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Hillcrest’s piano wench

Posted: August 18th, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment, Features, Music, Top Story | No Comments

By Benny Cartwright

Carol Curtis loves to perform for her regulars

[Editors note: This is the second of a two-part feature on Carol Curtis, a musician who has been performing for the LGBT community for decades. She can currently be found singing fan favorites on Monday nights at The Caliph. To read part one, pick up Vol. 8, Issue 16, or find it online at bit.ly/2uDcg1C.]

In 2001, Curtis began her 15-year stint at Martinis Above Fourth, where she experienced three ownership changes over the years. She recalled that the first Friday night she was asked to perform was Sept. 14, 2001 — just days after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City.

Carol Curtis (right) takes a break during her set at The Caliph on a recent Monday, while bartender Brody Hess takes over. (Photo by William Pontius)

She wasn’t sure if the bar would even be open and whether there would be a crowd, but she came in to work anyway. Though many businesses had closed that week after the largest attack on U.S. soil, many bars — including Martinis — had remained open, serving as places of refuge, and Curtis fell in love with her new venue right away.

For most of those 15 years, Curtis was the Friday night fixture at Martinis Above Fourth, but eventually shifted to a Saturday night spot as the venue’s entertainment lineup changed in later years. While she’s no longer a regular entertainer there, she said she still feels like a part of the Martinis family and continues to be available to fill in whenever needed.

On Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, The Caliph brought Curtis “back home” to entertain from 5–8 p.m. each week. Ever since, longstanding fans and newer regulars — many who followed her over from Martinis — come fill The Caliph each Monday evening to be entertained, sing along, enjoy well-priced drinks, and together they have created a family type of atmosphere.

Originally called “Matinee Mondays” by some regulars, it soon became known as “(A)mazing Matinee Meatball Mondays” after Curtis and a few customers began bringing meatballs for all to enjoy. While the meatball tradition recently fell by the wayside, she hopes it will soon be revived again, for at least the first Monday of each month.

Curtis’ local longtime fans have been dubbed the “Carol-Aires” (like “carolers”). She describes them as a close-knit group of regulars who originally came together during her first go-around at The Caliph in the 1990s. These fans would rarely miss a performance, were ready to sing along at all times, took photos, and became somewhat of a mini-family, even having had T-shirts made at one point.

She remembers many of the original Carol-Aires fondly, naming folks like Kim and her brother Eric, Sue, Brian, Larry and many others. While she has no plans to have T-shirts made anytime soon, Curtis is honored that many of the original Carol-Aires are still following her, and that a new generation of Carol-Aires has emerged — many just since the time she started her second chapter at The Caliph last October.

How does one become a Carol-Aire?

“Fans simply qualify with regularity,” she said.

Curtis, who often changes a few lyrics in well-known songs in her repertoire to please her guests, pays homage to the Carol-Aires in her rendition of “Under The Boardwalk,” which she sings most every week at the request of one specific fan.

In one particular line of the song, made famous by the gay-favorite film “Beaches,” the original lyrics are, “From the park you hear the happy sound of a carousel …”

In Curtis’ version, you’ll hear her sing “From the park you hear the happy sounds of the Carol-Aires …” and she’ll often wink, nod or smile at any of the Carol-Aires she’ll see in the room at the time.

Her set list is fun and diverse, with songs ranging from Carole King classics (“Carol sings Carole!”) to Broadway. On any given night she’ll also include Billy Joel, Petula Clark, Leonard Cohen, Carly Simon and Joan Baez. Guests are welcome to peruse her menu of choices, but look out for the selections with an asterisk next to them! Curtis needs to be at least one hour into her set to be warmed up enough for those pieces.

Those who arrive early enough, right at 5 p.m., will get to hear Curtis’ lovely rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” which she opens/warms up with each week. By the time the second hour of her set rolls around, she’ll usually be powered up enough to open with “Downtown,” and then everyone knows the night is coming to end when the classic notes of “Happy Trails” begin.

Curtis said she loves being back at The Caliph, and since it is a much smaller room than venues where she previously performed, there is much greater ability to interact with the crowd. And while she taught classroom music and private lessons for a few years, she said she has now chosen the lounge environment over the classroom.

“Both have the same kind of feel, I’m always teaching — but the classroom environment tends to frown upon having a glass of wine while doing said teaching,” Curtis said with a laugh.

As for the future of gay piano bars, Curtis thinks it is changing, but still bright.

“Fifteen years ago, I feared for the longevity of the piano bar,” Curtis said. “It had become nothing like it was 30 years ago. But in the last 15 years or so, there have been some changes. The piano bar is evolving — maybe a bit too slowly — but evolving enough to stay current.”

She acknowledged her many colleagues who entertain San Diegans at The Caliph and other local live music venues with helping to move this evolution forward, as well as other talented up-and-coming performers she has met in recent years.

One is a young man named Brody Logan Hess, who not only bartends at The Caliph, but is also a brilliant singer and pianist. Curtis will occasionally “hand over the keys” to Hess when she takes breaks between sets, and the Monday night crowds have become as interested in hearing from Hess as they do Curtis.

Curtis is also grateful for the many younger Carol-Aires who have emerged since she moved to The Caliph and believes this group will be piano bar music fans for years to come.

“It’s become trans-generational, and that’s what music is all about,” Curtis said.

Catch Carol Curtis every Monday night at The Caliph, 3100 Fifth Ave. in Bankers Hill. Learn more about Curtis at pianowench.com.

Benny Cartwright is an avid Carol-Aire and can be reached at benny.bc.cartwright@gmail.com.

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