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Michael Drake at the Piano

Off the Cuff with Milwaukee’s Mr. Entertainment

Jun. 10, 2014
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Michael Drake
“I love entertaining,” says Michael Drake. No one who ever saw him in person would argue the point. A prolific recording artist with nearly a dozen albums to his credit, Drake began as a jazz trumpeter but branched out into Latin and Caribbean-flavored “island music” along with children’s shows. Never less than fully animated, Drake is a percolating coffee pot of highly caffeinated ideas. Recently, he took up a Wednesday residency on piano at a long-running West Side restaurant, Pitch’s Baby Grand, 11320 W. Bluemound Road. Drake entertains from 7:30 p.m. to whenever.


No band? No trumpet? Just solo piano?

Just me and the baby grand with no sequencers. I’ve always loved Billy Joel and the great piano songsters. And I’ve repurposed my island music for this gig as romantic music—ballads. But it’s still all done with an entertainment attitude. It’s all about the stories. I tell stories in song. By changing my format to piano, I’m setting the stories in different places.


What do you play at Pitch’s on Wednesdays?

It all depends on who’s there. I might noodle and create the wallpaper if the mood is quiet. An entertainer has to read the audience. It can go in any possible direction. Without sequencers, I can change the character of the song I’m playing on the spot. If someone wants to come up and sing a Beatles song, I’ll accompany him. I’ve got a repertoire of 150 Beatles songs.


You take requests?

I’ve got a song list sitting on the piano, 400-500 songs. I’ve got them categorized. It’s all part of the entertainment thing. An entertainer cannot be selfish. I’m pouring my heart out on that song for the person who requests it!


How long have you been making a living at music?

That depends on what you mean by making a living! I played my first paid gig in 1967. I delivered the Chicago Tribune for 15 years. Finally, I was able to get rid of the day job in the early ’90s.


Have audiences changed over the years?

There’s been a change in receptability. More and more people don’t know what entertainment is. It’s a conversation! Back when I played weddings, I’d have everyone in the palm of my hand. I still do, but it’s more work. People aren’t used to seeing entertainers in person any more. Being an entertainer is a one-on-one relationship—a rapport. You can’t get that from a TV screen.


For more on Michael Drake, visit drakemusic.com.


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