By Pamela Dozois
A gentleman in a tuxedo at a grand piano, serenading dinner guests, evokes memories of an elegant and romantic past.
That experience is not lost, however. It can be had in the Oak Room at the Alisal Guest Ranch, where pianist Bill Powell has been taking requests from dinner guests for more than 50 years. It is a remarkable run by any standard. It might even be the longest-running continuous engagement of a musician in the same lounge.
Powell began playing piano at the Alisal in 1968, and the ranch recently threw a big party to celebrate his 50th anniversary.
When asked whether he has played all his life, he says, “Not yet!”
Born in Santa Paula, Powell began playing the piano and stand-up bass at age 8. His mother played piano, and his father wanted all of his children to get a college education and to play a musical instrument.
“My mother hired a piano teacher who tried to teach me classical piano. I would practice what she had taught me, but mostly I was interested in playing boogie-woogie,” said Powell. “The woman suggested to my mother that she find another piano teacher, which she did. Whatever I have accomplished in my career I owe to Sully Ress. I studied with him for two years and he was a fabulous piano teacher. I learned everything I needed to know from him. He was so organized, and an amazing teacher. Unfortunately, he died young.”
Powell played piano in high school and in his first year of college he got a job playing piano and stand-up bass with I. Newton Perry, who, at the time, was known as “Mr. Music” in Santa Barbara.
“If anyone needed a musician, Perry was the one to contact,” said Powell. “He hired all kinds of musicians and formed the I. Newton Perry Orchestras, which played big band tunes and great American standards. If someone said, ‘I like the guys in the blue jackets’, we would just switch from our red jackets to our blue jackets and off we went. I was rarely out of work.”
“I thought I was in show business. I even played piano in the window of the Biltmore Hotel, which was a big deal for me at the time,” he mused.
“While I was working for Perry I had to learn to play a lot of standard show music. That’s my strong suit,” said Powell. “There’s a 90 percent chance I would know how to play any song a guest requests from the great American songbook.”
After graduating from UCSB, Powell went into the Army and played in the Army Band for two years.
After his discharge, he contacted a friend from UCSB who offered him a job as a band, orchestra and chorale teacher in Nipomo.
“The first day I started teaching at Nipomo Elementary School was the first night I started playing at Mattei’s in Shell Beach, now McClintock’s,” said Powell. “My day job was teaching music and my night job was playing music. I continued to play piano at night throughout my entire teaching career.”
The next year, Powell began teaching fifth grade at Blochman School in Sisquoc, becoming principal of the school in 1969 until his retirement in the early 1980s.
“You might say I kept my night jobs and retired from my day job,” Powell joked.
Powell was asked to play piano at the Alisal’s Oak Room when it opened in 1968 and he has played there ever since. He also played at Fess Parker’s Inn and Spa every Thursday night for its “open mic” sing-along. He played there for 10 years until Parker passed away.
Powell’s musical career has taken him to many venues in California. In the mid-’50s he played at the Thunderbird in Palm Springs, where he rubbed shoulders with many celebrities including Hoagy Carmichael, Lucy and Desi Arnaz, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Ruby Keeler, Jack Jones, and Jack Webb from “Dragnet,” among others. He also has played at the renowned Beverly Wilshire Hotel Lounge in Los Angeles.
At the Alisal, Powell has met Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Jo Stafford, Paul Williams, Jane Russell, Rosemary Clooney, and with John Forsythe and Cheryl Ladd, with whom he became good friends. Powell also recalls getting together with the late Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, to play a few musical numbers.
He has been married for 20 years to his wife, Sue, whom he met at the Alisal. He also has two daughters (one deceased), four granddaughters and a great-granddaughter, none of whom play the piano.
Powell continues to entertain guests in the Oak Room and dining room at the Alisal Guest Ranch on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
Powell has recorded five CDs, which are sold at the Picket Fence in Solvang.
“Don’t listen to my CDs while driving or operating heavy equipment,” he warns. “They are very relaxing.”