Just after 7 p.m., Bob Seeley sits down at the piano, casually opens the lid, stretches both hands over the keyboard and announces himself with a huge rumble of notes.
The after-work crowd at Charley’s Crab looks up from cocktail conversations for a moment at the well-dressed man sitting straight up at the piano bench, hammering the keys.
The crescendo builds into a wave of sound before crashing into the rambunctious groove of Albert Cass’ famous “Boogie-Woogie Stomp.” Seeley’s left hand beats the lower keys in a heavily rhythmic, upbeat shuffling blues pattern while his right hand flies over the higher keys, chiming out a ribbon of intertwined melodies.
Just like that, the ambience changes. The most disaffected businessmen, consumed with bitching about daily office woes, unconsciously react, nodding in time or tapping their cigars into the ashtrays along with the beat. The lucky few with seats at the bar seem mesmerized by Seeley’s arched hands.
Bob Seeley has been playing a steady gig here five nights a week — Tuesday through Saturday — since Charley’s Crab opened more than 30 years ago.
His style of playing solo piano — mostly classic boogie-woogie, Harlem stride and ragtime — has made him something of a living history book of American music and has earned him fans across the United States and in Europe.
He has played thousands of gigs in cities around the world, been a soloist on the stage of New York City’s Carnegie Hall and entertained everyone from cocktail-hour businessmen to Turkish ambassadors and record moguls.
And Seeley’s unique experience as a young patron of Detroit’s once-ubiquitous boogie clubs has given him firsthand knowledge of the music that later generations will never have.
Since the Nixon administration, Bob Seeley’s regular gig has been behind a piano built into the bar at Charley’s Crab, a decidedly plush, five-star seafood restaurant near the crossroads of I-75 and Crooks in Troy.
It’s plain that he’s at home amid the chatter and cigar smoke, playing the piano with the lid propped up with a highball glass. He occasionally looks up to smile at waitresses and patrons.
After a nonstop set parading through boogie-woogie standards, Seeley sits down and exhibits his skills as a storyteller. A casual conversation with Seeley touches on a who’s who of boogie, jazz and stride-style piano giants — names such as Albert Ammons (1904-1967), Pete Johnson (1904-1967) and Eubie Blake (1883-1983).
These names don’t mean much to most people. But to those interested in the roots of American jazz and blues, they are names of great significance, of dominant musical forces.
To Seeley, many of them were friends and influences that inspired him to a life as a musician.
His yarns of piano luminaries seem bottomless, but Seeley’s richest stories are of the great Meade “Lux” Lewis (1905-1964). Lewis, a distinguished and widely reputed boogie pianist, was most active in the early 1930s, when he was key in revolutionizing the boogie-woogie style. He was largely responsible for igniting the boogie craze that captivated young people like Seeley all over America during World War II.
Over the years, Seeley and Lewis developed a close friendship.
“He wasn’t classically trained or anything, he just had it in his soul,” Seeley says of Lewis.
“I first met him when I was in my last year of high school, probably around 1948. He was playing a ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ concert down in Detroit. Three of us guys went down to the concert and snuck around to the stage door to get autographs. When we met him he asked us to go to a house party on East Warren. We were pretty excited about it and got there before he did. We told the guy at the door that Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis had invited us and he let us right in.”
Seeley was just a white kid who wasn’t old enough to get into most of the black clubs where his musical heroes played. Though he had taken classical lessons as a teenager, his boogie-woogie education started in his early teens — he would stand at the backstage door of Baker’s and peer in at the boogie performers. He practiced and played enough to win some contests and notoriety, and hung out every weekend in flamboyantly named clubs during Detroit’s booming 1940s.
Seeley cut his teeth by occasionally sitting in and playing a few numbers in such places as the Flame Show Bar, the Alamo, Baker’s Bar (later renamed Baker’s Keyboard Lounge) and the Frolic Show Bar.
