Local Musician Still Performing
Local musician Paul Schmitt recalls his first professional music gig in 1973 when he was 16 years old. “It was a four-piece wedding band. We played almost every weekend at private parties and wedding receptions. I met a ton of people and had lots of fun.”
Nineteen seventy-three was a great year for classic rock. Some of popular music’s biggest names released their seminal chart toppers: “Band on the Run” by Wings, The Allman Brothers Band’s “Rambling Man”, and “Piano Man” written by Billy Joe, the Piano Man himself. Lynyrd Skynyrd cut “Free Bird” as a nine-minute single in ’73 and had the Stars and Bars to Back it up.
In his salad days Schmitt was influenced by more progressive artists like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Elton John. Schmitt associated himself with talented lyricists and composers with whom he played piano and electric keyboards on many recording sessions. “Rock tunes, blues and jazz, and other miscellaneous musical stuff,” he says.
Today he has a standing gig at the Sand Hill Crane Vineyards in Jackson where he plays classic rock songs and bluesy chart busters. The keys,” he says, “are my comfort zone. I see myself as an improvisationalist along the lines of music from classical to the ridiculous.”
On Sunday he plays his baby grand piano and sings tunes from memory from two to five. He prefers the acoustic piano to the electric models, which he likens to “a chocolate malt without the malt.” His melodic, fluid style perfectly compliments his improvisatory approach to the classics he cut his teeth on.
Age 59 and sporting a handlebar mustache that brushes his clavicles, Schmitt says he “doesn’t do the bar scenes anymore. I’m a little too old for that. The late night stuff gets old when you’re getting home at three in the morning.”
Schmitt’s hands are useful in other ways besides music. A Grass Laker for 30 years, he takes care of his one-horse horse farm and owns P.L Schmitt Carbide Tooling on Drake Street in the Village. Twenty years active in the music scene, he says he found it necessary to take time off to raise kids, “with an occasional performance and some church stuff.”
Prior to the set Schmitt and I recognized each other though we’d never met. He was impressed with my knowledge of classic rock, of tracks cut on vinyl when I was in diapers. What can I say? “Hey, hey, my, my, rock ‘n’ roll can never die,” Neil Young sung. I’m ever bit the aficionado of the red, white, and the blues. Even Bob Dylan, a complete musical being and a Nobel Prize winner, wrote poetry, cinema scores and toured with a full symphony. The one who chases the muse has the ability to scale any wall.
During a break in his set Schmitt sipped cherry wine and told me that he once took piano instruction from an old blind jazz musicians. “You learned how to play piano from Ray Charles? No!” Schmitt wouldn’t say. He asked me how old I was. “I was born in 1971.” He hopped back onto the stage and slid behind the keys, played a birthday song for me, “Turn the Page,” Bob Seeger’s 1971 hit single, better than another year older.
I’ve always loved live music. The first concert I attended was AC/DC at the Hartford Civic Center in Connecticut where I grew up. I was sweet 16, too. By the grace of the Hammer of the Gods my friends and I got great tickets, second row, center stage and watched an ugly little man in a schoolboy outfit impersonate Chuck Berry. My ears rang for four days. If it’s too loud you’re too old, some old star, Ozzie Osborne or Martin Scorsese, said.
A waitress brought Paul his tip jar but he commandeered her to hold his harmonica for him while he performed “Piano Man.” Music lovers, thrill seekers, and septuagenarians enjoy Schmitt’s routines. He takes his music seriously but he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“I took a lot of lessons to learn to play,” Schmitt says, “to read sheet music and learn the scales. I’ve been taking lessons all my life.”
Paul Schmitt performs solo on the piano regularly at Sand Hill Crane Vineyards in Jackson. His personal website is http://www.paulthepianoguy.com For scheduled events at the Vineyards go to http://www.sandhillcranevineyards.com