During my performances, Bernice sits knitting in a rocking chair, her steel gray hair pulled into a messy top knot. The stereotype ends there. Although kind and complimentary toward me, Bernice is cantankerous with the other residents, especially if they dare occupy the rocker she favors. And she always gathers her yarn and needles and leaves in a huff when Floyd requests “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”
One day Bernice asked if I knew “Alley Cat.” I was surprised—and delighted. A wave of nostalgia passed over me. I hadn’t played that piece since I was a child. It was a real crowd pleaser then, but it never occurred to me to bring it out for my elderly audiences, and no one had ever asked for it.
“Alley Cat” was written by a Danish pianist and composer who went by the name Bent Fabric. Really. His full name was Bent Fabricus-Bjerre; he sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Frank Bjorn. The song is easy, so when it came out in the early 1960s, with a few years of piano lessons under my belt, I was ready. The rhythm of “Alley Cat” captures a feline’s slow swagger; sliding chromatic chord pairs mimic its meow. Bernice told me that now there’s a line dance—popular at wedding receptions—that goes along with “Alley Cat.”
By the time I reached middle school, I could manage a more difficult cat-themed piece: “Kitten on the Keys” by Zez Confrey. This one suggests the sound of a cat playfully pawing up and down the keyboard. Sometimes called the king of novelty piano composers, Confrey started composing while working as a pianist and arranger for QRS piano roll company. The success of “Kitten on the Keys” in 1921 was followed by a second hit, “Dizzy Fingers,” in 1923. Amateur pianists couldn’t learn it fast enough. Throughout the 1920s, Confrey produced a steady stream of novelty tunes with catchy titles like “You Tell ’em Ivories,” “Stumbling Paraphrase,” and “Coaxing the Piano.”
So I dug through my sheet music collection and found my old copy of “Alley Cat.” I got out “Kitten on the Keys,” too, with its penciled-in fingerings and circled trouble spots. And I discovered they’re just as fun to play now as they were then. Thanks, Bernice.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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