West Newton music store owner Sykes likes to be own boss
After Jim Sykes' father, Jerry, returned from his service in the Navy during World War II, he built a Sunoco service station in West Newton.
“He had enough money for some used cement blocks and a couple railroad beams, and him and his father built this,” he said at the former Dairy-Land building on North Water Street.
It was his late father who encouraged Sykes' musical education, which has expanded from a hobby to a second job to a full-time profession.
The family business continued with only a few major changes since the 1940s, including a recent renovation of the restaurant of more than 20 years to West Newton Piano and Voice.
Sykes, 58, reluctantly started taking lessons at age 7 at the urging of his father, who played in the West Newton drum and bugle corps, the Yellowjackets.
His father's love of music also influenced Sykes' sister, Deidre Dave, who is retired as choral music teacher at Yough Middle School.
Although Sykes can play for six hours on end without stopping or repeating a tune, he hated lessons as a young child. He recalled how from the piano bench, he would listen to children playing kickball outside and wish he could join them.
“Then I really got to like it, and it became a part of me,” Sykes said. “I don't know what I'd do without it.”
By his count, he has played at 320 weddings, beginning when he was a teenager, and “hundreds more” funerals, he said.
For 10 years, Sykes was the house pianist for the Greensburg Country Club. For about six years in the 1990s, he played with a jazz ensemble at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.
He plays at West Newton's annual holiday event, Miracle on Main Street, and holds concerts.
An organist and pianist for many area churches over the years, including 23 years at West Newton Presbyterian Church, Sykes plays at Sunday Mass at Seven Dolors Catholic Church in Yukon.
Sykes most likes to perform solo, even without sheet music.
“I like to be my own boss. I like to play what I want to when I want to,” he said.
Sykes can play by ear — the dedicated Christian calls it a gift from God — that he's developed ever since he plucked out “America the Beautiful” when he was 4 years old.
He honed that talent over the years and uses it most often at fundraising events. Patrons will request songs from Sykes in exchange for donations to a good cause.
“If they want to hear something honky-tonk, I'll do that. If they want to hear something classical, I'll do that,” he said.
A benefit a few years ago for wounded Clairton police Officer James Kuzak raised $1,600, he said.
Seven Dolors music director Deb Theis said Sykes' playing brightens the atmosphere at events, like the choir fundraising breakfast on Oct. 6.
“The only problem was people didn't want to leave after they ate their breakfast because they wanted to stay and hear him play,” she said.
Theis called Sykes a “first-class” accompanist.
“He is so creative — you just say a couple words, and he makes up a song,” she said.
Sykes said he enjoys performing show tunes and Sinatra but loves to sit down at a grand old organ and play Christian music and traditional hymns.
Now the counter that dished out ice cream is a cozy studio with a gas fireplace where Sykes sat on Thursday with six pupils from The Church Christian Academy near Sutersville.
At the beginning of the school year, principal Tara Huffman expanded the weekly music program for students ages 9 to 15.
“He gets to their level, no matter their age, to make them feel at ease,” Huffman said.
Sykes has converted the kitchen area to accommodate his studio and office with hopes of finding someone to rent the former dining room, possibly for other instrumental lessons, like guitar or violin.
With his studio, he hopes to inspire more young people, as he was, to fill the need for more organists.
“I feel that God really wants me to pass on my gift of music to others,” he said.
Sykes plans to remain in West Newton, where not only decades of families have heard his music, but where he can trace his roots to the first sheriff in town in the early 1800s.
“This is home,” he said.
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.