Feature Stories

Confessions of a Piano Bar Duelist

It’s Saturday night and there are six women sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the stage of Louie Louie's Piano Bar in Deep Ellum. They're celebrating a birthday, and beside them are two pianists playing “Dick in a Box.” A guy who looks very much like Jason Schwartzman circa 2007 gyrates on top of the pianos with a wrapped box attached to his pelvis, in imitation of the song's titular skit from Saturday Night Live. He does an abbreviated strip tease, throws his shirt on one of the women, and for the finishing touch, grabs one of the girls' hands, puts it in the box and pantomimes jacking off. The audience gets blessed with a shower of silly string semen.

At times like this, it’s hard to take anyone seriously at Louie Louie's, which relocated from Arlington to the corner of Elm Street and Good-Latimer Expressway last January. But there’s no denying that the performers are a talented bunch: They're multi-faceted musicians who switch off between piano, guitar, drums and bass throughout the night. Most also play a wild-card instrument like trumpet, fiddle, saxophone or accordion, just to keep things interesting. There's even a copious amount of cowbell that would make Will Ferrell proud.

“This is about the best thing I could have hoped for. I’m living the dream,” says Brian Boyce. He's the newest member of the team, having joined last May after a stint at Six Flags. At the age of 22, he's also the youngest. “I have always wanted to be a professional musician, and I started learning music and instruments from an early age. So being able to play and make money and basically be a rock star every night is like my dream come true.”

There are seven piano players on staff, including the two owners. Since it’s a dueling piano bar, two of them are anchoring the stage at all times, and they trade off in teams after one-hour sets. They have technical skills, stage presence, showmanship, vocal talent and can convincingly follow choreography.  Certain bits, like their NSYNC song-and-dance mashup (including a rendition of “Bye, Bye, Bye”), require five or more musicians on deck. So even the guys who aren’t on stage are waiting for their next cue.

With all of those demands, getting a job at a dueling piano bar like this is no easy feat. Boyce, for instance, isn't yet a full-fledged member of the team — joining is a competitive and rigorous process. A student at UTA who studies musical theater, Boyce is in competition with another new hire for the coveted performance spots and somehow he fits two to four nights per week at Louie Louie’s into his busy school schedule of 23 credit hours. Junior hires are in training for nine months to a year. Picking up new instruments, songs and choreography is imperative. All of them have to know the four basic instruments: piano, drums, guitar and bass.

According to Joey Hamende, part owner of Louie Louie’s and a longtime piano bar player who came from Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar in Austin, performers have to memorize 50 songs before they’re even allowed on stage on a weeknight. The top-notch weekend players have 400 to 500 songs in their arsenal — all memorized. Hamende frowns on reading lyrics or notes off tech devices – a move he’s seen at other piano bars. He says it takes away from the experience and doesn’t allow the players to fully engage with the audience if they’re reading lyrics off of an iPad.

Chris White, with the Jason Schwartzman haircut, is the second most junior member and not yet 24 years old. He began working at the Louie Louie’s in Lubbock nearly two years ago, when he was a student at Texas Tech studying performance arts. When a position opened up at the Louie Louie’s in Arlington, he was offered the position and jumped at the chance to step out of training and into the limelight as a full-fledged performer.

White left his degree behind. He had wanted to become a music teacher or a full-time performer, but was having trouble affording the classes he needed for his degree. Louie Louie's other owner and the most veteran piano bar player in the group, Ronnie Wilson, told him he could someday soon be making as much money as the professors who were teaching him. 

“I just wanted to perform. That’s why I love my job so much,” says White. He doesn’t even seem to mind that he’s doing “Dick in a Box” bits. “I’ve done way worse stuff than that [at the piano bar]. Two years ago I probably wouldn’t have done that, but once you get in this gig, all your shame goes out the window.”

White, who previously scraped by touring North America with a punk band called Not Half Bad, happily reports that he now makes “really good money.” Good enough, in fact, that he could support himself and his girlfriend while she was finishing up her degree and can afford to rent an apartment in downtown Dallas, which he says he never dreamed he would have been able to do on a musician’s wages.

Hamende also knows what it's like to bust his ass playing gigs and not make enough money. He had to have a day job in tech to support his family before joining the piano bar scene.

“Every weekend it was the same thing: Let's load up the trailer, go to the gig, unload the trailer, get everything set up," he remembers. "Now we're going to play for four hours. Now we're going to load up the trailer and go home. How much did you make? Oh, not enough to survive off of. That gets old after a while.”

Being able to live off your work is obviously the holy grail for musicians and artists (besides hitting the big time). That’s something that the guys at Louie Louie’s point to as being a major selling point of this job. This gig gives them a steady paycheck, and they are guaranteed four nights of work a week. Another major selling point: They just show up. No lugging around equipment and instruments.

“None of my guys are working day jobs. None of them are rich, but none of them are hurting either. They play piano and that's cool,” says Hamende.

Jeremy Harris is one of the more senior players, having spent the last five years at Louie Louie’s. He had always been a musician, started choir in second grade and was in a progressive rock band that played gigs in Deep Ellum from 2006 through 2010. Back then, Harris decided if he couldn’t make it in music he would join the military. He was ready to get married and felt that he needed more reliable work and a more robust income. He was one day away from signing enlistment papers with the army when he was offered the job at Louie Louie’s.

At the time, he was a regular performer at Six Flags (a common theme among several Louie Louie's performers) and went into the Arlington Louie Louie’s after work with coworkers and his girlfriend. He jumped on stage and played a song to impress her, and Wilson offered him a job on the spot. “I thought it was too good to be true,” says Harris.

Harris is responsible for bringing a lot of the choreography from Six Flags to the Louie Louie’s stage — and he really believes in what they’re doing. He says he wants to “capture the spirit” of whatever band they are covering. “If we’re doing Guns N' Roses, I want you to feel like it's Guns N' Roses up there,” he says.

The crowd eats it up, singing and dancing along. As they become more inebriated, some of the crowd members indulge their own rock star fantasies. At one point later in the night, a guy gets up on stage. He raises his fists above his head in a mock victory pose, one hand clutching a beer bottle. None of the performers bats an eye, and they dance along with him.

It could be wearing to do the same bits and routines night after night, but a shot at ownership is enough to keep skin in the game. Hamende mentions potential growth with the company. In just the first two months, the Deep Ellum location broke every sales record that they set for the Arlington location. The Lubbock location, their first, was one of the top 10 grossing bars in that city after it opened — no small feat for the thirsty college town where bars are a dime a dozen. More Louie Louie’s could be on the horizon.

White is two years in and looking ahead to filling other roles. He's hoping that within the decade, he can parlay his performer’s gig into management or ownership with the brand. He talks wistfully of how Wilson “promised a future in this” — perhaps with the performers opening their own franchises of Louie Louie’s where they can cultivate the next generation of piano bar entertainers.

“It would be amazing to pass on that baton,” says White.