Whether you're one of the off-hours Seattle Opera divas, amateur crooners, or melancholy drunken exhibitionists who flock to him, it's hard to live in Seattle for long without hearing about Howard Bulson--the talented piano man who works at the Mirabeau Room (and Julia's in Capitol Hill). The sharply dressed musician has been involved in the piano bar and lounge circuit in Seattle since 1960, with stints including the old Moore Hotel's Firelite Room and the 111 Yesler. (It was at the 111 gig, which Bulson held down between 1962 and 1965, that he first sparked his sing-along cult following.)
Bulson has a long past of musicianship under his belt. Born into a Nazarene family in Missouri, he started out as a 13-year-old playing piano in a traveling Missionary Baptist tent-revival group until a more successful religious singing group, the McDonald Brothers, heard him play and asked him to join. He toured with them during summers off from high school, but it didn't last. He lost religion and left Missouri, he says, "after I read enough to realize I wasn't going to burn up in Hell."
Bulson played the piano bar circuit from Chicago to San Antonio throughout the 1950s, working day jobs in places like the "acid department" of a corn syrup manufacturer called American Maize. His daylight hours were a drag, but Bulson fondly remembers the nighttime gigs, like playing "the big to-dos for the wealthy people" at the Argyle Club housed in a San Antonio mansion.
In late 1960, Bulson moved to Seattle, and nine years later he was able to give up the day jobs--like his stint at the Johnson & West sheet-music store (now Capitol Music)--for good, playing steady gigs at places like Gim Ling in the International District.
Of course it was his Sorry Charlie's gig (now the Mirabeau Room) where Bulson--whose smooth white face and star-twinkle blue eyes top off the old-fashioned Midwest charm--became best known. His 16-year stint at Lower Queen Anne's cheapo dive attracted everyone from uncanny Billie Holiday impersonators to heart-wrenching opera stylists who took turns singing their favorite selections along with Bulson's flawless sight-reading accompaniment. That following eventually grew to include tipsy twentysomething hipsters looking for salt-of-the-earth color and cheap hard drinks--a crowd that's followed him to the Mirabeau Room as well.
Asked how it feels to be favored among the young crowd, Bulson says simply, "uneasy at first," and then tells a story about the time he played the Showbox. Last December, Showbox owner Jeff Steichen (who also co-owns the Mirabeau) hired him to do the set before the Cat Power/Sleater-Kinney show. Bulson, whose preference is Broadway show tunes and opera (his all-time favorite piece is "Che Gelida Manina" from the Puccini opera La Bohéme) says, "I felt like I had been thrown to the wolves." But his show--played to a packed room--was a success. Dressed in a cream-colored gabardine suit, he played a set laced with jazz and ragtime. "They seemed very appreciative," Bulson says.
So it made perfect sense that he should be added to the Capitol Hill Block Party bill. Partygoers should be warned, though. Bulson won't tolerate too much high-octane alcohol-induced crooning. His policy has always been to politely cut off the embarrassing drunks after one song. He explains, "It's better to pay someone a compliment than a slur, but it's a matter of respecting the audience." Of course, he doesn't mind if the audience itself is a bit out of hand. "People can be swinging from the chandeliers. I don't give a damn. But the music is the music." Bulson himself, who is provided with an ashtray and a pitcher of water before every gig, is professional through and through. He adds that he has his own personal rule about drinking: "I take my first drink at midnight."
Howard Bulson will be performing Sat, July 24, at the performance tent at 11th Ave in front of Barça, 5-8 pm, 21+, free.