Last King of the Piano Bars?
Rod Dibble Still Tickling Them 50 Years Later
When one passes by the Alley on Grand Ave in Oakland, CA you hardly notice the place. It’s always looked kind of dingy from the outside. Come to think of of it, it’s pretty dingy-looking on the inside, too,but the good kind of dingy.
As a kid growing up in Oakland , the Alley was all but ignored as a place for older folks, with a bohemian bent- weirdos back then . Over the years the neighbor hood changed -especially the parallel-running Lakeshore Ave, where perhaps only 1 or two original businesses remain out of the 50 or so… Grand isn’t much differrent. But, somehow, The Alley has survived. Lots of down years and population changes as Oakland has gone from all white to a largely minority city. Original owners have passed on and most of the original followers. However, the daughter of the original owners still runs the place, we are told, which probably explains, in part, how the Alley has stood the test of time. Kudos to her.
But through it all , there’s one constant – Rod Dibble at the Piano, now going on 50 years.
PIANO BARS – DIBBBLE STILL TICKLIN’ THEM 50 YEARS LATER
Dibble began his stint in 1963 . And, it’s as if time has stood still since then. While the crowd may have changed, the place hasn’t and , of course, Dibble’s still there, and he says he doesn’t play any music after 1963. If that’s not time warp , what is? But, we love it. In today’s fast-paced world of quickening technology , media hype and disfunctional or non-existent families its kind of nice to see a that a place like the Alley – and it’s current family of regulars – can still exist in 2910.
If there’s another place like this in America that hasn’t changed a lick, with a veteran piano player of 50 years, I’d like to see it. And there well may be one or two somewhere .However, piano bars, themselves , are pretty rare these days, having been replaced by automated Kareoke .
We say there’s nothing like the real thing, and , apparently, so do a lot of others, as seen by a resurgence at the Alley in recent years, with the current crowd of mostly 20-somethings. However, this recent night we were there we witnessed a number of spirited seniors , like Frank, as animated in his singing as any of other younger folk , who gather at the 9 or 10 seats around the grand piano and take turns singing into the nicraphones. Frank ended ever classic song with a high-pitched last note; so what if it was off-key. That’s what makes this place so special. It’s all off key by today’s standards. And that’s good.
There’s a book of hundreds of songs, with lyrics to choose from. It was refreshing to hear song after song from the great American song book, when melody and lyrics seemed to have more to do with music. Each song told a story – take Route 66 for example – and the unique singer behind the mike. No generics as you get at a Karaoke bar. Only real personality here. And Dibble, now in his late 70s but still with a youthful spark, is able to tackle most every song but, again, it’s gotta behind pre-1963. He still sings, too, and in a whiskey-inspired voice one might expect for a guy who has spent thousands of nights singing, playing and, yes -drinking the night away at the Alley.
I try to get to the Alley now as often as possible as I’m afraid this fun can’t last forever. Dibble’s doing great but he won’t be there forever. And , one must wonder, how the alley has escaped the fire inspectors , with all the old business cards, flyers and paper lining the walls and ceiling, much of which has probably been there the whole time .
So, if you live anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s worth a trip to see this place. Even if you live in another state, its work a trip to spend a weekend with Rod and the gang… Pick a weekend night or two when you’re sure to see Dibble at the ivories — there’s a new young upstart singing weeknights – and a full host of singers at the piano bar; this place makes Cheers pale. I will go in and sit in the back corner and just take in the whole atmosphere. Talk about time standing still. I love this place – and to think we would have nothing to do with the place as kids in the 60s and 70s…
If you know of any special vintage piano bars that might possibly rival the Alley please comment…
VIDEOS : Top Video from 2009 features Dibble going solo, Bottom Video gives a more real ‘vibe’ of the Alley experience…