William Colbert Sr., 81, pianist, music teacher, performed with bands

March 29, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

William P. Colbert Sr., a pianist and music teacher who performed with Baltimore bands for nearly 40 years, died Sunday of cancer at Genesis Eldercare Multi-Medical Center in Towson. He was 81.

By day, Mr. Colbert, a longtime Waverly resident who was known as a "keyboard man," taught piano, organ and accordion as well as banjo and guitar for 30 years at Shubert Music Inc. in Northwest Baltimore. He retired in 1996.

"He taught both children and adults and was extremely patient with them," said studio owner Myron Froehlich yesterday.

"He had a vast knowledge of songs and could sit down and, boom, play a song from memory just like that. Plus, he was able to simplify songs for beginners so they could enjoy them, too," he said.

FOR THE RECORD - William P. Colbert Sr.: On Wednesday, an obituary for William P. Colbert Sr. incorrectly stated the cause of death. Mr. Colbert died of heart failure. The Sun regrets the error.

By night, dressed in a carefully pressed tuxedo or navy blue suit, white shirt and tie, Mr. Colbert sat down at his piano and rendered silky interpretations of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and period big-band classics as a member of the Tunetoppers, a band he helped found in the early 1950s.

For years, the band was a fixture at Baltimore dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, clubs and private parties.

"Billy was one of the greatest piano players around. He could play any tune in any key, and that is the mark of a piano player that you want to work with," said Bill Taylor, a trombone player with the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble who played with the Tunetoppers until the early 1960s.

"He liked sophisticated music and really had a style all his own. He was an extremely knowledgeable guy who was a good arranger and could literally write anything," said Mr. Taylor.

"We had a lot of fun playing the $2 and $5 parties and Sunday afternoon political fund-raisers," he said.

"He could really enliven the piano. He could really wake it up," said Mr. Froehlich, who used to listen to Mr. Colbert play between lessons.

After the Tunetoppers broke up in the early 1980s, Mr. Colbert began playing with the Zim Zemarel Orchestra and continued playing until retiring in 1996.

Mr. Colbert enjoyed entertaining residents of Keswick Multi-Care Center and the Edenwald retirement community in Towson.

From 1963 to 1973, he was also the organist at SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church on North Charles Street.

A gregarious man who stood nearly 6 feet tall and was quick with a joke, Mr. Colbert always wore suspenders that featured a piano keyboard.

"He was never without his musical suspenders," said his daughter, Linda A. Roethlisberger of Idlewylde, laughing.

Mr. Colbert was also a regular for years at the Roland Restaurant on West 36th Street in Hampden, where he appeared promptly at 1 p.m. and ordered the same breakfast.

"Breakfast was his favorite meal, and he had a standing order for hash browns and two eggs over easy," said his daughter.

Even though Mr. Colbert in recent years had to rely on a walker and then a wheelchair to move about, he went to the restaurant each day.

"He loved it so, and he used to say, `I'd crawl through broken glass to get there,' " his daughter said.

Born and raised on East Lanvale Street, he was a 1936 graduate of Polytechnic Institute and attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the University of Maryland. He later earned a bachelor's degree from the Johns Hopkins University in the early 1950s.

During World War II, he served with the Seabees in Trinidad, where he learned to play the trumpet and formed his first band. He was discharged in 1945.

He collected musical instruments, which filled the study of his home. "He simply couldn't stand to think that an old instrument was going to be thrown out or discarded," said his son, William P. Colbert Jr. of Bel Air.

A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10 a.m. tomorrow at SS. Philip and James Roman Catholic Church, 2801 N. Charles St.

In addition to his children, Mr. Colbert is survived by his wife, the former Doris Mary Jackson, whom he married in 1942; and four grandchildren.

Obituaries

Because of limited space and the large number of requests for obituaries, The Sun regrets that it cannot publish all the obituaries it receives. Because The Sun regards obituaries as news, we give a preference to those submitted within 48 hours of a person's death. It is also our intention to run obituaries no later than seven days after death.

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