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Tampa Bay's piano men are playing our songs

Every night around Tampa Bay, seasoned piano men hold court in a variety of piano bars. Sure, there are plenty of old favorites: Frank Sinatra standards, Billy Joel and Elton John, The Music of the Night. A piano man has to please his audience, after all. But we were impressed at how nimble these guys are at the keyboard, and how much music they know. Allon Sams will break into some funk by Average White Band. Carl Fuerstman does a smoldering Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Tony Castellano is great with cool jazz. Vladimir Moldovan knows all the music from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Kelly Goodrich gets the crowd to sing along on Sweet Caroline. We chatted with several piano men off-duty to get a little insight into what life's like behind the keys.

, Allon Sams | Ocean Prime

"Hey, man, you just missed Derek Jeter,'' Allon Sams said from behind the piano at the Blu Lounge, the elegant bar of Ocean Prime that draws its share of celebrities. At one time or another, Sams has played for Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Tony Dungy (the joint is popular with football players), Tom Cruise, Jennifer Hudson and Hulk Hogan. Later that night, Henry Lawrence, a onetime all-pro tackle for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, came up and sang My Girl with him.

Sams, 44, has three albums to his credit that are often heard on smooth jazz stations, and like most piano bar players, he also has an album of his most requested covers; his is called Gotcha Covered. He and his band have opened for the likes of George Benson, Boney James, Rick Braun, Patti Austin and David Sanborn. Several times he has played at the Clearwater Jazz Festival. He's a busy sound engineer, recording everything from albums to radio jingles at his Studio A of Tampa Bay. Along with Ocean Prime, he also plays at the Gallery Bistro and the Aquaknox lounge in the Westin Tampa Bay, both in Tampa.

Sams knows the music and lyrics to hundreds of songs more or less by heart. But on top of the piano, he also has a laptop linked to a half dozen sites loaded with song lyrics and scores, allowing him to play all but the most arcane requests. "The Internet has been good,'' he said. "I can look up music real quick and display the lyrics in front of me if I need them.''

Your style: "I play to the crowd, and try to guess where it's at. If I hit a nerve, I'll stay there. People love the Sinatra stuff. I get requests for Billy Joel and Elton John all the time.''

Good tip day: "An average tip day is about $50 or $75. A good tip day is $150. A great one is when they're giving you $100 for each song. I had one guy who wanted to hear Kansas City and gave me $100. Five times I played it, and five times he gave me $100.''

Sure-fire crowd-pleaser: "Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World. I do an impersonation. It's not a cheesy one. People who are eating dinner will put down their fork and come running into the bar to see who's singing. It's a signature of mine.''

Love to play: "I'm an old-school funk kind of guy. Tower of Power, Average White Band, Earth, Wind and Fire. I like to work that kind of stuff in and really enjoy playing it.''

Don't make me play: New York, New York. That's top of the list right there, top of the heap, a No. 1.''

Beverage that wets his whistle: "Water, gotta have water, man. Gotta keep the pipes wet. I usually start off the night with caffeine, then I'll do water, and later if the mood is right, Captain Morgan might step in.''

Catch his act Mondays and Tuesdays, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., at Ocean Prime, 2205 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa. Contact him through his Web site:

, Carl Fuerstman Carl's Piano Bar

Talk with Carl Fuerstman about his act, and he always makes one thing clear: He loves providing entertainment for the over-35 crowd who are tired of trying to fit in at local nightclubs. With a catalog of songs that spans several decades, he can usually find something for every taste, too, from old standards by Frank Sinatra or Floyd Kramer to new music by the Fray or Jason Mraz.

Now 55, he started his career playing in bands back in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C. But he's been solo now for 20 years. You might have caught him long ago at the old 10 Beach Drive or Dino's in downtown St. Petersburg. These days, you'll find him in the classy-casual environs of his namesake piano bar, with his traditional black hat and easy patter.

"I do my best work when I have 12 people sitting around my piano," he said. "I can pick up on what they want to hear. They feel special."

Your style: "I consider myself a pop stylist. I'm more of a singer who accompanies himself than just a piano player."

Your alter ego piano player/vocalist: "It would have to be Elton John or Billy Joel." He described going to the recent concert of the two. "I felt so inspired by them. They both have a giant catalog of great songs. . . . They showed you could make a living out of playing the piano."

Sure-fire crowd-pleasers: In the old days, it would have been You Can Leave Your Hat On ("when the ceiling wasn't so low and girls could dance on the piano bar"). Friends in Low Places is good. He also recently put together a 10-minute Michael Jackson medley to get the crowd moving toward the dance floor.

