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Peter Robinson, DC’s Piano Man
A veteran cocktail pianist talks about life in Washington’s hotel bars, the problem with politics, raising a family while working at night, and playing with a handicap. By Ken DeCell
Peter Robinson left Capitol Hill three decades ago to tickle the ivories full-time. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
Comments () | Published January 9, 2013

In his dinner jacket and black tie, Peter Robinson eases onto the piano bench in Quill, the lounge in downtown DC’s luxe Jefferson hotel. It’s 9 PM and soon the strains of “As Time Goes By” fill the room. From there, Robinson segues seamlessly from song to song, mainly familiar selections by the likes of Cole Porter, Gershwin, and Hoagy Carmichael, plus jazzy interpretations of tunes by more recent artists such as the Beatles, James Taylor, and Carole King. Throughout the evening, he takes his cues from the mood—and requests—of the crowd, occasionally throwing in one of his own compositions.

After midnight, he retrieves the crutches stashed along the wall beside the piano, bids the remaining patrons goodnight, and heads home.

It’s a routine Robinson has followed most nights for the past three decades. The third of four children of a surgeon father and homemaker mother, Robinson grew up in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. In one of the rare cases of a child’s being stricken with polio in utero, Robinson was born with a paralyzed right leg and with limited use of his right arm. Like his siblings, he began taking piano lessons at age six. Soon music became his shelter and his passion.

Seeing Stars

Pianist Peter Robinson discusses celebrities he’s encountered through the years.

“Robert Goulet Couldn’t Stand It Anymore”

“In the ’80s and ’90s, Robert Goulet would come to town touring with Camelot, and he would stay at the Fairfax. I played piano in the bar and got to know him over the years. He was a great guy, a lot of fun.

“One time, an aspiring politician was in town raising money to run for governor. He fancied himself a Vic Damone-type lounge singer. I was playing piano in the back room, where he and some supporters were partying, and they yelled for me to let him sing. He grabbed the mike and started into his act.

“As he did, I could see Robert Goulet sitting on a couch in the front room of the bar. His Camelot performance was over, and he was having a nightcap. I could see him getting restless as he listened to the would-be lounge singer/governor. Finally, Goulet couldn’t stand it—he jumped up on the couch and literally sprang through a window opening between the two rooms. He looked at me and, mikeless, burst full-voice into ‘On a Clear Day’ in E-flat. He had perfect pitch, and I had seen him do this before, so I was ready. The other guy never saw it coming. Goulet took over the room and sang for 15 minutes. The pol didn’t make another sound. As far as I know, he was never governor, either.”

“Thank Angie Dickinson for Me”

“Once in the mid-1980s, I was playing piano at the Fairfax. My contract was expiring—a one-year extension was sitting on management’s desk, but it wasn’t getting signed and I didn’t know why. I was worried.

“It was Kennedy Center Honors time, and the hotel was filled with celebrities. I was playing for a Sunday brunch party—very fancy, people swirling around, ignoring the music but having a good time celebrity-mingling.

“When it was time to take a break, I got up and started walking through the crowd. As I passed Angie Dickinson, who was talking to the hotel owner, she turned to me and said, ‘Young man, nice playing—nice music.’ I mumbled thanks and walked on.

“The next day, the signed one-year contract was delivered by messenger to my front door. I’m sure Angie Dickinson has no idea how she helped me. If you see her, please tell her thanks for me.”

“Hugh Carey Nailed ‘New York, New York’ ”

“Hugh Carey, a seven-term congressman and then governor of New York, died last year. The memory I’ll always have of him is from the early 1990s. It was just after midnight, and the bar crowd was down to two inebriated yuppie couples standing around the piano trying to sing show tunes. The lights were low. In walked Carey, drink in hand. He was wearing a tux, but his bow tie was untied, his collar open. I knew him. He winked at me and joined in singing along.

“At the end of a song, one of the men said to him, ‘We know you from somewhere.’

“ ‘Oh, I’m a waiter,’ he replied. ‘That’s why I’m in this tux—just got off work. I’ve been doing it a long time. I must have been your waiter sometime.’ They stared at him a little more, but we went on singing.

“After a few more songs, Carey gave me the sign to play his favorite, ‘New York, New York,’ and he nailed it with great enthusiasm. At the end, he smiled and drained his glass and walked out. I don’t think any of them knew who he was or what they had experienced. It was great.”

