By Steven Lau
Five hours a night, five nights a week, for the last 52 years, Rod Dibble has sat down behind the grand piano at to transport the Oakland bar and its customers back in time to the early 1900s.
Dibble achieves this time travelling feat with the classic tunes of the Great American Songbook and Tin Pan Alley that he fondly plays and soulfully croons from his spot near the back of the bar, which looks like it came straight from the 1920s.
“I don’t do any rock ‘n roll,” the 79-year-old proudly said as he sat at the piano bar. “I do the American standards: Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Cole Porter…”
Dibble has more than 4000 songs memorized by heart, and his repertoire is always growing.
Each week, he said, he learns a new song — memorizing the melody, the chord progression and the lyrics — becoming so familiar with the song that he can transpose it to whatever key is necessary on the drop of a dime.
And changing keys is often necessary. Dibble’s performance area is outfitted with four microphones and multiple lyric books, and all customers at The Alley are encouraged to sing.
While some patrons need a lot of gentle nudging until they are convinced to pick up the microphone and belt out a tune, many of the bar’s regulars are more than ready to take part in Dibble’s performances.
Accompanying singers, even those who have never sung for a crowd before, is what the Berkeley native said he loves the most about his job at The Alley.
“That’s where I get my fire,” Dibble said. “First time singers — they’ve never had anyone applaud for them — and when they finish the song, the look on their faces is like a million bucks to me.”
Bay Area roots
Dibble grew up on Hearst Avenue in Berkeley as part of a musical family.
According to Dibble, his uncle was in vaudeville and his mother toured with him, so from a young age, Dibble was exposed to the old classics that he still performs today.
Dibble began playing piano at age 6 and studied under Berkeley musician Charles Dutton for about 10 years.
“He would take students who had a good ear for music and teach them how to read a lead sheet, and show them chords, and runs,” Dibble said. “He was wonderful.”
Through Dutton, Dibble developed a system of learning songs using fake books — songbooks that only contain the melody line, basic chords and lyrics of a song. This is the same system he uses to learn music today.
When he reached high school, Dibble began playing background music at cocktail parties, and after graduating, he worked in clubs.
Soon he had a booking agent and went on the road for about a decade, playing parties and clubs throughout the state.
In 1960, he was working a job in Oakland when Jody Kerr, then-owner of The Alley, came in one night and offered Dibble the job at the Grand Avenue bar where he has stayed more than half a century.
“I’ve been permanent ever since,” Dibble said. “I like not moving around, 'cause then I can build a following of people, of singers. Then, they always know where to go to find me.”
Memories in the unchanging Alley
Founded in 1933, The Alley was once one of seven piano bars on Grand Avenue, Dibble said.
While all the others faded away over time, The Alley remains a window into the past, not only in its music, but also in its appearance.
Stapled and plastered all over the walls are tens of thousands of business cards, photos, and clippings. Add in the dim lights, the wooden furnishings and the clothesline hanging above (which once had clothes on it), and the bar resembles a real alley.
On the wall above Dibble’s piano fittingly hangs a huge poster of Ol’ Blue Eyes, and on the adjacent wall is a painting of Jody Kerr, the owner from 1950 until her death in 1995.
Dibble said Kerr wanted to keep the old-time feel of the bar intact, and she succeeded in doing so — even now, more than a decade into the 21st century.
Rose Lawrence, an Oakland resident for 25 years, came to The Alley for the first time last week after hearing about the bar and Dibble for years.
“I just wanted to come check it out,” she said. “It’s got a nice feel to it. And you can tell he (Dibble) still enjoys being here.”
The Alley has been something of a second home to Dibble, although he almost left for good in his early years as the piano man.
According to Dibble, he left for a vacation to Mexico in the mid-1960s and he returned with a mustache, which he still wears today. When Kerr saw him, Dibble said, she told him that either the mustache had to go or he did.
So Dibble walked out the door and found another job. After he played in a nearby establishment for almost a year, Dibble said, Kerr gave in.
“She said, ‘You can keep the mustache, just come back,'” Dibble laughed.
Today, the thought of leaving The Alley is far from his mind, Dibble said. It is home to many good memories, including the first time he met his wife, Linda.
After coming to the bar for the first time in 2006 to celebrate a friend’s birthday, Linda, a retired piano tuner and rebuilder, said she couldn’t resist coming back for more.
“I’d never sung in front of anyone before, but it was just so much fun, so I started coming every night,” she said.
On slow nights or when no other customers are singing, she and Dibble — who married in 2007 — do duets together, with her gentle harmonies complimenting Dibble’s raspy singing voice.
And Linda’s house in Berkeley, where Dibble now lives, is just six blocks from where he was raised.
“The house that I was raised in on Hearst was torn down because BART came through and they made a park out of it,” he said. “So when I married Linda, it was like going back home.”
Nimble fingers, nimble feet
When playing piano as often as Dibble does, something is bound to give. Fortunately for Dibble, it has always been the piano.
The Baldwin that he plays at the bar is his eleventh to date. Its 10 predecessors just wore out from years of use.
But the soon-to-be-octogenarian is unlikely to meet the same end as his previous instruments — at least not any time soon.
Dibble said he hates to waste the morning, making it a point to be up around 8 a.m., even if he was playing until the early morning hours the night before. And once he’s up, he wastes no time getting to work.
“I play all day, from the time I get up,” he said. “The first thing I do is go to the piano and work on the song that I’m learning that week. And every time I go by the piano, I stop and I play a little bit.”
Having a scheduled daily practice time doesn’t help to memorize a song, Dibble said. Instead, he plays a few minutes at a time throughout the day, whenever he feels like it.
Apart from keeping his music at its best, Dibble also makes sure to stay healthy. He uses stretch bands and balls to work his hands and upper-body, and he walks 10 miles every single day, without exception.
His walks take him all around Berkeley — to the Marina, to the Claremont Hotel, or even to Albany.
With his practice and exercise, plus a small nap in the afternoon, Dibble is ready for his nightly five-hour shift.
Dibble, an Oakland institution
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Tom Reardon has been coming to The Alley regularly for about seven years, .
Reardon echoes the sentiment of many of the bar’s patrons who acknowledge Dibble as an Oakland institution.
“He’s got 50 years of history in this place … but it’s more than that,” Reardon said shortly after singing with Dibble on the keys. “It’s the joy that he has in playing this kind of music and bringing that to other people. Night after night, he’s making that possible for people with so much support, laughter, and joy, and that’s really why people love him.”
A recently-released short documentary, The Alley Cats, made by Oakland’s Cary Virtue, profiles Dibble and his regular crowd of singers and reaffirms the piano player’s lasting impact on the city.
Dibble said he recognizes that he and The Alley are the last of an era. Much to Dibble’s discontent, the piano bars of old have been overtaken by karaoke.
“I can’t stand it,” he said. “There’s no comparison to when you’re working with live music and flying by the seat of your pants.”
Ironically, The Alley has karaoke every Sunday night, but there will be no convincing Dibble that karaoke even comes close to a pianist and singer performing together live.
The human element of music is what Dibble said has given him the energy to play at The Alley for 52 years, and it is what he hopes will continue to fuel him for at least 20 more.
“I love to accompany singers,” he said. “Some piano players are prima donnas and they only want to play for themselves. But when you accompany a good singer, it’s like working with an instrument. Here at The Alley, it’s like a jam session every night."
Rod Dibble plays from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday at The Alley, 3345 Grand Ave., Oakland.
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