Playing or fixing them, pianos are key in his life

Photo by Bob Krasner Ray Santiago with the 1901 Knabe grand piano he is lovingly restoring.

Photo by Bob Krasner
Ray Santiago with the 1901 Knabe grand piano he is lovingly restoring.

BY BOB KRASNER  |  Electric pianos? Don’t talk to Ray Santiago about electric pianos.

“I hate electric pianos!” he said, emphatically.

The 59-year-old has been playing on natural “88’s” since he was 10 years old and nothing has taken him away from his love for the instrument.

He was 7 years old when he emigrated from Puerto Rico to the East Village, a time when Avenue A was paved with cobblestones. Music was a big part of his family life.

“Every Friday night was party time,” he said. “Put the records on and let’s dance!”

By the time he was 13, he had a band that rehearsed and played gigs in a club on E. Ninth St. between Avenues C and D. Although they were in the midst of some rough characters, they managed to stay out of trouble, but were well aware of what was going on around them.

“We knew who killed who,” he recalled bluntly.

At the age of 16 he was leading a nine-piece band and doing regular gigs at The Bronx Casino, a popular nightspot that is now defunct.

How did his parents feel about his becoming a musician? Santiago laughed and said, “Well, they bought me the piano! They came to the shows and danced.”

A string of albums on Salsoul Records with the groups Saoco and Saoco Originale kept him busy, but he held onto a day job at Bellevue Hospital, finally quitting in 1983.

He met his second wife in 1984 and he credits her with his current state of well-being.

“I’m alive because of my wife,” he said.

Santiago played regular weekend gigs with Papa Colon and Menique and Cheo Rosario (frequently playing with two bands on the same night). Then the singer Henry Fiol, a former member of Saoco, brought him on board for four albums.

In 1988 the East Village piano man finally recorded as a leader, with Julian Llanos on vocals. Three more records under his own name and gigs followed, but Santiago said he got “fed up with doing regular gigs” around 2008.

He began to spend his time restoring pianos in his East Village storefront apartment, where he’s lived for more than 30 years. He finds unwanted pianos in need of repair, or someone will lead him to a good one and Santiago will bring it back to its former glory and resell it.

For him, there’s nothing like playing on a beautiful old instrument.

“Even badass piano players that I know, don’t know what it’s like to play on a real piano,” he said.

Case in point is his current project, a 1901 Knabe grand. It’s going to be worth a lot of money when Santiago gets done with it, but it’s doubtful that he’ll be letting go of it anytime soon.

“To me, it’s priceless,” he said. “The only way I’ll let it go is if I find another one that’s better.”

Another project that you can’t really measure in dollars is his current goal — a ground-floor space in need of repair that will house a nonprofit, free, music school for local kids. He’s got the pianos and other instruments waiting and he’s in the process of looking for funding.

“I’m doing it to keep the music and the culture going — not for the money,” he explained.

In the mean time, he’s still got a regular gig, Wednesday nights at Luca Bar on St. Mark’s Place.

“It’s a living and I love doing it,” said Santiago. “I’m still doing the gigs, man. It’s a hustle every day.”

To contact Ray Santiago regarding gigs, piano restoration or the school project, e-mail raynysalsa@yahoo.com or call 646.755.2193.

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