CLEARWATER — Bob Walters commanded his three-tiered organ like a winged chariot, delighting a fan base of snowbird seniors at civic clubs, VFW halls and mobile home parks.
He played Big Band and Broadway, military marches and Hawaiian songs, making sure somewhere to include his magisterial Phantom of the Opera overture.
He evoked a small orchestra from his Yamaha, fusing guitars and flutes and whistles in ways no one man should be able to do. It was all that mattered to him.
For many seasonal residents, Mr. Walter's music symbolized freedom and escape from 10-foot snowdrifts, as integral to their serenity as their drinks and cards at places like the Largo Elks Lodge.
"The snowbirds were like groupies who were old people," said Diane Hashil, Mr. Walters' girlfriend of 17 years. "They would call our house and say, 'Where's Bob?' I'd say, 'He's at the Moose hall on McMullen Booth Road.' They followed him from place to place."
Mr. Walters called them by name and greeted them with hugs.
At the keyboard or away from it, he was remarkably agreeable. He took all requests. He volunteered to take less money if the crowd numbers seemed slim. Some who had hired him took him up on the offer.
"He never really had a dime to his name," said Hashil, 67. "He always kind of squeaked by (believing) tomorrow will take care of itself.'"
At home, he never vetoed a menu option.
"It drove me crazy," Hashil said. "If I put meatloaf in front of him, it was fine. If it was shrimp, it was fine. If it was pizza from Papa John's, it was fine."
Robert Gordon Walters was born July 20, 1936, in Mayodan, N.C., the son of an insurance salesman. He started playing the organ at age 5. When he was 9, his organ teacher told the family she had already taught the boy everything she knew.
He spent three years in college and a year and a half in the Army. He found steady work playing in bars and restaurants, including some in Biloxi, Miss.
Relationships proved less durable. A first wife divorced him, Hashil said. He and another wife pulled a trailer containing the organ behind his Corvette, her two sons stuffed in the cargo hold behind the seats.
Yet another wife was addicted to pills. A fourth died of liver disease.
"He just let things roll off his back," Hashil said. "He said, 'This is life and I'm going to roll with the punches.'"
Mr. Walters moved to Clearwater in 1989. Hashil first heard him play several years later at VFW Post 10094 in Indian Rocks Beach. In 1996, he moved in with her.
"What do you call a musician who has no girlfriend?" she asked jokingly.
The punch line: "Homeless."
But Mr. Walters was always at home behind the organ. "He did the Phantom of the Opera the way it is supposed to be played," said Carol Van Hine, 72, who plays the banjo on the senior circuit as Ragtime Annie. "I loved playing with him."
Mr. Walters also accompanied audience members like a pro. "If a person would sing a sour note, he would play the sour key so they wouldn't sound off," Hashil said.
He constantly adjusted the instrument's range of musical sounds — the piccolo for Stars and Stripes Forever, the wood block percussion in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
He ended each show with a rousing God Bless America, which he had built into a one-man symphony by the final verses.
Then Alzheimers and Parkinson's diseases crept into his memory banks and sapped the strength from his hand. He stopped performing four years ago. Hashil took him to visit an assisted living facility. Mr. Walters noticed they had a piano, and shuffled over to it.
He sat down and began to play.
"I cried like a baby," she said.
After unsuccessful surgery to remove fluid on his brain, Mr. Walters was moved to Hospice House Brookside. He died there Oct. 21.
He was 76.
Hashil plans to keep his cremated remains on a bathroom shelf, near the ashes of his mother and one of Hashil's dogs. Somehow, she thinks Mr. Walters would be fine with that, too.