On Halloween night, Pat O’Brien’s piano bar was packed with costumed quaffers getting wild and singing along drunkenly to everything from “Elvira” to “Rocket Man.” A guy dressed as an oil rig worker came up to the piano and handed Amy Trail a note written on a napkin. Trail read the note: “I want to hear ‘Friends in Low Places’ by Garth Brooks, and Julie, will you marry me?” Trail looked a bit askance, but the crowd roared and the guy got down on his knees to present his geisha-costumed girlfriend with a giant toy ring. Though she appeared a bit uncomfortable, Julie accepted the ring and the room shook with applause.
If these people should indeed end up getting married, they would join hundreds of other couples who’ve claimed to have either met or proposed (or even gotten married) at Pat O’Brien’s.
“We have weddings and wedding parties all the time,” says O’Brien’s spokesperson Shelly Oechsner Waguespack, a third generation Pat O’s lifer whose father is the current owner. “People send us photos of themselves from 50 years ago when they first met here. They consider us family. It’s part of our history.”
No city reveres its history more than New Orleans and on December 3, the French Quarter will celebrate a particularly noteworthy moment when Pat O’Brien’s celebrates its 75th birthday. The heart of the party will collect around the flaming fountain that graces the rustic 4,000 square foot, 18th Century brick and wrought iron courtyard patio connecting the two street entrances that make up the complex. But the merriment will also spill out onto a St. Peter Street block party with live music from the Bucktown All Stars.
The indoor bars are filled with odd memorabilia meant to signify long-held traditions and forgotten secrets, like the story behind the 502 German steins hanging from the ceilings. But the most striking element of Pat O’Brien’s is the piano bar. Like so many other New Orleans institutions, this setting is imbedded in the dreamscape of this city’s consciousness, something that could not be reproduced anywhere else in the world even if it were copied down to the last detail. The room originally housed the first theater in New Orleans, built in 1791, and it still has the feel of a small playhouse. Along the far wall is a stage holding two polished brass grand pianos that face each other. At night, two piano players work the room; between them is the world’s only tray player, a percussionist who plays his instrument, a metal tray, by tapping on the bottom of the tray with thimbled fingers. The relationship between these musicians and the audience is crucial to the piano bar’s aesthetic, because the players are required to engage the patrons in the performance by any means necessary.
Ideally, every song is a request written on paper napkins and accompanied by folding money. The pianists encourage the audience to include information about themselves—where they’re from, who they’re with, likes and dislikes. This whole exchange may seem trite and repetitive, but if you watch carefully, it’s an elaborate courtship. A good Pat’s O’s pianist will get a handle on as many as a dozen groups in the room at a time, working to them, getting feedback from them, pitting one against the other or getting them in synch with each other.
Did I mention drinking? This organized mayhem is all about the alcohol, a great sea of mostly rum that ebbs and surges as the groups pour in and get hammered, then move on. Most of the people coming to the place understand the nature of this particular ritual, which is a markedly different way of getting hammered than what is going on just around the corner on Bourbon Street, something a bit more stylish.
Perhaps it’s not so odd, then, to consider that all this would not have been possible without the 18th Amendment, which prohibited Americans from drinking alcohol, and the 21st, which repealed it. Pat O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, as it was originally called, was a speakeasy that required the password “Storm’s brewing” to gain entrance. When drinking became legal again in 1933, Pat O’Brien’s at the corner of Royal and St. Peter was ready for business. By the time O’Brien and his partner Charlie Cantrell moved up the block to the current location at 718 St. Peter in 1942, drinking was not only legal, it was as popular as the American institution of cigarette smoking, and magnificently celebrated in Hollywood films.
Pat O’Brien’s became legendary at this new location, largely due to another unlikely circumstance. Wartime rationing made it difficult to obtain liquor except locally produced rum. New Orleans bartenders were at that point the world’s greatest cocktail makers, and the crew at Pat O’s came up with what would become its trademark, the hurricane cocktail of rum and fruit juice. Serving it in a stemmed glass shaped like a hurricane lamp, a white elephant of a drinking cup practical for no other use than to promote the drink, was a stroke of genius.
