It's 6 o'clock on a Wednesday, the regular crowd shuffles in. Alone or in pairs, they belly up to the bar in front of Carl Fuerstman to listen to him make magic on the piano, playing covers, medleys and even some of his original songs at Billy's Stonecrab restaurant in Tierra Verde. There's a big glass bowl in the middle of the bar shaped like the top of a grand piano. He counts on those tips to make a living — and tips he gets. Four or five times the amount of money he is paid for each gig. I don't think he has to worry. Everyone sitting at the bar seems to be a Carl groupie. They know the drill. They tell him a song they want to hear, he starts playing it and they throw a tip into the big glass bowl. For the uninitiated, there are, scattered around the bar, laminated sheets of paper with a list of all the songs he plays. Roger Humbert, 62, of Gulfport has been following Carl from bar to bar for 22 years. He met him at Ceviche in 1991. "Carl is an entertainer, not just a musician. He's a musician by requirement but he visits with people, stops to make jokes and panders to the audience — something he can do in such an intimate setting as a piano bar." This particular Wednesday, Carl is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and an Indiana Jones hat. His versatility is evident from the beginning of the first set when he plays everything from Barry White to Phantom of the Opera to a song by the band Train. Carl, who played in bands for 25 years before striking out on his own, is a champion for the older generation. "As a 58-year-old musician, I don't like the idea that our age group is being pushed aside," he said. "In our 50s, 60s and 70s, we still want to go out and take our wives and girlfriends out. "Baby boomers don't want to go quietly; they're not willing to give up."
Patti Ewald, Times staff writer
1How did you get to St. Petersburg?
Originally from Charlotte, N.C., he said he moved to Florida in 1983 and never went back. He played in a band at the Gallery (now Mermaids) on St. Pete Beach. "It was a great gig. It used to be "the" bar on St. Pete Beach for bringing in bands from the East Coast." A few years later, he struck out on his own, auditioned at Ceviche (then called 10 Beach Drive) and got the job. "That was 1988. I played piano and sang. There were no background tracks then." Today, he builds his own background tracks on his computer and then uses them to accompany his piano playing.
2How many different songs do you know?
About 300; they come and go. (You can see his list of songs — as well as where he'll be appearing — at carlspianobar.com.) He didn't want to name his most or least favorite but did say he "can listen to the Beatles without any problem."
3 Where do you live?
I live in Redington Shores with Sheri, my girlfriend of 20 years, our two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Albert and Henry, and a cockatiel named Newman.
4Were there any big hurdles you had to overcome?
He was working in upstate New York in a band years before he moved to Florida. When the lead singer asked band members to comment on what they thought was good and bad with the band, Carl said, "You can't sing." To which the lead singer responded, "You're fired." He had a lot of time to think about his next move because he had to stay with his sister in New York City until he could earn enough money to get back to North Carolina.
5If you could tell people one thing, what would it be?
"There are actually two adages I go by. At some point in your life there's going to have to be some sacrifice; you have to push everything out of the way. If you want to get ahead, you'll have to sacrifice everything else to get there.
"The other one is: stay on the train. When you're on the train, you can't see how fast you're going. When you get off, you can see in three seconds how fast you're going. You pat yourself on the back but then the train is gone. Stay on the train. Don't worry about the accolades, they'll come."