Don't make me play: "Usually songs I hate the most, I make a lot of money on."

Beverage that wets his whistle: "On the weekends, I don't drive to work," he shared, and then named Chivas as his choice on those nights. But he allowed that a tip is always preferred over a drink.

Must have props: A practical guy, he's got a small paper holder/paperweight for requests that get passed along to him (since he has a fan blowing most nights). After that, a strand of Mardi Gras beads and a Rays cowbell.

Catch his act Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., at Carl's Piano Bar (part of Max and Sam's restaurant), 250 75th Ave., St. Pete Beach. Contact him through his Web site:

Tony Castellano | Timpano

Tony Castellano was born to be a piano player. His father, pianist Tony Castellano Sr., had a trio in Miami; his mother was a singer. Tony Jr. started playing piano at 7; now he's 48. For the past 1 1/2 years, he and tenor saxophonist Franco Marino (who used to play with Castellano's father) have been playing at Timpano restaurant in Hyde Park.

A painting of Frank Sinatra hangs over the piano at Timpano, and you don't have to hang around long before hearing Castellano and Marino swing into Summer Wind or Nice 'n Easy or some other standard by the chairman of the board.

Castellano is an old-school lounge pianist, with repertoire heavy on the songs of Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Mel Torme, but he can rock out, too, playing hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Cocker and Otis Redding. He once had a conversation with Billy Joel and remembers telling the piano man, "Billy, you've paid my rent the last 20 years.''

Castellano also leads various jazz combos. His quartet plays tonight at 7:30 in the Side Door jazz series at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg.

Your style: "My style would be catering to the room. I have a variety of music: rock 'n' roll, reggae, jazz. It depends on the age group. We run the Sinatra gamut.''

Your alter ego piano player: "Jimmy Crawford, a Miami piano player who passed away five or six years ago. I grew up listening to this guy. I would compare him to Nat 'King' Cole. He was a showman as well as a pianist.''

Tip jar: "Sometimes I'll put something shiny next to it because people like shiny things. You want to call attention to it. Once I had a mastodon elephant sitting next to it.''

Sure-fire crowd-pleaser: "Everyone loves to hear Fly Me to the Moon.''

How many songs DO YOU know the lyrics to? "I sat down one day and wrote out all the songs I do, and it was close to 300. Out of the 300, about 50 were instrumentals, so I know lyrics to about 250 songs.''

Beverage that wets your whistle: "Coffee, and I'm a scotch man. I moderate it. I try to get into that rat pack mood. I want the audience to have as much fun as I have.''

Catch his act Wednesdays and Saturdays, 7:30 to 10 or 11 p.m., at Timpano, 1610 W Swann Ave., Tampa. Contact him at (727) 906-5177.

Other players of note

Vladimir Moldovan, above, originally from Transylvania, brings a touch of classical style to the piano bar scene, working a little Bach, Beethoven or Grieg into sets that also include the Beatles, Scott Joplin and songs from The Fantasticks. He plays Fridays and Saturdays, 7 to 10 p.m., at Alfano's, 1702 Clearwater-Largo Road, Clearwater. Contact him at (727) 381-4128.

Kelly Goodrich holds down the bar at J.D.'s Restaurant and Lounge in Indian Rocks Beach on Sunday and Tuesday nights. With a smooth delivery reminiscent of an upbeat Perry Como, he can get the crowd going on the dance floor with Shake, Rattle and Roll or the Tom Jones romp, It's Not Unusual. Bonus points: Regulars join him for the occasional duet. The bar is cozy and very casual, but a dressy couple wouldn't feel out of place. And although we didn't get to catch his act, Phil Tolotta plays the horseshoe-shaped bar Thursdays through Saturdays.

Wally Jay is a genial wiseguy, honking the bicycle horn attached to his piano and bantering with regulars at Jorge's Seafood Grill, 800 Clearwater-Largo Road, Clearwater. He plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Contact him at (727) 381-4128.

Rick Fuller has electronic keyboards and a guitar to get the crowd onto the dance floor for rockers like Ride, Sally, Ride and Sweet Home Chicago on Fridays and Saturdays, 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., at Les Partners Lounge, 144 Island Way, Clearwater. Contact him at (727) 224-9104.

FiFi plays Fridays and Saturdays in the piano bar at Spanish outpost Pepin Restaurant, 4125 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg.

Tampa Bay's piano men are playing our songs 10/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 4:30am]
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