At 11 on a Monday night, the Sleaze (Mark Pipas by day), quirkily handsome in rolled shirtsleeves and baggy jeans, walks into Club Café with his equipment strapped to his back. It takes just a few minutes to set up and plug in his keyboard and guitar on the stage before he orders a Budweiser, perching it atop one of the monitors. The Sleaze sets up two microphones on stands to his left, for patrons who might sing onstage after a few orders of courage from the barmaid. But for now, in the beginning, at least, the Sleaze sings alone.
"This song got me booed in Vegas," he purrs like a soft-rock deejay, before playing a lilting rendition of "Muskrat Love" -- a scribbled-on-a-napkin request. The audience divides into groans and cheers while he glides through the song with equal parts smirk and earnestness.
The Sleaze's voice was made for ballads, a well-oiled, unadorned croon with enough muscle for high notes. When he switches to the countless rock numbers in his repertoire, he sings in a style that better fits his stage name, with a twinge of a rasp and a sharper attack to his always-solid baritone. He shakes longish hair, adding a few purple riffs to the keyboard solo, taking the occasional languorous pause.
"Any requests from the back?" he asks, after ending his tale of muskrats Sally and Sam.
"I'm sorry, I don't take requests," he deadpans, then noodles a few jokey bars of "Touch Me" on his keyboard before transitioning into "The Wichita Lineman": a tune with a reputation for being tough to sing. The Sleaze nails the song's high notes and difficult intervals, and the back booth sways in appreciation.
The evening continues with show tunes ("'Till There Was You," "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No") and classic bar covers ("Angie," "Shaft"). He forgets the words to Nirvana's "All Apologies" and begs the audience for help. When the Sleaze breaks a string on his guitar, he presses a button on his keyboard and activates a canned version of "Luck Be a Lady," which leaves his hands free to repair the guitar and keep singing without missing a note. He lowers one of the additional microphone stands and sings on his knees, fixing the guitar on the floor. During the bridge of the song, he detaches the microphone and shoots it across the stage, pulling the cord to retract it, like a crapshoot. As if it were planned, the string is replaced just in time for him to have both hands free for the song's high-note finale, where he fans out his hands in a signature Sinatra flourish. A half second later, he's strumming a Joe Jackson song on the guitar.
After the house is feeling rosy, many of the bar patrons hop onstage. Rick Manning, an Irish tenor, sings a Scottish song about wearing nothing under one's kilt. A guy with a feathered pompadour powers through "Jessie's Girl" with both fists balled. Local thespian Patrick Jordan performs songs from his repertoire of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Charlie Daniels. Later, the Sleaze's brother, known in these parts as Dr. Space, steps onstage to cheers from the crowd. He screams through "Psycho Killer" with a full-bodied, hard-rock intensity that betrays his sheepdog haircut and Muppet grin. By the time he finishes, kicking and yowling on his back, the audience is on their feet, banging chairs in appreciation.
After last call, bartender Dan Smiley slides out from behind the bar and does his signature rendition of "London Calling" before closing the remaining tabs and kicking the dregs of this happy crowd out the door. A few stragglers who have no interest in turning in are heading back to the Sleaze's place to keep boozing and singing, which doesn't bother the Sleaze. He rarely wakes before 2 p.m. anyway.
Rick Manning, a Pittsburgh cop and a Monday regular, met the Sleaze on one of these past-last-call nights at the Club Café. "We sat at the far end of the bar for nearly two hours, singing every song we could think of. Dan had to physically throw us out." His first impression of the Sleaze was as "a fountain of knowledge." Manning, who abandoned a chance to study musical theatre at CMU, insists, "Music is my passion. This is my release. For two and a half years, it's been my life." So what is it about the Sleaze that makes him so fantastic? "I just don't know how he compiles all these songs. I wish I could tap part of it. I have a voice, but what he has, it's like version 2.5 versus 200.0."
The Sleaze is modest, if not dismissive, about the machine-like musical knowledge that Manning describes, taking great pains to insist that he is not, as many fans have labeled him, a "human jukebox" -- he doesn't know absolutely every song ever written. "That's impossible," he says. "The illusion may be there, sure, but I don't want to perpetuate it." He insists that he's simply mastered the musical formula. "Most songs are not that complicated," he shrugs. "The ones from the '50s, you heard one, you heard 'em all."
