HOLMES BEACH – At 90 years young, Holmes Beach resident Bob Seeley remains one of the world’s premier boogie-woogie pianists.
In April, Seeley traveled to Michigan for a series of shows in his home state that included gigs at the Schoolcraft College in Livonia and the Steinway Gallery in West Bloomfield. In July, he’ll return to Schoolcraft College for a July 21 performance at 25th Annual Michigan Jazz Festival.
During his 70-plus-year career as a solo pianist, the Detroit native has performed worldwide.
“I played at Carnegie Hall in New York City,” Seeley said during a recent interview at his Holmes Beach condo, where he lives with his new dog, Harry. “I played all over Europe, several times. There was a guy in Normandy, France who was really crazy about boogie-woogie and he put on boogie-woogie concerts. I got called in to do that several times. And Shirley went with me a couple times,” Seeley said.
“He’s played in Russia too,” said his son-in-law and fellow Holmes Beach resident ‘Captain’ Scott Moore.
“Yeah, Moscow. That was interesting,” Seeley said.
In 2013, Seeley played the International Boogie-Woogie Festival in San Francisco. That performance has garnered more than 41,000 views on YouTube. Seeley’s duet with Russian boogie-woogie pianist Elena Tourbina at the Festival International de Boogie Woogie in Laroquebrou, France in 2008 has more than 30,000 YouTube views. In 2017, Seeley performed at The Hamburg Boogie Woogie Connection in Germany.
In March, Seeley celebrated his 90th birthday not far from his Florida home by headlining the 10th Anniversary Boogie Woogie Blues Piano Stomp at The Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. The playbill listed him as “Detroit’s Boogie Woogie Legend.”
Last Friday afternoon, Seeley and Moore visited The Doctor’s Office cocktail bar in Holmes Beach and Seeley treated patrons to one of his impromptu performances.
Moore’s wife, Karen, is Seeley’s stepdaughter and the daughter of Seeley’s late wife, Shirley, who passed away two years ago. After visiting the Island for more than 20 years, the Seeleys bought their Holmes Beach condo in the mid2000s.
“Shirley immediately loved it, so we bought it. I’m glad we did,” Seeley said.
“I told them not to leave the Island without buying it,” Moore added.
When asked how he defines boogie-woogie, Seeley said, “I call it happy blues.”
“Blues is sad and slow,” he said before walking over to his living room piano to demonstrate. “Boogie-woogie is more up-tempo,” he said as he tore into a fast number he calls “Bob’s Boogie.”
Seeley started playing the piano in 1941 when he took classical piano lessons at the age of 13.
“During World War II boogie-woogie was popular. My brother and I brought home some recordings of boogie-woogie and that ended the classical. One was called ‘Boogie Woogie,’ and Tommy Dorsey’s band had a big arrangement of that. ‘Honkey-Tonk Train Blues,’ by Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis was another.”
Seeley lists Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons – the holy trinity of boogie-woogie pianists – as his main musical influences. He also likes Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. “Those were the guys that could really play the boogie-woogie. They’re all gone. I’m trying to carry on their tradition.”
Seeley later struck up a friendship with Lewis. “He lived out in Los Angeles, in Watts, so I decided I’d go over and make my acquaintance. He was a really nice guy, a heavy guy. I think he weighed about 290 pounds and he only came up to my chin,” Seeley said.
For more than 30 years, Seeley’s main gig was performing five nights a week at the piano bar at Charley’s Crab, a high-end seafood restaurant in Troy, Michigan, just outside of Detroit.
“I played solo. I was never anxious to play with any bands. The piano player doesn’t stand out in bands. I was more interested in playing solo,” Seeley said. “I’m not a singer. When the piano player sings the singing is the important thing. Guys that can’t sing have to play some decent piano,” he added.
Seeley’s energetic stage presence and between-song stories further enhance his non-vocal performances.
In the 1980s, Seeley and one of his grade-school friends supplemented their incomes with the purchase of several Pac-Man video game machines.
“We bought 70 of those things. We put them in bars and restaurants and every couple of weeks we’d go get the money,” Seeley recalled.
Seeley’s fans include Rolling Stones’ singer Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, drummer Charlie Watts and pianist Chuck Leavell.
“I was in New York City roaming around some park and there’s Charlie Watts, so we got to know each other,” Seeley said.
“Just an incredible player,” Leavell said of Seeley in a 2016 review of Seeley’s sixth released recording, “Let’s Boogie.”
Playing at the Charley’s Crab location near the luxurious Hilton Hotel resulted in Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Tony Bennett and the Smother’s Brothers becoming Bob Seeley fans. He also got to know fellow-Detroit musician Kid Rock.
“He would come to Charley’s Crab quite a bit with Pamela Anderson when I was playing,” Seeley said.
“They would sit at the piano bar,” Moore added.
“I didn’t who Kid Rock was, but I got to know him and he’s a really nice guy,” Seeley said.
When asked what the future holds, Seeley said, “I’ll never retire, unless I get sick and I can’t move my fingers.”