Bob Tyler can’t help but tear up a little when thinking about retirement.
The Fairview Heights man has been singing and playing keyboards for nearly 70 years, first at restaurants and bars and more recently at nursing homes and retirement centers.
“That piano has made me so much money and given me so much joy,” he said.
Bob, 83, still can belt out hundreds of songs, everything from big band to pop, country to jazz, swing to patriotic, waltzes to polkas. As of last summer, he was performing about 25 shows a month.
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“I would just look at his calendar and want to go home and take a nap,” said daughter Lisa Fink, 56, of Glen Carbon.
One of Bob’s regular haunts was Cedarhurst assisted-living center in Shiloh. Activities Director Kathy Rutledge described him as a “true entertainer” who energized older audiences and even got people dancing.
One resident liked Bob’s music so much, she hired him to perform at her 95th birthday party.
“A lot of people knew him before they came (to Cedarhurst),” Kathy said. “I think Bob Tyler was a household name in this area at one time. He played all over.”
Giving his lungs a rest
Today, Bob is on oxygen for lung problems, an occupational hazard after years of smoking and working in smoke-filled nightclubs. It was a challenge to haul his electronic keyboard, speakers and other equipment. He stopped performing last fall.
The decision to retire was difficult because music is part of Bob’s identity. Notes and treble clefs decorate his coffee cup, mailbox and even his kitchen soap dispenser. His motto was “Have piano, will travel.”
“I feel very lost,” he said. “After three months or so, I’m still trying to get over it. I miss it so bad. But after 70 years, I think it’s time to sit back and make dollhouses and birdhouses.”
Bob was referring to his longtime woodworking hobby. He has crafted dozens of birdhouses, baskets, figurines, breadboxes, cabinets and other items.
About 10 years ago, Bob tried his hand at dollhouses, putting together three kits and customizing them as gifts for his other daughter, Lynne Tyler, and granddaughters Lindsay and Lauren Rhein. Now he’s back at it.
“I like to create things with my brains and my hands,” he said. “I like to keep busy. I don’t like to sit around and watch TV.”
Bob’s glass-enclosed back porch has become a workshop, lined with model beach bungalows, farmhouses and Victorian mansions with turrets. All have porches, shutter-flanked windows and dozens of shingles glued on individually.
Bob hopes to find buyers for the dollhouses, priced at $150 to $350. (Interested persons should call 618-398-4286 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“We’ll see what happens,” said, Lisa who has advertised the dollhouses on Craigslist and eBay.
I miss it so bad. But after 70 years, I think it’s time to sit back and make dollhouses and birdhouses.
Bob Tyler on retiring from the music business
Where it all began
Bob grew up in East St. Louis and started taking classical piano lessons from a Catholic nun at age 9. Eventually, his father splurged to buy the family a used upright piano for $25.
Bob switched to pop music after hearing the song “Pistol Packin’ Mama” on the radio. He formed a trio called The Red Hots, which performed at the Chick Inn. His parents had to take him because he didn’t have a driver’s license.
“I was 16,” he said in a 2005 interview. “The sax player was 15. The drummer was only 12, but he could play up a storm.”
In later years, Bob worked a variety of jobs: a salesman for National Auto Supply, a piano and organ teacher at Sunny Shield’s Music, a tire inspector for Goodyear and a truck driver for Midas Muffler. He and his late wife, Dodie, were married 56 years.
Bob kept busy with day jobs and family, but it never stopped him from performing. He led the Bob Tyler Trio and Bob Tyler Quartet and performed with other metro-east bands.
“In the ’60s, my trio played at Margie’s Surrey Club in Fairmont City for seven years,” he said. “It was a restaurant and bar. They had good food and a dance floor and a little stage. It was a good gig.”
Bob went solo in the late ’70s after buying a stand-up organ and rhythm machine. He performed regularly at Caesar’s Lounge, English’s Tavern, Diamond Lil’s and Betty’s Golden Slipper in Belleville and the American Legion Hall in Cahokia.
Good-natured teasing and other humor became part of his act. “Don’t clap, throw money,” he’d tell audiences.
“(As children) we really didn’t know what he did,” Lisa said. “We just knew he went to work at night. My mom wouldn’t let us go out to the clubs until we could understand what was going on.”
Second act as a performer
Bob retired from Midas in the late ’90s and began going to more Moose lodges, wineries, nursing homes and retirement centers. He functioned as a one-man band, thanks to a synthesizer that could mimic dozens of other instruments.
Bob got a special satisfaction from performing for senior citizens because his music brought back memories.
“I know they appreciated it,” he said. “They used to clap when I walked in the door. One man would always request ‘For the Good Times,’ and he would cry because it was him and his wife’s song.”
Bob also played the U.S. Marines, Army and Navy theme songs to honor veterans.
It was very touching. A lot of times, they would stand up, shoulders back, and salute. They were so proud.
Alma Hinkle on veterans hearing military songs
“It was very touching,” said his companion, Alma Hinkle, 83, of Fairview Heights, who also served as his roadie. “A lot of times, they would stand up, shoulders back, and salute. They were so proud.”
Lisa was struck by how Bob’s music affected nursing-home residents who seemed disengaged — until they started singing or mouthing lyrics to “You are My Sunshine” or “God Bless America.”
Alma was amazed how he remembered names and favorite songs of people in his audiences.
Bob and Alma got together a couple of years ago after their spouses died. They had known each other as students at East St. Louis Senior High School and won a talent contest on the S.S. Admiral in the early ’50s.
“He played piano, and I sang,” Alma said. “It was a big deal. We thought we were going to be famous.”
Today, one of Bob’s bedrooms serves as a mini museum with framed newspaper articles, his two albums and three CDs and a blue-neon sign, shaped like a grand piano and bearing his name.
Autographed photos show Glen Campbell, Boxcar Willie, Porter Wagoner and Kenny Rogers. Bob was working at a bellhop at Stouffer’s hotel in St. Louis when he met Campbell.
“I got to go upstairs and carry his bags,” he said. “He was so soft-spoken, so nice. I met his wife and his kids.”
Bob played a few songs with Boxcar Willie at the old Augustine’s restaurant in Belleville and introduced Wagoner at the Miner’s theater in Collinsville.
His favorite photo shows him with Sammy Davis Jr. at the Hotel Jefferson in downtown St. Louis. He was one of the local musicians hired to accompany the legendary entertainer.
“That was the best night I ever had,” Bob said. “We did ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ and ‘The Candy Man.’ (Davis) was crabby that night. His hips were hurting. He said, ‘I don’t know, man. I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Come on, the show must go on.’ And he said, ‘Well, did you hear that?’”
Bob still has his keyboard set up in a third bedroom, ready for serenading visitors on request. But he insists retiring was the right move.
“I could have had a stroke at the piano, and then there would be ambulances and all that,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that to anybody. I wanted to leave on my own terms. It was just time.”