Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Baroque period composer Johann Sebastian Bach once commented that there’s nothing remarkable about the piano. “All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.”
Bach never met Ray McGee. Hitting the right keys can be challenging when he and the electric upright piano he’s sitting at are in constant motion, winding through the crowds at the New Mexico State Fair, rotating suddenly in one direction and then pivoting to the other.
In a seamless musical stream of consciousness, McGee sings into a microphone, going from one song and style to another, looking like a man without a care in the world in his stylish turquoise western hat.
He is one of two piano players at the State Fair who are part of The Strolling Piano, which is the name of the act, as well as the Florida company that created the concept.
It’s not something one sees every day. And, as soon as people hear the piano and McGee belting out a tune, they immediately turn toward him, clearly enjoying the music, McGee said, as much as the mystery of who is steering that contraption.
“We get people checking to see if there’s someone inside the piano doing the driving, or they look at my feet to see if I’m propelling the piano the way Fred Flintstone powered his car,” McGee said.
Some look to see if McGee is leaning one way or the other on his piano stool to somehow make the platform change direction in the manner of a Segway. There is speculation that it operates like a Roomba vacuum cleaner, navigating on its own with the help of sensors.
And there are those who hypothesize that someone stands nearby, steering with a remote control device, or that a drone from above is relaying real time video to an operator at some removed location.
The simple explanation, offers McGee, is that “it’s powered by magic and music.”
And who’s to disagree?
Great ideas don’t always spontaneously pop into existence fully formed, the way Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. Sometimes, as in the case with The Strolling Piano, they evolve, explained Theo Nelson, a talent manager for the company.
About eight years ago, two owners of the company, both Florida-based musicians, were playing a gig where the client, for aesthetics, wanted them to encase an electronic keyboard in an old-timey hardwood piano shell.
The shell was extremely heavy, so they mounted it to a platform on wheels. “Then, instead of removing it from the platform, they decided the piano player should just play the dang thing on the platform,” said Nelson. “From there, they had the idea of physically pushing the piano around while it was being played. Finally, it evolved to having the platform motorized so it could drive itself around as it was being played. That’s when it occurred to them, ‘holy smokes, we’ve got a strolling piano.’ ”
McGee, 60, originally from Detroit, said he began studying piano when he was 5 years old. His mother owned a neighborhood tavern that regularly featured live music. “I would go in there, and just sit and watch and listen, and thought this is what I want to do,” he recalled.
And he did. At age 15, armed with an ID card that made him older, McGee began his professional career playing at nightclubs around Detroit. Eventually, he got a job with Disney World in Orlando, where he played on a stage for 24 years. He continues to entertain there and at other Disney properties. In more recent years, he travels during the summer months with The Strolling Piano, entertaining at state fairs, festivals and similar venues.
And he never seems to run short of material. “I’ve got about 1,200 songs in my head and another 1,200 on my iPad,” he said. “Over the years, you accumulate them.”
Nelson describes McGee’s style as “smoky lounge,” with a range that includes pop, rock, blues, New Orleans boogie-woogie and some jazz. The other Strolling Piano player, Ingrid Rey, from Lubbock, Texas, and now living in Orlando, is described as “more Disney princess,” whose repertoire is heavy with tunes from the 1990s and 2000s made famous by female musicians, said Nelson.
The two recently started a new “dueling pianos” routine, where they play and sing songs while their pianos seem to dance around one another in a bit of keyboard choreography.
McGee said his career as a musician perfectly fits his personality and lifestyle.
“I’m not married, not even interested,” he said. “I’m married to my piano; it’s been a much easier life that way.”