A hunt is underway for a beloved busker’s street piano as a museum exhibit celebrates his extraordinary life on the 10th anniversary of his death.
Perth Museum wants to track down the piano and distinctive yellow tips bucket used by ‘the Pied Piper of Perth’, John Gill, who died from a heart attack at age 57 while wandering through the malls he played for decades.
Mr Gill’s exploits are legendary – including wheeling his own piano across Perth to play at an open-air wedding for backpacker fans just a month before his sudden death.
But the museum’s upcoming exhibition is not the end of plans to honour Mr Gill. His supporters want to build a sound installation as a tribute, Perth Museum executive director Reece Harley told Daily Mail Australia.
A hunt is underway for globetrotting Australian busker John Gill’s piano and distinctive yellow tips bucket (pictured above) as a major museum sets out to celebrate his extraordinary life on the 10th anniversary of his death
John Gill was more than a busker, said Reece Harley of the Museum of Perth. ‘He’s also been referred to as the Pied piper of Perth’
It would use a motion sensor to begin playing his music to anyone who walks through Grand Avenue, just off Murray Street Mall where he mesmerised shoppers with his high-energy performances for 20 years.
If that seems like a big deal for a mall busker, John Gill was not your usual guitar-case wannabe.
He was a world-class talent who decided to play for a few coins to shoppers bargain hunting through the heart of Perth.
‘John was more than a busker,’ Mr Harley said. ‘He is known as ‘the piano man’, but he’s also been referred to as the Pied piper of Perth.
‘When people went into shops, they’d expect to see him play. His performances were intrinsically connected to peoples experiences of the city.’
Perth Museum wants to track down the piano and distinctive yellow tips bucket (both pictured above) used by ‘the Pied Piper of Perth, John Gill, who died from a heart attack at age 57
A child prodigy from Grimsby in Britain’s north-east, Mr Gill preferred playing in pubs as a 15 year old to stodgy and serious classical studies. A teacher once told him he could only be a ‘happy amateur’.
He quit training as a nurse at 17 to live and sleep on the streets of inner London in the early 1970s.
There he began a street-busking odyssey that would last 40 years.
As a four-year-old Gill wowed his parents – mum Joan, a tap dancer who worked in Soho, and dad, Bryan, a concert violinist – on a toy piano.
They bought him a full-sized piano for £2 when he was six, no doubt intending him to play it when he got older.
As they lived in a cramped first flood flat, the piano remained stored in the family’s downstairs coal shed.
But little John couldn’t keep away from the amazing gift and snuck into the coal shed to teach himself.
With temperatures in Grimsby dropping to zero in winter, John rugged up and pounded the keys in fingerless gloves to stay warm.
As an adult Mr Gill busked all over the world, usually playing a distinctive piano accordion.
John Gill’s mother Joan, a tap dancer in London’s Soho district, bought him a toy piano when he was just four
Stories of Gill’s exploits are legendary – including wheeling his own piano across Perth to play at an open-air wedding for backpacker fans just a month before his sudden death. Gill is pictured above playing at the 2011 wedding of April Wang and Mark Vos. Photo: Medhat Moftah
He played across Britain to the French Riviera to Switzerland, across the US and eventually to Australia.
It was in the US where he toured 16 times, including at the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival in Boulder, Colorado and the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, that he found fame on the piano.
Mr Gill recorded several albums and was considered ‘one of the top stride and trad jazz pianists of his generation,’ according to music database allmusic.com.
He settled in Perth in 1983 and mesmerized shoppers for more than 20 years in the Murray Street Mall, outside Myer, with his joyful ragtime renditions.
He would store his upright piano, stripped of its front panel so his audience could see inside’, in the Myer loading dock, wheeling it into the open mall each day.
The Museum of Perth posted a callout on social media for memories of Gill – and for clues to the the whereabouts of his piano, which has hasn’t been seen since he died.
April Wang was one of many who replied.
Gill bushed around the world for more than 40 years, often playing piano accordion
Mr Gill is pictured wheeling his piango and distinctive yellow tips bucket out into the mall in Perth
She and her fiancé, Mark Vos, met as backpackers when she was a barmaid at the Lucky Shag bar in Perth in 2006, she told Daily Mail Australia.
‘We saw him playing at city all the time,’ Ms Wang said. ‘His jazz music always felt like one of the joys of life,’ she said.
After Mark popped the question, the couple took a punt and asked if the local legend would play at their wedding. He agreed and played all day for just $300.
Despite not being too keen on the couple’s wedding set-list, he graciously complied and played ‘All You Need is Love’ by the Beatles as the paperwork was signed.
‘We were later told that he actually pushed his piano from the city and after the wedding was finished he pushed it back again,’ Mr Vos said.
‘We got married in Queens Garden and the location and his music, created a great atmosphere which we and our guests really enjoyed.’
They weren’t the only ones to have the jazz great playing in their homes.
‘I loved his playing so much I hired him to play at an event at my home. It was memorable. Such talent,’ Alifa Richards said.
John Gill is pictured seated at a grand piano. He once lent a Steinway to Elton John – but was relieved when the exuberant pop star did not walk all over it
John Gill was a world-class musician but was rarely seen in a suit, he was more at home in casual clothes playing for pedestrians and shoppers
As his reputation grew, he was hired to entertain crowds at the Hopman Cup – and blew them away.
Local legend has it that he reluctantly lent his beloved Steinway concert grand piano to Elton John for a concert, and the pop star agreed to wear padded shoes so he wouldn’t damage it.
Many Perth locals chimed in with warm and funny memories of Ms Gill’s playing.
‘I lay drinking wine under his grand piano once “to get the full effect” as the piano was in a small space!’ wrote Zac Wilkinson, who remembered Mr Gill as ‘a dear friend and complex soul’.
‘He was the Pied Piper of the city,’ wrote Amanda Ohnemus. ‘He drew everyone towards him.. the older generation, the big and the littlies.
‘Loved the atmosphere he gave while you strolled through.’
‘Nothing beat wandering around the city on a Friday afternoon listening to the distant strains of the piano man,’ said Abbi Mowbray.
‘Amazing talent. You could ask him to play anything and he could. He would always attract a massive crowd,’ said Daz Rox.
In 2011, while walking through the mall, Mr Gill collapsed and later died. He was about to set off for his 17th tour of the US.
Mr Harley said the location of Mr Gill’s piano is not known – although there’s a chance it was ‘accidently borrowed’.
‘It is possible someone has it that possibly shouldn’t have it, as in it was borrowed without permission,’ he said.
‘We’d be happy to speak to someone anonymously about that.
‘Our exhibition opens on December 2 and it would wonderful for us to have it as the centrepiece.
‘We’d be happy to loan it.’
Meanwhile the ‘fight’ to recognise his achievements goes on.
The museum is the latest supporter to back calls for a permanent memorial to Gill – which have so far not been adopted by Perth City Council.
‘I reckon Myers should commission a statue of him at the location where he used to play. His music could be heard a long way in to the store and he sure as hell bought a lot of foot traffic in to the store,’ said one main on Facebook.