Bobby Nesbitt Key West lost its piano bars
At ten years old, Bobby Nesbitt could already play the trumpet and read music. He started taking piano lessons, learning classical music and style early on, but his passion soon became the Music Masters of the 20th Century like Irving Berlin, Ira Gershwin, and the Great American Songbook. Bobby studied theater at State University in Oswego, New York, and his goal was to also sing and act, not just play music. However, every time he auditioned in New York, he attracted more interest with his piano skills.
In 1976, he came to Key West on vacation and loved it. Upon returning to New York, a show didn’t work out so Bobby decided to give Key West a try. He returned and got his first job at Logan’s Lobster House, located at the end of Simonton Street. Later, Bobby moved to the Ramada Inn where he met Wilhelmina Harvey and many others who helped him get his career in Key West started.
He began playing at the Monster Bar (now Hog’s Breath Saloon). On Easter Sunday evening in 1979, Leonard Bernstein came into the bar, sat down on the piano bench with Nesbitt, and said, “Someone said I should come and listen to you. Play something for me.” No pressure. Bernstein became a regular guest, often sitting at the piano with Bobby, playing songs from West Side Story while Bobby sang. Bernstein and Tennessee Williams came in together one night, sat on either side of Bobby on the piano bench, and they played and sang show tunes for hours.
In 1982, Bobby connected with a friend in Provincetown, Rhode Island who had a friend in Germany that needed a player/singer for his piano bar. The gig was for a month but lasted three years. He was also able to play elsewhere in Europe including London, Paris, and Berlin. In the summer, he played Harry’s New York Bar in Berlin and Pusser’s Bar in Munich, and in the winter, he and Mike Mulligan, his partner of forty years, performed in Key West in the winter. Bobby retired from playing in clubs in 2021.
Nesbitt laments the loss of piano bars in Key West. He has a copy of a 1989 newspaper showing fifteen piano bars in Key West like the Pier House Piano Bar with Silvia Shelly, Sands, Pigeon House Patio (now First Flight), and Ramada Inn. Currently, Marriott Beachside’s Town N’ Tavern is the only piano bar in Key West. He feels that his style, classic American songs from the 1920’s – 1940’s, is a dying art form. There are few, if any, young musicians today following in his footsteps.
In the early 2000s, Bobby proposed a series of shows to the Tennessee Williams Theatre, focusing on a single great artist, like Irving Berlin or Bobby Mercer, for an entire show. His idea became the “Bobby in the Lobby” series and sold out continuously for fifteen seasons. Later, a friend connected to the cruise industry suggested he do the same type of show onboard a ship, which turned into a great idea. His first cruise was to Tahiti, and then several ten-day Trans-Atlantic cruises, which were great fun. One of his favorite cruises was singing Irving Berlin songs while sailing up the Amazon.
Bobby’s first major CD, Big Time, was released in 2001 and heard on radio stations across the country to glowing reviews. The greatest honor for his CD came in February, 2002 when Big Time was one of twenty-five CD’s selected by the music director of the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City to be in the Olympic Games Music Library. It was played at various venues during competitions.
While playing at the Key West Yacht Club one night, Bobby spoke to HTA president, Ed Swift, suggesting it would be nice to play the beautiful piano in the Truman Little White House living room, using music from Truman’s era with historical references. Swift agreed. The concerts were an instant hit and ran for ten sold out years.
One memorial event was the funeral of Wilhelmina Harvey at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2005. She had everything in her will written and prepared for the ceremony. She asked Coffee Butler and Bobby Nesbitt to perform together. Their piano styles couldn’t be more different but Coffee treated Bobby wonderfully, and the performance was great. Coffee visited one of Bobby’s performances a few years ago. To this day, Bobby has a great love for Coffee Butler.
On February 27 at the Tennessee Williams Theatre, Bobby and friends have planned a concert to celebrate the life of Danny Weathers, former Waterfront Theater Artistic Director.
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