Rock 'n' roll fire fades, but still burns for some Pittsburgh notables
Joey Granati thought he was ready for his new gig in 1995.
He wore a velvet jacket — “something like Keith Richards would wear” — a pink shirt, corduroy bell-bottomed pants and Beatles boots. His hair was blow-dried into a huge dark halo, circa the rocks stars of the 1980s. Granati looked out at the audience at Jelly Rolls, the former dueling-piano bar in Station Square, and put his heart into a cover of Led Zeppelin's “Trampled Under Foot.”
After the last note, he waited for the applause he was accustomed to receiving with his band, the Granati Brothers.
“There wasn't one sound,” says Granati, 57, of Beaver Falls, who now performs at Sing Sing at the Waterfront in Homestead. “People were just looking at me. They had no idea who I was or what I had done.”
He gradually got better at the new gig and thought it might last for 10 years. Instead, he's lasted almost two decades as a dueling pianist. He's been able to put two daughters through college, pay off his house, and sock away money for retirement. All because he and his siblings realized that the Granati Brothers, accomplished as they were (and still are when they do play), weren't going to reach the level of the bands they'd toured with, including Van Halen, the Doobie Brothers and the J. Geils Band.
“It was hard to leave my ego behind,” Granati says. “Leave a life of doing what I wanted to do. ... You can't have an ego in this game.”
Granati's conundrum — to gut it out in a band with limited opportunities, or seek more lucrative opportunities elsewhere — is faced by many musicians as they age. Some decide to find full-time employment and play music part time. Others quit the business entirely.
Those who continue to pursue music full time often struggle. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for musicians or singers is a little over $39,000. But that May 2013 figure is based on “year-round, full-time” employment of 2,080 hours (approximately 40 hours per week). Most musicians are lucky if they get one or two gigs per week.
Shari Richards' decision to diversify her music was practical while also adhering to her musical template. About 11 years ago, she started to grow weary of the atmosphere in bars, “the sonic chaos going on all the time, whether it's the volume of the band onstage, or the volume of the crowd, or the jukebox when you're offstage,” she says.
When Richards was invited to sing jazz and big band standards with Rick Purcell and his Big Band, she accepted immediately, even though some of her friends and fans couldn't understand her decision.
“I'm not a one-dimensional woman, so why would I be a one-dimensional musician?” says Richards, 48, of the South Hills. “Almost always, there's some element of style in the music that's authentically me. I don't really see what I'm doing as any different from what horn players or other instrumentalists have been doing for years, which is being a bit of a chameleon. .... If I'm doing a blues-rock show and then I go and play a big-band show with songs from the great American songbook, I'm enjoying myself.”
When Tom Moran played with the punk band The Five in the 1980s, a successful show was measured by “the number of compound fractures” suffered by audience members in mosh pits. In the '90s, when he played with the Deliberate Strangers, a neo-country band prone to playing murder ballads, he got “1-4-5” tattooed on his arm, signifying the most common chord progression in American rock and pop music.
His most recent musical venture is a world away from those bands, literally and figuratively. On a recent Saturday evening, Moran sits quietly in a corner of Dobra Tea in Squirrel Hill, quietly noodling on his homemade oud. The music is ethereal and soothing, contemplative and peaceful. There's no manic dancing, no songs about outlaws on the lam.
“You're working at something totally different, with completely different structures,” says Moran, 57, of Squirrel Hill. “I've been playing this stuff now for five or six years, and I think in terms of Middle Eastern and classical Indian music now rather than any kind of Western forms.”
Moran's passage from punk to country to Middle Eastern/Indian music comes from an aesthetic, not financial, need, as he works full time at a job outside of music. He cites David Bowie's career-long penchant for musical reinvention as inspiration.
“I've never been in a cover band,” says Moran, who also plays with belly dancers at Dobra Tea, and for yoga classes at various studios. “Never stood up there (onstage) with a music stand in front of me. I really enjoy learning new forms. And I always sort of liked classical Indian music but thought it was way too complicated. ... That being said, as much as I approach it with a sense of reverence and respect for the cultures, I'm never really going to play it for real. “
Better with age
Richards still goes back to bars and clubs to play the blues-rock songs that first inspired her to become a musician. When she does, there's a notable difference in the way she dresses (more casually) and interacts with listeners (they're much more likely to approach her).
But the biggest difference is in her voice. Playing with Purcell, Richards has learned the importance of subtlety, that even though her voice can be powerful and commanding, she doesn't have to belt out every song.
“It's made me a better singer,” she says, “just learning to sing different styles of music.”
Granati also says he's become a better singer, performer and songwriter via his experiences at Jelly Rolls and Sing Sing. And though it took time, the respect any musician craves is finally his, even if it's a function of his age.
“People say, ‘You're 57 and you're still that good?'” Granati says with a laugh. “What I used to fear about getting older, now I get extra points for hanging in there.”
But most musicians want to do more than just hang in there, Granati included. For Moran, his new musical pursuit enables him to play music that suits his temperament. Like his idol Ravi Shankar, the great Indian sitar player who was still experimenting when he died at 93, Moran has learned that it's important not to stay still.
“It's not so much about the energy,” Moran says, “but about how one moves gracefully through the musical maze.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.