Remembering "Real" Bob George

The late, great piano player was a great man. His name popped into my head the other day. We went to McMaster together. He was a "real" guy was Bob. What you saw was what you got. At a time when the grad students from England deliberately wore clothes in clashing combinations: a green striped tie with a purple paisley shirt and an orange sports jacket, Bob dressed like that all the time but the difference was he wasn't doing it to be cool or attract attention. He had no clothes sense or even awareness that he should have. He just put on whatever came to hand.

He played the piano like an angel. "Bob," I'd say, "play Rhapsody in Blue." And off he'd go, flawlessly. Bob could play anything but he was a jazzman at heart. And what a jazzman. But when we were alone in a campus coffee shop, The Buttery, on an afternoon, he'd play anything, including things like, "Here's Carmen Caballyero (Bob was never very good with names. He meant Carmen Cavallaro) and he'd laugh and play the most flowery, maudlin runs up and down the piano.

Bob got a degree in social work, and I know he did a couple of things in that vein, including teaching in Sudbury (I think) but he and that stuff didn't fit. So he quickly switched to his avocation and made it his vocation. He became a professional piano player. It always makes me wince when I think that people as talented as Bob are recognized among their peers but not by the public as big stars, unlike the "no-talent, got-my-guitar-for-Christmas-and-by-March-I-was-on-the-road" gang who bash and squeak and scream their way to fame and fortune. Bob hated rock.

At one point, early in the game, he went to Europe and bummed around. As winter approached, he got the bright and foolish idea he'd go to the Riviera, where he thought it would be warm and he could sleep on the beach. Bob wasn't very good at geography and the seasons. He finally found warmth on the Canary Islands where he played in what he called The Texas Bar. It was a drinking hole for mostly American oil-rig workers. The rest of Bob's makeshift trio included a Maori on drums and a Spaniard on bass, Bob said. Frequently, fights would break out among the patrons, and, as in the Western movies, they played faster and louder until the combatants stopped swinging, patted each other on the back and returned to their table.

We used to meet up in Toronto at The Embassy, a student beer joint on Avenue Road. There was a piano on a raised platform with a "keep off" sign. Bob would get up and start playing. The sign was obviously intended to stop drunks from pounding on the keys. Bob played so well, and deliberately played supper-club music, that the draught waiters paid no attention. They must have thought he'd been hired. And of course, none of the rock-polluted male patrons even gave him a glance.

When we were at school, Bob lived with his parents in a beautiful house in Burlington. (His father was a commodore in the Canada Steamship Lines) When they'd go away, he'd invite me to the house. When he unlocked the front door, he'd shout: "All right you bastards, get the hell out of here." Scared the crap out of me the first time he did it. His theory was that if there had been a burglar lurking in the house, he'd be scrambling out a window at the sound of the shout.

There was a drum set in the house and I'd accompany Bob as he played jazz on the piano. The thing is, I couldn't play the drums but Bob never complained. I know I was way out of my depth when one night at the Ebony Knight, a one-time Hamilton coffee house, during a break by the musicians, I slipped on to the bandstand and accompanied the recorded jazz music on the drums, and Bruce Harvey, another McMaster jazz piano great, came up to me and quietly said, "John, in jazz, we emphasize the second and fourth beats, not the first and third."

Bob and I started writing a musical. Actually, nothing was transcribed but Bob could remember all the tunes we'd started writing. I was the "lyricist".

This is the start (and all I can remember) of a tune in our highly derivative musical:

People think the life of a king is an easy job

Far above the strife and strain of the common mob.

They do not know that a royal throne

Is a cold, hard chair that stands alone.

There is nowhere in the world as single school

Where a king can really learn how best to rule

Above the crowd, a king might stand

But so he must to rule the land...

I can hear Bob playing it in my head.

Bob left us almost twenty years ago. I think he was 58. He'll never leave my heart. And I'll never forget his perpetual smile.

A few years ago, somebody set up a memorial page for Bob:

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