Boogie & blues pianist Tommy Keys talks about the soul of 88s keys and Long Island blues society

"Blues is one of the many moods or feelings we all keep inside us and carry with us through our lives."

Tommy Keys: Keep It Simple Stupid

With an individual style encompassing elements of New Orleans Jazz, Blues, Funk, and Boogie Woogie, Tom Lippis aka Tommy Keys has been successfully entertaining at clubs and festivals on both national and international levels, recently returning from performances in Clarksdale Mississippi and Memphis Tennessee.


In addition to being an International Blues Challenge (IBC) Finalist, Tommy has appeared at many festivals, including the Burghausen Jazz Festival in Germany, The Riverhead Blues Festival (NY), Pigs & Peaches Festival in Georgia, and the Soul of the Blues Festival in NYC.

Tommy Keys, a native of Long Island NY, is the president in local Blues Society, has a winning combination - Barrelhouse Boogie & Blues Piano with moody, soulful vocals. Lowdown & dirty, to multi-faceted originals, & hip-shakin’ bounce, you’ll testify that Tommy uses all “89” of the 88 keys & all three of his hands- hammering out a percussive style that leaves you breathless...His latest CD, "The Man in the Moon" received excellent reviews as well as significant airplay on various stations airplays. Tommy play solo or with a band.


Interview by Michael Limnios


When was your first desire to become involved in the blues music and what does offer you?

Blues music is more than music to me, it’s about the history- the feelings- the mood the heart and soul, I just love everything about it, The Blues actually grabbed me at an early childhood age and although I didn’t actually know what it was, I liked it, didn’t know why, it took me a few years but I figured it out.


What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

I’ve learned that we’re all here on this earth trying to live the best life we can, we make good decisions and bad, we have great relationships and not so good relationships. I’ve learned that there are many different styles of Blues that come from all corners of the world but still tell the common tales of our humanity here on this earth. 



What does “88 black and white keys” mean to you? 

And 88 it must be, no less, Hale to the inventor. The piano works for me,  I connect with it,  It  gives me a sense of companionship and it’s my creative outlet where I’m free to express my feelings and emotions. 


How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

There is nothing like the feeling of performing in front of a group of people of any size, and each are different so they need to be approached uniquely as well, so I try to be relaxed with them but mostly I try to be myself,  people really appreciate the honesty.


What characterize Tommy Keys philosophy of music? What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

My philosophy is to be creative try not to copy, leave that to Xerox. Be yourself, play what you do best, don’t try to be what you’re not, we all have our limitations we need to learn this for ourselves and bring out the very best, both in what we are as a person and the expression of our music. We owe this to our audience and to the sanctity of music itself.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best moment and moments of my career would be when people are enjoying what I’m playing, people tapping their feet, swaying, singing, smiling, dancing etc…  The worst moments are people that are rude, inconsiderate and have no respect. I can do without that.



What are some of the most memorable tales from the road with the Blues all around the world?

Wow I had so much fun going over to Burghausen Germany to play their Jazz Fest, the people there were so friendly, they loved music and as far as the blues, they get it. I also had quite a few occasions to perform in Memphis Tennessee, “The Home Of The Blues”.  In 2006 I was one of 6 that made finalist in the International Blues Challenge for the Solo Duo category. It was a very memorable experience and something I will treasure for the rest of my life. Recently in June 2012 I as inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame, It was an honor that was truly unexpected.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I’d say in my younger years growing up. Everything was new and exciting learning about life and having relationships which are undeniably one of the most sung about subjects in the Blues.


How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

My inspirations for songwriting comes from my heart and in my heart are the colors and make up of many songs that have touched me, so all I need to do is try to bring it out and put it in my hands and voice.  As far as mentors, I would have to say that I really love the mood and feeling of the Blues which came out of the early, mid to late 1900s with Blues Piano Players like Jimmy Yancy, Pine Top Smith, Sunnyland Slim, Booker T Laury, Memphis Slim, Huey P Smith to name a few, and have been and are inspired till this day.  More recent inspirations would be Otis Spann, Dr John, again to name just a small few.



From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

Secrets to me it was and is all hard work nothing comes easy to me but when I first started out my passion was the drums and dabbled on the piano, loved the Allman brothers their inspiration was amazing to me, no one can ever tell me that “Stormy Monday” performed by The Allmans on the Fillmore East “Live” Album, doesn’t have the “Bluesiest” mood ever recorded. I stand by that today and when Chuck Lavelle joined the band that was it, I had to play the piano. To me he is one of the best piano players currently out there, together of course with Jon Cleary, and David Maxwell (also great blues players) and a big part of my inspiration.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Fads come and go but the blues will never be a fad, it lives with us every day. Blues is one of the many moods or feelings we all keep inside us and carry with us through our lives. There are many shades of blues some deep and dark, some very light, this is what we as Blues musicians try to bring out. If people would dig deep realize and try to understand the blues through the history of where it started, I’m sure they would see that it’s deeper than what it is we hear. Blues is the Roots.  My wish for the Blues is that more people in the world would take the time to relish and indulge in all the facets of the Blues and truly listen to what is being said, I’m sure they would find it fascinating like I do. It moves you.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft? 

