Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The piano has been crying: Remembering Easy Andrews

"You gotta serve somebody." – Bob Dylan


There are some people you just never can forget.


Even if they've joined the orchestra conducted by St. Peter for "the man upstairs."

 

Easy Andrews – pianist par excellence, human being, in the Indian sense of the word, sui generis – shuffled off this mortal coil last Sunday.


It seems he knew where he was going.


I first met Easy in the late 1990s when he wandered into a Mike Wilhelm concert at the Lakeport Art Council's gallery.


He was wearing what I can only describe as a mustard yellow coat and a black Ernie Ball hat. I'd been looking for him for some time. But, in fact, I didn't even know for sure that this was him yet I just had to talk to this guy. Only someone with a complete sense of himself could possibly wear that outfit in public and care less.


Easy began his career in 1940 at 17, incorporating the styles of his favorite pianists – Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Errol Garner – into what became his own distinct radiating of the 88.


"I actually started out in showbiz by tapping in the movies with Bill 'Mr. Bojangles' Robinson," Easy told me in the first of many interviews I had with him.


"I'm in the 'Littlest Rebel' with Shirley Temple and in 'Shipmates Forever' with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler and 'Dancing Lady' with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable."


Playing the club circuit with his band, the Gadabouts, came next. They performed in Vegas, Tahoe, Hawaii, Palm Springs. Then, Easy discovered a place called Lake County. That was in 1955 and it's been his home ever since.


He also got to sit in once with the Lionel Hampton Band in Santa Rosa on a night when the regular pianist was out of commission.


"I played 'Hamp's Boogie' with the full group backing me up," Easy recalled. "Man, that was exciting."


His early gigs must have been pretty exciting too. Easy specialized in ending his shows by tearing his piano apart, piece by piece, predating The Who, Jimi Hendrix and likely even Jerry Lee Lewis.


"I got that piano from Jimmy Durante," Easy said. "He'd reel it out and go 'Ya cha, cha, cha, cha, cha,' but he didn't take it apart."


"But I absolutely tore that piano down in performance," he said. "I'd get mad at it. Then I'd start taking it apart."


Easy ended with his piano scattered all over the stage, but not before he'd done the boogie woogie backwards while leaning over it upside down.


That was quite an act but, then, in 1961, something else happened to Easy. He was, as they say in religious circles, born again.


By 1965 and for nearly 30 years after he devoted his life and his talents completely to gospel music, not playing any other kind in public again until 1994. Even then never in a club or casino.


"It conflicts with my values," Easy explained.


His commitment is obviously real. Years as musical director of the Lakeport Christian Center and then his work as part of the musical staff of the Assembly of God Church in Lakeport tell that story.


"I became a Christian," Easy recalled. "Lyle, the sax player, moved to New York and joined the Billy Mays Band. Art, the bass player, went to Anchorage and brought a nightclub. We'd played once at the old Fireside Lounge in Fairbanks."


And, they'd appeared many other times usually as the Gadabouts but sometimes as Easy And The Easytones or Easy And His Islanders. In places as long remembered as Danny's Supper Club in Lucerne, The Aurora Club in Nice, the Clear Lake Lodge, Hoberg's Resort and the Lakeshore Inn.


But that was then and this is now.


When Easy wasn't tickling the ivories for the Lord he began to accept casual gigs and started teaching piano at Lakeport's old Falconer's Music and at the Bandbox.


"As I got deeper and deeper into gospel music," Easy said. "I found there is very little difference in true jazz, which is an expression of the heart and soul, and gospel, which is also an expression of the heart and soul.


"It's all from God and there's a very profound relationship between the two.


"I don't ever want to do anything to misuse that."


Somehow, I think the Lord is taking this into account.


"I would call Easy a musician's musician," David Neft, another great pianist said. "Everything you'd kind of want from one musician to another, he was there. He'd give you the shirt off his back and even pass on gigs. A generous man, a nice guy and a great musician. One of my heroes. He made your life better."


Jillian Billester, former director of the Lake County Arts Council, seconded that emotion.


"It just broke our hearts," she said. "Dale (her bassist husband) and I both. He was one of the most beautiful souls I have ever know. We've just lost this bright light. Those knuckles of his – when he played, he was just like a teenager. He had a light in his eyes."


Amen.


Just a word in parting, paraphrasing something Woody Guthrie used to say: "Take it easy, (Easy), but take it."


There's always time for one more jam in Saint Peter's Heavenly Orchestra.


{mos_sb_discuss:2}

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