Cincinnati After Dark: Philip Paul On Keeping Cincinnati Awake For Seven Decades And Counting

Philip Paul isn’t just the great King Records house drummer: He’s been playing in the city’s nightclubs longer than almost any other musician. Recently he closed out a gig at the Cricket Lounge in the Cincinnatian Hotel, where he started in 2001 and only stopped when new owners shut the club down in February. He and his band are now playing Saturday nights at the Symphony Hotel lounge. They take requests.

Philip Paul photographed in his home on March 22, 2017.

Photograph by LuAnne DeMeo

Photograph by LuAnne DeMeo

Part of the job is chemistry. You have to know the tunes but you have to be a kind of spokesman as well, because people are going to confront you and ask a lot of questions about a lot of things. And even if you don’t know you’ve got to pretend like you do, because people like to talk to a live musician—they like get into the heads of a musician. When I started playing, you might play a set and then go back in another room and talk amongst yourselves, but that’s changed. Now people want to discuss with you something they saw on Facebook or something. You have to talk in a language they understand.

I find that musicians play tunes that reflect the era they were brought up in. So, I’m 91 and grew up in a jazz era, when Charlie Parker and Miles Davis came on the scene. Naturally I like pop music from that era. [But] we take requests, too, and if someone comes up and asks for something, if we know it we attempt it. My pianist has a box of music and we try to please them—they might give you a $50 tip.

Photograph by LuAnne DeMeo

Photograph by LuAnne DeMeo

The biggest tip I ever got was when I was playing at the Celestial. A guy came in—the gig was over and he just said “Guys, let’s party.” He gave us a hundred dollar bill. We played the tune he requested, and then he said, “Don’t stop now, you’re working for me.” We ended up with $1,300 apiece! It hasn’t happened again, but if you’re congenial and try to please the customer it might benefit you in many ways.

I have no immediate plans to retire. See, I came to this town in 1951 with Tiny Bradshaw’s band. When Tiny passed away [in 1958] we were playing in Florida. We all got back to Cincinnati, home base, and all the guys—Red Prysock, Sam Jones, Bill Hardman, all them—said, “We’re going back to New York. Phil, you going back? That’s where you’re from.” But I just had a feeling about what could happen here. Red Prysock said, “Man, you’re gonna die out there!” But, know what? Sam Jones died, Red Prysock died, Bill Hardman…. Musicians don’t retire. They just die, I guess, like everybody else.

My wife liked a tune—“Our Love Is Here to Stay”—and when we play it, it makes me cry, you know? I don’t usually admit that but it’s so beautiful. Some music you just play the chord changes and it just makes you cry. You try to hold back; it’s not sorrowful tears, it’s happy, so you can’t hold it back. Sometimes the group will play that tune and then turn around and look at me—“Oh, look at Phil…” That’s when they play it right. If the band plays it bad, well, that’s not why I’m crying.

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