Making it his livelihood took time. After graduating from Princeton, where he played in a jazz/rock band, Robinson moved to Washington and worked first in the office of Kansas senator Bob Dole and later for Congressman Larry Winn Jr., also of Kansas. While working on Capitol Hill, Robinson heard Washington’s now legendary cocktail pianist John Eaton and became his student. In time, Robinson left the Hill and became a full-time pianist, playing hotel bars, restaurants, and other venues.

Over the years, in addition to the Jefferson, he has played the Fairfax Hotel, the Georgetown Inn, the Old Ebbitt Grill, the Sofitel, and more. He recorded his first album live at the Jefferson in 1984 and has since recorded four more, the most recent being 2010’s Some of the Best Songs You’ve Never Heard, which features 19 Robinson originals.

He lives with his wife, Mary, a strategy and fundraising consultant for nonprofits, and their two college-age children in Bethesda. Robinson recently sat down over lunch on a day off and talked about what he’s learned.

Most people who hear you play never know it, but you had polio as an infant, right?

I had polio the day I was born. They looked at me and said this kid’s not moving enough. My right leg wasn’t moving at all, and the right arm was compromised. I saw a lot of doctors the first couple years of my life, had operations to release tendons that were constricted, and then more operations when I was 14 and 15. But my right leg still didn’t work, so I couldn’t play sports. But I started playing piano at age six and alto sax at age nine. Music has been my go-to place for a long time.

What was it like growing up?

To some degree your journey is different from other people’s. When people want to take walks or go skiing, you don’t go—or you sit on the sidelines.

In junior high, I went to cotillion because that’s what everybody did. But I couldn’t dance, and it was no fun. Same with high-school prom. Freshman year at college, I went to one or two mixers, but it didn’t make sense.

But then what evolved was, by playing in a rock band I got to be there, but instead of dancing I was playing for the people dancing, and that became a pattern for me—a way to be at the party. And you know, sometimes when I play it’s almost as if I’m dancing.

All in all, you’re pretty mobile.

I get around. But shorter distances are now the limit. Walking is not recreational.

But consider this: Our daughter has dyslexia, which I had never encountered. For her, reading is like walking is for me. Most everybody thinks: Let’s go for a walk. Well, I don’t want to take a walk—it’s not enjoyable for me. And everyone says reading is fun, but for her reading will always be uncomfortable.

Your surgeries didn’t solve all the problems.

My right leg is basically flail. So I have a brace, which is effectively a steel splint. My left leg is compromised somewhat, but it’s functional.

Your arms and hands work the piano very well. Is there pain?

No, I’m fine, though my right thumb is weak. That’s why I don’t play classical music. It asks you to do things I can’t do—stretches I can’t make. But I can self-express. The model on that was the guitar player Django Reinhardt. He had a couple of fingers missing. So you learn how to do what you can’t do. There’s a saying: Classical players play what’s on the page; jazz players play what’s not on the page.

Did you major in music at Princeton?

My parents were saying, “Be a lawyer—let music be a hobby.” But I wanted to be a music major. When I told the department that what I liked was pop and jazz and Broadway, they said, “We have no one in our department who has any interest in that.”

I was so disappointed, I dropped out for a year. But I came back as an English major because I wanted to graduate and I loved English—plus I’d already read a lot of books, so I figured I could spend time playing music as an English major, which is what I did.

After college you came to Washington.

I was trying to be a songwriter, but through a weird set of circumstances, I was offered a job working for Senator Bob Dole. I only stayed ten months on the Hill that time, but shortly after I arrived Vice President Agnew resigned, and right before I left President Nixon resigned. I had nothing to do with either. But what a time to be on the Hill.

Why did you leave?

I wanted to play music. But I wasn’t good enough to get full-time work. I was playing at a place near the Tune Inn one night a week and living in a really cheap place. But I ran out of money and moved back to Kansas City, where I could make a living. I played the Muehlebach Hotel there for 3½ years.

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  • James T

    Peter,
    You have always been the best!
    Nixon! '70

  • DE

    Looking forward to hearing him play sometime when we are in DC - sounds fabulous! Nice profile, too.

  • Avery

    This guy is world class all around!

  • JB

    A Washington Institution. Proud to call Peter a friend.

  • Mary M.

    I've heard this guy play. He is really that good. If I lived in Washington I would go hear him all the time.

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 01/09/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles