Carl’s Piano Bar had devoted fans, a large fishbowl for tips and hundreds of songs that everyone knew.
It had a small gum ball machine on top of the piano, TVs on the walls likely tuned to NASCAR races and laminated playlists scattered about for newcomers.
And Carl’s Piano Bar had Carl Fuerstman, the piano man who took his show and his fans with him as he played across Tampa Bay.
He spent more than 40 years performing here, including at Ten Beach Drive, Woody’s Waterfront and Billy’s Stone Crab. But it wasn’t just his song selections or his talent or his knack for remembering the names of locals and snowbirds that made him a star.
When Fuerstman sat down to play, he made room in the spotlight for everyone.
He died Nov. 15 of legionella pneumonia. He was 68.
A place to go
Fuerstman, who grew up in North Carolina, came to Florida in the early ‘80s after years on the road playing in bands. He went to audition at Ten Beach Drive in St. Petersburg “and it turns out they needed someone to cover the piano that night anyway,” he told the then-St. Petersburg Times in 1998. “So they told me to come in and play and they could pay me for the audition.”
He earned three times more than what they paid him in tips and realized he was on to something.
Jeff Etter was one of many people who heard Fuerstman play and followed him from place to place for decades.
“The minute you walked in, you knew Carl was something,” he said.
The piano man could watch NASCAR while carrying on side conversations, chewing gum and performing. His repertoire ranged from The Beach Boys to “The Phantom of the Opera” to the Black Eyed Peas. And Fuerstman knew he was creating a space for his generation, who maybe didn’t feel at home at nightclubs anymore but weren’t ready to stay in just yet.
“Piano bars are comfortable, everyone can enjoy them,” he told the Times in 1998. “Maybe that goes with the fact that I’m 43 years old and correspond with yuppies or the Baby Boomers of the world. We found ourselves without a venue. I love it that I can give them a place to go.”
Decades ago, Sheri Brown sat watching a band perform and decided she’d go for the bass player.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“But I ended up with the piano player.”
She worked as a bartender and figures she and Fuerstman only worked at the same spot on the same night once, which was on purpose.
The couple spent 36 years together, Brown says, “In unwedded bliss.” They worked for 20 years to pay off their home in Redington Shores. For 22 years, they saved 10% of their tips for a trip to Kenya and Tanzania. They traveled to Italy, France, Spain and the Caribbean with friends. And wherever they went, if there was a piano, Fuerstman would play one song.
Their home includes Adam and Sophie, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Fuertsman fussed over, three pianos and multiple speakers, microphones and lighting equipment.
And whether he was playing or just listening, Brown said, there was always music.
Fuerstman entertained behind the piano and away from it.
“As an entertainer he was everybody’s friend,” said longtime friend Lynne Easterman.
And as a friend, he was there for the ups and downs.
For years, Easterman and her late husband traveled with Fuerstman and Brown, tailgated for the Buccaneers, cheered for the Rays. When David Easterman died, Fuerstman helped his friend whenever she needed it, including recently with a yard project.
Bob and Sue Sackett went from fans to friends and always arrived early to get front row seats for Fuerstman’s shows. When Sue had breast cancer, Fuerstman sat with her during radiation and chemotherapy.
“If people were really paying attention to his performances,” said longtime friend Bruce Caplan, who hired Fuerstman to play at restaurants he owned over the years, “the thing about Carl I think that stands out maybe more than anything else that people are not aware of was his generosity.”
He showed it in the names he remembered, the friendships he built and the space he made for people to sing, dance and have fun. Fuerstman made his living off what people left inside his big fishbowl tip jar and, when it was his turn, always left big tips.
And unlike many musicians, he didn’t play for 40 minutes and take a break for 20.
“Carl would never get up,” Caplan said. “He would play three, four, five hours straight.”
The piano man wasn’t afraid of losing customers.
“He knew that people made an effort to come out and see him, and he wanted to give them 100%.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
Sign up for Kristen Hare’s newsletter and learn the stories behind our obituaries
Our weekly newsletter, How They Lived, is a place to remember the friends, neighbors and Tampa Bay community members we’ve lost. It’s free. Just click on the link to sign up. Know of someone we should feature? Please email Kristen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• • •