Like a lot of other bars in those pre-jukebox days, entertainment was provided by a piano player, and in the early days of Pat O’s, that piano player was the raven-haired, bourbon-drinking Mercedes, whose fame in the Quarter was such that she needed no last name.
“Mercedes obviously loved what she was doing; she had a great personality and she reacted to the crowd so well,” says Miss Inez, a French Quarter historian and bon vivant who’s been going to Pat O’s for over 50 years. “She was just one of those people that found her niche in life and came to love it.”
One day, a local drummer named Eddie Gabriel decided to play some improvised percussion with Mercedes and the Pat O’Brien’s position of tray player was born.
“Eddie was the original tray tapper,” says Waguespack. “He basically just jumped onstage and started doing it. Eventually he got on the payroll.”
Gabriel played the tray for over 50 years, eventually handing the job over to another Pat O’s lifer, Alvin Babineaux. Babineaux’s mother was one of the club’s pianists, and he has worked various jobs at the place since he was 18. He started in on the tray in 1973.
“Alvin is the last of the tray players,” says Amy Trail. “Mr. Eddie started it, but Alvin has perfected it. He imitates an entire drum kit with his feet and his two hands on the tray.”
Babineaux, a short, heavily muscled man, has the resolutely positive attitude of a vaudeville trouper, and when he bounces around playing the tray with a campy insouciance, the audience reacts to his energy. He is dead serious, though, when it comes to describing his tray playing.
“When I started playing the tray, the old broads would shout, ‘Hit it, Alvin! Hit it! Hit It!’ I would say, ‘I am hitting it,’ and they’d answer ‘We can’t hear you.’ So basically, the old broads taught me to really hit it. I had to work on my hands to build enough strength into my playing. You’ve got to really give something to the rhythm.”
When Pat O’s moved to its present location, Connie Kay joined Mercedes and the dueling pianos tradition was born. The format originally included an emcee named Emil Parra who worked the crowd and sang. Though they no longer use the emcee, the approach has basically stayed the same since the 1940s.
“It was sheer fun,” recalls Miss Inez. “The piano players played requests for popular songs and a lot of fight songs from the universities. They catered to everything local back then, whereas today it’s more geared toward tourists. When you went into Pat O’Brien’s back then, you always saw somebody you knew. That’s how local it was. People dressed up to go there. Whoever was playing the Blue Room inevitably ended up at Pat O’Brien’s. Mary Martin was in there one night when I was there; Carol Channing was in there, a lot of politicians used to go there. Everybody wanted to go in because it was fun. To this day, the locals, when they come downtown just for old time’s sake, they all make a pass through Pat O’Brien’s.”
Scores of pianists have worked at Pat O’s over the years. Every one is different and some of them have put a unique stamp on the performance style, influencing everyone who’s worked with them. One who stands out is Barbara Bennett, who worked for 49 years until she retired just before Katrina. Bennett was among the most outgoing personalities on the job, a quality that counted more for her than musical ability.
“I had no idea what I was doing when I started out, but I was fearless,” she admits. Back then, she was a close friend of Jerry Lee Lewis and she must have been quite a looker. “Jerry taught me a few tricks on the piano that went a long way,” she recalls.
Bennett probably witnessed more changes than any other Pat O’s keyboardist, but one stands out for her.
“The biggest change I remember in terms of what people wanted to hear was in the ’70s, when country music became very popular,” she says. Though Hank Williams and Patsy Cline had long been in their repertoire, Waylon and Willie and the rest of them gave the piano players lots of new material for patrons to sing along to. In fact, Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” has become a regular Pat O’s sing-along, and customers are encouraged to comment on the lines of the chorus, shouting “You Bitch!” “You Slut!” and “You Whore!” And they do. Every time.
“People like to yell out bad words when they’re drunk,” says traymeister Babineaux. “When they come in they’re quiet, they might be with their mother-in-law or their boss and his wife. But after a few hurricanes, they’re acting like idiots.”
Babineaux thinks the current lineup of pianists is the strongest group he’s ever seen. Vicki Amato and Henrietta Alves are the veterans in terms of service, and Jan Reeks will celebrate her 20th anniversary behind the keys at Pat O’s in March.
