as my career.  He spent the next year training me - I’d like to say I was a natural at it, but I’d be lying. Switching from my classical and jazz roots to playing (and singing!) Rock, Pop, and Country…  It was a hard journey. And I have never regretted one moment of it.”

More to Come from Off The Wagon Dueling Piano Bar…

We’ll be sharing more stories from the trenches of dueling pianos in our next piece, but we’re making stories and memories every night at Off The Wagon. Come experience the fun times for yourself! Visit us asap for an experience you’ll never forget!