Piano man Mike Baker knows what his audience wants. He helped build the Hume Conservatorium and Goulburn Club into wellsprings of music.
When streaming services such as Netflix depleted live musicians’ audiences, and then COVID-19 social distancing struck another more recent blow, Mike replied with an elegant response. He streamed his own show into the homes of his audience.
About 150 friends, work colleagues and family tuned in. Then numbers rose during the following week to 400 views. Now he knows he can draw on his 50-year career as a music teacher and performer in schools, music shows and gigs.
Like most veteran performers, he had a handful of years in which his brightest creative sparks flew. That was in the 1980s, when restaurateurs at the Fireside Inn, Peter and Jeff, employed Mike on Friday and Saturday nights for a decade.
“Working with Peter and Jeff definitely shaped me and gave me a discipline and repertoire,” says Mike. “They were absolutely wonderful to work for. Peter, the taller of the two guys, was the maître d’, the perfect host. I would see someone coming up the path to the restaurant, I would be playing and thinking, ‘Where’s Peter?’ He might have been in the kitchen or elsewhere, but he would always get to the door to greet them. And he was always there to say goodbye. He used to be the head waiter on the QEII.”
That decade endowed Mike with an exceptional repertoire. But holding an audience’s attention online for an hour was an ambitious challenge. The eldest of Mike’s four sons, Danny, a graphics and motion designer, helped turn the string of melodies into a seamless Facebook show.
All of Mike’s sons remember when their dad ironed their school uniforms for the coming week. Back then, they christened him Ironing Mike, a play on heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson’s alias, Iron Mike. The name fitted his show as crisply as a freshly pressed collar.
“It was a cheeky way of rebadging me,” explains Mike of the title of his show, Ironing Mike’s Happy Hour. “When I was looking for a handle for this show, I wanted to make it whimsical – that’s the tone of it.”
In pith helmet and Hawaiian shirt on Friday nights, pianist and saxophone player Mike opens with a Spicks and Specks-like quiz. His production assistant, Bronwyn Gerathy, helps as people start tuning in with compliments about his playing of easy listening tunes by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Carole King and familiar advertising jingles. Who could ever forget Allan Sherman’s Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh?
Mike’s musical buddies join him for happy hour. “People such as Ron McLaughlin come in and just make it happen,” he says. “It’s wonderful. [Former Hume Conservatorium executive] Keva Abotomey and Charlotte Lock – who both presented a Carole King tribute show in 2014 and 2016 – and Garth Prentice, head of the guitar facility at the Hume Con, and singer Michelle Hughes are all available.”
One weekend at a service station, a smiling man thanked Mike for happy hour. “We can’t watch it on Friday nights, but the family sits around on Saturday nights and enjoys it,” he told the piano man.
Listeners now include extended family in Sicily, Italy, a friend in Sheffield, England, who tunes in during breakfast, and people in New Zealand, Melbourne and Sydney.
Following music studies at the Goulburn Teachers College, Mike taught at St Mary’s Primary School in Crookwell, Ss Peter & Paul’s Parish Primary School in Goulburn, and at TAFE NSW Goulburn’s creative arts.
Towards the end of his full-time career, Hume Con’s chief executive and artistic director, Paul Scott-Williams, offered him an ideal transition into semi-retirement with immediate rewards: one-on-one teaching.
In his youth, when Mike first turned to music, his father, Eugene, advised him not to rely on it for a living. It was good advice so he turned to teaching which allows musicians to be full-time.
Eugene grew up through the Depression and world wars, worked hard as a carrier, delivering wool bales to wharves and tanneries. In pre-television days, they had a piano which his mother, Mary, played – particularly Irving Berlin and Cole Porter tunes.
A fan of traditional jazz and blues, Mike looks forward to returning to his regular Thursday night session playing pre-war jazz at the Goulburn Club, in addition to Ironing Mike’s Happy Hour.
“If I went out somewhere and played modern jazz, I would not have my audience for very long,” he says. “I go out there and play some Louis Armstrong and stuff from the ’20s. People love it.”