With his furrowed features, weathered grin, trademark fedora, and hands that scurry across the keyboard, Bob Wilder better known to local music aficionados as Piano Bob looks like a man who spends his time in dusty dives and dead-end saloons. Tonight is no exception. Like most Wednesday evenings, Wilder is seated at the upright piano at Fritz & Franz Bierhaus in Coral Gables.
Wilder is running through an improvised solo set and is seemingly oblivious to the couple dozen patrons feasting, drinking, and swaying to the riffs and rhythms he generously tosses out. As his left hand glides in perpetual motion, hammering out the rhythm, the right hand plays a series of runs that reverberate across a twelve-bar progression. This frenzied combination of melody and tempo defines the old-time roadhouse blues that's his signature sound.
"Blues isn't hard to play, at least not in a technical sense, but that's not what it's all about," Wilder maintains. "It's how you get into the groove. That's what makes the difference. Sure, it's only three chords, but it's what you do within those three chords that determines how adept you really are."
Although some see playing the blues as something of a musical cliché, Wilder is perhaps the most atypical musician in South Florida. To find an ivory-tickler like Piano Bob, you'd most likely have to venture west to the Mississippi to the bordellos of what used to be New Orleans, the speakeasies of St. Louis, or the grimy inner-city haunts of Chicago. You certainly wouldn't expect to find that vintage sound in Miami, a place where history is defined in terms of months, not decades, and hip-hop, techno, Latino, and Caribbean rhythms are accelerating the tempo at most local hot spots. "I believe I'm the only one playing in this particular vintage style, at least in this area," Wilder suggests.
But even for a bluesman, Wilder is an anomaly. He came from privilege attending the University of Miami before inheriting his family's real estate business and didn't begin playing until he was well into his thirties. But when he sits behind an upright, issues of authenticity fall by the wayside. In fact his backstory, along with the fortunes and lifestyle he has sacrificed to pursue his passion, only adds to his allure.
Born in the Bronx, Wilder moved to South Florida with his family when he was five. Piano lessons were part of his early regimen, but he confesses they weren't always to his liking. "I was told I had real talent but I was only average when it came to taking lessons," he recalls. "I didn't like the structure, the music I was assigned, or reading music in general." After discovering Ray Charles in high school, he began collecting old rock and roll records and eventually started playing along. Then in college, he began drifting toward jazz and blues, the result of discovering musicians like Mose Allison, Cannonball Adderley, and Jimmy Smith. "I heard some boogie-woogie piano records in a history of jazz class, and that got me into more heavy blues ... barrelhouse and the more obscure styles that influenced the music I play today."
Nevertheless Wilder was well into middle age by the time he opted to segue from listening to performing, and began answering ads for bands in search of a keyboard player. "At that point I was only adequate," he admits. "But once I started playing in public, the repetition of doing it so often, playing so many different gigs with so many bands, allowed me to get better. It made me feel challenged so that I, in turn, could challenge the audience."
As the Eighties drew to a close, Wilder maintained his day job as a principal in his family's real estate and mortgage brokerage businesses. However, he increasingly found himself pulled in a different direction and eventually concluded he would be satisfied only with playing music.
"The nighttime thing took over," Wilder remembers. "I was spending more time focusing on the night job because I found it more fulfilling than my so-called real life that I was becoming increasing disenchanted with.... Yeah, the business was comfortable, but if it hadn't been for the family ties, it wouldn't have been the business I would have picked for myself. I figured if I became good at my music, it wouldn't be because I was born into it. It would be because I learned to be a good player."
After this epiphany, Wilder decided his only option was to devote himself full-time to his music. Still, it wasn't an easy transition. "My family, including my wife at the time, became sources of opposition, but I wouldn't back down.... I had been extremely affected by what was going on back in the Sixties, the ethic that rejected the notion that life's all about money."
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Despite whatever financial considerations he may have tossed aside, Wilder believes his choice paid off. In the early Nineties, he hooked up with guitarist Ken Minahan to form a long-lasting duo dubbed Piano Bob and The Snowman. The pair garnered a respectable local following and even toured through several Southern states, supporting blues legends B.B. King, Luther Allison, Pinetop Perkins, and Tab Benoit, among others. They also garnered some high-profile accolades, including the prestigious B.B. King Lucille award for Best Unsigned Act at the 1992 W.C. Handy Awards national blues competition in Memphis and, here at home, New Times honors for Best Blues Act of 1993.
The association would last most of the decade, until differences in musical direction found the two parting ways in 1997. Wilder then jumpstarted a new band, The Jumpstreet 88s, with vocalist/saxophonist/harmonica player Stan Street. Street's move to Mississippi last year prompted the formation of Piano Bob's 88s and brought Wilder some East Coast gigs as part of the Tony O Band, a New York-based outfit with whom he had previously shared the stage at Miami's perennial blues bastion, Tobacco Road. Meanwhile he recorded three albums 1993's Piano Bob & The Snowman, 1998's The Jumpstreet 88s, and Piano Bob's 88s, due sometime this winter.
These days he plays most nights of the week via a rotating series of gigs Mondays at Churchill's in Little Haiti, Wednesdays at Fritz & Franz Bierhaus in Coral Gables, Thursdays and Sundays with guitarist Eric "Slim Bogey" Bogart at Le Deux Fontaines on South Beach. That's in addition to the one-off dates with his band, Piano Bob's 88s, which includes drummer Lou Abbott, guitarist Dave Brophy, and occasional sax player Al Ferreira.
Though some performers consider their own music a pastime, a profession, or both, Wilder sees himself more as a man on a mission. "I feel that I'm fighting for a cause," he insists. "The blues is one of the most honest forms of expression. It's not the flavor of the month. To me, music is a universal language; it connects on the most basic level. It's this unadorned reality that has nothing to do with what you have but rather who you are."