‘Go on Liz, play us a song!’
Little did I know back in 1982 how familiar those words were to become over the next 15 years of my life. You see, I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. Well perhaps not quite a cocktail bar. But this story takes place at a time when The Human League’s mega hit ‘Don’t you want me baby?’ was blaring out on the radio, stiletto heels and leather trousers were all the rage – and I had a perm.
I had left behind the bright lights of the Charles of the Ritz beauty counter in Bristol’s John Lewis and decided to head back to Wales for the summer. A new restaurant cum bar called Porky’s had just opened in my home town of Porthcawl and with a surname like Gammon, it was match made in heaven!
The only problem was that I’d not actually worked in a bar before and despite 5 inch stiletto heels, I was still not tall enough to reach the top shelf. Pulling pints and pouring wine were more my forté. If you wanted a ‘short’ from the top shelf you had to be prepared to wait for back-up in the form of the lovely Trisha Jones to come and serve you. Shorty couldn’t do shorts. Still can’t… I don’t have the legs.
I’m not sure exactly how it came about, but one evening I mentioned that I could play the piano. The next day a battered, ancient upright piano was duly installed and that night, following a shift of pint pulling and anticipation, I sat down and played.
It was the first time I had ever played in public having only ever previously played at home before to an audience that were perhaps not the most appreciative. (Lest not forget they had had to put up with my playing since the age of five!) And so, to my great surprise, that first night at Porky’s I was a rip-roaring success.
I’m not really sure how long I was at Porky’s. Weeks, a couple of months maybe? But the piano playing always took place after hours during a so called lock-in. Word got around fast and the place was packed night after night. My repertoire was somewhat limited in those days and so I resorted to modifying the lyrics of well known songs and giving them my own personal ‘touch’ – a bit tawdry perhaps on hindsight, but very popular after 11pm and in my defence, I never used the F-Bomb.
‘The more you drink, the better I sound’ – I would shout to the delight of Dai Jones the proprietor. A line that I used for years to boost the bar takings in the many piano bars that I played in from Bermuda to Belgium and Beyond.
I also played at other bars and clubs in the Porthcawl area during those early days – my biggest gig at the time being at the Ponderosa in Cornelly. A truly great start on the piano playing career ladder. Trust me. If you could get the crowd with you in the Ponderosa, then you had to be good or you would be eaten alive.
Looking back, I must have been really quite brave (or mad, or both) as these places would let you know sharpish if you were not up to standard. I suppose that’s why I could always face up to any heckler. Bring. It. On. Baby. (Grrrrrrrr..)
I used to play the piano a LOT as a child. I would practise for hours on end and drive my family mad. ‘Doe a deer, a female deer.’ Over and over and over. Ultimately the piano had to be moved to a separate room in order to give the family some peace. I played by ear and couldn’t read music yet somehow I managed to fool the public for more than 15 years, playing in three keys – C, F and G.
Insiders tip: As long as you don’t play two songs in the same key back to back, then you are usually ‘safe’ and your audience won’t notice.
(She says… hoping!)
I left Wales in early 1983 on the advice of a friend and armed with a one way ticket and 50 quid, I headed to Puerto Banus in Spain where I had been told there were plenty of gigs for piano players. It seems there were and I have many happy memories of my time spent playing at piano bars such as Duques, The Navy and Old Joy’s… good times.
But thats another story for another day. Let’s just say this blog is part one of a continuing series!
But hey, how about we take it from the top, one more time? After three. Come on, altogether now, ‘Is this the way to Amarillo…’