Like Baysox, organist has big league dreams

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Greg Lupton's father was a piano-playing songwriter in the style of Tin Pan Alley, and Babe Ruth was a distant cousin. It is a perfect double-play pedigree for his current job on 33rd Street.

"Here I am," says Mr. Lupton, "playing the organ at baseball games."

Greg Lupton is team organist for the Bowie Baysox, a gang of minor leaguers chasing big league dreams this summer at Memorial Stadium.

When the Baysox are out of it late in a game, the hopeful notes of "Tomorrow" from Broadway's "Annie" float through the horseshoe-shaped stadium.

If the day is bright and sunny and the local boys are ahead, Mr. Lupton performs Mr. Rogers' "It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."

And after a 20-to-4 home team disaster early in the season, he played a funeral dirge.

As the Baysox play their hearts out in hopes of impressing Oriole honchos downtown at Camden Yards, Mr. Lupton sits in the press box above the field with major league dreams of his own.

He yearns to join the ranks of musicians like Nancy Faust, organist at Comiskey Park in Chicago; Eddie Layton at the House that Ruth Built in New York; and Marge Adler, who keeps fans humming in Cleveland.

Says Mr. Lupton with team spirit: "I think we're all trying to get to the majors."

The odds against making that leap from the minors are higher for Mr. Lupton than they might be, say, for Baysox third baseman Edgar Alfonso.

There are 700 active players on 28 major league teams. Only 16 of those teams use live organists. The rest play canned music -- some of it canned organ music -- to get the crowds going.

That includes the Baltimore Orioles, who built an old-fashioned stadium but decided against the nostalgic sound of an organ, an instrument that can turn a ballpark into an amusement park.

"It was considered," says Charles Steinberg, the Orioles' director of ballpark entertainment. "But fan surveys said popular music was desired 5-to-1 over an organist."

Instead, the Birds rely on fresh pop music like "Jump" by Kriss Kross to appeal to young people needed to keep the game alive.

Taped pop music

The Orioles haven't employed an organist since 1974, when the late South Baltimore music store owner Bernie Shofer played the last of his four seasons. Not only did Mr. Shofer play the ballpark organ, but he leased it to the team as well.

In 1975, according to team officials, the Orioles became the first major league club to use taped pop music during games, relying on the soft sounds of Seals & Crofts and the Bee Gees, and, for reasons unknown today, the theme from "Jesus Christ Superstar" when Tommy Davis came to bat.

Almost 20 years later, the Orioles play rap between innings as Greg Lupton keeps his chops sharp in the land of Double A ball.

Gregory Lupton grew up in Linthicum Heights as Beany, the kid in the red house on Homewood Road who could play the piano like Elton John.

"He seemed to have a natural talent," says Dorothea Lupton, his mother. "It was just in him to pick out tunes on the piano. No one pushed it on him."

Beany Lupton banged out Leon Russell numbers for adolescent peers pretending they were hippies at the Hungry Ear coffee house on Camp Meade road. He played high school proms in groups like Hyde Park and the Royal V Plus One. He discovered the joy of jazz from a special school teacher named Al Shoup. And, a few years after his 1973 graduation from Andover High School, he went off to find fame in Los Angeles as singer-songwriter Buddy Monday.

The closest he came was selling a song called "The Next Time You Leave Me, I'll Be Walking Out On You" to a 1985 Home Box Office movie called "Odd Jobs."

Always looking for jobs

When his father, piano player and songwriter Bill Lupton, died in 1988, Buddy Monday came home to help out, moving back into the red house on Homewood Road where he lives with his mother.

"I came back to Baltimore to help my family pick up the pieces after Dad died, and I just haven't left to go back to Tinseltown," he says.

Over the years, Mr. Lupton has played cruise ships, bars, churches, nightclubs, comedy gigs and nursing homes. The barroom boogies of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton give him the most pleasure, and country music has become a listening favorite because it reminds him of the rock and roll from his youth.

Mr. Lupton can play anything from Mozart to Merle Haggard and, for money, will play whatever you care to hear.

"I'm always looking for another job," he says. "I play a lot of old folks homes during the day. A lot of people would consider that a joke, but [the elderly] appreciate real piano music."

After meeting Baysox general manager Keith Lupton -- no relation -- while playing a nightclub in Hagerstown, Greg Lupton was invited to liven things up at Hagerstown Suns baseball games.

When the Double A Suns moved to Baltimore to become the Baysox, they brought their organist with them, paying him a fee per game that he says is less than he gets at nightclubs.

"This is great for me," says Mr. Lupton as "Makin' Whoopee" travels on a two-second delay from his keyboard to huge speakers in the outfield. "At 38, the less time I spend playing bars, the better off I am."

If Baysox third baseman Edgar Alfonso would like to be Brooks Robinson, Greg Lupton aspires to become Nancy Faust -- team organist for the Chicago White Sox since 1969.

As far as she knows, Ms. Faust is the only baseball stadium organist to receive a gold record, having earned an honorary one from Mercury Records in 1977 for helping put "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" by Steam back on the charts in Chicago.

Fans chant lyrics

As she plays the song's chorus, White Sox fans at Comiskey Park chant the lyrics to taunt opposing pitchers being yanked from the game: "Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey -- GOODBYE!!!"

The song became a cultural touchstone for Windy City fans.

That kind of communication between humans -- one behind an organ and tens of thousands of fans -- cannot be duplicated by technology, says Ms. Faust, 45.

"I provide something that canned music can't," she says. "And that's humor and spontaneity."

A legend among ballpark musicians is the story of one particularly witty organist who played "Three Blind Mice" after a bad call by an umpire. The wisenheimer was promptly fired.

"I'm not terribly knowledgeable about baseball," says Ms. Faust, "but I have a good grip on a lot of songs." That includes the latest from artists like Snow, M. C. Hammer and Sting.

"Alley Cat and Moon River just don't make it anymore," she says.

Marge Adler, a classical pianist most recently employed in the play "Phantom of the Opera," is a rookie organist for the Cleveland Indians. In their last year at Municipal Stadium, the Indians wanted to invoke nostalgia and brought back the organ after years without one.

"There's something very quaint, very gentle and spontaneous with an organ," says Ms. Adler, who won the heart of the city early in the season when it snowed during a game and she played "Jingle Bells," a song that a DJ probably would not have brought to the stadium. "An organ is a sentimental nod to the past. It's like the smell of mustard in the stadium," she said.

And Ms. Faust offers this advice for Mr. Lupton, in the way that Baysox manager and former Oriole star Don Buford might take one of his players aside for pointers on stealing bases.

"He should find a team that's interested in live music but isn't happy with their current organist. They usually switch to taped music when someone can't fill the bill."

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