Life at the keyboard
● By Kerigan Butt
The Fuzzy Snakefoot plays a showcase concert at the Queen in Wilmington, Del., with Boris on keyboards (at right).
By John Chambless
It was showtime at the library, and Paul Boris was admittedly winging it.
Given not nearly enough time to set up his keyboards and sound equipment, Boris faced dozens of people in the meeting room at the Hockessin Public Library and good-naturedly announced that he and his fellow musicians – Joe Koetas and Ric Harris – were calling themselves the Fridge Magnets that day because, “We'll be throwing things up against the refrigerator and seeing what sticks,” Boris said.
That led into their first song, “Saint Patrick Was a Gentleman,” part of an Irish-themed hour of music that managed to veer in some unexpected directions. With a disarming ease, Boris guided the concert with sidelong glances and nods to the other musicians, introduced songs with tongue-in-cheek wit, and put on a leprechaun hat and fake beard as penance for not making a convincing case for including Dave Mason's “We Just Disagree” in a concert of supposedly Irish music.
Even the stalwart Irish standard “Danny Boy” got a pronounced tilt towards jazz, and the set closer, the traditional Irish ballad “Black Velvet Band,” segued into Billy Joel's “Piano Man” because, Boris explained later, the chords just sounded so similar that he couldn't resist.
The audience loved the show, during which Boris took the trio through some musical left turns. The songs had the slink and sophistication of Steely Dan's classic work, while Boris had undeniable charm as the master of ceremonies.
Later, as he wrapped up extension cords and put away equipment, Boris talked about how he got here. His parents sing, and his father performs with a barbershop chorus in New Jersey. His sister played flute and changed over to painting.
“My mother's family, most of them are music teachers,” he said, “and when I was a kid, a paper came home for band instruments. I really wasn't interested, so I figured I'd pick something that my mother would never go out and purchase. So I picked piano, thinking they'd never put one in their living room. Which they did.”
His parents had a music collection that spanned “the Mamas and Papas to tamburitza music and classical,” Boris said, so he grew up listening to a range of music that's reflected in his style to this day.
With steady parental pressure to practice, Boris eventually went on to study music at Glassboro College, now Rowan University, in New Jersey. He studied both classical and jazz, and today he's comfortable with music that's across the board – sometimes within the same song. “I started gravitating towards Steely Dan, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and Chicago,” he said. “Then, as I was getting more defined, I started listening more to jazz. That jazz influence comes out in a lot of what I do.”
While he never harbored dreams of being a keyboard superstar, Boris did have near-misses with what could have turned out to be fame. “I was playing at a club, and the next day in Glassboro, this man comes up and gives me a business card and says, 'Give me a call. I'll get you a plane ticket. You can go to Chicago.' But I was still in school,” Boris said, so he didn't end up pursuing the offer.
And then there was the time that he turned down an audition to play B-3 organ in Atlantic City with “some guy” who turned out to be David Clayton Thomas of Blood, Sweat and Tears fame. There was also an offer to write an arrangement for a singing group at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, but he also had an interview scheduled for a little startup company in West Chester called QVC at the time. His car broke down, he tried to call the music studio to reschedule, but they never called back.
So Boris took a corporate job with QVC for 24 years, putting music on a back burner, until he was laid off last year.
With a wife and son to support, the Avondale-based former musician had to decide what path to take. He took the plunge and chose music. “It was my version of a midlife crisis,” he said.
A substitute position as a piano instructor for the Center for the Creative Arts in Yorklyn, Del., has turned into a steady job, along with giving private lessons. “I give lessons to about 30 students, from beginners to age 76,” he said.
So, with the attitude that he has keyboards and will travel, Boris is part of a southern rock cover band called HellSaddle that can crank up the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd in bars. He's also with the Royal Nonesuch Jazz Ensemble, playing jazz standards. He plays the piano and organ at the Landenberg United Methodist Church every Sunday – where “I seldom play what's written,” he said. “With church music, some people hear the hymn, but I hear the chord progressions. To me, the ones from the 1920s sound like they belong on a carousel. So I end up changing things around.”
While he's happy to take jobs as a sideman, “I'm personally invested in a band called The Fuzzy Snakefoot, which plays original music in an R&B vein,” said Boris, who has posted several of his own original songs on Reverbnation. The songs are a hybrid of the slink of Steely Dan and the dry wit of Randy Newman. “What's Mayan is Yours” is a bit of wordplay inspired by TV programs about ancient aliens and the Mayan calendar apocalypse that never arrived. “8 Cars Back” is a meditation on being stuck in traffic. “Missing a Beat” is indeed missing a beat (“The band seems confused/The drummer's got three feet and one pair of shoes”).
The life of a professional musician has led to some hectic scheduling. “On Friday night, I was playing at Mojo 13 in Wilmington,” Boris said. “Today I was playing in church this morning, then I was here [at the library show], and next Sunday I'll be playing at the Kennett Square Blue and Gold Cub Scout dinner. I'll be playing background music while they eat their spaghetti dinner.
“Hey, if it's music, I can play it,” Boris said. While he is less than enthusiastic about some contemporary pop hits (“If you can program it, that's karaoke,” he said with a grin), he's happy to put together just about whatever an audience wants. All of his equipment fits into his Hyundai Accent, he said, so he's able to play anywhere.
“I'm trying to position myself as a sideman, because I figure it's easier to get a call from somebody and do a job than it is to try to maintain,” Boris said. “I still have to figure out how to manage that.”
For more information, visit www.reverbnation.com/paulborisjr.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.