Amid the bachelorette sashes, inebriated middle–aged couples and underagers, two slightly graying men sit at matching grand pianos. “Wildman Joe” and “Tony T” face each other, fingers flying across black and white keys. The tip jars are stuffed with damp bills and shiny coins. The floor pulsates with “Sweet Caroline.” The dueling piano veterans sing the crowd favorite with heads tucked back, belting into Jolly’s Dueling Piano Bar, a one–year–old Center City dive. Tony’s half–moon glasses fog up a bit from the heat of the bar, dim with the temptation of any other city–brewed Saturday night. The two men, friends and dueling partners for 20 years, wink at each other with the excitement of teenagers. They know it’s going to be a good night.
Other pianists like the other not–so–wildman Joe play at Jolly’s to pass the time. But his eyes don’t widen with excitement. His fingers don’t dance on the keys as gracefully as they should. His smile doesn’t grow with the thought of his favorite song. It’s apparent that this Joe’s heart just isn’t in the tunes. A college student’s request for Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” (a Tony T favorite) isn’t even honored. “We don’t know that one!” he bellows back unconvincingly.
But Tony and Joe are crowd pleasers. These pianos are their passion and they enjoy it together. The pair has been playing opposite one another for almost 20 years, since the first Philly–based dueling piano bar, Little Diddy’s, opened on 8th and Market streets in 1990. There and at Market Street Live, they serenaded crowd after crowd with Elton John and Irving Berlin classics.
Despite the pseudo–fame, Tony and Joe are just two average (musically gifted) local boys. Both were born in nearby Delaware County and are seasoned musicians. Tony now lives in Lansdowne, PA with his wife and son while Joe lives just outside Philadelphia in Bucks County with his wife and 15–year–old daughter. Tony admits to being a born entertainer. “There was music in my house all day long growing up. I’ve played piano since I was tall enough to reach the keys!” But his first and true musical love is the guitar — an instrument he played in various bands before focusing on a professional piano career. Joe confesses that he started his musical career with the accordion (“A nice introduction to keys!”) and even played trumpet in his high school band. But innately a pianist, he jokes about his past bands’ colorful names: Purple Rain, Funny Bone, Eastern Standard Band and Hydra are a few that come to mind. These bands suited the pair just fine until they were able to fully support themselves on a pianist’s incomes.
In their world, friends come first and the two rarely partake in the dueling side of the so–called “dueling piano bar.” In a traditional “duel,” patrons will request songs with corresponding tips that start bidding wars between the two dueling pianists. Whichever song earns the highest tip gets played. But after 20 years of playing together, Tony and Joe hardly need a battle of the dollar bills to determine what songs to play. “The tunes haven’t really changed; people just want to hear things they can sing to,” Tony assures. “We search for tunes that people want to sing to. They want Gaga? We give them Gaga!”
He stresses that they don’t start the night out with a playlist, just a few songs on the brain (Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” are two favorites, though Joe has a soft spot for Journey). But many inebriated requests just float to the bottom of Tony and Joe’s radar. “We’re not going to play someone’s favorite song if it’s ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ That’s just not fun for everyone.”
Ten minutes after their set ends, Joe Marchetti and Anthony Decarolis sit side by side at A Mandarin Restaurant, their go–to piano break Chinese eatery on 21st and Chestnut Streets. The waitstaff welcomes them warmly and the men order their usuals. Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer,” another Jolly’s favorite, hums through the empty restaurant. Tony asks, “No soup for you? Not even a hot tea?” His concerned chestnut eyes widen with interest.
Even in the middle of entertaining a rowdy Saturday night bar scene, the men find no need for flash and glitter. Tony looks relaxed in dark jeans, a gray wool sweater and a short buzz cut. Joe sits comfortably next to him in a simple black button–down and jeans. His tame version of an A–Flock–of–Seagulls haircut is a playful addition to his calming demeanor. Their worn–in smiles are reminiscent of favorite uncles, not Philly–renowned pseudo–rock stars. But with a repertoire of over 2,000 songs, Tony and Joe are the premier pair of dueling pianists in Philadelphia. They spend five nights a week at Jolly’s and, even with eight rotating pianists on staff, they play exclusively with each other.
