On a recent afternoon near the clock at the Southgate Mall, Asaph Adonai plays Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's In Love With You." Several people are already sitting at the tables, drinking coffee from Caffe Dolce and listening with half-smiles on their faces. Others, walking by, stop and stare, their faces suddenly lit up as if awakened from a consumer trance. By the time Adonai, a classically trained pianist, starts playing "Take My Breath Away," the Berlin song from the Top Gun soundtrack, he's surrounded by a group of five shoppers-turned-groupies requesting songs.
It's not just the music that's attracting the shoppers. Adonai has flair and charisma. His dark hair is radically coiffed in the front James Brown-style and continues shiny and feathered past his neck. His suit is wrinkled but stylish in a retro way. No matter which song he's playing, he looks overjoyed.
"When it gets closer to Christmas, I'll do more Sinatra music and the Christmas stuff," he says. "And some hymns too. You can do 'Rock of Ages' or 'The Old Rugged Cross'—people love those."
Adonai is also known as the Supermarket Pianist. Last September, he walked into the Pattee Creek Market on 39th Street to get toilet paper and ended up playing a song on their piano located near the big freezers at the encouragement of Debbie McDonald, who works in the bakery. Somebody called Jim Edwards, the owner, and that's how the whole thing started."
Adonai plays there several days a week now.
"I don't get paid as far as money, but I do get exposure," he says. "And they give me gift certificates, which helps. They've been very good to me."
Adonai, 53, grew up in Sacramento, Calif. playing trumpet and some piano. His dad was in the Air Force and his mom was a homemaker. "I was kind of the oddball of his family," he says. "It's like if you're a farmer and your father's a farmer, your grandfather's a farmer, and everybody's a farmer, and you want to be a ballerina. That's what it was like for me growing up."
When he was 19, he studied music for a short time at the San Francisco Conservatory. When he was 21, he met Robert "Bumps" Blackwell, known for producing Little Richard's early hits and grooming Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Sam Cooke, among others, in their early careers. Blackwell took Adonai under his wing, and Adonai lived and studied music with the producer in an L.A. apartment for the next three years.
"I learned more from him than I ever did at the conservatory because he was training me to be a performer instead of just learning how to compose," says Adonai.
Adonai says Blackwell was interested in being his agent and planned to eventually sign him. But Blackwell died of pneumonia in 1985. After that, he says, the opportunities thinned. In 1996, he moved to Billings to get away from big city life. He played at the Billings Hotel for three years and for community events at the Billings Clinic and the Yellowstone Art Museum.
While living in Billings, Adonai was interviewed by David Lynch for the Interview Project, in which the director known for "Twin Peaks" and Blue Velvet took a road trip across the country to find interesting people. In the interview, posted on interviewproject.davidlynch.com, Adonai talks about being newly married and about his greatest challenge: learning to ignore people who believe that playing the piano isn't an adequate job.
Adonai actually did decide to quit the music business for more practical work. He got a job at the Holiday Inn for a year where he shined brass and mopped floors in the bar, but it wasn't his thing. "I thought that's what people wanted me to do," he says. "But I noticed that when I did what everyone thought I should, nobody was satisfied. That's what made me go back to music."
When Adonai chose his music obsession over other jobs, his wife at the time left him. He moved to Missoula to start again and within two weeks had a job at Finn & Porter and the Double Tree lobby playing piano for guests and diners. He made a CD called Lean On Me, JeannieMarie, named for his ex-wife, which covers a wide variety: Bill Withers's "Lean On Me," Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Beethoven's "Fur Elise" and, finally, Rich Mullins's "Our God is an Awesome God."
Gigs have started to fall into place: Pattee Creek was followed by the holiday gig at the mall and, this week, he plays during the Missoula Art Museum's Artini night called A Story to Tell. He has an autobiography due next year called Supermarket Pianist.
Recently, Adonai says, three "professional-looking" people came into the supermarket and told him his name had made it to producers on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show." He doesn't know what that means exactly, but he hopes he'll get a call someday soon to appear. He talks about the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" a lot, but he's trying not to get his hopes up. Ever since Bumps Blackwell's death decades ago, he's learned to love the life he has.
"I often wonder what life would have been like had he not passed away and I'd signed a contract with him," he says. "I think my life might have gone a different direction. But I can't complain. I think I have the most fun job in the world being a pianist."
Asaph Adonai plays during Artini at the MAM Thursday, Dec. 15, 5:30 to 9 PM. He plays the Southgate Mall Thursday, Dec. 15, 2 to 5 PM and Saturday, Dec. 24, from 2 to 6 PM. Free.