By Charlie Swank
If you have ever been a blind musician performing in the community, odds are you’ve been approached by John Q. and Mary Q. Public, asking if you can play like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Ronnie Milsap. I have been asked this many times. The trouble with John Q. and Mary Q. Public is that they don’t know any better. They cannot and won’t realize that all blind musicians have different styles of playing. There are concert pianists and jazz pianist, as well as gospel, and rhythm and blues pianists. There are many different styles of piano playing.
I have a friend Duncan who lives in Texas. He wrote a song that makes a lot of sense. It’s called, “I am Me.” The lyrics tell it like it is. He is not like the famous musicians I have already mentioned. He is himself with his own style of playing.
I agree with what Dunkin’s song says, I’m not any famous musician including Liberace, even though, when I was with a gospel group, the late George Miller stuck the name Liberace on me. He would introduce me as “Charles Liberace Swank”. Sometimes I would say “Okay George, get me my candelabra.” My wife, Helen, purchased a two-hundred year old sterling silver candelabra for my birthday one year. With five candles, I used the candelabra for many candle-light services at the Elysburg Alliance Church years ago. When I would enter the church, attired in one of my eight tuxedos, the people would say, “Oh, Oh, here comes Liberace.”
One year, my wife wanted to take me to see Liberace in concert in Hershey. Unfortunately, he had to cancel the show because of his battle with AIDS, so I never got to hear him live. I still enjoy his records though.
For several years, I would take part in the honky-tonk contest at the Bloomsburg Fair. I won three second and two first prizes. The last contest I was in was in 2005. I took first prize again. The fair is the largest fair in the state of Pennsylvania. I imitated Louis Armstrong when I played extra numbers. The people would like what I would do. Helen said I was the honky-tonk specialist.
I still remember when Lawrence Welk was on TV. We enjoyed their good honky-tonk players like Dick Tiny Little, Frank Scott, and Joanne Castle. The piano they used was an upright. You could watch the hammers go back and forth when the music was playing. Most honky-tonk pianos are always out of tune and pitched lower than concert pitch.
There are pianists and organists that I admire such as Earl Garner, George Shearing, Fats Waller, Barkley Allen, Van Cliburn, Arthur Rubinstein, and others. When it comes to organists, my two favorites are the late Virgil Fox and the late E. Power Biggs. I cannot play like they do but I have always admired them. When it comes to theater organists, I admired the late Jesse Crawford, Dick Leibert, Don Baker, and George Wright. There are two other blind musicians I like; Alex Templeton and Art Tatum. Art was noted for all the runs he would use in his right hand. Alex was on the novelty side with recordings like, “The Man with the New Radio” and “Big Ben Bounce.” George Shearing was a great jazz pianist who made fantastic recordings for MGM and Capital Records.
With the help of my good friend, Jim Hodgkins, I have also made several recordings. Jim always used to tell me “If you don’t get it right, you don’t get the record.” Like me, Jim demands perfection. I learned quite a lot about recording from him. We usually spend all day, from 10 in the morning until 6 at night working on a recording.
Right now, I have three albums available for purchase on CD. The first is “The Very Best of Charlie.” It is a compilation of four albums recorded on vinyl back in 1972, 1978, and 1982. It has my composition, “Charlie’s Boogie” and an 8-piano, version of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Another song on this album is “El Cumbanchero.” It is the fastest number I play. And yes, Liberace played it as well. I used five pianos when I recorded that number. The album includes 21 songs.
The next two disks are in concert volumes one and two. One has 18 numbers and two has 20. The music was recorded from two dead rooms, but Jim Hodgkins would add a concert hall reverb to make it sound big. I played my old Baldwin, 6‘3” concert grand. I love to give the customers more for their money.
I want to come out with more disks. People are begging for Christmas music but I want to re-issue, “Seated One Day at the Organ” and “The Love of God.”. I also would like to do another album with some Latin music. I really like to play big band, old time hymn after hymn, and real cool jazz.
My wife, Helen, took all of the photos for my albums. She has been a great support to me for the last 31 years. Please contact Helen and I if you are interested in purchasing any of the albums for $15 each. You can reach us by mail too: Charlie Swank, 335 N. Prince Street, Apt. 1004, Lancaster, PA 17603. You can also give us a call at 717-945-7720. We’d love to talk to you, especially if you have unlimited long-distance calling.
As I mentioned, my friend Duncan Holmes also has a few albums available. His contact information is: 830-990-0401 or 1125 S. Adams Street Apt. 701, Fredericksburg, TX 78624.
In closing, let me advise every one of you to be yourselves. Don’t let people limit your talent. Play the music you feel comfortable playing. Use your own style. Put your heart and soul into whatever you are playing no matter what jobs you are working. As Ricky Nelson sang, “But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well. You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself…” If you’re going to please anyone, please the God Almighty who gave you your talent. Just be you and no one else. Share your talent with people less fortunate in nursing homes, retirement villages, and other institutions. You won’t be sorry. You will make a lot of people happy wherever you go. Listen and learn from the styles of all musicians. And then, create your own style of piano playing or whatever instrument you play. Don’t be afraid to be you.