Tony wipes his brow, slick with sweat from the hour–long set and grins. “People just want to have fun!” And at Jolly’s, they do. Tucked into the corner of 20th and Chestnut streets, Jolly’s Dueling Piano Bar is always packed with an eclectic (mostly) over–21 crowd. College kids scream for Beyonce, grandparents politely request Frank Sinatra and middle–aged adults let loose to their favorite Springsteen classic. They’re all here to have a good time. The saloon–like atmosphere makes it easy for patrons to curl up in a booth on a romantic date or gyrate their troubles away on the hardwood dance floor. Drink specials and friendly singing wait staff help make coming to Jolly’s a treat. Tony will even gladly share his microphone with the drunkest girl in the house for half a chorus. “It’s not like going to a concert; it’s intimate,” he chuckles, “It’s like having your own little dance party.”
He giggles and starts to recount a recent story of a woman’s drunken request for “Sea Cruise,” a Frankie Ford oldie. Joe could barely understand her slurred southern accent but finally caught on to the notable tune. When they notice the generation gap and unfamiliarity with the song, Tony begins to shimmy his thin torso and belt out the catchy chorus in the middle of his bean curd and vegetables. He taps his feet and fork in perfect rhythm. Soft wrinkles crease around his warm round eyes as they widen with excitement. “Ooo–eeh! Ooh–eeh baby! Won’t you let me take you on a Sea Cruise!” Joe chuckles at Tony’s antics as his partner lets out a sigh and droops back in his seat, arms splayed. Tony sips his tea and nurses his throat. “What a song.”
Despite the age difference, they didn’t have much trouble exciting a crowd when Penn society Theos hosted a fall date party at Jolly’s on November 10. College sophomore, Stevie Cohen had a blast at the offbeat choice of venue, “Tony and Joe were interactive and fun. We were dancing to oldies and singing along like we were their best friends. They loved us!”
Other Penn students have spent nights under the influence of Tony and Joe’s charm. College junior, Dylan Aluise claims, “They played everything from Elvis to Top 40 and even let my best friends (and a birthday girl) belt out lyrics and sit on their bench. It was carefree and fun — I even woke up with a hoarse voice.”
When probed about what they do during the hours spent outside Jolly’s, Tony gets vague. “We spend some time in the studio,” he says with an air of mystery. “We’re recording a, well, special song for Pennsylvania. But that’s not important right now. Let’s not discuss it.” He turns to Joe, the businessman of the duo, and sheepishly confesses, “I don’t have an e–mail address. Joe handles all of our corporate work.”
Wildman Joe, ironically named for his quiet nature and mild manners, nods. “We book shows up and down the East Coast — weddings, private parties, the works.” With a corporate website, DuelingPianos.com, Joe organizes various shows. Once a week Tony and Joe pack up their handmade piano shells (wooden cases that look like grand pianos) and digital pianos to hit the road. They call it “freelance dueling.”
Surprisingly, the recent economic recession has only catapulted their business. Clients who would otherwise hire a live band downsize to just two dynamic men and their dueling pianos. “There aren’t a lot of people who do what we do. But we’re lucky we do it well!”
On special occasions their private gigs take them just down I–76 to the Wachovia Center. For years, Tony and Joe have opened for Flyers and Sixers games and concerts — Billy Joel and Barbara Streisand to be exact. “We’re gearing up for Michael Buble next month,” quips Tony, clearly excited. “Moms ask for his songs all the time at the bar.”
Joe and Tony explain that their families come to watch them rock out at Jolly’s every now and again but like Tony says, “Everyone has a job and people aren’t going to watch you work for three hours all the time. I’m lucky; I have fun for a living!”
Joe finishes the last crunch of his egg roll and patiently looks at his watch, not wanting to miss their next shift starting at 10:30 p.m. Tony nods, “We want to make people have fun. We want to keep the energy up for all ages.” Joe even did so by throwing his glasses out in the heat of a song — their spunk defies middle age. “It’s what we do for a living. We love doing it. We try doing it the best we can and we enjoy it. That about sums it up.”
Finishing their meal, the two men split the bill and leave a generous tip for their waitress. They will probably see her next Tuesday night. Tony looks hopeful and offers the other half of his piano bench on a next visit. But pretty soon, the duo is enthralled in a conversation of next week’s off–Jolly’s gig and tonight’s rowdy crowd. They turn toward Jolly’s, a home in itself and in agreement, softly hum their next song, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Jolly’s Piano Bar is located at 2006 Chestnut St. in Center City. Catch Tony and Joe every Tuesday through Saturday.