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Interview: Tran Whitley

Excerpts of this interview were originally published in INsite Magazine.

By Greg Allard

Tran “the Piano Man” Whitley has truly come full circle. The Gainesville native, who moved away from the one-story town in the pursuit of name, fame and glory as a young aspiring musician, has returned to share his experiences of parts of five decades as a professional musician, hobnobbing with the likes of the Allman Brothers, Tom Petty, Boz Scaggs, and Don Felder. Now back in Gainesville, we recently got a chance to talk to him about his evolving musical projects.

Tell us something about the early days.

I grew up in Gainesville playing in local bands like all the young dudes. It started out for fun, glory and money. After I heard The Beatles, it was for fame, more money and to write the perfect song. It seems like an eternity ago but I must have been 16 and found myself playing at the Keystone Heights Pier in a band called The Sundowners. There was some guy named Tom Petty in the band.

Wow. I’m a big Tom Petty fan.  

I recall he was pretty good. Looks like I was right.

Haha. Could you give us a glimpse about what Mr. Petty was like back in the day?

I knew Tom so long ago that we were both just normal teenagers trying to play rock and roll. What stands out in my memory is a fierce determination to play his music the way he wanted. Beyond being a good songwriter, I could tell he had clear ideas about the best way to organize, promote and most important, keep a band together. Go back and see how long he and Mike Campbell have stuck it out (and Benmont Tench). Heck, even Ron Blair went back to the band.

So cool. What else do you remember about those early days?

Later on I played in a band called Riff, which became known locally for having a fairly sophisticated dramatic rock sound. Apparently, we weren’t as good as we thought, losing badly to the Allman Brothers in a battle-of-the-bands at Gainesville High School (ouch).

Incredible.

Those were heady days. We all wanted to be better at our music. But you had to practice.  I remember stopping to see a friend practice guitar. You could count on finding Don Felder (The Eagles) in his bedroom practicing everyday. He and Bernie Leadon (also The Eagles) easily had the best band in town (The Maundy Quintet). It’s funny how you can kind of tell who is going to make it in the music business.

Wow.  Sounds like Gainesville was a big part of the musical renaissance of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Gainesville had its moment in musical time. I believe I was part of it. It’s because the entire community supported a strong “local scene.” There were endless free concerts where the air was electric with Rock, Jazz, Fusion, Folk, Soul, Country and all sorts of expressive art. People were tie-dyed and wide-eyed. And perhaps a little fried on whatever everyone seemed to be smoking. It was very inclusive. And a celebration of feeling free to bust out what you thought was cool and play the music with all your heart. People listened. It was very special.

Haha. Tie-dyed, wide-eyed, and perhaps a little fried. I can see how you were a journalism major. May I ask how old you are?

Yikes, just turned 64–got my first social security check. So what. I’m gonna keep playing my music.

Awesome. Before we get to what you’re doing now, it would be nice to hear what you did in those in-between years.

Like many young rockers, I wanted to make more of my music than just playing locally.  I launched various campaigns in Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami.  I got my chance when famed producer Johnny Sandlin called from Macon, Georgia and asked if I could fly out to play some live dates with Boz Skaggs in San Francisco.  I said, “Yes!”

Later, I got on a western states tour with a band called Cowboy that was opening for The Allman Brothers. Yep, the same band that had kicked my ass back in my Riff days.

Then I played keyboards with a host of bands trying to get record deals, make demos, play showcases and break into the LA music scene.  It was tough.  At one point I was living in one room with a sink and a window. I had permission to use the facilities in the upstairs apartment.  My speaker cabinets became a platform for a foam mattress.

Whoa.

I had it good compared to Mike, the drummer.  He lived in his van outside my window.  I ran an extension cord from my outlet to him.

Haha. Things must have got better from there.

Eventually things improved and one day I had to decide whether to accept a gig with Jackson Browne or go on the road with a new band called “Kimo Sabe.”  Maybe I should have gone with Browne because Kimo Sabe quickly broke up.  But, that’s the music business. Then, Wally Holmes, the manager of The Hues Corporation (“Rock the Boat”) called. He asked if I had a passport because I was going to South Africa.  That was the start of several international tours with The Hues Corporation and I rocked the boat all over the world with them.

