“Sing us a song!” – meet John Watson, Sydney’s own Piano Man
John Watson has spent 35 years weaving his musical magic at Minskys Piano Bar at the Minskys Hotel in Cremorne, and now captures the spirit of his journey in a new mini show: “The Songs and Stories of Sydney’s Piano Man”.
Music is a force of nature. It binds people together, regardless of age, culture, race or gender. It can excite, enrage, soothe, energise or depress… And, as Duke Orsino so dramatically states in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, it’s the food of love! And thus, a piano man must always play on. John Watson gets this. He’s seen his fair share of joy, romance and heartache while caressing the keys, playing for lovers and fighters alike. He’s been part of thousands of people’s stories – but, of course, he’s also stood outside of these stories, observing them as they happened. You could even say his music influenced the course of history in tiny but particular ways… Just ask actress Angela Bishop, who met her future husband Peter Baikie (he sadly passed away in November 2017) while dancing with him to Elton John’s “Your Song” during one of John’s shows.
All Things Entertainment caught up with this iconic man to delve into his story.
John has a vivid memory of the exact moment he fell in love with music. “I was listening to the radio during Beatlemania, and the announcer said it won’t be long until The Beatles get to Melbourne… And then they played “It Won’t Be Long” from Hard Day’s Night. I was blown away!”
He remembers buying songsters (small books with popular song lyrics in them), and then walking around school singing these songs. His home boasted a little pianola: “I was always peddling while standing up, hanging on for dear life to the front of the piano! Those pianola rolls were mainly old singalongs from the early 1900’s, plus a few marches and whatever…”
John started official piano lessons at the age of six but didn’t much enjoy it up until he performed the Batman TV theme song at school – and found people liked to hear him play. “I was never going to be in the football team but even the football players liked that you knew all the tunes,” he says. “That was your claim to who you were as a person.”
His piano teacher had a formative impact on his musical direction – “she was a pupil of Percy Grainger and had also had a lesson with Rachmaninov, amongst other adventures while studying in America… I was always proud of being one of her pupils!” The Beatles, however, would remain one of his biggest influences, “for their creativity.”
Music as a career didn’t happen overnight. John found a job at a music store in Melbourne right out of school, selling instruments. He’d be there for nine months, until Karma, a touring showband based in Perth, came into the store to buy a PA – and left with an organist in tow. “That’s the way it was in those days… I toured Australia with them for a couple of years.”
After some trial and error, John finally discovered his singing voice in his 20s. “I’d been trying to sing songs by The Beatles and Queen, not realizing that they weren’t in my vocal range. I kept thinking if I kept straining long enough it would miraculously happen. One day I discovered Bing Crosby and found I could sing along with him, so I figured if he could make it without hitting all the high notes there was hope for me yet!”
Joining the Minskys’ family
John stumbled on his Minskys’ (then known as the Cremorne Hotel) gig with the help of a friend, who rang him up to tell him about a place in Cremorne looking for a piano man. “He gave me the name and the number of who to ring… If he hadn’t had the number, I might not have followed it up!” And 35 years later, he’s still playing the 10pm to 3am sets there every Friday.
These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine a person staying in a job for longer than five years… Not that John was planning to, either. “I never thought I’d be there for so long. We’ve had so many new owners, let alone managers, that I’ve always been waiting for the tap on the shoulder to say that they’re going to try something different, as managers often like to do… I knew a piano guy who lost his job when a new manager had a nephew who played piano!”
So, what is it that has made his show stand the test of time? “I’m really not completely sure! I started before karaoke became popular. When that happened I thought it was over for me. When I started I was a similar age to the patrons so we all knew the same songs, but over the years the crowd has become much younger than me… But they still enjoy the same material I’ve been doing all this time. They say it’s their Dad’s music – but it’s still the songs they come up to me night after night to request!”
How to be a Piano Man
John has perfected the art of listening and watching – an important skill when it comes to reading the mood of a crowd and keeping them happy. He describes it as a kind of “cosmic consciousness”, this feeling of being in sync with his audience. “The number of times I’ll have a song in my head that I’m just about to do, and then someone will come up and request it… It happens quite frequently!”
He also understands that the perfect Piano Man should let the crowd guide him. “The people let you know very quickly what they enjoy and what they don’t. It’s not my job to open their eyes to new things. We’re all there to relax and enjoy ourselves!”
His work means that he’s constantly in close emotional contact with strangers – to many of us, that might sound like hell on earth, and a reason to dislike humanity. But John still manages a soft spot for humans. “I try to see the best in most people. I realise that often when people are rude they’ve probably had too much to drink. I know only too well that alcohol is not the greatest product out there…”
This empathy is probably why so many people find themselves opening up to John. After all, your local “piano man” is psychologist, mediator and even motivational speaker – all through the medium of music. But sometimes, this can get tough on John. “I used to find it difficult when often young people would come into the bar and request a song for a friend that had just died. It took me quite a while to realize “That’s What Friends Are For” is a beautiful song for such a time.”
“I’ve also had a few soldiers tell me things – surprisingly, as traditionally they don’t talk about what they’ve encountered. A couple of soldiers once told me how important places like Minskys and guys like me are when they’ve returned from active service and need to just go out and have some fun. That makes me really proud.”
On the lighter side of things, there’s a guy named Marcus who used to get up and sing “Piano Man”, without any regard for the amount of booing he was getting! Even getting hit by a tow truck couldn’t stop him…
“Marcus was an accountant from London, but he loved a good time. One night he came in on crutches and sporting what looked like very new bandages with specks of blood on them. I thought it looked like a bit of a mock-up, but it turned out he’d arrived a couple of hours earlier and was clipped by a passing tow truck while crossing the road and taken straight to RNS for treatment. After they discharged him he still came back to Minskys the same night, a little upset that his friends hadn’t stayed as it had spoiled their night but not his!”
