Happenstance Piano Man

Bob Smith has a history of musical greatness playing for presidents; But it’s his laid back tunes that bring the followers to Morrison House.

Bob Smith has a history of musical greatness playing for presidents; But it’s his laid back tunes that bring the followers to Morrison House.

By Kelly DiNardo / Photography by Erick Gibson

In the corner of a white mansion made to look like an 18th-century Federal manor house sits a rich-looking bar decorated with tufted burgundy-leather chairs and gold chandeliers. It is an intimate, clubby-style room where one would typically find Washington’s pinstriped power players wheeling-and-dealing in hushed tones.

But there is nothing hushed about this room and the only power player is the round-faced, ruddy-cheeked man seated at the grand piano—former White House pianist Bob Smith who is leading one of his “Glee”-meets-“Cheers” open mic nights at the Morrison House in Old Town Alexandria.

There is a lively and active open-mic piano bar scene in the Northern Virginia region. Not to be confused with karaoke or pianists who sing or sing-along piano bars, these open mic nights let individual patrons sing to the accompaniment of a professional musician.

“You’ll go to some piano bars and it’s a bunch of people carousing around the piano, just drunk out of their minds singing ‘Miss American Pie,’” says Jim Seeley, a Morrison House regular. “This is far more sophisticated.”

At the open mic nights, the singers range from passionate amateurs to professional opera soloists, and they belt out a variety of tunes that include American songbook classics, Broadway show tunes, jazz standards, blues, rock, country and, occasionally, a little modern-day pop.

At the Morrison House, the maestro behind this medley is Smith.

Smith discovered music at a very young age. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, he began playing the ukulele at the age of five and the piano at seven.

“I just totally wanted music in my life,” recalls Smith. “I knew I loved it. I couldn’t wait to get serious with it.”

Smith’s parents signed him up for lessons and his piano teacher quickly realized he had perfect pitch, the ability to identify a note or a series of notes exactly by simply hearing them. Smith also had both the passion and talent to drive him forward.

After a brief college stint, Smith joined the military and landed a job playing piano with the Army Band in D.C. When the Army needed a pianist for the White House, Smith took the audition and landed the job. His very first gig at the White House, under the Nixon Administration, was to play Patricia Nixon’s engagement party.

“That experience was scary,” remembers Smith. “I had a band with me. You never take a break. You play continuous.”

During the party, which was in conjunction with St. Patrick’s Day, Martha Mitchell, wife of then-U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, sat at the piano and sang duets with Smith; and actor Dennis Day sang Irish tunes. But it was “My Three Sons” star Fred MacMurray who made the experience particularly memorable, recalls Smith.

As President Nixon gave Smith the sign it was time for the duty dances, MacMurray asked if he could sit in on the saxophone.

“He was three sheets to the wind,” says Smith. “He plops down and we start to play “Stardust.” It sounds awful. Nixon dances over and says to get rid of him. I tell the president he’s a very famous man and this is awkward. Nixon says take a break. I tell him I’ve been told not to. Well, Nixon just looks at me and says, ‘You do what the president says you do.’ So we took a break and Fred MacMurray was quietly escorted out by Secret Service. That was my first experience at the White House. And, the weirdest.”

Despite these bizarre beginnings at the White House, Nixon kept Smith on, as did the next four presidents.

Smith describes President Carter as aloof, calls Nancy Reagan tough like a “linebacker,” and says President Clinton, who always had his saxophone on hand, “more than held his own” musically.

“His enthusiasm made up for any lack of practice,” says Smith.

One of his favorite musical experiences, however, was with a White House guest, not one of its residents. At a party during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, several Hollywood celebrities were in attendance including Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. When dinner was called, Grant stayed with Smith.

“He said he didn’t want to be Cary Grant that night, but Archie Leach,” says Smith, referring to the actor’s given name. “He sat down and asked me to play all the Cole Porter songs I knew.”

As Smith played, Grant gave a running monologue about the history of the different songs.

“It was stuff that was never published, but that he knew because he and Porter were friends,” says Smith.

After more than 30 years in the U.S. Army, playing piano for five presidents and countless celebrities, Smith retired in 2001.

He came to the piano bar scene almost by accident. Hired to play in the lobby of the Madison Hotel downtown, a group of regulars started to come to listen to Smith. Then a small group of singers started to show up. Word spread that Smith could accompany them and suddenly there was a small open mic scene at the hotel.

“It was unusual to have singing like that in a four-star hotel,” says Smith. “We started to draw a crowd. Performers who were headed to the Millennium Stage would stop and sing with us first. We had school groups come in. It started to evolve and turned into a kind of concert situation.”

After a few years, a change in management decided to end Smith’s informal concerts. A group of regulars, including Washington National Opera singer Michael Blaney, convinced the management at the Morrison House that Smith was just what they needed.

The Alexandria hotel had long included a piano bar, but it tended toward the sing-along style. When Smith joined a little over three years ago, he began to change that. Smith, with the help of his son Ed, set up an organized rotation of singers, brought in audio equipment including a cordless microphone and was joined by his friend Robert Vetter, a talented trumpet player and guitarist. Smith also began work-shopping songs with performers, helping them smooth out their rendering.

The opportunity to perform accompanied by such talented musicians with professional equipment and in front of an encouraging audience has become a huge draw for both singers and “applauders,” the enthusiastic regulars who just come to listen. The result is a packed bar which pulses with an energy that’s palpable anticipation and an undercurrent of nervousness.

Singers of varying backgrounds come from far and wide. Ron Kert, a self-proclaimed “piano bar junkie” and the author of the Wikipedia entry on piano bars, lives in Florida and vacations in Northern Virginia several times a year to work the local circuit, which he describes as the best and most eclectic in the country.

And, Tom Hicks, a lawyer who works around the corner from the Morrison House but lives outside of Annapolis, is another regular, who comes at least once a week and aims to sing something different each time.

Most point to Bob Smith and the camaraderie for fueling their passion for the local scene. While there’s little talking during a performance, the chatter between songs is that of friends catching up on their personal lives.

Several of the singers involved in the scene for longer explain they have house parties with their piano-bar friends, go see shows together and some have even gone on vacation together.

Of course, the common bond that brought them together is the music. And while many of the regulars hop from piano bar to piano bar to sing with the different musicians, most credit Smith with making the Morrison House special.

“Bob Smith is what makes it different,” says Vetter. “He’s an extraordinarily gifted and talented guy. Part of it has to do with his extensive knowledge of tunes. He’s an extraordinarily good improviser. He can tear off a solo on anything. It’s not just the way he plays, but the way you have a conversation with him musically. It’s an education every time I play with him. He makes me better. It’s a master class.”

Vetter believes the singers, all of whom have varying degrees of talent and musical knowledge, feel this on an intuitive level. They know singing with Smith improves their performance, even if they don’t understand why.

“Bob’s just a genius,” says Mark Richards, a singer who has worked the local circuit since the early 1990s and now runs an list-serve about different events at the bars. “Not every piano player can necessarily accompany a singer. Some play and you sing along to them.”

Love for music, an appreciation for professional tutelage and support and affection for the fellow singers may be the largest draw, but the opportunity and thrill of public performance plays a part as well.

“We love the applause of other people,” admits Richards. “We kid and we all say we sing in the shower. Sure, you have to love to sing, but there’s the risk you take when you get up in front of a roomful of people that’s electrifying. And, in this crowd, regardless of the level of the singer, everyone gets applause. It’s a great feeling.”


(December 2012)