For 30 Years, Tiny's Tickled Ivories and Customers, too

Times Staff Writer

Sing us a song, you're the piano man.

Sing us a song tonight.

Well we're all in the mood for a melody,

and you've got us feeling alright.

--PIANO MAN by Billy Joel,

Blackwood Music Inc.

It is Thursday night at the Turf Supper Club in Golden Hill, a faded neighborhood tavern, that for 37 years has been a watering hole to a diverse clientele of longshoremen, schoolteachers, doctors, attorneys, secretaries and wayfaring strangers.

Piano man George Lee's rendition of "Oh Canada" draws an off-key obbligato from the attentive crowd gathered around him at the rear of the bar.

Sandwiched between a brace of novelty tunes like "Abba Dabba Honeymoon," the Canadian national anthem strikes an incongruous note. But the Maple Leaf expatriates in the bar cheer lustily.

Lee, who weighs in at more than 300 pounds and goes by the nickname of Tiny, is a fixture here. He has already worn out two pianos for the Turf Club. To him, his nightly gigs are not work.

"It's like a party," Lee said. "I do it just like I was having a party at my home. I play, and sing, and talk. It's party time."

When Lee plays "The Music Box Dancer," Turf Club regular Mary Seibert jumps down from her stool at the bar that surrounds the piano, and dances along like a mechanical dancer. "I come here for Tiny," she said. "I love him."

Lee, 62, recently retired as a church organist. He has served on the San Diego Episcopal Diocese's commission on music. His nightly gigs in the smoky confines of the Turf Club are a sharp counterpoint to the stiff formalities of the Anglican liturgy he played for more than two decades.

Along with the broiler where patrons can grill their own hamburgers and sirloin steaks, Lee's genial personality has become an indelible part of the Turf Club's allure.

He says little between songs--a word or two of greeting--preferring instead to play the favorite tune of a new arrival. Club regulars at say Lee has an amazing ability to remember their No. 1 tunes.

"You can come in here--I don't care if it's six months since he's seen you--and he'll remember your favorite song," said Jack Soule a professor of political science at San Diego State University who dropped in recently after months away climbing mountains in Nepal.

"It's phenomenal," Lee acknowledges. "I don't know how I do this because I can't remember the time of day. I can remember the song, even after years, although I won't remember their name."

Lee's first experience playing piano at a club was nothing like the fun he has now. He had just graduated from Hoover High School and was hired to play at the old Tops Supper Club at Pacific Highway and Hawthorne, where Fat City is today. He played during dinner, from 4 to 8 p.m. and later in the evening as the intermission pianist.

"I was about 18 or 19. I wore a tuxedo and thought I was hot stuff. But there was no human contact whatsoever," he said. "People would be talking. I'd be stuck up there doing my feeble thing, you know. I never thought I would end up in this business after that."

Later he landed a job at a club in Brawley, where he learned the ropes. He discovered that what he played wasn't important. "You can play 10 songs and get by pretty well if you've got a good line of bull," Lee said.

Lee's line of bull, though, is in the musical dialogue he establishes with his patrons. It ranges from the classics to novelty numbers.

He studied with the respected local organist, Lily High. His repertoire stretches from Chopin polonaises to excerpts from Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian concertos to Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, to John Denver and Billy Joel.

Lee has problems with country and rock 'n' roll, however. "I had trouble with country and western, but it's gotten sophisticated. I can't play rock. I just have no feel for it. Youngsters say it's simple, just a 3-chord turnaround. When I do it, it sounds awful to me. It sounds like 'Onward Christian Soldiers.' "

Lee's other life as a church musician ended last month after nearly 25 years as organist-choirmaster for the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Bonita. The church honored him in January at a testimonial.

Lee called his church job "unique."

"A lot of churches would not have liked their pianist working until 2 o'clock in the morning. Some people think Episcopalians drink a lot anyway, so maybe it's apt."

Lee had to discipline himself to make it to the Sunday morning church services after only three or four hours of sleep. "I used to have an awfully lot of trouble getting up. But I figured it was better to be up sleepy than to be late.

"Here and (at church) so many times I'm going on nerves when I've been sick. But you get there and get high on performing and you don't know you're sick."

Lee's excessive weight has been a health problem. About 20 years ago he had an intestinal bypass operation that sent his weight plummeting from 460 to 180 pounds.

But he lost too much weight in too short a time. When he had the bypass reversed, he rapidly regained his weight. The stress was too much on Lee's system and his kidneys and liver began to fail.

He also ran afoul of "the Number 1 occupational hazard" as a piano man: drinking. "I'm virtually a teetotaler now," he said. "That wasn't always true. I found myself waiting for the first person to buy me a drink. I realized I'd better stop."

After time spent under a doctor's treatment, Lee recovered. Today, Lee drinks coffee, and because he reached retirement age, has cut his piano playing back to three nights a week from five.

He received his nickname from the Turf Club's previous owner Kurley Kraus. Kraus thought that because of his size Lee would have to have a nickname. "He didn't like Fatso or Fatty," Lee said. "He said, 'How about Tiny?' I didn't like it, but I learned to like it.

"This has been like a role I play. People I know in the real world call me George. In retrospect, I'm really grateful to him. He was 100% right. If you show some discomfort at a name, people pick up on it."

This year is Lee's 30th anniversary at the Turf Club. He has played there steadily since 1957, with the exception of a couple of gigs he tried in Mission Valley and in Pacific Beach. But in those fancier venues, he didn't go over the way he is appreciated in Golden Hill.

Today, Kraus' son, Richard, owns the the Turf Club. "I inherited George when I took over the bar," Richard said.

At the Turf Club, a man's word is important. Lee began his engagement here "on a two-week agreement," he said. "I don't know where that contract is now, but I'm still on it."

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