The Sleaze's repertoire actually is much more extensive (and less predictable) than any jukebox's, but that's not what makes him special. What he possesses is more difficult to obtain than a vast catalogue of songs from various genres. A "human jukebox" cannot size up a crowd each specific night and spontaneously tailor a set list of songs and jokes that caters to their mood, finding the perfect moment for an over-the-top rock number, a Carol Channing impersonation, or a sincere ballad. Jukeboxes don't have stage presence to burn. They can't promise fresh sets -- even surprises -- decades into their live shows.
Have no doubt about it, the Sleaze can be sleazy. Take a recent night where he performed a song that's a love letter to a woman's posterior called "You're Only as Old as the Girl You Feel." ("How many of you think that song sucked?" he asks after finishing. Several women raise their hands. "I wrote it!" he shouts.)
But the sleaziness -- the hair, the smirk, the lyrics -- is but one note of a much more complex chord. The Sleaze can shift his onstage presence from foreground to background, either making himself as big as life and easy to follow, or shrinking down to invisible under the weight of a show-stopping number. The effortless way he earns an audience's trust in this ability -- like a confident figure skater nailing triple axels -- is what sells his eclectic play lists and his envelope-pushing shtick. It's why he gets away with grouping a Sinatra show tune, an AC/DC cover and a James Taylor song we've all heard before. Where many live musicians falter, using gigs to stroke their onstage egos, The Sleaze obviously just loves playing music for and with people. He gives and gives, perpetually, to each specific gig and crowd, with a generosity and-self deprecation that is anything but sleazy.
"There was never any question that I was going to play music," says the Sleaze. But, he insists, "the Broadway stuff came first." Born in Illinois at an undisclosed year (he's old enough for Meet the Beatles to be the first pop album he ever bought), he distinctly remembers the day his mother took him to see The Music Man in grammar school.
Soon after seeing his first musical, Pipas took up guitar, but never really stuck with lessons. "I still can't read music for shit," he notes. When his father bought a piano in order to teach himself to play, little Pipas began mastering that, too. His first public performance (outside of the private concerts he and his brother would often give the family) was the classroom where his grandmother taught high school English. "I'd sit in the back of the room until the end of class, and she'd say "And now, my grandson Mark," and I'd sing '76 Trombones' for them," he says, grinning.
One of his earliest compositions was the Herman's Hermits-esque "A Thumb in My Pretzels," written for his fifth-grade girlfriend, Nokie. That year, his father's job with the Gulf Mobile and Ohio Railroad relocated the Pipas family to Alabama. Mark started a junior high school band, The Lewis Expedition, with a classmate, playing mostly Beatles and Who covers, and a few originals. "Then I'd go home and play standards for my parents," he remembers. He also kept up with show tunes, doing musical theater as an Alabama teen. His parents weren't that into the rock tunes, and his band mates balked at the standards and musical theater fodder, but the Sleaze liked playing it all. This is sort of like what happens with some of his audiences today.
"Some people only want to hear one thing from me," he shrugs. But his focus could never be that narrow. It bothered him more in the earlier stages of his long career. "I would go down there and say, 'What are you, a musical bigot?'" If he wanted to stick with one style of performance, he says, "I could go on a cruise ship and do that for the rest of my life."
The Sleaze got a bachelor's degree in political science at Florida State University the same time his brother Jim, alias Dr. Space (an actual Ph.D. and a member of Pitt's Biological Sciences department for over 20 years) was in graduate school there. After the Sleaze played five years of piano-man gigs at a bar in Fort Lauderdale called Mister Laffs, Dr. Space encouraged his brother to make Pittsburgh his home base while the Sleaze volleyed back and forth from extended gigs in Germany, where he honed his piano-man chops, playing as The Wonderful Mister No-Name.
1989 was the Sleaze World Tour, where Dr. Space lectured in Europe and Asia, and took his brother along. They landed musical gigs wherever the doctor's meetings were scheduled. "He's one of the most gifted musicians I've ever met," Space says. "He can walk into a club anywhere, play a few songs, and they'll hire him right on the spot."
When asked if he remembered a time when the Sleaze wanted to be a rock star, his brother says, "I think wider recognition is still a goal, but he knows that with that there are compromises that have to be made, like working for someone else, in the form of a record company, versus doing it yourself." Plus, according to Dr. Space, the Sleaze's ultimate goal is just playing music.
He cites a busy weekend a few years back, where the Sleaze band played a show at a Manhattan college to a crowd of 2,000, woke up the next morning and drove straight to Pittsburgh, where the Sleaze played a solo show for three people. "I guarantee you there was absolutely no drop in intensity," he insists. The reason? "He loves it intensely," Dr. Space says.
