Piano hunt Perth busker John Gill ‘once loaned to Elton John’
A beloved busker’s street piano is hunted while a museum exhibit celebrates his extraordinary life on the 10th anniversary of his death.
Perth Museum aims to track down the piano and signature bucket of yellow tips used by “the Pied Piper of Perth,” John Gill, who died of a heart attack at age 57 while wandering the malls where he played for decades.
Mr. Gill’s exploits are legendary – including driving his own piano across Perth to play at an open-air backpacker’s wedding just a month before his sudden death.
But the museum’s upcoming exhibition isn’t the end of plans to honor Mr Gill. His supporters want to build a sound system as a tribute, Reece Harley, director of the Perth Museum told the Daily Mail Australia.
A hunt is underway for itinerant Australian busker John Gill’s piano and striking yellow-tipped bucket (pictured above) as a major museum aims to celebrate his extraordinary life on the 10th anniversary of his death
John Gill was more than a busker, said Reece Harley of the Museum of Perth. He is also known as the Pied Piper of Perth
It would use a motion sensor to play its music to anyone walking down Grand Avenue, near Murray Street Mall, where it captivated shoppers with its energetic performances for 20 years.
If that seems like a big deal to a busker, John Gill wasn’t your usual guitar case wannabe.
He was a world-class talent who decided to play for a few coins to bargain hunters through the heart of Perth.
“John was more than a busker,” Mr. Harley said. Known as ‘the piano man’, he is also known as the Pied Piper of Perth.
“When people went into stores, they expected to see him play. His performances were intrinsically linked to the perception of people in the city.’
Perth Museum aims to track down the piano and signature bucket of yellow tips (both pictured above) used by ‘Perth Pied Piper John Gill, who died of a heart attack at age 57
A child prodigy from Grimsby in the North East of Britain, at 15, Mr Gill preferred pub play to stodgy and serious classical studies. A teacher once told him that he could only be a ‘happy amateur’.
He dropped out of nursing school at the age of 17 to live and sleep on the streets of London in the early 1970s.
There he began an odyssey on the streets that would last 40 years.
As a four-year-old, Gill amazed his parents—mother Joan, a tap dancer who worked in Soho, and dad, Bryan, a concert violinist—on a toy piano.
They bought him a grand piano for £2 when he was six, no doubt intending to play it when he got older.
Living in a cramped first flood flat, the piano remained stored in the family’s coal shed downstairs.
But little John couldn’t stay away from the wonderful gift and snuck into the coal shed to teach himself.
As temperatures plummeted to zero in Grimsby in winter, John sped up, hitting the keys with fingerless gloves to keep warm.
As an adult, Mr. Gill traveled the world, usually playing a signature piano accordion.
John Gill’s mother Joan, a tap dancer in London’s Soho, bought him a toy piano when he was four years old.
Stories of Gill’s exploits are legendary – including driving his own piano through Perth to play at an open-air backpacker’s wedding just a month before his sudden death. Gill is pictured above during April Wang and Mark Vos’ wedding in 2011. Photo: Medhat Moftah
He played through Great Britain to the French Riviera to Switzerland, across the US and finally to Australia.
It was in the US where he toured 16 times, including the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival in Boulder, Colorado and the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, that he became famous on the piano.
Mr. Gill has recorded several albums and was considered “one of the best and traditional jazz pianists of his generation” according to music database allmusic.com.
Settled in Perth in 1983, he enchanted shoppers for over 20 years at the Murray Street Mall, outside Myer, with his upbeat ragtime performances.
He would stow his upright piano, stripped of the front panel so his audience could see inside, in Myer’s loading dock, and drive it into the open mall every day.
The Museum of Perth posted a call on social media for memories of Gill – and for clues to the whereabouts of his piano, which has not been seen since his death.
April Wang was one of many who responded.
Gill traveled the world for over 40 years and often played piano accordion
Mr Gill is pictured driving his piano and striking yellow-tipped bucket into the shopping center in Perth
She and her fiancé, Mark Vos, met as backpackers when she was a barmaid at the Lucky Shag bar in Perth in 2006, she told Daily Mail Australia.
“We saw him playing in town all the time,” said Ms. Wang. “His jazz music always felt like one of the joys of life,” she said.
After Mark asked the question, the couple took a punt and asked if the local legend would play at their wedding. He agreed and played all day for just $300.
Despite not being overly thrilled with the couple’s wedding set list, he graciously obeyed and played the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” while the paperwork was signed.
“We were later told that he actually pushed his piano out of town and after the wedding was over, he pushed it back again,” says Mr. Vos.
“We got married in Queens Garden and the venue and its music created a great atmosphere that we and our guests really enjoyed.”
They weren’t the only ones who had great jazz in the house.
“I loved his playing so much that I hired him to play at an event at my house. It was unforgettable. What a talent,” said Alifa Richards.
John Gill is depicted sitting at a grand piano. He once loaned a Steinway to Elton John — but was relieved when the lavish pop star didn’t walk across it
John Gill was a world class musician but rarely seen in a suit, he was more at home in casual wear and played for pedestrians and shoppers
As his reputation grew, he was hired to entertain crowds at the Hopman Cup—and blow them away.
According to local legend, he reluctantly lent his beloved Steinway concert grand piano to Elton John for a concert, and the pop star agreed to wear padded shoes so he wouldn’t damage it.
Many Perth residents welcomed warm and funny memories of Mrs Gill’s game.
“I once drank wine under his grand piano ‘to get the full effect’, because the piano was in a small space!” wrote Zac Wilkinson, who remembered Mr Gill as “a dear friend and complex soul.”
“He was the Pied Piper of the city,” wrote Amanda Ohnemus. “He drew everyone to him… the older generation, the big ones and the small ones.
“I loved the atmosphere he gave as you strolled through it.”
“There’s nothing like wandering the city on a Friday afternoon, listening to the distant sounds of the piano man,” Abbi Mowbray said.
‘Great talents. You could ask him to play anything and he could. He would always draw a huge crowd,” said Daz Rox.
In 2011, while walking through the mall, Mr Gill collapsed and later died. He was about to leave for his 17th tour of the US.
Mr Harley said the location of Mr Gill’s piano is unknown, although there is a chance it was “accidentally borrowed”.
“It’s possible that someone has it who maybe shouldn’t have it because it was borrowed without permission,” he said.
‘We would like to talk to someone about this anonymously.
‘Our exhibition opens on December 2nd and it would be great if we could have it as the centerpiece.
“We’re happy to lend it out.”
Meanwhile, the ‘battle’ to recognize his achievements continues.
The museum is the latest to support calls for a permanent memorial to Gill – which have so far not been passed by Perth City Council.
“I think Myers should have a statue of him made where he used to play. His music could be heard far into the store and he certainly got a lot of foot traffic in the store,” a main character said on Facebook.