I first met Elliot Paul on the 359th night of my bar crawl. My 365 bars co-pilot, Al Rizo suggested I go to Bill's Gay Nineties piano bar and so I dutifully complied. I had never been there and I was hooked after being in there for less than three minutes. Bill's was the real deal. It opened as a speakeasy in 1924 and by the time I got there in 2010, it looked as if time had stood still in there. And off to the right of the well-worn bar, playing the piano and singing, making the crowd laugh and sing along, was Elliot Paul. I took his photo and we chatted a little bit and I did my bar crawl thing and came home. Fast forward to the next year and my next blog, Marty After Dark. I had heard there was a chance that Bill's might be closing, so I decided to stop by and see what was what. It had been just about a year to the date that I had been there on the bar crawl. I was hoping Elliot would be playing, but was certain he'd never remember me. Like I said, it had been a year and you can imagine all the people he meets while doing his piano gig. I walked in through the swinging saloon doors, our eyes met and he stopped playing and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Marty, the world famous bar crawler is in the house!" I couldn't believe it!
As most of you know, sadly Bill's Gay Nineties closed last year due to the fact of an idiotic landlord pushing them out the door. Barbara, the owner and daughter of O.B. Bart who purchased Bill's in 1965, is going to re-open in another location and is hard at work making that happen. In the meantime Elliot had a gig at a bar on the Upper East Side called Aza. Sadly that place closed last Saturday (leading one of Elliot's friends to ask, "Do you think it's you, Elliot?) but I stopped in last Tuesday to catch his final show there. I've been wanting to do another "Bar Exam," since I did the one with Paul Scanlon a while back and thought Elliot would be the perfect guy to interview for the second one. Below are some pictures from last Tuesday with Elliot and some surprise guests. Beneath that is the "Bar Exam." Enjoy!
Here we are at a familiar spot, the Union Square subway station, down we go.
Standing room only and more than one person hasn't deodorized correctly. Sheesh!
And through the magic of the internet you're spared a long and smelly ride to the Upper East Side.
Here's the place, the Aza Wine Bar.
Let's go inside and check it out.
I'm early as usual, so there's plenty of seats at the bar, let's go snag one.
And no sooner do I sit down than Katie, the lovely and friendly bartender serves me up an ice-cold beer.
There's a row of tables to dine at opposite the bar.
Original art hangs on the walls above the tables.
A long shot of the highly polished bar from the other end.
And there's the piano, waiting for Elliot.
Here's the schedule for the last week of entertainers at the bar.
And when I return to the bar, who do I find but my friends and frequent guest stars here at TWM, Shawn Chittle and the Duncester.
And check this out, here's Elliot with Harriet to his left and on the right is Barbara, the owner of Bill's Gay Nineties! What a reunion! Barbara told me she's had a rough time of it since her landlord booted her out, but she's looking for a new location for Bill's and she's retained the bar, the jockeys and all the original memorabilia from Bill's. Hopefully the new Bill's will be up and running soon, stay tuned!
And here's Elliot in action at the piano.
Elliot's always a crowd pleaser and tonight is no exception.
On the way out it was nice to see the tip jar overflowing. Great to see Elliot and Barbara, meet Harriet and thanks to Shawn and the Duncester for coming out as well. I look forward to seeing Elliot playing in the new Bill's Gay Nineties when it reopens at the new location!
The Bar Exam With Elliot Paul
TWM: Hi Elliot, how's it going?
Elliot: Hi Marty, I can't complain and if I did no one would listen.
TWM: Where are you originally from, or are you a native New Yorker?
Elliot: I'm originally from Boston, West Roxbury to be exact. West Roxbury is to Boston What Queens is to New York City.
TWM: When did you move to New York?
Elliot: I moved to New York City in the middle '60's, right after getting out of the army.
TWM: Do you refer to yourself as a "piano man," or did the Billy Joel song kill that for you?
Elliot: I'm an "entertainer." I play piano, sing, goof around and kid with the crowd…whatever makes them laugh and be happy.
TWM: When was your very first gig and do you remember the first song you played in public for money or tips?
Elliot: My first piano gig in New York City was at Donohue's on Columbus and 85th St. The place is long gone, but I'm still around! I remember the first song, it was, Ain't Misbehaving" by Fats Waller.
TWM: What year was that?
Elliot: I started playing in piano bars (Donohue's) in 1983, after a very successful (joke) acting career.
TWM: Name dropping time, who are some of the more famous people that have been in the crowd when you've been playing?
Elliot: Off the top of my head…Ed Harris, Carol Kane, Gena Rowlands, Jimmy Fallon, Mark Sanchez, Phil Mushnick, Jerry Capece and Nick Cassavetes. There's more, but that seems like enough name dropping for now.
TWM: Oh come on, no time for modesty now!
Elliot: Okay, but I want your readers to know you forced me into this! In 2002 Frank Gorshin was starring in "Say Goodnight, Gracie" on Broadway and he stopped in to Bill's. I sang a few old songs which knocked him over. We chatted later and he invited me to the show, afterwards we went to Sardi's, what a couple of days that was! Jackie Mason started coming in to Bill's about a year ago. He lives in the neighborhood and loved Bill's. Michael Weatherly from the TV show, NCIS, was a long time customer at Bill's and he loves piano bars, he's a musician too.
TWM: How do you handle hecklers?
Elliot: Believe it or not, I've never had a heckler!
TWM: Do you have a set list or do you just wing it?
Elliot: I usually wing it. I'll scan the crowd for age, try to gauge the mood of the room and then just start singing and playing the piano and see what happens.
TWM: Name a few songs that people would be surprised to hear.
Elliot: Anything by Amy Winehouse, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga…there's a lot of them. Sometimes I make up songs on the spot using snippets of conversation from the crowd.
TWM: Is there a song or songs that you feel you have to play that you don't really care for?
Elliot: I like all songs and I just put my own spin and style to them.
TWM: Who's been the biggest influence on you in your life and career?
Elliot: The two biggest influences are my wife, Eileen, she's the one who encouraged me to start singing and my step daughter, Nicole, she turned me on to Amy Winehouse, and many other great singers. And also anyone who's making a living in the entertainment business, it's a lot tougher than it seems.
TWM: What, in your opinion makes piano bars special, Elliot?
Elliot: Piano bars thrive everywhere. A specific percentage of folks love real live music, in particular a singer pounding away at a piano. Folks from all over the world come to New York City to enjoy piano bars. They want their songs in real time, with all the goofing around, drinking and sing-alongs. That's why we all loved Bill's.
TWM: What's the best way to get hold of you if someone wants to offer you a gig?
Elliot: Probably email, my younger friends say I need to get on Facebook, so maybe I will in the future.
TWM: What song would you play to close us out of this Bar Exam?
Elliot: "One For My Baby."
TWM: Perfect, thanks Elliot!
Cash Mob At St. Mark's Books This Saturday!
There's another Cash Mob for St. Mark's books being organized by Jeremiah Moss. It's this Saturday at 3PM and then drinks for those that want them at Bar 82. Check out all the details here: Cash Mob At St. Mark's Bookshop.