Thinking of Paul Tillotson, and that night in Bermuda

Posted By Ron Sunshine on Apr 18, 2016 | 1 comment

I believe I met Paul Tillotson at Tramps, the classic, beloved NYC nightclub that was on 21st Street, just east of 6th Avenue, where I had a regular Friday evening gig for many years. This must have been around 1991 or ’92. I have no idea who introduced us. But I do know that as soon as I heard him play, it was like a door opened for me musically that had never been open before. Here was a guy who was a great jazz piano player, but who had fully digested the blues, and was a lot of fun to be around. He fit in with my band immediately, and added a whole new dimension to our music. I didn’t know at the time who Gene Harris was, but I would soon learn that Paul was his protege, and had spent his formative years learning directly from this great master of what they call Soul Jazz. That description happens to fit Paul’s music perfectly. In any event, Paul would stay in the band for the next 12 years or so. Even though some years he would spend half the year back in Idaho, I always kept his spot open for him when he returned.

"Straight Up" album cover illustration by Steve Ellis, graphics by Lydia Mann. PT on piano.

“Straight Up” album cover illustration by Steve Ellis, graphics by Lydia Mann. PT on piano.

Paul’s door was always open, and I loved visiting his tiny apartment on East 6th Street, in the middle of all those Indian restaurants. He had that place so tricked out, it was not even funny, with his hand built Murphy bed, all kinds of collapsing shelves and tables that he had invented and built, all to accommodate the grand piano in the middle of the room. It was like he invented the tiny house movement out of sheer necessity, 20 years before anyone had ever heard of it. It was in that apartment that he turned me on to all kinds of music, and showed film clips projected onto his wall from his little projector that was mounted on the ceiling. We even recorded in there, with Paul adding his Mason Hamlin piano to one of the recordings that we did while he was in Idaho. I don’t know if Paul misses that place, but I sure do.

During the course of those 12 years we did hundreds and hundreds of gigs together, all over the East Coast, on the West Coast, all points in between, in various other countries, on television, on the radio, you name it. We made a few recordings together and traveled many thousands of miles, including years spent traveling back and forth between New York and Atlantic City, where we held down a regular spot at a casino, sometimes as many as five days a week, often journeying the 2 1/2 hours back to NYC to do our night gigs. It was quite a run, with many memorable highlights. Playing music with Paul was never boring. Was it without its challenges? Hell no. I found this out early on, when we got a gig at Tramps opening for the great Johnny Copeland.


Johnny Copeland

We were getting ready for our sound check, fooling around in the dressing room, which was in the basement of Tramps, having ourselves a time. Paul was telling jokes in his inimitable fashion, and ended up demonstrating some point or other by dropping his pants around his ankles and mooning us. His full moon happened to be facing the stairs, which of course he could not at that moment see. At precisely this instant, a figure dressed in a full length white fur coat with an immaculate white suit, white derby hat and white walking cane descended the stairs and entered our space, only to be greeted by Paul’s bare ass. Good evening, sir. We are the opening act. Mr. Copeland shrugged it off like the seasoned road warrior he was, with no disturbance whatsoever to his force field of coolness. There are many such stories of Paul Tillotson moments.

But one Paul-related highlight stands out in my mind. In October of 1997 Full Swing got booked by a friend of mine to play the inaugural Bermuda Jazz Festival. It was a time when my band was extremely busy all year round, and I had been able to keep the same six guys together for a good stretch of time. We were very in tune with each other musically and personally. That lineup was pretty happening: Paul on piano, Dan Hovey on the guitar, Andres Villamil on bass, Craig Dreyer on sax, James Wormworth IV on drums, and me. In some ways being in a band is a little like being in a small elite military unit in that we travel together, eat together, share our life stories, gain each other’s trust, stage our operations, and finally go into battle together, all as a unit. Of course the major difference is that our “battle” is just to win over that night’s audience and spread the love and joy of music wherever we go. That trip to Bermuda was no different.

FS jump Bermuda

Tillotson, Wormworth, Villamil, Dreyer, Hovey in Bermuda in 1997. Photo: Ron Sunshine

Ah, that Bermuda gig. We got flown down there, were met at the airport by a van, freaked out as we drove on the left side of the road in a left-hand drive vehicle, and were taken to our rooms at the 5-star Elbow Beach Resort, where all the bands were staying. I remember Chaka Khan, David Sanborn, Nancy Wilson and Arturo Sandoval were some of the other acts. The breakfast buffet was to die for. Usually, when someone flies you to play a festival gig, you just stay over one night, do the gig, and then fly out. But, in this case our generous hosts afforded us a little mini-vacation at a 5-star resort. I believe we spent 3 nights there, and our gig was one set of 30 minutes on the first night of the festival, and that was it. The rest of the time we were on our own to enjoy the island. It was probably the cushiest gig I ever had. I was recovering from surgery on my torn Achilles tendon a few months before, and was still not getting around perfectly, but no longer using a cane. I remember my comrades helping me out a lot, especially Paul. Paul and Andres walked me out into the ocean on that pink sand beach, as soon as we got situated, as the sun was beginning to set. It is a moment I’ll never forget.

