Keys of life

Pianist George Michalski tickles SF's ivories

PIANO MAN On April 13, 1957, at an assembly room in the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, George Michalski gave his first piano recital. He played John W. Schaum's "Snake Dance" and "The Sphinx" and closed with "My First Waltz," by Bjarne Rolseth, from G. Schirmer's Piano Solo series for students. "My mom was so excited leaving the house that she tripped and sprained her ankle," Michalski remembers. "She went to the show anyway and stayed for the whole recital — then we took care of her leg."

On April 13, 2007, Michalski will put on another piano recital in San Francisco. This time it won't be at the library, but his mother will attend. So will some special guests — unsurprising, since in the 50 years after his first performance, Michalski's ivory-tickling talent has led to collaborations with everyone from Blue Cheer to Barbra Streisand.

"The most exciting thing about making music is to go from Blue Cheer to someone like Streisand," Michalski says while discussing his special anniversary show, which one friend has described as vaudevillian. "Blue Cheer is so far into [pure volume and distortion] that I think of them as classical music. The biggest challenge of playing with them was peer pressure. When I worked with Streisand [on songs such as "The Man I Love" and the soundtrack to 1979's The Main Event], I tried to get her to listen to blues. She was very open-minded."

A member of Foxtrot — the onetime house band at both Los Angeles's Whisky a Go Go and its chief competitor, the Starwood, and also the first white group signed to Motown Records (where Smokey Robinson gave Michalski a piano and Berry Gordy's mother, Bertha, signed his checks) — Michalski has rubbed creative shoulders with everyone from Don Johnson to some of the best-known mimes in the world and crossed paths with political figures such as Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu.

The '70s television mainstays Shields and Yarnell, currently on a reunion farewell tour, are the aforementioned mimes. "Robert [Shields] was discovered right here in the Bay Area, in Union Square — the term street mime was invented to describe him," Michalski says, then adds some funny details that could cause someone wearing pancake makeup to become red-faced. "Robert hates most street mimes — because they're not very good and they give mimes a bad name. I've seen him stand there, watch a mime, and rip the guy to shreds. And when mimes recognize that it's Robert watching them, boy, do they get nervous."

In recent years Michalski has been making music with the original tabloid target, Eddie Fisher. "Confidential magazine got started by writing about him — he was on their first cover," Michalski says, while praising Fisher's gentle nature. "The whole notion of the paparazzi partly started with him and Liz [Taylor]. That guy has seen a lot, and what he hasn't seen, his daughters have — Carrie Fisher is no slouch."

To put together his anniversary show, Michalski drew from an idea he first landed on with his friend the late Vince Welnick, keyboardist for the Tubes, in which a strange array of friends stop by his apartment to perform. In addition to unconventional cover versions of songs that have made a few of the special guests famous and some dueling piano boogie-woogie interludes, the evening — presided over by MC Steve Parrish — will likely include numbers from Michalski's most recent recordings, including San Francisco (Masia Music, 2002), which transforms his love of the city into a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, song-by-song portrait. "This show is different, but there's no dead time," Michalski says at the end of our conversation before leaving to meet his mother.

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