The short, schlubby-looking older gentleman who entered the La Valencia Hotel’s La Sala Lounge with his wife hid behind a ski cap and thick scarf, but the piano player recognized him immediately. He’d been preparing for this moment since he was a kid.
“I’d actually fantasized about what I would do if he ever walked in,” said Rick Ross, chatting with the Light just before his weekly Friday-night La Sala set, during which he sings and plays piano and sax along with synthesized accompaniment that approximates a full band.
Ross, an Indiana native who holds a master’s degree in hotel and restaurant management from Cornell University, is comfortable around celebrities. His 30 consecutive years at the Pink Lady include performing for Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, the entire Kardashian clan, and almost Oprah Winfrey. (He bumped into her on her way out one night. She promised to catch his show the next night but never did. “Since then,” Ross reported, “my mom has been at war with Oprah and Oprah hasn’t known it.”)
Once, Ross was hired to open for Jackson Browne at a private La V birthday party, and Browne liked his sax playing so much, he invited Ross to accompany him.
But this time was different. It was Billy freakin’ Joel who walked in, patron saint of all piano men everywhere. It was Thursday, May 12, 2016 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee had just arrived in town to play a sold-out Petco Park that Saturday. Ross noticed he was on his way out of the hotel.
“That’s where instinct took over,” Ross recalled. “I got up from the piano, walked right up those stairs and put my hand on his shoulder like I knew him forever. I said, ‘You’ve inspired me for decades, and I’ve got to get the chance to play for you.’ ”
Joel agreed to stay and listen to Ross on one strict condition: “Don’t play any of my songs.”
Manhattan state of mind
Later that evening, Joel and his wife took in their second La Jolla piano set. They were spotted at Manhattan of La Jolla, watching Tad Sisler, who holds court at the Empress Hotel restaurant Thursdays through Saturdays.
“We didn’t know he was there until after I finished playing,” Sisler said, “but apparently, he enjoyed it immensely and made a reservation to come back for dinner the following night.”
Joel and his fourth wife, Alexis Roderick, were almost finished dining on Friday when Sisler’s performance began at 8 p.m.
“I remembered an interview I’d seen years ago when Billy mentioned that one of the favorite songs he ever wrote was ‘Everybody Has A Dream,’ so I played and sang that song quietly,” said Sisler, who once saw Joel perform, pre-fame, at a college gym in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Joel approached him on his way out with a $100 bill.
“He told me I was good,” Sisler said. “I said, ‘I love you man!’ It was one of my happiest moments in my career because I grew up loving his music.”
Ross was under considerably more pressure than Sisler, of course. In order to convince Joel to see his set, he had to promise to fulfill the one request his longtime fantasy would not allow. How can you play no Billy Joel for Billy Joel?
Wisely, Ross performed only deep cuts, songs — such as “Rosalinda’s Eyes,” “Streetlife Serenader” and a forgotten ditty from Joel’s forgotten 1971 debut album called “Nocturne” — that could only be known, much less played, by a true superfan.
He didn’t even play “Piano Man,” the hit Joel wrote about the year he spent essentially doing Ross’ job at L.A.’s Executive Lounge in 1972.
In the end, Ross received the same $100 tip, but also a photo, which was snapped by Joel’s wife.
“It took 30 years, all that time, for that to happen,” Ross said. “And now, sometimes I think, ‘You know, maybe everything that will ever happen to me has already happened.’ ”
IF YOU GO: Rick Ross performs 6-10 p.m. Fridays in the La Sala Lounge at La Valencia Hotel, 1132 Prospect St. Tad Sisler performs 7 p.m. Thursdays, and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at Manhattan of La Jolla, 7766 Fay Ave.