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Joseph Buchanan, 72, rhythm, blues pianist


Joseph "El Duke-O" Buchanan, a rhythm and blues piano player who backed up Billie Holiday as a teen-ager and finished his career making people happy at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital Saturday of complications from pneumonia. He was 72.

"My father was a big ham. Even after his arthritis was giving him pain, he'd put on a show for anybody -- especially old people and kids," said daughter Olivera McAfee. "If there was a piano somewhere, Dad was plunking away on it."

In the Baltimore of the 1930s, Mr. Buchanan was well known on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he played and sang at the Royal Theater behind such musical giants as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Sarah Vaughn.

"What a shame it is not to have the Royal here," Mr. Buchanan once said about the fabled theater that was razed in 1971. "It's been a good life, but you know, they should never have torn the old Royal down."

Returning to Baltimore in the late 1970s after playing in New England and on the road and working as a Navy yard fire department dispatcher in Newport, R.I., in the 1960s, Mr. Buchanan became the unofficial house pianist at the now-defunct Peabody Book Shop and Beer Stube on Charles Street in Mount Vernon. Mr. Buchanan walked to his gigs at the beer stube -- where he was christened "El Duke-O" -- from his nearby apartment at the Chase House, where he had lived since 1981.

"Duke was a fixture along with the Great Dantini in the Peabody's universe of oddballs, misfits and characters," said Glenn Moomau, who plays blues harmonica at the Cat's Eye Pub and remembered his old friend's singing voice as "warm and soulful."

"He could play anything -- blues, jazz, show tunes," Mr. Moomau said. "He created a whole career out of a mish-mash of American music."

Mr. Buchanan performed at the annual Artscape festival, Ethel's Place and Danny's in addition to the Peabody and Cat's Eye.

Born in Winchester, Va., Mr. Buchanan began singing gospel in church as a boy. He moved with his family to Providence, R.I., where he went to public school. Fascinated by music, he soon learned the piano and, along the way, picked up the guitar, drums, clarinet and saxophone.

He began working with Billie Holiday as a young man at the Royal Theater and later backed her up in Harlem in New York.

Legend -- which, according to family and colleagues, makes up much of the El Duke-O biography -- has it that Mr. Buchanan encouraged the early career of a couple of teen-agers named Phil and Don Everly. The Everly Brothers went on to become original members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In Newport, Mr. Buchanan was a regular at the Blue Moon Gardens where he backed up Fats Domino, Ivory Joe Hunter and Ruth Brown. When former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis formed a traveling show, Mr. Buchanan was its master of ceremonies.

In 1981, under the name El Duke-O, Mr. Buchanan made a record of his compositions called "Ernestine's Out Tonight," but his family did not remember which label the album was released on.

"I had no idea that my father would do all the things when he got here," Ms. McAfee said. "But he was a big drinker, he hit the local clubs and made friends. He'd play one night and they'd like him and ask him to come back."

Near the end of his life, he suffered from two strokes and carpal tunnel syndrome in addition to arthritis. The pain forced him to wear gloves to cushion his fingers from the piano keys.

Mr. Buchanan noted that a quarter-century ago, five doctors said he would be dead in six months if he didn't stop drinking.

In 1989 he pointed out that all five of the doctors were dead. "They're still gone. I'm still here," he said. "And I still have the taste."

Services are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at the March Funeral Home, 1101 E. North Ave.

Ms. McAfee noted that her father often played the music for funerals of friends and relatives. "Now we've got to find somebody to play for him," she said.

Mr. Buchanan, who was married four times, is survived by three daughters, Ms. McAfee of Baltimore, Duchess Colone of Jacksonville, Fla., and Denise Buchanan of Providence, R.I.; and five sons, Joseph Buchanan Jr. and Bruce P. Buchanan, both of Providence, R.I., Larry McAfee and Garry McAfee, both of Baltimore, and Marine Sgt. Oliver McAfee of Camp Pendleton, Calif.; 20 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren.

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