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Music strikes a chord for 95-year-old Catonsville man

MusicMusic Industry

Without warming up, Charles Sipes sat down at the piano in his living room and started playing, his 95-year-old fingers skipping across the keys without missing a note of the up-tempo jazz standard "Night and Day."

For several minutes, he played , his eyes never leaving the keys.

In a way, the Catonsville resident has never looked away from music as he made it his career, often working three jobs to support his wife, four children and four step-children.

"If I did one job of that nature, I couldn't make a living. Even two jobs, I couldn't make a living and raise a family," Sipes said. "If you're worth your salt, you're never home. Now I'm home a lot."

Sipes was born in East Baltimore, but grew up in what is now the Children's Home on Bloomsbury Avenue in Catonsville. He lived at the facility, which had only moved to Catonsville from Baltimore City a few years before, from age 9 to 17.

There he started playing the drums, he recalled, out of necessity.

He served as his team's catcher in a baseball game with other boys in the orphanage, when a play at the plate knocked out his two front teeth. With them went a possible career playing one of the wind instruments the orphanage had.

With no other options, Sipes focused on the drums, he said.

He eventually learned to play piano as well, he said.

By the time he left the orphanage, the Great Depression was in full swing. The only work Sipes could get, he said, was as a musician.

Sipes toured the surrounding states in a 14-piece band, mostly playing one-night gigs.

"I did better than most of the men in the neighborhood, money-wise," said Sipes, noting that his ability to read sheet music made him more valuable. "I was very much sought after. That's why I was always working."

Sipes said he played his last gig four years ago.

He still tunes pianos and occasionally repairs them with his son, Michael, 55, who lives with him.

In his detached garage, which doubles as his piano repair shop, Sipes bent over and rummaged through several drawers, occasionally pulling out some of the antique tools he still uses to ensure a piano is in tip top shape.

"Some of them are before my time even," Sipes said as he put a tool away in a weathered box and closed the drawer.

Sipes passes his time between the lessons he gives to two students and the four piano tuning appointments he has in the average week, each of which taking about 35 to 40 minutes, primarily by reading books.

Beside a chair in his living room are several who-done-it paperback mystery novels, but Sipes noted he'll read just about anything and polishes off about four books a week.

Michael Sipes said his father taught him to tune pianos at age 12. By age 18, he had turned it into the career he maintains to this day.

A willingness to learn, produce and go out and find the work led Charles Sipes to begin his piano tuning career more than a decade after he started his music career.

While he was working as the manager of a music store, a friend asked him to help with his tuning business. The elder Sipes recalled jumping at the opportunity.

"I had always been curious and it didn't cost me anything to learn, except my tools," Sipes said.

Like a musician, Sipes said, a piano tuner needed to be diligent when it came to honing his craft and persistent when it came to advertising in newspapers to attract business.

"It's a life's work to be able to do that," Sipes said. "People think you're born out of your mother able to do it."

His son said his willingness to follow in his father's footsteps came with an admiration for his father's ambition and persistence.

His father may no longer sell pianos and organs during the day and play a gig at night, but Michael Sipes noted that his father is more active than people 20 years younger.

It's not uncommon for him to drive 100 miles round trip to tune a piano, said the younger Sipes.

"He puts me to shame. He's 95. He hasn't lost a step," Michael Sipes said. "It's refreshing to think I've got 32 of those chromosomes in me."

Donna Read, one of Sipes' stepchildren, said her father always had a lot of energy and made time for his family, despite his workload.

Read recalled that when she was playing softball as a child, her father would go outside with her to make sure she hit and threw 100 balls every weekend.

"He was still a pretty old man to be running out and playing baseball with me every weekend," Read said, noting her stepfather is 45 years older than she is.

It's in a musician's nature to never sit still, Charles Sipes said.

"Musicians are very active people," he said. "You have to learn, you have to produce, you have to find the work."

Even though he continues to work as a tuner, he no longer sees it as a career.

"It's really my way of keeping in touch with music," he said. "I enjoy it thoroughly. I still do. It's my hobby now."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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