The History of Dueling Pianos
Updated: Jan 17
Piano bars have been around for a long time in various forms from the old ragtime players that are often depicted in Spaghetti Westerns to dark cocktail lounges serving up a sultry and sensual atmosphere. Some are instrumental only, usually catering to jazz standards, and in some, the player sings or accompanies a vocalist. This form of live music has attracted patrons to bars, pubs, and speakeasies for a long time, and holds a rich history.
The concept of dueling pianos dates back as early as the late 1890s, when ragtime players would "duel" to see who could play better and faster. B.H. O'Brien and Charlie Cantrell opened Pat O'Brien's Bar in New Orleans back in 1933, which included a room where two piano players would entertain the crowd on copper-topped baby grand pianos. Players would take turns singing songs requested by the audience, written on cocktail napkins, and from this location, the concept of an all-request show took its roots.
Many of the veteran duelers that helped to spread the concept can be traced back to a bar called Alley Cats in Dallas, Texas. The bar opened up in 1986 and tried to recreate the New Orleans style - but with a few additions and alterations. The musicians focused more on contemporary music of rock, pop, blues, and so on. They also started to incorporate elements of comedy, crowd interaction, and bits including "adult" versions of children's songs, and sophomoric word substitutions in songs to make them dirty or risqué.
It was from this original location in Texas that many of the players were hired to open new clubs, sprouting up chains such as Pete's Dueling Piano Bar, Howl at the Moon, The SHOUT! House, The Big Bang Dueling Pianos, and many others. The show has evolved over the years as certain venues change their format while others prefer to focus on a more "classical" style, but in most cases, the "sing-along" element remains true. The focus isn't on who can play faster or better, but more of a collaborative effort amongst the players to make the audience the stars of the show.