Thankfully, even in a little town like Pittsburgh, the Sleaze has carved a niche where, in a handful of venues, he can address all of his musical scope. Monday nights, he does his seedy, audience-participation-driven shtick at Club Café; Tuesdays is the night for standards at the Shiloh on Mount Washington; Wednesdays is his newest booking at Olive or Twist Downtown; Thursdays is a solid rock happy hour set at Billy's Roadhouse in Wexford; Fridays he accompanies the dinner rush at the Red Star Tavern at Station Square. Saturdays are usually kept open for weddings and private parties (three local talent agencies book the Sleaze) and there's plenty of free space in the year for altogether different sets in different states and countries. He'll travel to Wisconsin and Chicago this summer, and next month, Sleaze, Space and band play an annual string of gigs in England, France and Amsterdam.
As artistic director of the City Theatre, Tracy Brigden hunts talent -- performers who can rope in an audience with their emotional range, their stage presence and their timing. For the same reasons, Brigden counts the Sleaze as "one of my favorite divertissements here in Pittsburgh." He is part of her must-see itinerary when friends come to visit Pittsburgh. "The view from Mount Washington, the Strip District, Primanti's, the Sleaze," she says. "Mark is to Pittsburgh what Sinatra is to Vegas, Billy Joel is to New York, or Edith Piaf is to Paris."
Though she rarely sings on stage, Brigden often sends a prompt sheet of requested songs up to the Sleaze, scribbled on a napkin under the heading "Tracy's Picks." She's been known to remind the Sleaze of the pains she takes to think of songs that would be fitting for his performative range. She calls that range "exceptional," and calls his repertoire "encyclopedic." "If he wasn't so good," she says, "I wouldn't keep going back."
On a chilly Thursday night in late January, the Sleaze travels for a Sinatra tribute gig at the Mountaineer Racetrack and resort. The Mountaineer's Mahogany Bar is designed to resemble a watering hole for the Cosa Nostra -- or at least people who like gangster movies. Black-and-white photos of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly hang on the walls of the lounge, and tonight, there's a velvet-roped section front of the piano for some special guests.
Half the cast of The Sopranos is in town for a $500-a-plate dinner. Once he begins playing, the Sopranos can't get enough of the Sleaze. James Gandolfini slips him a large bill and cuts out relatively early, while other cast members keep Mark playing until 4 in the morning, singing much more than Sinatra covers.
As usual, he turns out their varied requests like a machine. The Sleaze takes a few drunken digital photos of Sopranos' cast members Steve R. Schirripa and John Ventimiglia, red faced and an arm's length away from the camera, singing arm-in-arm with him. He gets home just before dawn. "That was a trip," he says the next day. "I'm fucking exhausted."
If it's a Tuesday night after 9 p.m., then the Sleaze is not the Sleaze. He's playing a gig at the Shiloh Inn on Mount Washington, and he's Mark Pipas, piano man. Aside from their blood alcohol levels, the Shiloh audience has little in common with the Club Café regulars or "Bobby Bacala" and "Artie Bucco" from The Sopranos. There is no stage here, no lighting, no Dr. Space, even, and no one seems to be paying him much attention.
"Is there a full moon tonight?" John Egis, the owner of the Shiloh Inn asks no one in particular. "Everyone is fighting!" Sure enough, an air of saltiness pervades the eight patrons sitting at the bar. Two middle-aged women bicker loudly with their neighbors about the Shiloh's "slippy" parking lot. Behind them, shoved into a cranny, is the Sleaze, in a dress shirt and jacket, tickling a lazily tuned baby grand, a clichéd oversized tip snifter set on the lid.
"Please hold your applause," he quips after a ballad from The Music Man receives a smattering of claps.
"Yeah, I got a good grip on it right now," heckles a man.
"Thank you for that, ma'am," the Sleaze shoots back, winning a much louder ovation.
He continues a repertoire of show tunes and standards, wincing at the dissonance of the Shiloh's baby grand. Down the bar a ways, John Egis speaks of the Sleaze as if he were a proud father. "You can tell how much he enjoys doing it," he says.
"We've always had live piano music," he says. "We've had a lot of bad experiences with piano players," he says, citing truancy, drunkenness or stubbornness about set lists. "Mark's been playing here for 20 years. He understands that people change and money talks. When he started, men wouldn't come in here without a jacket on. Now, the younger crowd comes in dressed more casual, and he plays music that they like."