Loads of marriages have started from a night out at Minskys, and John meets many of them at milestone birthdays, “where I’m included because of my association with their life’s journey. That’s a great feeling – and my legacy.” In fact, John often performs at weddings and private functions, such as birthdays, and has played private shows for the likes of Alan Jones, Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath, Charlie Brown, Richard & Anthony Pratt and Harry Triguboff. He admits to finding these shows a bit more challenging than a typical Minskys evening, though: “I can turn up to Minskys with a bit of a cold or a tired voice and I can still get through it well enough… But during the big shows I really want to be at my best. And at weddings as well!”
Is there a romantic song that always works a charm? John would recommend “Close to You” by The Carpenters. Or, Frank Sinatra’s “Night and Day, as a special treat for his beloved wife and manager, Veronica. He’s got some good advice for bridal couples, too: “Get the speeches done early. Leave
plenty of time for dancing!”
Building a show
John plans his shows beforehand but usually leaves some tricks up his sleeve to easily react to any mood on the night. When creating a show such as “The Songs and Stories of Sydney’s Piano Man”, he draws from his experience – and the songs that people love. “After 35 years I’ve played loads of songs, and got people’s reactions to them immediately, so I know what they like or don’t like. This new show also includes a lot of stories about celebrities or funny situations that have occurred over the years!”
The show goes back to the golden years of Minskys, and focuses on many of the great songs that people loved 20 to 30 years ago – “songs that the 18 to 25-year-olds aren’t into so much these days!” It’s a versatile show, made to be performed anywhere where people are up for a good time. And there’s no pressure if you don’t feel like singing along!”
“The early Minskys crowd came through the door ready to enjoy themselves and wanted to sing every song they could. That said, I’ve never been one of those guys that’s constantly asking people to sing along.”
John has been playing and singing for such a long time that it’s hard to imagine him finding any particular piece of music challenging. But nobody’s perfect… “There are always a few songs and singers that I find don’t suit my style or voice, such as Stevie Wonder or Freddie Mercury – as much as I’d love to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody”! I once saw a piano man on YouTube sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” an octave lower than the recording. I could never do that. If I didn’t feel I did the song justice I wouldn’t do it.”
That said, John is up for a challenge, so if you have a special request at your wedding… “I often put a lot of work into challenging requests and have been very happy with the results. One was “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, and another was “Lithium” by Nirvana!”
The times they are a-changin’
Many things can happen in 35 years – and John has been in the unique situation of observing humanity from the same spot for all this time. Minskys Piano Bar could even be called a type of social experiment, in that respect. Has he noticed any big changes in the Sydney scene since starting so long ago? “When I visited (actress, entertainer and author) Maria Venuti in intensive care after her stroke it reminded me that we used to have a lot of RNS nurses in the crowd. We also had a lot of other high-stress professions in abundance – police, ambulance paramedics, returned servicemen/ women. In those days you could go to a place like Minskys, have a little too much to drink and laugh, dance and sing and act like an idiot and let off a lot of steam. These days it’s all about responsible service of alcohol and people now have to “behave themselves” a lot more or risk being thrown out. That’s my main disappointment about my entertainment world. A lot of the fun has gone out of it…”
While Sydney residents are all too well aware that the Fun Police are out to get them, music always finds a way to be heard. And it makes for epic memories…
John recalls a memorable night during the 2003 World Cup Rugby in Sydney: “the bar was full of supporters from Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia as well as many other nations. Then, one by one, they all got up to sing their team songs… There was great respect shown from everyone who was there that night regardless of where they were from.”
Another magic memory: “I was performing on a $25 Million Dollar yacht in Sydney Harbour one New Year’s Eve and sang “I Still Call Australia Home”. All the people on the surrounding yachts started singing along. I’ve never felt so moved to be a part of Sydney!”
“The Songs and Stories of Sydney’s Piano Man – John Watson” – is perfect for private or corporate functions, clubs and theatres and will make for a musical night to remember.
What’s your favourite song to sing?
- I used to say the one I do before I go home but no-one got the joke. I actually love to sing Sinatra swing songs but that’s probably because it’s not something I do often.
And your favourite song to make Veronica blush?
- She doesn’t like my TV Shows medley…
Which song do you wish you’d never have to play again?
- I really don’t have one if people are enjoying it. I don’t like doing the big sing along favourites to a quiet room
And is there one you’ll always love?
- “A Whiter Shade of Pale” – but I never play it…
The weirdest song that’s ever been requested?
- Darryl Brohman asked for “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”, which is the only time I’ve ever been asked for it. I don’t know it.
What is your favourite type of piano to play on, and why?
- Still a grand piano. I spent a lot of time with my classical teacher working on the weight of the arm and the tone produced with the right technique, which is not so relevant to electric keyboards.
Other than music, what makes you happy?
- Comedy. We all like a good laugh but I’m really a big fan of people like Laurel and Hardy, Benny Hill, Monty Python, Victor Borge, Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais etc.
Interview and words by Donnay Torr – The Torr Collective
John Watson is available for all types of performances through All Things Entertainment and you can catch his show ” The Songs & Stories of Sydney’s Piano Man” at venues around the country. Keep an eye on www.facebook.com/AllThingsEntertainmentAus for regular show date announcements.