“Sing us a song, you’re the piano man…”
Billy Joel immortalized a niche in the world of entertainment with his 1973 classic – the role of the lounge pianist and singer.
It’s one of the songs that Ben Dunnill performs regularly in his steady 7-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday night gig at the keys of the Yamaha baby grand at White Rock’s Bin 101 – and there’s not a hint of irony about it.
At the young age of 16, the singer-pianist is proud to have been given the nod as house player at the popular tapas bar and restaurant.
He’s been playing there for a year and a half in all and won his current status after a trial period of some seven to eight months.
It’s an assignment the aspiring songwriter and entertainer – who’ll be going into Grade 11 at Earl Marriott Secondary this fall – takes seriously.
A lot of people have compared his appeal to Michael Bublé, but Dunnill, who evinces a mature outlook beyond his years, makes it clear he’s not simply following a style or appropriating music of the past as a passing gimmick.
Exposed to a wide range of music from an early age by his dad, Dunnill has been working hard to hone his singing and keyboard chops over the past five years.
And – also surprisingly for one so young – he not only knows who performers like Sam Cooke and Andy Williams are, he makes careful study of what made them great.
He’s also learned about old-school piano styles – including stride and boogie – from the likes of Michael Kaeshammer, Nat King Cole, James Booker and Art Tatum.
A ‘lightbulb’ moment for him was discovering the music – and the performance excitement – of Ray Charles through the movie, Ray, he acknowledges.
“The better I get, the more humbled I am by all the artists of the past, and the more I realize how great they are,” he said.
Like his older sister, Ginny, he’s benefited from experience in musical theatre with Susan Pendleton’s Surrey Youth Theatre Company – locals may still recall his show-stopping number “I’m Coming Out Of My Shell” as the Snail in A Year With Frog and Toad.
He followed Ginny into Surrey’s City Jam contest and won it at the age of only 12, and he’s also been a finalist in the PNE Talent Search.
But he’s more interested in paying musical dues than pursuing a quick route to fame that may turn out to be only a flash in the pan, he said.
And he realizes that the Bin 101 gig is a rare opportunity – one that has allowed him to develop exponentially as a performer in live situations, and one he wants to grow with.
“It’s a blessing to be able to play (in the restaurant),” he said.
“I know I have a long way to go, and playing places like Bin 101 is what will get me there.
“You take someone like Elton John – he spent six or seven years hauling equipment up and down stairs to gigs before he was well known. He’s been inventing and reinventing himself for 50 years, and he’s able to do that because he’s had the mileage and the experience.”
Dunnill admires John a lot, he admits, and his playlist reflects that, as well as his fondness for Jim Croce tunes and Freddy Mercury’s range and expressiveness as a singer.
Also on his list are such favourites are Joel’s Just The Way You Are, She’s Got A Way and Vienna; Don McLean’s Vincent, And I Love You So and American Pie and the Bread hit, If.
But you’re just as likely to hear him wander back to the 1930s with such songs as Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin and You’re The Top and Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust and Georgia On My Mind.
Dunnill is currently working on an album of his own original songs, but while he wants to raise the profile of his own material, he’s not planning to leave the covers behind anytime soon.
“I want to have something to say with my music,” he said, adding that while he admires some contemporary songs – Take Me To Church, by Hozier, is an example – he finds he can learn a lot more from compositions from the past.
“One of the best love songs I’ve ever heard is She, by Charles Aznavour – which Elvis Costello sang on the soundtrack of Notting Hill,” he said.
Playing at Bin 101 has also taught him invaluable lessons in working with, instead of against, his audience Dunnill said.
“Some nights I’m background music – some nights I’m putting on a show. People are in there to have their dinner. I’m not going to be screaming or playing Great Balls of Fire for four hours.
“If they don’t applaud, that’s OK. Some people feel bad, and start clapping because other people didn’t. But I’m not there for that.
“My job is to provide that piano lounge atmosphere, just like they did in the ’30s and ’40s.”