He and his friends would take his mother’s car downtown to frequent blind pigs, after-hours joints where jazz musicians would jam until the sun came up and patrons drank illegally all night long.
The fateful night that Seeley crashed Meade “Lux” Lewis’ top-drawer afterparty kindled a friendship with one of his musical icons. When Seeley speaks of it two generations later, it seems as though it happened yesterday.
“Helen Humes was there. She was the great singer with Count Basie,” recalls Seeley. “So they had a piano and she asked me to play something, so I played a tune called ‘Chicago Flyer,’ which was Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis’ big tune at the time. I had learned it note-for-note off his record, and I’m about three-quarters of the way through the tune and I see him coming up to the door. He burst in and muttered some of the most famous words in jazz: ‘Who’s that stealing my stuff?’ It was just little ol’ me, that’s all.”
He flashes a disarming, gapped-tooth smile.
After that, when Lewis would play concerts in Detroit, he often invited Seeley to perform through the intermissions.
Much later, when years of fast living began to claim the icons of little ol’ Seeley’s youth, he started to gain a global reputation as a top practitioner of the boogie piano style.
“True to the source”
“The way most people do it is through copying,” says Jim Badzik, a longtime friend and boogie-woogie performer and promoter. “People learn to play boogie by emulating greats like Jelly Roll Morton, Erroll Garner and Fats Waller — you hear musicians playing at something to make it sound like someone else.
“But that is one thing that makes Bob so different. Bob made the music he loved through studying those players, understanding what they were doing and then putting his own life force in it. That’s the secret of how Bob sounds so original playing this music in 2002. People think he’s playing old music, but what he’s playing is true to the source and true to himself at the same time.”
Badzik, a Detroit native, lives a double life in New York City as a real estate associate by day and a boogie-woogie pianist by night. A highly regarded musician in his own right, Badzik has traveled with Seeley throughout the United States and across the Atlantic to play exclusive piano, jazz and boogie festivals.
He claims that one day he will be Seeley’s biographer and says he boasts a private collection of Seeley recordings that go back 30 years. Seeley and his signature style of playing dramatically changed Badzik’s life, as a mentor and father figure.
“I was a kid, 20 years old and living in Ann Arbor,” Badzik says via phone from his New York office. “There was an annual concert at the First Unitarian Church. … The concert was sold out, all the seats were filled and they only let my friends and I in after we begged.
“Since there were no seats, I sat on the floor underneath the keyboard and when Bob played it changed my life. I had never heard anything like he was playing. I went bananas. I was crazy for it. I felt something change in me chemically. It ruined me. I flunked out of college, started learning how to play boogie-woogie piano and have been ever since.”
For Badzik and others who grew up playing classical music a generation after the boogie-woogie heyday of the ’40s, learning the style of the boogie masters was like developing a whole new language on the keyboard.
The term boogie-woogie itself started as black slang; it had different meanings in pockets all around the United States. If you spoke of boogie-woogie in the late ’20s or early ’30s, the words could mean anything from a racy style of dance to a raucous party or to a sexually transmitted disease.
Detroit’s infamous strip of black clubs on Hastings Street had no small part in shaping the word’s definition. Peter Silvester’s authoritative book, Left Hand Like God — the Story of Boogie Woogie, touches on a time in 1929 when “boogie-woogie is used to mean either dancing or music in the city of Detroit.”
The more contemporary concept of boogie-woogie is most often traced to a form of playing piano that was born in the barrelhouses of Southern states. Barrelhouses were typically little more than rough-cut bars with a piano player who could go all night, a small dance floor and all the crude regional liquor one could stomach.
The music that Seeley plays five nights a week in the swank confines of Charley’s Crab is derived from those barrelhouse entertainers, players who were rarely captured on recordings.
Today, the definition of boogie-woogie generally relates to solo piano music. It’s characterized by repetitive, swinging blues bass lines that run continuously under the highly improvised melodies.
