David Crohan celebrates 70 with Tabernacle concert and friends

David Crohan celebrates 70 with Tabernacle concert and friends

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A 1965 painting by Thomas K. "Tokey" Barnes of David playing at Munroe's on Circuit Avenue in the early 1960's. The women behind David, at the piano, is David’s mother. Tokey is the man in the checked jacket with a cigarette. Restaurant owner George Munroe, is wearing the chef’s hat. — Thomas K. Tokey Barnes

Pianist David Crohan is celebrating his 70th birthday and 50 years of performing on Martha’s Vineyard with a benefit concert that will include some of the most important people in his long, storied musical life. The concert at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs on Sunday, July 13, at 6:30 pm is planned as a tribute to those he learned from. It will benefit The Perkins School for the Blind and the New England Conservatory of Music, two of his alma maters, Island Elderly Housing, and the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group.

Island favorite David Crohan turns 70 this month and celebrates with a benefit concert on Sunday, July 13, at the Tabernacle.
Island favorite David Crohan turns 70 this month and celebrates with a benefit concert on Sunday, July 13, at the Tabernacle.

The concert features both Mr. Crohan’s stellar mix of classical and jazz piano with guests and a special second set with some of his Island musician friends playing popular music with some folk and rock thrown in. The show will include the spectacular voice of teenager Caroline Sky and David’s son, Phillip, on guitar.

Among the musicians joining Mr. Crohan are Wade Preston, who played in the Broadway show “Movin’ Out” featuring the songs of Billy Joel; Henry Santos, Stephen McGhee, David Hinds, Caroline Sky, Tom Billotto, Merrily Fenner, and Hugh Taylor.

Harry Santos, Mr. Crohan’s music teacher at Perkins, taught him to play the first movement from Robert Schumann’s “Piano Concerto in A” during his senior year of high school. The 86-year-old Mr. Santos, who Mr. Crohan later learned was the Reverend Martin Luther King’s roommate at Boston University and who has been an advocate of little known 19th century black composers during his career, will accompany Mr. Crohan on the Schumann piece on a second piano. It will be the first time in 52 years they have played together.

Mr. Crohan said he has a particular appreciation for turning 70 since not one of his three older siblings lived to be 70. His actual birthday is July 11.

Mr. Crohan was the former proprietor of and nightly pianist at David’s Island House, a restaurant and bar on Circuit Avenue that he operated during summers from 1978 until 1997. During the winters, he played at top-shelf Boston hotels and restaurants, including the Copley Plaza, the Parker House, Hotel Le Meridien, and the Bay Tower Restaurant.

Mr. Crohan now lives in Lake Worth, Fl., and has played for 12 years at the tony Cafe L’Europe in Palm Beach. He spends July and August on the Vineyard and has played at The Boathouse in Edgartown, Wednesdays through Saturdays, for the last five years. He usually has at least one concert performance on the Island every summer.

Blind since birth, Mr. Crohan was born in Providence, R.I., and spent 13 years as a boarding student at The Perkins School in Watertown, the oldest school for the blind in the United States, where Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, taught.

He showed musical promise before attending Perkins, being able to pick out popular tunes he heard on a piano before turning four, but it was at Perkins that his musical gifts grew. He then spent eight years at the New England Conservatory earning three degrees while performing in Boston and on the Vineyard.

“In those days the only important things for me and my friends were girls and music, and sometimes the music came first,” he recalled.

In 1962, after graduating from Perkins, the 17-year-old Mr. Crohan was invited to spend a week on the Vineyard with an aunt and uncle who had a house in the Campground in Oak Bluffs.

“The first night we were there I took a walk with my uncle to Circuit Avenue,” he said. “There was a piano in what they called the Topside at the Ritz. No one was playing so I sort of took over for that Friday and Saturday night. The third day I was there we went for dinner at The Boston House, a place more commonly known as Munroe’s after the owner George Munroe. It was June and the pianist they hired hadn’t come yet. So I played.

“Mr. Munroe said, ‘I can’t hire you this year because I have already hired someone else. I would if I could. I’m not going to pay you for tonight but I am going to give you an unlimited gift certificate but I am dating it next year.’ He said he hoped I would think about playing the next summer.”

Mr. Crohan’s mother thought he was too young to take a job like that so she had him wait for another year, until he was 19.

“It was the summer before The Beatles took off,” he said, “and I was playing the popular music of the time. There was a big mix of ages at Munroe’s and I was playing a wide variety of music including my usual classical music. There was a sing-along almost every night. That was the start of 50 years of magnificent times and great joy, and everything that can be said good about my life on the Vineyard.”

Mr. Crohan does not consider himself a composer, but he and his wife rent a house on the Vineyard from a friend who accepts payment in the form of an annual song he writes for the friend. The house is big enough for his extended family to visit. “It’s a great deal,” he said. “Each of us thinks we are getting the best end of the bargain, and it allows me to afford to play on the Vineyard every summer and to spend time with my family.” His three grown sons and five grandsons all live in the Boston area.

Music: David Crohan in Concert, 7:30 pm, Sunday, July 13, Tabernacle, Oak Bluffs. Doors open at 6:30 pm. $30 benefits Island Elderly Housing, M.V. Cancer Support Group, The Perkins School, and New England Conservatory of Music.

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