Playing piano for two 2-hour shows a day as I’m currently doing at the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular can be daunting. If you take your mind off what you’re doing for a millisecond you could find yourself scrambling to refocus. This is the sixth year I’ve been a member of the band backing the production and it’s been made additionally enjoyable using a newly acquired digital piano.
Last month my wife Pat and I were in the Long & McQuade music store in Nanaimo. Pat needed to purchase some Christmas music for some of her piano students. While waiting for her to dig through the bins of sheet music, I kept entertained by noodling my way through the piano department.
Trying out a number of the digital pianos on display, I came across a Roland FP-7F keyboard and after playing just a few chords I instantly fell in love with the instrument. No digital I’d played before sounded and felt so close to an acoustic piano as this one did. Later at home I couldn’t get the instrument’s superior sound out of my mind and thought I’d check for reviews of the piano on the Internet. I soon learned the sampled sound chip in the unit had been prepared using a Hamburg Steinway D Grand piano. Sound sampling is a way of converting real sounds into a form that a computer can store and replay.
Pat could see how taken I was with the piano and the following day said to me that if I liked that much, she’d give it to me for Christmas. I was of course delighted. However, the piano had been listed in the music store as used so I needed to know its history. It turned out the instrument had been rented to the Chemainus Festival Theatre for one of their musicals. The result was a substantial discount off the list price. Picking up the piano just a day after first playing it, I’ve had an incredible time performing on the instrument from the Yellowpoint show’s very first rehearsal.
(Above) - The Roland FP-7F keyboard - my Christmas present from Pat.
This year the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular has over 50 songs programmed. Playing through the production, many of the tunes have sparked personal memories of Christmases past. One song in particular called Six White Boomers took me back to a seasonal show I performed over 40 years ago with an entertainer by the name of Rolf Harris.
Rolf Harris was an Australian entertainer who showed up in Vancouver on the maiden voyage of the cruise ship Oriana in the spring of 1961 to play a short gig at a venue called the Arctic Club on Pender Street. His big hit in Australia was an infectious tune called Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport that had caught on worldwide. Harris was such a smash hit in Vancouver that he ended up playing two shows a night, six days a week for 31 straight weeks before the Arctic Club burned to the ground on New Year’s Eve 1961. He was so popular the legendary Cave Theatre Restaurant on Hornby Street extended his stay.
Rolf Harris ultimately built a secure career in England but still continued to make regular visits to Vancouver. It was one of these periodic visits during the Christmas season that a local Alberni Valley radio station (CJAV) booked Harris to do some concerts on Vancouver Island. Somehow his Vancouver booking agent got my name and phoned to ask if I could put together a trio to back the entertainer up.
Photo above: My jazz trio is seen backing up Rolf Harris at the old Athletic Hall in Port Alberni. Rolf is shown with his wobble board singing his principal hit, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport. Ernie De Montigny played bass and my brother-in-law Dave Auld (unseen at right) was on drums.
The first show was to be a matinee in Port Alberni and a rehearsal was arranged for my band to learn the music. However, when Harris showed up after travelling over from the mainland he apologized that the airline had lost all his musical arrangements in transit. Even his mammoth didgeridoo (a long, wooden wind instrument used traditionally by the aboriginal people of Northern Australia) had gone astray. However, Rolf was happy to learn that I could read chord symbol shorthand as he’d spent his travel time on the ferry scribbling out the chord structure of his compositions on sheets of hotel stationary.
And that’s what we ended up doing, playing the entire show from these scrap pieces of paper scotch-taped to the piano. To imitate the strange sounds of a didgeridoo, Rolf blew into one end of a cardboard centre core used to wrap newsprint at the local paper mill. However, eventually his backup band scores did arrive and later shows were definitely superior.
Over time, Rolf Harris became one of Britain's best-loved entertainers. A very talented artist, a large segment of his act on stage incorporated sketching cartoons and portraits on huge sheets of paper. In 2005 Harris was commissioned to paint a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday. Harris was appointed an MBE in 1968 and an OBE in 1977and received a CBE from the Princess Royal in 2006.
(Photo above): Dancers at the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular. The production plays out its final week starting tonight with six performances through Saturday. Tickets available through the Port Theatre in Nanaimo at www.porttheatre.com.