Key West’s own “Piano Man’” Barry Cuda celebrates 30 years of playing his music in Key West this month. He’s seen a lot of changes on the island, both music wise and in people. A fifth generation ‘Cracker,’ Cuda makes his home in Key West, leaving only for short gigs in Europe. Wonder why he’s stayed so long and what changes he’s seen? Let him tell you in his own words.
Q: January marks your 30th anniversary of playing in Key West. Tell us how you came about choosing Key West and why have you stayed?
A: I had been to Key West before and being a fifth generation Florida cracker, I loved the water, the weather, the arts scene, and the live and let live attitude of the majority of the locals. I helped Bill Blue out of a train wreck of a tour when we were both gigging in Scandinavia in 1984. In exchange, he found me some piano work and put me up at his house. My band and my relationship had come to an end and I was intending on moving on to New Orleans but quickly realized that I could stay here and let the audience do the touring — and what a beautiful location! My two-month visit got extended to 30 years!
Q: What brought you to this style of music?
A: My Dad was an eye surgeon but easily could have been a musician. He wore a bow tie and had a pompadour. He was hip to be square before it was hip to be square. I listened to his 78s and LPs as a kid growing up in the ’50s and ’60s: Cool Jazz, Big Band Swing, etc. I grew up in Pensacola and there was a great soul radio station — the motto was “WBOP-the black spot on your dial” — that played a lot of New Orleans R&B as well as the national stuff. I always loved the fun and musical integrity of the old time stuff. I listened to what all my friends did also but, as I got into my college art major, the whole push was towards artistic integrity and I felt more of that in older styles of music than in pop music that seemed to be formulated mostly for profit’s sake.
Q: Anyone that has spent time in Key West has probably seen you pushing your piano through the streets. What’s that all about? How do you keep the piano in tune? What kind of piano is it and how old is it?
A: I love the feel and sound of a real acoustic piano. When they make a digital one that feels and sounds as good, I’ll be the first one in line to buy it. My back is killing me! But you can’t get the sympathetic overtones and harmonics with a digital. Bars don’t have acoustic pianos anymore so I bring mine. After a couple of years of loading and unloading one from a van and truck I figured it was easier just to just push it. After a nasty accident where I split my big toe in half — I was briefly a six toed cat and thought about applying for residence at the Hemingway house — we built a beefed up chassis with 8” inflatable wheels. Turns out the pneumatic tires absorb a lot of shock and help keep the piano in tune. I get all the wisecracks. I could do a Letterman top ten list:
“You ought to put a motor on that thing.” “You should have taken up guitar.” “There’s something you’ll see only in Key West.” “Do you take requests?” etc. Occasionally someone comes up with a good one. One bum looked at me toiling to a gig and said, “Hey man, they got these things called iPods now.” And another one said, “It must have been a real bitch when you were a young kid and running away from home.”
I’ve had a Yamaha piano for the past 10-plus years. I’ve got four. They hold a tuning pretty well and have a nice light touch. Yamaha ain’t exactly beating down my door for my endorsement, though.
Q: Can you list a few musicians that have influenced you? Tell us why and how they did?
A: Professor Longhair, Jelly Roll Morton, and Slim Gaillard, are a few of my musical influences. From Longhair I get a lot of multi-rhythmic stuff as well as a big mix of genres; rumba, blues, country. Jelly gives me insight into the way it was 100 years ago in addition to the same big mix. Slim Gaillard was an instantaneous free associating entertainer; kind of like stand up Robin Williams (whom I opened for and learned from back in my San Francisco days in the ’70s). Slim kept the audience on the edge of their seats eagerly waiting what might come next. But he took a lot of his cues from what was unfolding real time in front of the bandstand and incorporated that into his show. Kenny and I do that a lot at the Hog. A lot of our material comes from T-shirts. We’ll incorporate the words on them into our songs. Musicians do a lot of people watching here, too.
Q: You’re a Florida boy and had your own band in the Tampa area in the ‘80s. What happened to the band?
A: The Silver King Band — we named it after the Silver King Washboard Company — consisted of piano (me), washboard (Flo Mingo), and harmonica (Rock Bottom) plus we all sang. I was attempting to prove that with good chops, attitude, and a degree of production values one could do just about anything. We had a cult following in Scandinavia — TV shows and serious bucks coming in. We were the critics’ darlings in greater Tampa Bay where we were based and were regularly invited back to Sloppy Joe’s. Can you remember another band that played Sloppy Joe’s and did not have a guitar, bass, or drums in the group? Seriously? We broke the band up in 1985 but got back together from time to time. Now the other two have passed on, alas.
Q: You spend time touring Europe. What do you think it is about your music (or you) that appeals to the European?
A: That same sense of history one finds in Europe applies to their overview of American music. They know more about and celebrate the USA’s rich musical heritage of the last 125 years more than most Americans. I think one can get a better overview of his or her own culture by being outside the window looking back in.
Q: Where are your gigs in Key West? Don’t you have a band?
A: I’ve been gigging at Sloppy’s coming up on 30 years this January. I guess I’ve become a bit of the resident historian, musically. I’ve been at The Hog’s Breath off and on since it came into being in the late ’80s as well as the Schooner Wharf, although not so much lately. All my band buddies love the ambiance of B.O.’s Fish Wagon. It’s funky chic. The audience there is not the typical cattle found on Duval. Chances are that if you are curious enough to move away from the “strip” to see something unique, you’ll be open-minded enough to dig some music that is a little off the beaten path, as well.
I also love playing the Green Parrot. I think it is the most interesting bar musically on the island and in South Florida for that matter. That’s my portrait eating the musical notes off of the spoon in the painting on the stage.
Q: Other than Europe, do you play anywhere else in Florida or other states?
A: I play a few blues festivals still … [but] it’s a tradeoff. My old heroes of the blues were guys that wanted to be good enough to get off of the blues highway and do a little fishing or what not. I’ve been able to realize my heroes’ dreams. The Florida Keys are a great place to live.