Piano Men

Key-ticklers at the Drake Bar and the Big Bang reinvigorate the old piano-bar concept

It isn't exactly Churchill Downs, but the patrons and players at the Big Bang Piano Bar lean against the cavernous Laclede Landing nightspot's mahogany rail en masse, handicapping the postponement of the April 4 Billy Joel/ Elton John concert at Savvis Center.

Though early speculation attributes the eleventh-hour cancellation to a Billy Joel booze relapse, 27-year-old Mike Sonderegger, also known as "the Rock Star," quickly corrects the gossipmongers. "It was Elton this time," he assures the railside throng, many of whom held tickets to the ivory-tickling tandem's much-hyped show.

Instead, frustrated Joel and John fans have to settle for the next best thing at the Bang, one of a handful of "dueling piano" bars that dot the country. Onstage, McCluer North High School graduate Mike Clements, a sideburn-sportin' veteran of such St. Louis bands as Tripstar and Vitamen A, bangs his way through an obscure Phish ditty for the early-evening crowd, followed by co-owner Sam Leatherwood's rendition of Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise."

Leatherwood's choice is a relief to Sonderegger, who now probably won't have to perform "Cheeseburger" -- one of his two least-favorite songs (the other being John's "Crocodile Rock") -- during his home-stretch set, which is about to start. Blond-haired, blue-eyed and Napoleonic in stature, Sonderegger looks like a cross between Steve Winwood and Jon Bon Jovi, blow-dried coif and all.

The resemblance is no accident. Sonderegger is about as obsessive a Jon Bon fan as they come -- in fact, he's just back from a road trip to Madison, Wisconsin, where he caught the Jersey rocker's live show. "It was fucking awesome," says Sonderegger, who claims he's mastered some 30 Bon Jovi songs for his five-times-a-week gig at the Bang. "I stole a whole lot of things from their show."

It's 9 p.m. now, and Sonderegger and his Friday-night playing partner -- Jeff Smith, who doubles as the venue's entertainment director -- relieve Clements and Leatherwood on the piano benches onstage after a quick round of Wild Turkey shots. Greeted with a quick smooch at the bar by his leggy blond love interest, Amanda Carter, the mutton-chopped Clements is resplendent in a vintage "Dolomite, the Hip Shakin' Papa" T-shirt.

"I love how genuine he is about his love of Bon Jovi," says Clements of Sonderegger, who begins his and Smith's set with a full-bore rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," backed by colleagues Eddie Thompson and Leatherwood on drums and bass. "And he will play Bon Jovi."

The timeless '80s anthem works the crowd -- surprisingly big for a Friday, at a time when most Landing-goers are on campus, either primping or sucking down 32-ounce Greek-monogrammed cups of rum-and-Coke -- into a rockin' lather. Perfect timing for Rock Star Mikey to get his Jovi on.

"Shot through the heart, and you're to blame!" Elton, shmelton -- the Bang's where the party's at this Friday, and Sonderegger's a bona fide rock star as far as these well-groomed, wild-eyed boozehounds are concerned.

Melting the wall of cheese that separates St. Louis' highfalutin hipster set from townie Landing meatheads into a tasty musical fondue, the almost-two-year-old Big Bang is not your grandfather's piano bar. Rest assured, if Grampy wants to spend a night in Tin Pan Alley, he can shuffle his old ass down to the Hide Away Lounge on Arsenal or to one of the traditional piano bars in various area hotels -- but the pickings are decidedly slim.

It wasn't always that way in St. Louis. Back in the '40s, '50s and '60's, jazzy chanteuses such as Ceil Clayton played to packed houses in the then-vibrant Gaslight Square district. The local legend's career lasted into the '80s, by which point Clayton was selling pianos and sheet music to supplement her income. One day, a twenty-year-old customer named Steve Schneider caught Clayton playing an in-store demo and asked to accompany her on "New York, New York." The pair hit it off instantly, and Clayton frequently asked Schneider to join her for various gigs around town. "I was a baby going to see her," Schneider, now 41, recalls. "She let me get my feet wet and get a taste of it. She could play anything."

A self-described "Jew boy from Creve Coeur" with a perpetually sunny disposition and cartoonish chin, Schneider resembles Sly Stallone's scrawnier, gayer brother, if Sly had a scrawnier, gayer brother (come to think of it, we're still not sure about Frank). Although he butters his bread with a stream of private-party gigs, Schneider plays one night a week at the Drake Bar, near the intersection of Chouteau and Grand in an industrial-backwater section of the city.

"Typical gay-bar location," muses Schneider over an iced tea and club sandwich at Tom's in the Central West End.

"Tucked behind a Captain D's with a healthy serving of urban blight," chimes in Ron Bryant, a husky, hilariously clever bloke who handles key-commander duties on four of the other five nights during the week that the Drake is open (it's closed Sundays). With the exception of a recent brief hiatus by Schneider, the pair has alternated at the Drake Bar's piano bench since the quaint little club -- affectionately referred to by Schneider as "the double-wide" -- opened in 1982.

Whereas Schneider, who sings with the Gateway Men's Chorus, prefers to bask in limelight normally reserved for showbiz divas, the Jefferson County-reared Bryant is content to feed off the energy of the dozen-or-so gents who cozy up alongside him beneath the Drake's glorious chandelier to clink drinks and belt out everything from show tunes to '80s pop songs. "I never have a playlist," says the classically trained Bryant. "You just never know where the night's going to take you. Gay men have a thing about music that's obscure. As a musician, how many times can you hear 'Memory' from Cats?"

For Schneider, who played at the now-defunct Keys in Westport Plaza (incidentally, so did Sonderegger, although their stints didn't coincide) before landing at the Drake, the very concept of a gay piano bar was liberating to him. "The first gay piano bar I ever played was Legends in Kansas City," Schneider recalls. "I didn't know such a thing existed. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Playing in a gay piano bar is really something special because you can be completely yourself without offending anyone."

With its staggering selection of Cabana Boy liqueurs and meticulous décor, the Drake is indeed gayer than Gaylord von Gayenstein. But straight people are more than welcome to join in the revelry, provided they come with the right attitude. "You [straight people] would be ill served to stick around if you have a poor sense of humor," says Bryant with a wink and a grin.

Although on some nights the Drake is so quiet that, in Bryant's words, the pianist can "hear a rat pissing on cotton," the bar has already attracted a polite, engaged group of regulars for Schneider's regular Wednesday-night gig. Dressed in a white polyester long-sleeve shirt emblazoned with musical notes, Schneider sends his booming voice and dexterous fingers whipping through a dynamic set of early-twentieth-century standards, show tunes and Carly Simon four-hanky specials.

By the time 11 p.m. rolls around, all hands are on deck at the piano, with many of Schneider's Men's Chorus colleagues lending dreamy harmonies to Schneider's impassioned rendition of the Chiffons' "One Fine Day." "I'm becoming aware of what my generation's sing-along music is," Schneider says. "Sixties, heavy '70s -- some '80s pop is really becoming the new generation of sing-along."

Back on the Landing, Sonderegger is nodding his head in agreement, teasing the opening bars to "Wanted: Dead or Alive" as his admirers down shots. Choice of song notwithstanding, he's talkin' to Davey, who's still in the Navy, and probably will be for life.

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