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Oakland's Piano Man 

Wednesday, Jun 29 2016

When I walk into The Alley in Oakland's Grand Lake district at 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday, Rod Dibble is leading a singalong.

His fingers flit along the piano keys, playing the melody for "Oakland," a 1960s classic by The Goodtime Washboard 3, as the eight or so people seated around his literal piano bar — a middle-aged man in a suit; a bespectacled millennial with green-tinged hair; and a sexaganarian and his Portland-based burlesque dancer daughter — join him for lines like, "Now where did all the people go when 'Frisco burned? / They all went to Oakland and never returned."

The Alley is decorated to resemble, well, an alley: a 1920s venue replete with shingled roofs and faux telephone lines criss-crossing the bar. It's a stark contrast to the modern-minimalist style of the neighborhood's newer establishments. Nearly every inch of the space is covered with ephemera collected over the bar's 80 years of service — newspaper clippings, photos of family and bar regulars, and hundreds of business cards tacked on by patrons, some bearing the six-digit phone numbers of the 1950s.

"There are all these new places around here, but we're more unique," says bartender Jennifer Davis, who's worked there since 1999. "It's kind of like a time machine. When you come in The Alley, nothing has changed."

That includes the inimitable presence of Dibble. Every Thursday and Saturday night from 9 p.m. to midnight, Dibble plays as regulars and first-timers gather around the wide piano bar to sing songs — usually as solos — chosen from three-ring binders strewn about the bar, or simply made up on the spot.

A cantaloupe-size disco ball hangs above Dibble's head and his wife, Linda, occupies the stool next to him. Three microphones are positioned around the table strewn with criss-crossing microphone cords, empty drinks, and Dibble's quarter-full tip jar. He wears a T-shirt and jeans, and, at 83, has spiky gray hair and a face tanned and lined from years of daily walks.

Paul Rose, who's been singing weekly with Dibble for 27 years, takes the microphone and performs "Buttons and Bows," a lesser-known cut from the Great American Songbook that receives applause from the group and a smile from Dibble.

"Rodney keeps the vibrations good," says Rose, a 71-year-old retired lawyer who crosses the Bay from his home in San Francisco to sing. "People get applause if they try hard. There's not a lot of one-upmanship here."

Nearly every song Dibble plays was written before 1960. His repertoire includes jazz standards and classics by Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer. There is plenty of Rodgers & Hammerstein: Oklahoma! and Carousel, and Gershwin's Porgy & Bess.

Dibble estimates he knows around 3,000 songs. In fact, he used to learn a song a day, but in his old age he tries to learn one a week.

"He plays several hours a day," says Linda, whom he met a decade ago when she came in to sing.

Dibble began studying piano at age 7. By the time he was a student at Berkeley High School, he was playing house parties for extra cash. He found his way to The Alley in 1960, when then-owner Jody Kerr approached him while he was playing at a rival piano bar on Telegraph Avenue.

Her pianist had cancelled and she was in need of a fast replacement. Soon after, Dibble was behind the piano at The Alley on Tuesday through Saturday nights from 9 p.m. till close.

Aside from one year in the mid-1960s when he left to play at another bar after he and Kerr had a disagreement, he's never held another job.

"I just fell in love with the place and I didn't want to leave," he says. "It's everything I wanted, and it's a wonderful living."

Davis says Dibble has remained at The Alley for so long "because he just couldn't help it."

"He couldn't not do it," she says. "It's like gravity pulls and rivers run to the sea. It was written in stone before time that he was going to do this. And he'll agree to that."

After a short break of chatting with those around the table, Dibble returns to his piano and the music begins once again. A girl in her early 20s wearing a red jean jacket sings the blues standard "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," after which Dibble grins widely and reaches under his piano to ring the cowbell, his marker of a song especially well sung.

After six decades, Dibble is showing signs of slowing down. His hands aren't as powerful as they once were, he now ends his sets by midnight, and he's reduced his formerly five-day schedule to two nights only. Younger pianists fill out the other nights, playing more modern rock and pop tunes.

But Dibble has no plans to retire soon. When asked how much longer he intends to play, he says, "Until I die."

"Rod gets to say when it's done. Not anybody else," Davis says. "He used to say he wanted to die behind the piano and it kind of creeped me out, but now I say that's a great goal. Go for it. I kind of hope it happens that way. I think it'd be kind of cool."

By midnight, every stool at the piano bar is taken. A girl in her 20s with bleached blonde hair quietly meanders her way through "Moon River," after which someone calls out, "Virgin!"

Dibble reaches down to ring the cowbell as he does for all first-timers. And with that, another evening is complete.

He rises from his seat, pats a few regulars on the back and heads for the door.

But he's forgotten one thing: his tip jar.

"Can't forget this," he says, scooping up the pile of dollar bills before heading out into the night.


About The Author

Jessi Phillips


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