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Tom Roberts has gone from high school music teacher to touring piano man

Saturday, July 21, 2001

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Tom Roberts' journey to playing piano on the latest Leon Redbone album, "Anytime," began on the stage of Graffiti.

Roberts wasn't on stage.

Redbone was.

Roberts, at the time a Schenley High School music teacher, was in the audience. As he recalls, "I said, 'I've always wanted to play with this guy. I need to get out of this town.' So I gave him a tape on stage."

Roberts had his own band, the Big Easy.

"We did the same kind of funky, eccentric, weird music the Squirrel Nut Zippers do now," he says. "But back then, it wasn't popular."

When Redbone finally called and left a message on his answering machine, the music teacher figured, "This is just a joke."

But it was Redbone, and he was calling with an offer to appear on "The Tonight Show."

"The biggest gig I'd done was, like, the Balcony," he recalls, with a laugh. "And then it's like, 'All right, Roberts, you're going to be on 'The Tonight Show.' "

After the appearance in June 1990, a tour with Redbone and his band ensued.

"And, as a result of being on 'The Tonight Show,' " Roberts says, "I got several offers to go to New Orleans. Everyone in all the hotels and the jazz clubs turned on 'The Tonight Show' when he came on, and they all said, 'Hey, who's this piano player?' They contacted one of the guys in the band on the tour and said, 'Hey, tell this guy to come down to New Orleans.' "

Roberts spent the next four years as a working musician in New Orleans.

"During that time, I didn't play with Leon," Roberts says, "because if you abandon your steady gig in New Orleans for a six-week tour, then, you don't have it when you come back. If you go away for two weeks, you don't have it when you come back."

From New Orleans, he moved to Annapolis, Md. -- "chasing after wanton women" -- and his whereabouts got back to Redbone, who called him and asked if he wanted to tour.

He's been a full-time touring member of the Redbone band since 1994.

He's back living in Pittsburgh now, where he's teaching piano when he isn't touring.

"I was gonna move back to New Orleans," Roberts says. "I had a bunch of offers, but then, Leon had this album coming out, and he said, 'Well, if you move to New Orleans, it's too expensive to fly you to the tours.' And I said, 'What about Pittsburgh? I grew up in Pittsburgh.' "

Although his work with Redbone stretches back to 1990, "Anytime" is Roberts' first appearance on a Redbone album.

"It was pretty exciting," he says. "I figured, 'All right, I'm finally gonna be on a Leon Redbone album,' 'cause I've been arranging the music for him and doing stuff on television, but I hadn't been on any of the records. And I figured, 'Great, all the top New York guys are gonna be there. And they weren't there. It's all overdubbed. You'd go in, and they'd say, 'All right, pretend there's a clarinet solo coming in here.' Then, you'd come back in and redo what you did. And it's all guys who play with him out on the road, but none of us were actually in the studio at the same time."

It's the first time he'd ever made a record that way. And at 39, he's been on more than 20, including the work of a side group of Redbone musicians who go by the name of the Roof Garden Jazz Band and two solo efforts, "Night Cap," an album of stride piano tunes on Solo Art, an independent label, and "Roberts Plays Roberts," a tribute to pianist Luckey Roberts.

"It's the one I'm most proud of," he says. "He taught George Gershwin how to play jazz. He taught Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Eubie Blake, but nobody knows who he is. His stuff was too hard. So I spent three years transcribing it, learned how to play it, and I'm the first person to play it since he died. I'm actually writing a Luckey Roberts biography now with his great-granddaughter."

As for his debut recording with the Redbone band, he says, "It's very typical Leon fare. Minstrel show tunes, songs about the South. It's very moody, this CD. But there's some very twisted moments. 'Sweet Lorraine' is one of the most twisted versions of that tune you'll ever hear."

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