Practice hard, listen, and learn from the old masters, there is so much information out there- like for instance the internet and video- not taking advantage of it would be silly. So if you ever get discouraged you need to remember everyone has to work just as hard to be competent, don’t cut corners, play from your heart.



What’s the best jam you ever played in?

Probably when I was in Memphis at The Rum Boogie Café, it was during one of the International Blues Challenges, and  in Clarksdale Mississippi at Ground Zero where both times I was part of the host band. We played with some great musicians and the jams went on until the Wee, Wee Hours.


From the musical point of pianist view is there any difference between Barrelhouse, Boogie Woogie & Blues?

For example “Barrel House” was a place (Bar, Tavern, Gin Mill, Brothel, whatever you want to call them) where music of the time was played, mostly piano in  the early years , Boogie Woogie is a style of music very much like the Blues, I’ll try to describe it as having a swing feel where the bass section is a repetitive, percussive and the rhythm and lead sections are syncopated and lively,  when played on a piano I  like to say (“Boogie on the right hand and Woogie on the Left) . Blues, again another style. These styles together with many other styles were regularly played at a Barrel House. 


Tell me a few things about the Long Island Blues Society, how that came about? How do you characterize the local scene?

The Long Island Blues Society originally started out as a bunch of good old boys who liked to party and listen to some good blues, so they started a society. But the times have changed and we realized that to get professional performers we needed money to support the habit, so the Long Island Blues Society became more organized. Today we have over 150 members, including Bands and Solo Duo performers. We try to bring in bands from around the country for shows as well as spotlight our locals. We are affiliated with The Blues Foundation in Memphis and send performers each year to the IBCs in Memphis Tennessee, where, we are proud to say, we have had quite a few finalists over the years. We spread the Blues all over Long Island!


What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I’ve had the opportunity to play some really wonderful shows pretty much all over the world, my time in Germany at the Burghausen Jazz Festival and in Clarksdale Mississippi at Ground Zero are times that stand out as very special to me.


What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……

My Dream, and what turns me on  would be touring the world, playing my music and making people happy, of course you could never get enough of that. Happiness is to die knowing that all the hard work and love I’ve put into this world was well worth it.


Do you know why the sound of piano is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of blues piano?

Some would say that the Blues started on the piano long before guitar was around I might have to agree but not from a bias stand point, just the name itself comes from the Italian word, piano-forte meaning that it can played either softly or loudly. That’s Blues (with feeling).

I don’t know if there are any secrets about blues piano especially with all the modern technology around us like Computers, Internet, YouTube, and the mere fact that more and more musicians including myself share ideas with other fellow musicians. But if I had to come up with one simple suggestion I would have to quote what an old friend said to me once, “KISS” Keep It Simple Stupid. Blues is played with feeling and finesse, not a whole lot of unnecessary notes all crammed together.



What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Well if you’re looking to play the blues and don’t know what instrument to take up. Learn the Piano. Yes that’s where I’m biased. It has it all…You’ll never regret that you did.


What would you ask Memphis Slim? How you would spend a day with Professor Longhair? What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from Otis Span blues?

Memphis Slim for many years didn’t play with a Drummer which is very interesting. I play a good part of the time Solo so I can understand and appreciate why he didn’t use drums. Memphis Slim was a master and played with some of the best Blues musicians- one being Willy Dixon. I guess I would probably like to ask him what his philosophy was; I sometimes feel that my style of blues most closely relates to his.

Professor Long Hair was a character, I would have loved to hang out with Fess I’m sure it would’ve been a blast. I would have loved to ask Fess about his life’s experiences.

When I think of Otis Spann, I think of the old days with cigarette smoke filled clubs and blues played like no other, his piano style was just so great and his voice was as bluesy as it could ever be. Do I miss it? Only Spann’s unique piano and vocals- as far as the smoke filled rooms, I can live without that!  Aside from that I would have loved to see Otis Spann in that environment. Again I’m sure I would have loved to hang out with him, but if I had to ask him a question it would have been who his inspirations were when he was growing up. If there is one person that exemplifies the Blues Piano Man more than any, I would say it would have to be Otis Spann.  


Tommy Keys - Official website


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