AUBURN – When Phil House sits down at the piano, people move closer and head for the seats where they’ll have the best view of his hands.

They love to watch his fingers fly when he launches into some classic ragtime numbers. After all, House is recognized as one of the best stride piano players around, but his audiences also love his stylings of the standards like “Stardust” and “Moonglow,” or traditional church music on the organ.

For the past four or five decades, House has delighted people by playing the music he loves, but this compassionate man is especially pleased to have been able to do so while helping developmentally challenged people.

House worked for 18 years at Pineland Hospital and is now an administrator at John F. Murphy Homes and services in Auburn.

He has been organist at various churches over the past 45 years, 20 of those years at the First Universalist Church, Unitarian Universalist, of Auburn. He plays the Auburn church’s historic Hook and Hastings pipe organ on his new CD of old hymns and traditional religious tunes recorded last November. Titled “In Heaven’s Eyes,” it is his sixth CD in about 18 years and the first organ recording.

House recalls that his great-grandmother had a piano in her home at Bryant Pond and when he would go there as a child, he would sit down and try to pick out tunes. That led to a few accordion lessons.

House generally plays without sheet music. He does read music, but prefers to work out his own arrangements with the stride-style bass in the left hand.

His formal training was a year at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. “It was strictly classical music and I had to work and work at it. I didn’t enjoy it,” he recalled.

“I was amazed at how my classmates could do it, but they were amazed at what I could do. They would gather around me at a piano and get me to play the old stuff they could sing along to, and they’d say, ‘How do you do that without any music?'”

He recalled a professor telling him, “You’re not happy here, are you? You belong down South playing in nightclubs.”

“Sure enough, that’s what I did for 13 years in Nashville,” House said. That’s where he perfected his stride playing, sometimes called New York ragtime, which is a pioneering jazz piano style with an inventive four-beat bass pulse. The name comes from the left-hand movement striding up and down the keyboard.

“Oddly enough, I never made a record there,” House said of his days in Nashville. Nevertheless, he had some memorable experiences – like the time he met Dolly Parton when he sat in on a jam session with her brother’s band.

A particularly important inspiration to House was Del Wood, a Grand Ole Opry member and legendary stride pianist who recorded “Down Yonder” and “South.” Her 1951 recording of “Down Yonder” was said to be the first million-seller by a female recording artist.

“I played her records and learned from them,” said House, who had a chance to play some duets with Wood on one occasion in Nashville.

Floyd Cramer, architect of the “Nashville sound” and a distinctive “slip-note” technique was another inspiration. House remembers they had the same barber in Nashville, and he met Cramer once.

A special memory for House is a trip he made to Vienna a few years ago at the invitation of a former church member who was raised there. His CDs had been sent earlier and enthusiasm for his music led to an all-expense-paid trip.

The highlight was a chance to play the famous organ at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Guest organists are allowed only 20 minutes of playing time, but a crowd was gathering and he was asked to play a while longer. “That was thrilling,” he said.

House also remembers playing piano at the oldest restaurant in Vienna, where they offered him a job on the spot.

House plays piano at Clover Manor in Auburn once a month. “I really love playing at nursing homes,” he said. “Seeing the smiles and tears is wonderful.”

House is well-known locally for the many times he has collaborated with other performers. He does an annual concert with Dave Rowe, who produced his latest CD. Tom Rowe, Dave’s father who was bassist with the acclaimed folk trio Schooner Fare before his death a few years ago, produced House’s earlier CDs at his Auburn studio.

House has collaborated often with Kathy Haley, a longtime popular vocalist in the Twin Cities. She is featured on House’s new CD, and they perform an annual summer concert at All Souls Chapel at Poland Spring.

House also often plays piano in collaboration with Rachel Feeley, another popular local pianist/accompanist.

House is a very quiet man who lets his music speak for him. As if to draw attention to the notes, he has several large rings on his fingers, including a piano-shaped one covered with chips of gemstone. House said it and a note came anonymously in the mail one day after he had played in Connecticut.


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