I well remember that song growing up—it was very popular.

Later, I had an opportunity to apprentice for one of L.A.’s top nightclub bands, Ecstasy.  Four years later, I was the bandleader.  That worked out pretty well and I kept that position until I retired from the club scene to take my new business to New York City.  For many years, I devoted myself to building an online MIDI file service (www.trantracks.com) for other professional musicians. I could help musicians who were unable to get a whole band together perform with backing tracks.

I see.  Cool.

Eventually I moved the business to Northwest New Jersey.  Out there in the wide-open spaces bordering the Delaware Water Gap, I started getting the urge to play live music again.  I rounded up the usual suspects (musicians) in my area and put together The Tran Whitley Music Experience.  The show was called “A Brief History of Pop Music” and provided me a vehicle to play many styles of music and offer a bit of background and content.

From that act came the notion that a piano-based show would be a bold step forward.  To get there I first needed to acquire a whole new skill set.  So I spent some time in a dueling pianos act at the Jersey Shore, Myrtle Beach, SC and South Florida.  That effort evolved into my current piano-based show and brings me full circle back to my roots and a place to keep doing what I love.

Awesome. So, could you tell us more about that?

I am back in Gainesville to share the area I grew up in with my lovely wife, Ruth.  We have written a show called Tran “The Piano Man” Whitley, an upbeat rockin’ piano-based floor show built around a baby grand piano and me singing and playing favorite songs.

Aside from the obvious Billy Joel reference, what does the moniker “piano man” mean to you?

I was trying to come up with something catchy for my act. Nothing was working. A guy who runs a restaurant and bar asked me what the act was about. I said I played the piano and sang. He said then you’re “Tran The Piano Man.” I said okay. It was short, it rhymed, described what I did and had my name attached. I liked it.

To me, the original “piano man” was a guy stuck in a lousy gig in a bar obligated to play requests; low pay and no glory. I’d like to think Joel elevated the concept to “here’s what I can play and how do you like me now?” I’m guessing he had a gig in that bar I imagined.

Whitley5

Tell us about your gigs.

We’ve performed the show at Sweet Mel’s, The Smoke House, and The Library at Market Street with plans for a permanent show at the appropriate local venue. I’ve told those who’ve inquired “I want to make downtown venues a destination for people looking for a good time in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.  I simply want to play everyone’s favorite song and put a smile on as many faces as possible.

Think Fast:

Favorite restaurant in Gainesville: El Indio. Brown bag it, sit there on the patio and you’re all set.

Favorite food dish: Whatever my wife is making for dinner!

Favorite hobby or pastime (non-music related): Cable News. Give me a triple split screen with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

Favorite recent movie: Not recent but “Coraline.”

Favorite all time band or artist: Impossible to say but I’m astonished at the work of Queen.

You may join Tran “The Piano Man” Whitley this Thursday, February 14, Valentine’s Day at The Red Onion.  Tran is firing up his baby grand piano to entertain you and your friends with his pop, rock, and R&B floor show. Be ready to tap you feet, clap your hands and sing along to your favorite tunes.

The Red Onion is located at 3885 NW 24th Blvd (corner of NW 39th Avenue), Gainesville.  Reservations strongly suggested: 352-505-0088


Gargs

Greg “Gargs” Allard received his B.S. in Journalism from the University of Florida in 2012 at the age of 48. Greg has had hundreds of articles and features published in Insite Magazine, the Rock104 Blog, the Gainesville Sun, The North Florida Business Report, and the Chiefland Citizen. He has also done copy-editing work for the New York Times. Over the last several years, he was the local music editor for Insite Magazine and the creator, writer and host of rock104.com’s Power Pop Portal. Although Power Pop Portal still rocks on, Insite Magazine folded at the end of 2012, leaving a coverage void in the popular Gainesville, Florida music scene. Feeling that void, Greg decided to recruit some of the best music writers he knew in his journalism circle for his latest project tunegroover.com — a music site dedicated to featuring first person music reviews, interviews and essays across all musical genres and including local, national and international music.

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