If you ever see a man in dark glasses approach someone playing a public piano and he asks, ‘Mind if I have a go? Um, where’s middle C?’, don’t be fooled.
It could be boogie woogie virtuoso ‘Dr K’ – real name Brendan Kavanagh – who has been entertaining passers-by at train stations, airports and outdoor venues around London for the past few years.
One of his favourite (foot)-stomping grounds is St Pancras station, where he can be found sitting at a piano donated by Elton John.
The father-of-three, 54, from Norfolk, is often in disguise and has performed while dressed as a Covid marshal, workman, aircraft pilot, doctor and even in full hazmat suit.
He told MailOnline: ‘People miss live “raw” music in a world that has become immersed in virtual reality and virtual music.’
‘Dr K’ – real name Brendan Kavanagh (seated) – is a boogie woogie virtuoso who has been entertaining passers-by for several years at train stations, airports and outdoor venues around London. He is seen above at St Pancras station where he dupes a bystander into believing he’s a novice
Spreading sunshine during the pandemic (Devonshire Sq, London)
Mamma Mia, here he goes again (playing Abba in St Pancras station)
Although his passion is boogie woogie (a form of blues with a strong, uptempo beat), he is also adept at other styles including classical and rock ‘n’ roll.
‘My musical inspiration was watching Jools Holland playing on Channel 4’s anarchic live pop programme The Tube. That was where I first heard boogie woogie.
‘I later had lessons with the late, great boogie woogie player [William] ‘Hammy’ Howell – he played with 1970s’ doo-wop band Darts – who I was introduced to when I played in pop bands around London when I was a teenager. Hammy died back in 1999 before the internet took off.
‘I was also inspired by Holocaust survivor and concert pianist Professor Nelly Ben-Or who taught me classical piano for about a year in my early twenties.
‘It was also cool that Nelly didn’t mind me playing boogie woogie on her Steinway. That was cool, I thought, for a concert pianist.’
Among his standards are You Are My Sunshine, Swanee River, Fur Elise, Batman Boogie and music from Mary Poppins, along with classical and contemporary improvisations.
Dr K, who is originally from North London, has garnered more than a billion views on social media, mostly on YouTube and Facebook.
Na na na na na na na na? Yes. Batman Boogie (King’s Cross Tube)
Wait a minuet… what’s that? (Canary Wharf Tube station)
Hardly workmanlike: A contemporary improvisation (St Pancras)
In some videos, he pranks unwitting passers-by. If he sees someone playing, he might claim to be a beginner and ask them to slowly teach him the piece.
He will then hesitantly tap the keys before revealing his true talent.
But one particular bystander did not take kindly to his energetic playing – a silver-haired, well-spoken woman who rebuked him for ‘bashing the piano’.
‘The only heckler I have ever had [while performing] live was the “Don’t bash the piano” lady, which turned into a classic comic moment and birthed the Don’t Bash The Piano meme.
‘I find hecklers are more online trolls rather than in real life. I have never had a bad experience live, apart from a little run-in with security at Canary Wharf [when he turned up at the station dressed in police uniform].
‘Boogie woogie tends to cheer people up, not wind people up. Reactions are always great. The worst is that people ignore you because they’re busy or having a bad day,’ he adds.
Brendan Kavanagh (pictured) first heard boogie woogie aged around 17 when he saw Jools Holland perform on Channel 4’s The Tube. For several years, ‘Dr K’ worked as an English and Latin teacher before becoming disillusioned with the ‘increasing bureaucracy and pointless testing’
Dr K has pondered going to America, where he has a massive fan base, but the pandemic has made it difficult.
‘I would consider going to the US but the current global situation does not lend itself to me going there,’ he says.
‘Lots of bands and musicians have had to cancel gigs if someone tests positive for Covid, so I am not making plans to tour.’
He also lamented the decline in access to public pianos.
‘A lot of the public pianos in London have disappeared during lockdown, especially the ones in Canary Wharf and Tottenham Court Road Tube, and they have not been put back.’
As for the Dr K moniker, he really is a doctor – of philosophy.
He obtained a PhD in English Literature at University College Cork, where his thesis was on ‘WB Yeats and Eastern Mysticism’.
For several years, he worked as an English and Latin teacher before becoming disillusioned with the ‘increasing bureaucracy and pointless testing’.
But academia’s loss is the world of music’s gain.
Man of note: Key facts about Dr K
- Brendan Kavanagh’s late father was a plasterer from County Cork.
- When Brendan was about seven, his father brought home an upright piano which had been left on a building site.
- The budding musician had piano lessons as a child. In his twenties, he studied with Nelly Ben-Or, an international concert pianist and Holocaust survivor.
- Brendan first heard boogie woogie aged around 17 when he saw Jools Holland perform on Channel 4’s The Tube. Contrary to various ‘reports’ on the internet, he has never actually performed with Jools Holland, or Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
- After playing with various bands around London, he was introduced to legendary boogie woogie player Hammy Howell (1954-1999), who had played with the chart band Darts.
- Howell gave the teenager four boogie woogie lessons and taught him Hammy’s Boogie.
- Brendan’s increasingly frustrating stint as an English and Latin teacher led to him writing a book, called Toxic Teaching.
- These days, he describes himself as a ‘teacher, performer and entrepreneur’ with a line of piano study guides titled Badass Boogie Bundles.