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March 19, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Sooner or later, every musician has to decide whether or not he or she has made it. So far, Dean Madonia hasn’t.
As he explains: “I always thought the fat guy with the scar was going to come up and go, ‘Hey, kid, you’re great, Sign this, and you’re going to be famous.’” Although it’s clear where the anecdote is headed, disappointment is noticeably absent from his voice. “But that didn’t happen. It’s kind of weird playing the dueling pianos when you thought you were going to be the next Elvis or The Beatles.”
Madonia’s life, one spent as a dueling piano player in cities on and between both coasts, is the perfect opportunity for a rocky road metaphor, but he won’t let you use it. As he plays the Yamaha grand over the phone in his Nashville home, Madonia doesn’t waste his memories. Instead, he recycles them, building on each one to complete an engaging version of his life story so far.
“My parents got divorced when I was 9, so my piano lessons came to a pretty complete halt,” Madonia says. His father moved to California and left his piano to Madonia in Michigan. “I guess that was kind of like my tie to my father, so I just kept playing.”
Although the lessons stopped, Madonia did not, and the results of the 38 years that have passed are best expressed in numbers: four solo albums, around 40 bands, one record label and a 3-year-old son. Along the way, Madonia has also gained a second home.
“I’ve played there so many times, I feel like I know Columbia better than Nashville,” Madonia says. “I’ve already turned over a whole graduating class, at least. ... Whenever I see people there, they’ll say, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in a long time,’ and I have to be like, ‘Dude, I don’t live here.’”
Madonia’s voice is as deliberate as his story is romantic. It never falters but is tested as he describes his lastest setback.
Almost five years ago, while struggling with heat stroke and an unyielding lawnmower in his front yard, an accident cost Madonia part of his right ring finger and the tip of his pinky.
“Sometimes I look down at it, and I’m like, ‘God, that was really, really dumb,’” Madonia says, and it’s easy to imagine he’s doing so as he speaks — until he laughs. For a while, he thought his career was over. “I don’t believe that the universe is trying to tell me something or anything,” he says. “But I think that when things happen, you have to draw the lessons you can from them. ... I probably play almost as well as I ever played.” He pauses. “Maybe better.”
If Madonia had a least important finger, it was the one he lost. “I have to focus on the positive aspect because if you focus on the negative side in something like this, that’s what sends you down the big spiral,” he says.
Fellow dueling pianist Brad Heron, who calls “nine-fingered Dean” one of the top duelers around, says he’s “about the best there is on Meatloaf’s ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Lights.’” Heron admires Madonia’s humility. “If I only had nine fingers and I played as good as he did, I’d be telling everyone I know,” he says.
Today, Madonia has learned to play smarter, and he focuses on his son, Wolfgang, and his original music on the four days a week he sets aside from trips. Eventually, he’d like to play his own music. Madonia’s original composition “Honor Is Ours” will be featured in the animated movie Foodfight!, starring Charlie Sheen and the Duff sisters, this summer.
“When I first met Dean, I realized he was more of a professional musician than just a dueling piano player,” says Keith Daly, general manager of The Penguin Piano Bar where Madonia has played countless times. Daly says Madonia isn’t a showman and doesn’t rely on gimmicks. “Early in the night or on Thursday nights when we’re not busy, he’ll play some of his original music for the staff and me, and it’s really good.”
At 47, Madonia is still firmly focused on a songwriting career and constantly has a smattering of projects in the works. No, he hasn’t made it — but he’d like to add “yet” to the end of that sentence.
“It’s not the story everybody wants to hear about the dueling pianos,” Madonia says, “but it’s my story.”
Who: Dean Madonia
When: March 19, 20, 21
Where: The Penguin Piano Bar
Cost: 3/19 – Free; 3/20 – Free for women, $5 for men; 3/21 – $5