The hotel had a very swanky, wood-paneled bar off the lobby, where you would find the well heeled crowd all dressed up, enjoying expensive glasses of port after dinner, or sipping champagne while they were entertained by elegant piano music. One of the nights we were free, I had to meet the promoter in that bar to discuss a few details. As I approached the bar, I felt a completely different vibe coming from it, something in no way akin to the subdued mood that usually emanated from it. You have to picture that this was Bermuda. The men wore blue blazers with brass buttons, light-colored shirts with tasteful cravats, and goddamn Bermuda shorts with calf-high socks and dress shoes. It had, to be honest, a little bit of an uptight feeling to it. But, not on this night. On this night there was kind of a mad, cackling energy pouring out of the bar. I heard shouts, strange noises, laughter, and someone was pounding on that piano. That someone, I realized, was Paul Tillotson. I stood in the doorway aghast as Paul, with a large snifter of cognac rocking back and forth on the piano, seemed to be experiencing one of his fevers. These fevers are largely musical, but are also personality shifts where he is transformed into a kind of ringmaster/shaman. Just to be clear, Paul was never one to phone in a gig. He was, in my long experience of those 12 years and hundreds of gigs, always completely present, and not the kind of guy to shrink in the background.

Full Swing 1998: Sunshine, Hovey, Villamil, Dreyer, Wormworth, Tillotson.

Full Swing 1998: Sunshine, Hovey, Villamil, Dreyer, Wormworth, Tillotson.

This was fine with me. The band was full of big personalities, and fellow bandleaders in their own right, like Paul. The way I looked at it, it took a lot of pressure off of me, and that didn’t bother me one bit. I don’t actually enjoy being the center of attention. I just like to sing. But, anyway, there was Paul. His eyes were glowing as they met mine. If you know Paul, you know his eyes can actually glow. He was playing some kind of mad boogie woogie thing, with his legs splayed in the Bermuda shorts he had somehow acquired. Suddenly he stopped, popped up from the piano bench and shouted to the packed house, “Now this side of the room, bark like a dog: WOOF WOOF WOOF.” I thought I was going to shit. There was the promoter at the bar, along with my friend Barry, who had hooked us up with the gig, vouched for us. I could feel my face turn bright red. I was sure we were going to be fired on the spot. But then the funniest thing happened. All these uptight looking people in their Bermuda shorts with their glasses of port stood up and actually started barking like dogs. Paul played another chorus, then jumped up, spun around and yelled, “Now this side of the room caw like a crow: CAW CAW.” And sure enough, the other side of the room erupted in crow calls. These people were having the time of their lives. I cautiously approached the bar, and was surprised and relieved to find that the promoter could not have been happier. Paul was the big hero of the night, and I was feeling like a damned fool inside. I was the uptight one, and the crowd was eating it up. Paul taught me some kind of a life and entertainment lesson that night, which I probably still haven’t fully integrated. I was too busy getting over my near-heart-attack.

Backstage in Stockholm 2000. L to R: Dreyer, Sunshine, Josef Hadad, Ulf Sandstrom, Paul Tillotson, Jim Greene, Jason Pharr.

Backstage in Stockholm 2000. L to R: Dreyer, Sunshine, Josef Hadad, Ulf Sandstrom, Paul Tillotson, Jim Greene, Jason Pharr.

Paul eventually moved back to Idaho full time, started a family, and has continued entertaining people wherever he goes, in the way that only he can. Last time I saw him, he was battling back to good health after experiencing some setbacks. He is a strong and willful battler, and I can envision him beating back any threat to his good health, so that he can continue to be with his family and play music for many more years. It’s time to pull together and battle with Paul, lend all of our energy to the cause of his return to good health. Send him love, bark like a dog, caw like a crow, and call forth the animal spirits of all of our collective love and healing energy for Paul right now. I love him like a brother, like one who has fought the good fight side by side for many years in the healing trenches of music. I know Paul has friends all over this Earth who feel the same way. All love to you, Paul Tillotson and your beautiful family. It is an honor to have done battle by your side. And saying that just makes your voice ring in my head. And it is saying: “She offered her honor, so I honored her offer. And all night long I was honor and offer.” Love you, man. You know what honor really means.

Here is Full Swing’s recording of Paul’s brilliant composition “Tidbits” from our Straight Up CD, with Paul at the piano. His is the voice you hear counting off the tune.