Reeks is a kind of transitional figure in that she doesn’t fit the mold of the lifer, yet she has worked her way up to become one of the veterans. A classically trained pianist, she’d never set foot in Pat O’Brien’s or played contemporary popular music on the piano before trying out for the job.
“I was playing in places like Feelings Café, mostly background music,” she says. “A friend of mine who was working there at the time told me how great the money was and what a good time everyone had. I had heard there were two old ladies working who had been there 100 years. My agent told me not to work there because all the piano players were really men with sex changes.
“The first day I worked there, I didn’t know if I could make it through the day. I only knew about 10 songs and Henrietta and Carmelita knew a million songs. It was so intimidating. I kept playing the same songs over and over and hoping no one would make a request.”
The other piano players shared their sheet music with Reeks and within a couple of weeks she had expanded her book to 50 songs. Today, she has sheet music for about 3,000 songs and is constantly adding new material.
“Everybody has their own songbook, and no two are alike,” she points out. “But there are about 100 songs that we do all the time. They call them the core songs, and everybody knows them. There are lots of people who don’t want to work at Pat O’Brien’s because they don’t want to have the play the songs we do over and over again. But it can be fun. I have already played ‘Piano Man’ more times than Billy Joel has in the 20 years I’ve been here.”
Even musicians who have career aspirations to play their own music value the experience (and money) they get playing Pat O’s. Amy Trail has already released several albums of original material and looks forward to doing more on her own.
“At first I did it for the money,” she says. “It’s one of the few music jobs in New Orleans that you can actually make a good living at. That was the initial draw. I was prejudiced at first because I had studied jazz at college and my attitude was; I wasn’t going to sell out by playing something that wasn’t meaningful to me. But there’s a deeper level I didn’t realize. People come from all over the world to hear a song that means something to them. I really started to get it after Katrina when I was away for awhile and I missed playing for that audience who was so happy you played the song they wanted to hear. It’s like a teacher teaching DNA to sophomores year after year. I’m sure it gets boring, but when you see the reaction of the students who are into it—that’s what makes it worth doing.”
Trail also points out that the experience has helped her improve as a musician.
“I’m so much of a better singer and so much of a better piano player because I spend four hours a night playing the American pop repertoire,” she says. “You learn a lot about how harmony works and what makes hit songs. It’s really helped my ability as a songwriter to have spent so much time inside other songwriters’ heads.”
Of the younger players, Kristen Cady probably comes closest to fitting the old mode. A former hairdresser, the red-headed Lake Charles native belts out her tunes with a bawdy edge and has a distinctly southern attitude, taking a delight in the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama” that you don’t hear in the voices of the other singers.
“I finally feel like I know what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m not the best piano player, I’m not the best singer, but I’m a good entertainer and I know what to do to get the audience to be happy, have fun and buy drinks. I’m a southern girl, so it took me a while to reconcile being bawdy and still be a lady. I had to put myself in that ‘hot mama’ role, like a kind of Mae West figure, like all these old broads like Bette Midler, that kind of thing.”
Joel Jambon, the newest piano player and the only man in the dueling pianos lineup, has added some new touches to the approach by becoming the first pianist to use a laptop computer instead of a fake book. A former accountant who wanted to have more fun with his life, Jambon also specializes in rapping as part of his act.
Tracking the ever-changing nature of popular music has become more challenging in recent years as patrons ask for songs that defy pianistic interpretation.
“People are starting to make requests for hip-hop songs,” says Trail. “Joel does a great rap on ‘Gin and Juice.’ Sometimes the general public doesn’t understand what a piano can and can’t do. We’ve been getting interesting requests like Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police,’ and various hip-hop tracks. So much of hip-hop is just looped drum tracks with very little harmonic content, so a lot of those songs are difficult to replicate. But you have to adapt. One I’ve recently had to learn is ‘Sexy Back’ by Justin Timberlake.”
No matter how unusual the request, the Pat O’s pianists will always take a stab at it if they can. As Alvin Babineaux likes to say, “Pat O’Brien’s stays the same, it’s just the people that change.”