As if on cue, the Sleaze produces a hidden extra mike and eggs one of the bickering ladies to attempt an atonal, Marilyn Monroe-style run at "I've Got a Crush on You." Her girlfriend cheers. "I love you, sweetie," she slurs. "You make me smile!"
Within an hour, much of the bar is standing up, dancing in twos and threes. A distinguished gentleman offers a sweet rendition of "Bye Bye, Blackbird." A local nurse enters -- the star of the Shiloh. "Listen to this one," says the bartender with a smile. She grabs a microphone and does a spot-on cover of Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris," facing away from the piano. The remainder of the bar gets downright dreamy.
A bespectacled high tenor joins her and the Sleaze for a three-part version of "Dance With Me" after last call. By then, the crowd is hugging, not even mentioning the slick street as they exit. The Sleaze shimmies away from the piano to tell the stragglers goodbye. The two women coo at him and fondle his hair. "Oh, yeah baby!" one of them purrs. "What are you going to sing to me next time?" They'll have to wait a couple weeks, since he leaves tomorrow for several dates of playing dueling pianos in Las Vegas.
The Vegas trip turns out to be cumbersome. For starters, someone steals the Sleaze's guitar (and, in a strange course of events, returns it four days later). Plus, dueling pianos is not the kind of job he likes to take. "You have to sell your soul to do it," he says. A dueling pianos gig is a covers-for-tips act, where, according to the Sleaze, "someone pays 10 bucks to hear 'I Will Survive,' then somebody else pays 20 bucks to hear something else, then someone pays $25 to hear 'I Will Survive' again, then somebody pays $100 for you to stop." Still, the money for these kinds of shows is persuasive enough to get the Sleaze to book at least one trip to Vegas per a year, where he averages several hundred bucks a night, thanks to his ability to quickly deliver the crowd's requests.
It's 5 p.m. and it's getting dark. Mid-afternoon is just a few hours into the start of the Sleaze's day, and there's always something to do before that night's performance. Today, the Sleaze sits in his living room, an AV mothership of sorts, with three computer monitors, a digital keyboard and recording equipment everywhere. CNN plays silently on a huge television set mounted close to the ceiling. Gliding around in his captain's chair, the Sleaze plugs an obelisk-shaped microphone into his huge computer terminal. "This is my little project," he says, pressing "record" on the computer and holding the microphone to his answering machine. "My mother wants me to learn this song so I told her to call me and sing it to me."
He presses "play" on the answering machine. "Hey! It's Momma," she says, immediately beginning a lullaby-soft rendition of "Paper Moon," verse, chorus and bridge in tact. The corners of The Sleaze's mouth raise a bit -- not sharply, like the smirk that accompanies the one-liners of his live act, but softly, giving the impression of a man visibly soothed. The computer immediately transforms his mother's voice into a series of seismic scratches on the monitor. The message ends with, "I love you, Mark."
He immediately turns to his keyboard -- "She's in E, I think," he says, still smiling, then he plays the verse perfectly, humming the lyrics that he'll have to learn off the Internet. "The chorus is a little tougher," he says, moving into a chord change. "I'll get it later." He saves the sound bite on his hard drive.
These gizmos are what you get into when you've played covers around the world and in a rotation of Pittsburgh bars for nearly two decades; when someone requests Bruce Hornsby's "That's Just the Way It Is" for the bajillionth time; when you have surgery for vocal polyps (twice); when you've choreographed a move for every drum hit of all 15 minutes of "MacArthur Park"; when your "regulars" have sung along since the Reagan administration; when you've played a few of their weddings and stood in the wedding parties of some, too; when you've built relationships with many of them, invited them back to your place for after-hours beers, sing-alongs, perhaps retaining one for something less PG-rated. This is what happens next: You get creative. You learn how to record and produce your own albums, as he did for his recent release of originals, Primer.
Other discs are in the works, including a nimble children's album that puts his playful lyrical style to innocent use. "My 12-year plan is to get all my songs recorded into albums," the Sleaze says. The urge to record his original material is both an imperative and a burden. "It's on my back all the time," he says.
He also dabbles in video, making mini movies to play at his gigs. One clip features the Sleaze and his brother in drag, singing the female parts of "Elegance" from Hello Dolly, which accompanies Dr. Space and Sleaze when they sing the male vocal live at Club Café shows. Ultimately, he'd like to record a late-night cabaret, "A 30-minute show that encompasses all the music I love." This could be broadcast on his Web site, or perhaps on network television.
