Tuesday, May 08, 2007

RIP, Howard

Howard Bulson died yesterday.

About a year after I arrived in Seattle, my brother introduced me to Sorry Charlie's. It was a dive bar at the base of Queen Anne Hill--smoky, wood-paneled, with terrible food. It was unremarkable in every way save one: Howard was at the piano in the back.

The back was his domain, and while in Howard's domain, visitors were to follow his rules.

The rules were as follows:

Howard played the piano. Would-be first-time singers perched on the stool next to Howard and requested any pre-1970 standard. You'd sing a set of three songs and sit back down. Then, if you waited your turn and stayed respectful, Howard might call you up again. Once up there, Howard picked the key. The singer got to pick the tempo--Howard was wonderful at adjusting tempo to stay with any singer. And while there were occasionally lamentable performances, Howard was great about bringing out the best in anybody. I only saw him lose his cool twice: once at an annoying drunk who cussed him out, and once, unfortunately, at a friend of mine visiting from out of town. (He wasn't holding open the music book for a piece Howard wasn't familiar with.)

The net result was a place that had deeper communication than almost anywhere I've ever been. Sometimes there were flat-out gorgeous singers: Seattle Opera performers were regulars, and I developed a crush on one apple-cheeked alto whose version of "Summertime" knocked me loopy every time. But the mediocre performances were just as beautiful as the marvelous ones. The idea that we were there together, singing together, listening to each other, applauding...well, that was something else.

I especially liked quiet weeknights during my teacher summers when only regulars were present. I'd stay well into the night, singing five, six, or even seven sets, chatting with the other singers, and just listening to Howard tickle those ivories. My least favorite nights: Saturdays. Saturdays too often featured loud, loud conversations that drowned out the music. Why go to the back of Sorry Charlie's if not to listen to Howard and the singers?

I'd head out there often--sometimes with dates, sometimes with friends, and fairly frequently on my own. As a result, I guess I became a regular. Sorry Charlie's was the only place I've ever been where someone could say to me: "The usual?" (For the record, my "usual" was Sprite.)

The best part about being a regular was being "played up" by Howard. Once you'd been up to sing once or twice, he'd learn your name. Next, when he wanted you to play another set, he'd call for you by name ("What'll it be, Todd?") And if you were really regular, he'd begin to "play you up" by starting a song that was one of "yours." The introduction to the song was your cue to amble up through the chairs to the stool, settle in, smile at Howard to thank him for thinking of you, and start the song.

I'll grant that I'm quite the attention slut, but man, I loved being played up that first time...hearing those first few bars of "Eleanor Rigby" and knowing that Howard had met, liked, and picked me. I had entered Howard's lair, and I had made the cut to be played up.

We never chatted much. One time I got up there and asked: "How are you doing tonight, Howard?" Howard put down his cigarette and offered this response: "Under the circumstances, that's trivia. What would you like to sing?" Fair enough.

I injured my vocal cords in 2001, and spent nearly a year unable to sing. I fought my way back through rehab to where I could sing again, and headed across to Sorry Charlie's shortly thereafter, about fifteen months later. Howard remembered me, although he didn't play me up. He asked what I'd been up to, and I told him about how the doctor told me I might not ever sing again. "Damn doctors!" he said. "They don't know anything!" Longest conversation I ever had with him--and proof that he actually cared about his singers as more than a way to fill one more set before closing.

Not long thereafter, Sorry Charlie's shut down. The regulars were not enough to keep the place running. I had moved to the east side and didn't make it to the city as often, but I made it a point to get back to sing my favorites. "Joanna." "If I Only Had a Brain." "Bridge Over Troubled Water." "Since I Don't Have You." "Hey There." I had a couple dozen I'd rotate in and out, and Howard knew every one of them (and if he didn't, he'd fake it). Howard played at a few other places after that, but I never went. I just didn't want anything to be different from Sorry Charlie's. That last set at Sorry Charlie's was the last time I ever saw him.

The late nineties were some rough years for me, and my trips to Howard were bright spots. Hanging with some other regulars, celebrating my 30th birthday, drinking $2 Sprites as an excuse for being in that atmosphere, and just listening to Howard help another singer communicate...I'll never forget any of it, and I was grateful to be a part of it.

Thanks, Howard, and God speed.


tommyspoon said...

This saddens me. TRP took me to Sorry Charlie's and I had the pleasure of singing "Every Time We Say Goodbye" with Howard. He was one of the best pianists I've ever worked with. It only took 4 bars for us to get in synch -- and it truly was a synch, we adjusted to each other -- and we had never laid eyes on each other until the moment I sat down next to him. Truly amazing.

When we finished, he asked me my name and where I was from. When I said "My name is Tom and I'm from the other Washington," he smiled and complimented my voice. One of the nicest compliments I've ever received.

Seattle has lost a real treasure.

MCMC said...

Howard endured my rendition of "Only a Paper Moon" one night at Sorry Charlie's. I'm sorry to hear about his passing.

Anonymous said...

Wow - sad to hear.

I remember you and me doing an everly brothers duet, trp, and after it was over he looked at us and actually smiled, I always thought that meant he really really liked it.