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Piano is John’s forte

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John Woolridge didn’t get much sleep in his late teens. He’d play piano in hotels until 1am, then ride along to his next gig.

“We were finished when we were finished,” he said

The long hours served as good training.

For the past several weeks he’s spent seven hours each night practising piano for his performance with UK group Tenors Un Limited at the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts.

That’s after a full day teaching music at the Berkeley Institute. He’s also a pastor and a composer, perhaps best known for the popular song, Proud to Be Bermudian.

“One day I’ll get to rest,” he laughed. “I was excited by the opportunity. I’ve often attended shows and wondered what it would be like to actually perform with the Festival.

“It has been part of the Festival’s mandate this year to include more Bermudians. It is a bold move on their behalf.”

He hopes last weekend’s performance will open more doors for him.

Surprisingly, he dreamt about medicine rather than music as a child. The music bug bit in his early teens when he was inspired by the Battle of the Bands competitions that were popular in the 1960s.

“Me and my best friend Theodore Stephens wanted to become doctors,” he said. “Theodore did become a doctor. Anytime I saw a piano I’d sit and tinker with it. At 13 I asked my mother if I could have a portable organ keyboard [a predecessor to synthesizers] so I could learn to play. She said I could have one if I got good grades at school. At the time, I was getting average grades at Saltus.”

Given the challenge he put his head down, and came top of his class.

“I taught myself to play by ear,” he said. “My aunt, Liz Davis, was a member of the Social Club Jets on Angle Street. She asked my brother and I to play.

“Wentworth is a year younger than me and played bass. It was a private event. We played the few songs we knew and jammed.”

He then started taking formal piano lessons at Saltus with the late Bill Duncan.

“He was very much an inspiration,” said Mr Woolridge. “However, as much as I admired him, he would be thoroughly frustrated by me because I could figure a piece without looking at the music.”

He went to Boston’s Berklee College of Music after high school.

He returned to the island that summer and got his first real gig, playing with the late Lance Hayward, Ron Lightbourne, Stan Gilbert and Violeta Carmichael at Grotto Bay Hotel.

Last month he played at a Chewstick event honouring Mr Hayward’s life.

“They asked me to perform a song by him,” said Mr Woolridge. “At the end they announced that they were giving out the first Lance Hayward Award and I was the recipient. I was very pleased.”

Despite that, he’s most proud of his family and the accomplishments of his students.

“Many of my students have gone on to do well,” he said. “Some of them are teaching in the school system now.”

See the full Festival line-up here: www.bermudafestival.org

Musician John Woolridge will be performing with Tenors Unlimited (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Musician John Woolridge will be performing with Tenors Unlimited (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)