The Sleaze also plans a few large theatrical events each year, like last year's "Wild Dream II," which featured the Sleaze's ridiculous take on Elvis in an even more ridiculous wig, a razorblade swallower and a meal cooked on stage by Café Allegro head chef Joe Nolan. Nolan, re-christened The Electric Chef, cooked for the audience while being underscored by the Sleaze. "Mark's the best," Nolan says. "I'll be up there cooking, and I'll crack some eggs, and he'll be right there behind me with that bawk-bawk chicken song."
The Sleaze's parents came up for December's "Sophistication/Degradation" show, a five-hour musical journey from classy standards (featuring him with two elegantly dressed "Satin Doll" dancers) to steamy rock numbers (when said dancers stripped to halter tops, swiveled like strippers and made out with each other). His parents' response to the event was understandably mixed. "Well, they liked the first half," the Sleaze says.
On a Monday night, the Club Café crowd has sizable additions to the regulars, most of whom are hangers-on from the Shadow Lounge's featured evening of the AMP performance series, which, notes Shadow Lounge owner Justin Strong with a wince, was scheduled for Martin Luther King Day. The closing set from SMI and the Rain runs long, so it isn't the Sleaze's turn until midnight.
He introduces himself to the loud, inattentive crowd with some pigeonholed top 40 hip hop -- a jokey chorus of Nelly's "It's Getting Hot in Here," followed by "It Wasn't Me." His new audience checks him out with raised eyebrows -- who does this guy think he is? The Sleaze smirks in the face of potential hostility and keeps going, mumbling the words of "It Wasn't Me" that he doesn't know. "Can anyone help me out?" he asks. In the middle of the song, a hanger-on from the Shadow Lounge show jumps onstage, rapping along with the Sleaze. "Go ahead! It's your night!" he shouts, and the crowd fires up.
Quickly, five hammy drunk kids rush the stage, dancing, adding choruses, waving their arms, scatting, and beat boxing, while the Sleaze keeps time by strumming on his muted guitar. Patrons are two-deep at the microphones. His hip-hop repertoire tapped, the Sleaze plays the drum machine feature on his keyboard, sing-songing "Doe, A Deer" from The Sound of Music. The boys on the stage run with it -- rapping over the top, shouting over each other, singing in rounds and harmonies. After that, Shadow Lounge protégé Gene Stovall, a soulful, operatically trained singer, whispers in the Sleaze's ear. The Sleaze nods and lurches into "Roxanne." The audience -- Shadow Lounge fans or not -- howl their approval.
Stovall's falsetto is spot-on, and Hutch from the HutchSimon Project freestyles over the instrumental breaks. They transition into "Message in a Bottle," then a George Benson ballad, then they move into songs the Sleaze has no clue about, by Onyx, WuTang Clan and Black Sheep. Occasionally, he drops out of the madness entirely. The crowd is going apeshit -- few remain seated. After a while, the Sleaze regains control and plays "Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon" for Anna Mae, a perfect attendance septuagenarian fan who has been tapping her orthopedic shoes all night. "This one goes out to Anna Mae, who makes me the sweetest nut bread in Pittsburgh," says the Sleaze.
As if prompted, one of the Shadow Lounge boys swoops Anna Mae up and dances her around the bar area while the Sleaze sings, "all I want is lovin' you, and music, music, music," to whoops and cheers. Several other people find partners and follow suit. When that's over, the guerilla performers take over again, freestyling over several Sleaze staples: "Feel Like Makin' Love," "Substitute" and "More Than Words." Stovall, decidedly over-served, starts screaming, "The Sleaze is the KING! The Human Jukebox! The muthafukin' KING!!!" repeatedly into the microphones. Justin Strong is on the back platform of the stage, doing his best Jackson Five moves. A line of women from various tables gyrate at the foot of the stage.
Most folks in attendance were too giddy and drunk to remember how the night ended, but it must have been a little bit after Dr. Space began "Roadhouse Blues" and over 20 people flew to the stage to sing with him, leaving fewer patrons offstage than on. No one knew where those two extra microphones ended up, or where the Sleaze was, for that matter, but they bopped and rocked in a unison pulse, keeping upright by holding onto someone they either knew or didn't, rolling when the lyrics told them to roll, baby roll, riding the tune as it clamored along like a boozy train wreck. Few who were there can actually remember if, by that point, the Sleaze was singing at all, but when Dan the bartender pushed the crowd out, the Sleaze must have exited with the rest, who filtered out into the January cold feeling as if the night were created just for them.
From Sondheim to "Spill the Wine":
the unlikely range of The Sleaze
Click here for some songs from recent Sleaze shows.