Sherman Bernard’s decades in the New Orleans music business have garnered him a multitude of experiences and stories. He established Bernard Productions in 1983 and, starting in the mid-’70s, was the head piano tuner at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Early in his career, Bernard provided technical expertise at such legendary spots as Jimmy’s and Tipitina’s and a multitude of festivals, studios and projects, working in many capacities—piano tuning, sound, lights, production. For over 30 years, Bernard has been relied upon by pianist Allen Toussaint’s studios and has been called on by other such luminaries as pianist/vocalist Fats Domino, vocalist Irma Thomas and even the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
Bernard is also a pianist who continues to practice and play every day, gigs on occasion, and performed and was recorded at WWOZ’s Piano Night fundraiser. Being a musician, he says, has benefited him in his work as a piano tuner and soundman.
Bernard’s resume reads like a history of the last 30-plus years of music in New Orleans. He was in on the long-defunct Old Man Rivers club that brought artists like Ernie K-Doe to the West Bank. In the 1970s, he apprenticed as a piano tuner at Canal Street’s Werlein Music Store, an essential locale for instruments, sheet music and the like. He was under the tutelage of two blind piano tuners, Vernon Daigle, who was president of the New Orleans chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild, and Don Hearn. “There were a lot of blind piano tuners back then,” Bernard remembers. “And there were literally hundreds of thousands of pianos before Katrina.”
Bernard, who was definitely hands-on in the early years of his company, these days—with some 18 highly trained technicians on the job at Bernard Productions—he describes himself as a “fireman” who gets the call when emergencies come up. He primarily engineers from his office though, while maintaining a rather low profile, Bernard always seems to be around. He prefers to join the crowd and enjoy the performances when everything is going smoothly.
Naturally, Bernard has a million stories and, as those that know him, jokes. So in acknowledging his Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Business award, we asked him to share a few.
I know you’ve had many wonderful experiences through your decades working in the music industry. Maybe there’s one that sticks in your mind as being special or funny or disastrous?
There’s a story I always tell everybody. I was on a show; it was an Ace Award-winning HBO show called “Fats & Friends” and it was done over at the old Storyville in the French Quarter. It had Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis. When Jerry Lee played, he broke the piano bench right before Ray had to go. He just threw it on the floor and busted the leg on it. Everybody looked at me and asked if I had another piano bench. Who carries an extra piano bench? Well, the producers all came over and asked what we were going to do. I said give me a roll of duct tape and I just started wrapping it. We had to roll. So Ray was doing “Drown in My Own Tears” and I sat there watching the leg start to bend. So I grabbed the producer and told him to call the guys in the truck on the cameras and tell them not to shoot down low. I just shimmied up on the stage like a little snake while Ray was playing and grabbed the leg and pulled it back straight. He didn’t flinch; he just kept on going. I didn’t have one gray hair in my head at that time. I got a few after that. [Note: There isn’t a glimpse of Bernard on the video of the performance that can be seen on YouTube. He pulled it off.]
I’ve heard you were responsible for saving some pianos after Katrina.
Well, I grabbed Davell’s [Crawford] seven-foot piano and stored it for him and then got it shipped to him in New York. It wasn’t really a heroic thing. I did rescue some pianos when the bad storm hit the Jazz Festival in the late ’70s or early ’80s. It moved the pianos off the stage. I was picking them up out of the mud and drying them out. I had a brand new mixer that was sitting in a puddle of mud. We did it all overnight and got the festival ready for the next day. We didn’t get any sleep that night. Quint [Davis] was very grateful.
I saved Charlie B’s piano one time during a hurricane. He left it opened and it got filled with water. I had to pull the action out as it had swollen up. I went in there with a coat hanger and literally had to brace my feet against the piano to jerk the action out. We bought two or three hairdryers on the way. I had to turn the piano up, almost on its side, to get the water out of there. I still use that piano. That’s the one Dr. John plays at the House of Blues and Ellis Marsalis has used it. I wound up buying it after Charlie B’s closed.
One thing you’re definitely noted for is telling … well, corny, jokes.
I learned about humor back in the ’70s when we lived in Colorado. The band that we loved to go see was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. There was this guy who was a comedian and would sit in and play banjo. He was the funniest guy I’d ever seen. We used to hang out with him and he used to tell us about humor—how to set up a joke. The comedian turned out to be Steve Martin. I kind of learned about humor from him. I always liked humor and I like to laugh myself. It makes people feel good. People always ask me to tell them a new joke. If you laugh during the day, it relieves all that stress.
So do you have a couple of quick jokes?
Do you know how to say cut the grass in Cajun French? It’s meaux de lawn. One guy told me that I tell the best bad jokes—moaners and groaners. How many soundmen does it take to change a light bulb? One two, one two.
What are some of the musical highlights you’ve experienced through the years?
We did the concert with Ray Charles with the Louisiana Philharmonic at the [Mahalia Jackson] Theater for the Performing Arts. We got to mike it all up and it was stunningly good. I still remember him leading off with “Georgia on My Mind.” I did a number of dates with the Philharmonic that were all very memorable.
You don’t have a symphony orchestra very loud so you have to have all the tone and all the balance. My piano tuning experience got me to where I can hear every note very well and, being a musician, I can hear all the harmonies and I understand things like counterpoint. As a piano player, you have to be able to do all of that at one time. As an audio-tech, I can actually pick up all the parts that are playing and strike a balance on it.
You worked on Fats Domino’s shows in numerous capacities—sound, lights, piano—from 1986 to 1995. Did you get a chance to hang with him?
I used to go to Fats’ house every once in a while back when I was working for him and I got to sit on his pink Cadillac sofa and drink some brandy with him. He sat me on the sofa and says, “Have a seat there.” And I said, “Oh, right, this is fine, Fats. Where did you get this thing?” “Oh, I had it made. Do you want a little drink?” And I said, “Hell yeah, I’ll take a little drink.” So he gets this remote control thing and he points it at this little armoire and he presses the button and the lid just opens up. A little thing rises out of the center and there’s a bottle of Courvoisier and two glasses. I thought, “Man, I am in high cotton right now.”
I’ve been working with Allen Toussaint for over 30 years at the studio. So now, every time he comes in we talk and start playing the piano together. He’ll show me some stuff and I tell him some technical stories.
Actually, I got a couple of really good piano lessons from Allen—he gave me a Professor Longhair lesson. He’s an amazing person—one of my absolute role models for everything. I really look up to him. He’s just one of the finest people I’ve ever met, not even counting his talent.
One time I was sound-checking over at Tipitina’s for Dr. John. I was sitting at the piano and Herman [Ernest] was sitting at the drums with his sticks in his hands. David Berard had the bass on his neck. The guitar player and the horn section was there and all their mikes were live. So I kicked off “Tipitina” and they just put a hurtin’ on me. It was like taking Dr. John’s hotrod around the block. It was like a ride on a rocket ship. How many people get to sit in that seat?