He is the Vineyard's own piano man and his story has been told dozens of times, but even in the retelling it is remarkable and ordinary and gifted and funny - all words that describe David Crohan himself. Above all else he is funny, with a relaxed, deadpan humor that spills out unexpectedly and uproariously, some of it quite unprintable.
And suddenly you are laughing along with him and rocking back in your chair and laughing some more.
On this Sunday morning in July, David Crohan sits on the broad wraparound porch of a rambling East Chop Drive summer home owned by old friends, where he and his wife Claudette are staying. Tomorrow he will play his annual concert at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, marking 40 years of concerts in the Camp Ground.
A reporter reminds him that when he had his 50th birthday party at the Tabernacle 10 years ago, Walter Cronkite called him a genius.
"And he is the most trusted man in America, so he must be right," Mr. Crohan says, flashing his trademark grin.
Blind from birth, conservatory trained, he began to play the piano at the age of three and his formal training began at the age of seven. He grew up in a three-story tenement in Providence, R.I., and later attended the Perkins School for the Blind and the New England Conservatory, where he eventually received three advanced degrees in music.
From the early days playing in Circuit avenue bars in the 1960s, to the 20 years that he owned David's Island House and played the piano seven nights a week, to the benefit concerts for Camp Jabberwocky, the Community Solar Greenhouse and of course the Tabernacle - David Crohan is a homegrown Island celebrity and an institution in his own right.
But at age 61, none of this really matters to the piano man. Today what matters, what he marvels at as he sits on the porch with Nantucket Sound and scudding sailboats as a backdrop that he can only see in his mind's eye, is how good life has been to him. "This whole veil of tears, bitter pill thing - that's not the way I'm built. My life has been so full of love," he says, adding:
"These glasses are dark, but they're rose-colored."
Mr. Crohan no longer lives on the Vineyard; he moved to Palm Beach two years ago with his wife. They own a home in Lake Worth and he still plays the piano seven nights a week at an upscale Palm Beach restaurant, Cafe L'Europe.
"And now I can look smug," he grins, looking decidedly un-smug. "Palm Beach for me is like it was during my first 10 years on the Island - I am a novelty for the audience. It works very well. Ladies with walkers are my best fans . . . but I miss the Island and I miss my children."
He has three, ages 30, 26 and 17, and two grandchildren living in Arlington. Six years ago he married for the second time. Claudette sits on the porch this morning, slightly apart but listening intently, prodding Mr. Crohan to tell his stories.
And the memories of 40 years pour out like one long, lovely arpeggio.
He made his first trip to the Island in 1962 at the age of 17. An aunt by marriage had a sister who owned a home in the Camp Ground. He remembers the vacation in vivid detail.
"We went to State Beach every day. We were there one day, and I had a guitar with me - just because I had to have music with me all the time. I can't play the guitar for beans. But Camp Jabberwocky was there at the beach - those were the days when the camp was only for children - and this little boy with Down's Syndrome came over and said, ‘Can I play your guitar?' I said ‘Sure.'
"There was a beautiful 17-year-old counselor and I was 16 and she came over and I thought, oh boy, this is great, maybe it will get me a little closer to her. She introduced the boy to me and said this is Kevin - if he is bothering you, I'll come back and get him. And then she said, ‘Would you like David to play something for you?' And he said yes. She left and I took the guitar and began to play. And after about 17 seconds he said, ‘I guess I'm bothering you.'
"And that was my first audience."
His second audience was in the summer of 1964 when he found himself in Munro's Restaurant, the Circuit avenue eatery owned by George Munro that later became the Boston House.
He remembers the gruff Mr. Munro had a piano in the bar. "I started to play and I just sort of took over the place. George offered me a job that night, but he said, ‘I am not going to pay you because because I am a cheap [expletive]. Instead I am going to give you six dinner gift certificates but I am going to date them for next year.'
"It was so I would come back, of course. I did not play the next year either, but I did come back to get the dinners."
He worked for George Munro for five summers.
In the summer of 1970 he went to work for Peter Martell at the Rare Duck, down the avenue from the Boston House. He played there for six or seven years and then did a single summer stint at the Colonial Inn in Edgartown. "I liked it all right, but I missed Oak Bluffs," he recalls.
In 1978 he bought the Island House, renamed it David's Island House and began his own 20-year career as a restaurateur and hotelier on Circuit avenue. "We packed the place every night, served breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I still managed to lose money," he says.
Soon Mr. Crohan found himself struggling to get out from under a mountain of debt. "It was funny, I kept saying all I need is just one good weekend to get out of this debt. It was the most difficult part of my adult life."
In 1981 Bob and Mary Jokubaitis joined him as partners. A back-room guy and a shrewd business manager, Mr. Jokubaitis headed straight for the bottom line and turned the business around. In 1997 Mr. Crohan sold his half of David's Island House to his partners.
Lake Worth, Fla., may be his home address now, but Mr. Crohan's heart still lives in Oak Bluffs and the Tabernacle is his favorite place to play. "There is something about the sentimentality of it, the acoustics are great and the birds are singing and when the audience sings it's magic - it's just magic in there," he says.
He recalls the first time he played there, as a teenager. He was attending a community sing, and at intermission he was approached by someone from the Camp Ground who told him the entertainer couldn't make it and could he play something?
He did, and afterward he was asked to give a concert.
In 1976 for the country's centennial he composed a medley that traced the history of the American people. At the time he made a pact with the audience: he would only play the medley in the Tabernacle, and he would never practice it.
The medley includes the Stephen Foster song Old Black Joe. Three years ago when Mr. Crohan played the medley in a concert, the Vineyard Gazette received angry letters about the selection of the tune. Mr. Crohan was deeply troubled by what he saw as misplaced political correctness.
"It was the first time in American music that blacks were portrayed in a positive light. It was a beautiful portrait, and I was so distressed at the reaction," he said.
His formal education at Perkins led him eventually into classical training, but not at first.
"Perkins made me learn Braille so I could read music, but I was lazy. I would rather learn 10 pop songs in an hour than 10 measures of a classical piece," he says.
But at the age of 15 his life turned a new corner because of a single experience. One of his teachers gave him a piece of music which had been written for two pianos. He was asked to play one part of the piece, and the teacher would not tell him who the other player was until he finished. It turned out that the mystery guest was George Shearing, one of the great jazz pianists of all time.
"He told me - ‘You're fabulous, you're a better pianist than I am. You have a better technique. If you apply yourself to learning classical, if you learn classical technique, you will become grounded.'
"I know it sounds like such a cliche but it changed my life . . . George Shearing just came out with an autobiography and I wrote him a letter and said that there aren't too many times in life that you can say were life-defining, but the hour I spent in your company was just that."
Versatility is the hallmark of Mr. Crohan's music, from Brahms to Schubert to Brubeck to the Beatles. What doesn't he play? "Rap and techno music. It just doesn't speak to me," he says.
On the occasion of his 40th anniversary on Monday night, he hauled out some of his old standards from the early years such as the Chopin Polonaise and music written by Islanders, including How High the Moon, whose lyrics were penned by the late Nancy Hamilton.
The night was thick with humidity, the audience sang along to the American music and the evening conjured words written by a reviewer in the Gazette in 1999:
"Some day many years from now Camp Grounders will be telling their grandchildren about David Crohan, the great blind pianist and his summer concerts at the Tabernacle. They'll remember his trademark medley, his salute to American music, and they'll recall the year Mr. Crohan invited his audience to sing along. It was wonderful, they'll say. You really should have been there."