'Ain't nothing like winning,' says Bobby van Deusen about old-time piano competition

Tina Harbuck
The Destin Log

When it comes to competition, everybody likes to win – even pianists. 

“Ain’t nothing like winning,” said Bobby van Deusen, who recently won the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Oxford, Mississippi.  

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The 65-year-old, who lives in Pensacola and travels to the Emerald Coast six nights a week to play at Seagar’s Prime Steaks and Seafood in the Sandestin Hilton, won the Senior Division in the piano playing competition over Memorial Day weekend in Mississippi. 

This was van Deusen’s second win at the piano competition, having won it in 2019. The last two years, the competition was held virtually. But this year they were back on stage and in person at the University of Mississippi. 

The piano competition got its start back in 1975 as a fundraiser on Memorial Day in Illinois and was hosted by the Monticello Railway Museum.  

The event was moved to Peoria, Illinois, in the 1990s and then to Mississippi four years ago. 

Bobby "Mr. Piano" van Deusen took first place in the senior division of the 46th Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival held in May in Oxford, Mississippi. Van Deusen can be found six nights a week entertaining the crowd at Seagar's Prime Steaks & Seafood in the Sandestin Hilton.

Van Deusen, originally from Philadelphia, competed in Peoria three times, but didn’t win. 

“I learned a lot … learned what they were looking for,” van Deusen said. 

The old-time piano contest is all about popular tunes written before the 1930s with a lot of piano rolls, boogie woogie and honky tonk type music, van Deusen explained. 

All music performed at the competition has to be from memory. 

“It’s got to be memorized and in your fingers,” van Deusen said. 

His first tune was "Dizzy Fingers" by Zez Confrey. Then his second selection was an old piano roll called "Doodley Doo." 

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For the finals, he played Willie “The Lion” Smith’s "Fingerbuster." 

“And it’s a finger buster,” van Deusen said. 

His last piece was Chopin’s "Revolutionary Etude." 

“I played it like a honky-tonk tune … played it like a boogie woogie,” van Deusen said. “It just broke everybody up … and I won, yeh buddy.”

Although van Deusen is a classically-trained pianist, he said for this competition you have to take a different approach to music. 

“You want to be loud and fast, clever, but still be musical. It’s not just sitting up there and pounding your brains out, you got to be musical about it,” he said. 

The piano competition was divided into three divisions: juniors, regular and senior. 

As for the judges, there were three and “all of them are world class players … and they were very wise in their choice,” van Deusen said. 

Bobby "Mr. Piano" van Deusen took first place in the senior division of the 44th Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival held in May in Oxford, Mississippi. Van Deusen can be found six nights a week entertaining the crowd at Seagar's Prime Steaks & Seafood in the Sandestin Hilton.

Roll back in time 

Van Deusen has been playing professionally for 46 years. 

He started playing piano at an early age. 

“We had a piano player when I was a kid, we didn’t have much,” he said, noting the piano player was their family entertainment. 

“We’d put the rolls in and pump the pedals and it would play the songs,” he said. 

As a youngster, van Deusen started “plunking out tunes” the piano was playing. 

And at the age of 7, his mother hired a lady to teach him piano lessons for $2 a lesson. 

“That was a lot of money to my mom … but she got me some lessons,” he said. 

He went on to study music through high school and college at Ohio State and Eastman in New York. 

He turned pro at 19 and toured the Midwest playing in clubs and piano bars. 

In 1985 he left the Midwest and headed south. 

“I got tired of the cold and knew I wanted to come to Florida and I ended up in Pensacola at the Rosie O’Grady’s Dixieland Band at Seville Quarter. That was my first job here and it was my first Dixieland band,” he said. 

He then traveled over to New Orleans and played with “all the big guys,” he said, such as Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and The Dukes. 

Then he worked on steamboats for five years before coming back home to Pensacola in 1998, the year Seagar's opened. He played there for about four years, then came back full time three years ago at the request of the Director of Operations at the Hilton, Angelina Covington. 

Bobby "Mr. Piano" van Deusen took first place in the senior division of the 44th Old Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival held in May in Oxford, Mississippi. Van Deusen can be found six nights a week entertaining the crowd at Seagar's Prime Steaks & Seafood in the Sandestin Hilton.

“It’s quite the commute,” he said of the trek from Pensacola to Sandestin. He plays Tuesday through Sunday from about 5:30 until 10 p.m. 

The competition 

Van Deusen as a kid competed in classical contest.

“I’m not a competitive person by nature, but this is one of those deals where … anything you can do, I can do better,” he said with a laugh. “I just went up to show off … and that’s exactly what I did. I showed off and showed out."

With all pieces of music having to be played from memory, van Deusen was quick to thank the crew at Seagar's for listening to his many hours of practice. 

“I thank the crew because I would come in early every day and they had to listen to this crap every day for about three months while I was getting ready for this thing,” he said. 

He was also grateful for Covington giving him the time off over the holiday weekend to compete. 

All the pieces of music he performed at the competition were his own arrangements.  

“Some people play ragtime arrangements that are written down, but mine were all stuff from my own imagination,” he said. 

And he loves ragtime-style music. 

“It’s so much fun. Not many people play it anymore, but it’s a lot of fun to play,” he said, noting he even sneaks in a couple of tunes at Seagar’s every once in a while. 

“Stuff from the Sting … stuff people will recognize. They really enjoy it and I enjoy playing it,” van Deusen said. 

As for the old-time piano competition, “It may seem like just a bunch of piano players, but when you’re up against some of the best players in the world, and people travel from all over the world to play in this thing, and to be recognized by your peers, is pretty special.  

“I enjoyed it very much … just ain’t nothing like winning,” van Deusen said.