“My motto is, ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,’” Seeley says, joking that the classic Duke Ellington mantra is really his own. “I learned about swinging in all-black bars on Hastings Street and all the bars we called ‘black and tans.’ They would feature rhythm and blues and jazz.
“Back in those days, live music was everywhere because you didn’t have television and you didn’t have all this piped-in music. If you had a restaurant and you wanted music, you had to hire guys to play. And downtown Detroit was booming, jumping with tons of guys who could really swing.”
“Incapable of not swinging”
Bob Seeley keeps the spirit of Detroit’s swinging years alive and kicking at Charley’s Crab.
When he returns to the piano for the second of three sets and blasts through the Gershwin standard “I Got Rhythm,” it seems as though he is channeling the spirit of those swinging days.
He sits almost rigidly upright with his mouth closed, breathing deeply through his nose, his hands racing over the keys.
He has performed this particular song countless times, but it sounds newly discovered. The feel of the music and his improvisations on the melody are textbook examples of hard-swinging boogie-woogie.
The beautiful atmosphere at Charley’s and its proximity to the Hilton Hotel has attracted generations of high-profile stars who have become Seeley fans. He rattles off a list that includes Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, Dinah Shore, the Chicago Symphony, the rock group Chicago, the Smothers Brothers and the Everly Brothers. He is thanked on the liner notes of the latest Kid Rock record and smugly brags about getting a kiss on the cheek from Pamela Anderson.
In a stack of photographs next to his piano is a picture of Seeley with his arm around Mick Jagger. Current Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell has published articles praising Seeley as an influence.
“One of the reasons he is so widely loved is because he is so incredibly devoted to his craft,” says Mark Braun, a boogie pianist from Ann Arbor known professionally as Mr. B. “That is what enables someone to be what Bob Seeley is. All of us have limited gifts in one way or another, but Bob is limitless with his passion and joy for this form of music.
“He has played some of those songs hundreds and hundreds of times,” explains Braun, who has also traveled widely with Seeley. “You couldn’t do it if you didn’t have the fervor that he has. That is what people feel when they listen to Bob — if they’ve heard the song played a million times and Bob has played it a million times, they feel his passion for the craft.”
Badzik declares, “The man is genetically incapable of not swinging. He’s genetically incapable of losing the beat. He plays it for the swing and he wants to convey that feeling.
“Music is based on the law of diminishing returns. It’s the same way with food. When you taste your favorite food the first bite is always the best. The second bite is good too, but not quite as enjoyable as the first. Soon it doesn’t taste the same at all. It isn’t like that when Bob plays. He tries to play a piece with the same spirit and excitement as he had about it the first time he heard it. You can tell that his heart is in it and he has the energy that he has always had.”
Though Seeley’s age is a closely guarded secret, his youthful energy is infectious. When he plays, everyone within earshot is unable to resist moving along to his heavy beat.
“The music has kept Bob young,” Badzik says. “I know people half his age who act twice as old. Bob is still an adolescent at heart. He is a living, walking archive of American music and he not only is important as someone who can play the music but relate to life as it was then, when the music was very popular. He can take that music and make it his own, and that has kept him young.”
At a recent boogie-woogie festival at the Redford Theatre, Seeley brought down the house by donning a pair of shades and a cap with a faux ponytail and proceeding to jitterbug and soft-shoe and shuffle across the stage with verve and agility that rival his digital dexterity.
He can be nearly as much a ham as he is a virtuoso.
“It’s the boogie-woogie that keeps you young,” Seeley explains. “It’s not your chronological age, it’s your physical condition and state of mind. Lots of people are dead at my age.
“I took a stress test during a physical exam and the doctor said that the only guy who has beat me was 19 years old. It might be if you’re lucky or not, if you have the genes or something. Playing the piano is a lot of exercise. I play until I leave and when I do I’m pretty whipped. But it’s that boogie-woogie that’ll keep you young.”Nate Cavalieri is a freelance writer. E-mail him at [email protected]