Gary Haseley has attracted legions of fans with four decades of keyboard mastery
Gary Haseley was in sixth or seventh grade when he was “discovered” at a school talent show.
His ability on the ivories impressed a banker, which led to Haseley’s first paid gig playing Christmas music for two hours on a Friday at a financial institution. He came home elated with $20 or $25.
“My God, they pay you for this?” he said.
While it’s just a side job, Haseley has been getting paid for his hobby for more than 40 years since. The longtime Port Washington resident plays weddings and parties and is a member of two local bands, Otto Day and the Nites and Vinyl Groove.
“It’s a hard thing to let go of,” Haseley said of performing.
Haseley grew up in Waukegan, Ill., before moving to Port in 1968 when he was in middle school. His dad played trumpet and still plays in the Tri-County New Horizons band, and his mom played piano.
Haseley took an interest in music in fourth grade when his parents bought him accordion lessons.
“I liked the accordion,” he said. “You can get a full sound.”
He soon made the transition to piano.
“It helped that I wasn’t very good at anything else,” he said. “I wasn’t much good at athletics. With my nose and mouth and feet, I had the body of a clarinet.”
By eighth grade, Haseley found something he was good at. He could play music by ear.
“I would try and sound out songs on the piano,” he said.
Haseley remembers playing in Port’s first jazz band, started by Jerry Olson, who passed away this month.
In summer, Haseley accompanied musicals like “Pippin” and “Godspell” with choir director Bill Ross. Haseley learned the music by listening to albums.
Learning other songs from 45s and 8-tracks, Haseley regularly played weekends at the old Port Washington Country Club and later at the North Shore Country Club in Mequon. Background music often included works of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rogers.
The extra income came in handy during college. Haseley attended the University of Wisconsin-Washington County and then UW-Milwaukee.
Haseley majored in business and is a pharmaceutical sales rep. Some of his gigs come from talking to customers.
“One doctor has six kids. I played for three of their weddings. It’s like an annuity,” he said with a laugh.
Haseley is married with two grown daughters. He limited performing to help raise his family, but music was always part of his life.
“It calls for a patient, indulgent family to put up with that,” he said.
Haseley considered a career in music and was friends with Greg Gerard and the guys who eventually formed The Orphans, still a popular band in the upper Midwest, but decided it wasn’t for him.
“You have to be honest with yourself. The life of a struggling musician is difficult,” Haseley said. “You need that extra thing to make it a living. I didn’t and I’m fine with that.”
Haseley has remained popular on the local scene, playing with the guitar-driven, hard rock band Otto Day and the Nites for 17 years and for 1950s to ‘70s-playing Vinyl Groove for five years. Haseley usually plays keyboards and another instrument.
“I sing with the bands because then you have very loud instruments to cover up not very good singing,” he said.
Both bands play area festivals and events. One of Haseley’s favorites is Fishmas Eve, the night before Fish Day, at Newport Shores.
“You look out at tons of people into the parking lot and the lake,” he said.
Solo gigs are often weddings and sometimes senior homes. Haseley loves playing the annual Shirley Flack Christmas party attended by more than 200 people. It includes a well-organized Christmas carol sing-a-long, he said.
Haseley said playing at senior homes such as Cedar Ridge in West Bend is rewarding because “they like the older stuff and they don’t hear it as much anymore.”
Weddings are fun because of the atmosphere.
“You see people at their best. They’re happy as can be,” he said.
Haseley said he can easily tell if he had a successful gig.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played a job in the last 20 years where someone didn’t come up to me and say, ‘This is so beautiful. This must be so relaxing for you.’”
“It’s rewarding,” he said, “but not relaxing.”
Haseley practices every day for at least a week before performances, sometimes, playing four or five hours at a time.
“Then you really make progress,” he said. “Guys who made it would play music all the time.”
Haseley said he likes to play at least an hour right off the bat and can play 50 to 60 songs in two hours, sliding from one to another with no dead space in between. He doesn’t have a specified structure and instead feels out his audience.
“If people really like it, why stop it? Why break?” he said.
Haseley continues to add to the 500 songs in his repertoire but has no song list or sheet music. Playing by ear came naturally, he said.
Popular music, he said, only has a limited number of chord patterns.
“Once you know the game, it’s not that hard,” he said.
Except for the Beach Boys. He said they have surprisingly complex chord patterns.
Haseley said songs written for piano sound better on the piano.
“I haven’t heard ‘Smoke on the Water’ done well on a piano,” he said.
The Kiss song “Beth” is pretty on piano, and the Beatles wrote good piano music, he said. Current artists like Adele and Rhianna have some good piano music, but Haseley said many of today’s tunes don’t translate well or get requested.
“Nobody has come up to me and said, ‘Do you know a lot of Mariah Carey songs?’” he said.
Some of Haseley’s favorite artists to listen to include Adele and Amy Winehouse.
“You could tell she was a trained musician. She could improvise within the chord structure,” he said.
Haseley said he will never tire of hearing “Someone to Watch over Me.”
“I could listen to it all the time,” he said. “It’s poignant. I don’t know that you see a lot of poignancy anymore.”
He said he still listens to Eric Clapton and Frank Sinatra.
“The old people will say that’s when music was music, but every generation says that,” he said.
Haseley’s favorite Christmas carol is “Silent Night.”
“Some of those tunes that have been out there for hundreds of years you take for granted but there’s a reason they’ve been around hundreds of years,” he said.
Haseley does not take music for granted. He said music at weddings facilitates conversation and makes a big difference.
“It’s nice when there’s something in the background and it’s nice when it’s live,” he said. “You’d be surprised how much it adds.”
Image Information: Haseley’s primary instrument is the piano, which he has played for nearly 50 years. Photo by Sam Arendt