In the late 80s, a decade or so into his extraordinary run as one of America’s top piano bar entertainers, Tucker Binkley was performing one of his regular gigs at Manana, a club he helped build and was part owner of, located at the Inn of the Governors Hotel in Santa Fe. His shows were so popular that the locals fondly referred to the venue as “Tucker’s Place.” After the show, none other than legendary bandleader Les Brown called him over to his table and paid the singer/pianist the highest compliment possible: “I want you to know that I worked many times with Frank Sinatra, and you are one of the best interpreters of his songs that I have ever heard.”
Though classics popularized by the Chairman of the Board are a foundational part of a multi-genre repertoire that Tucker estimates grew over the decades to about 2000 songs, the singer’s Sinatra connection goes deeper than simply capturing Frank’s cool, easy swinging vocal style and his trademark timing, always a quarter note behind the beat. At 15, with aspirations to be a conductor and already proficient on trombone, piano, guitar and his first instrument, the accordion, he attended the famed Desert Sun School in Idyllwild, CA (a few years after Frank Sinatra, Jr.), where he learned much Sinatra’s music and timing and those cherished Nelson Riddle arrangements.
Throughout his extraordinary life and career, Tucker has embraced numerous Frank philosophies that all artists can draw wisdom from. Having performed before thousands of people – celebrities, wealthy investors and oilmen and regular music loving patrons alike – everywhere from Denver and Ft. Worth, TX to New York City and Scottsdale, AZ, he’s been particularly successful by following the notion of making every moment intimate and singing to one single person in the audience. Another Sinatra-ism he considers the greatest statement of all is: “In this business, you have to get the breaks but you’ve gotta have the talent to back it up.” Perhaps most important as it relates to Tucker’s own career trajectory, he loved the way Frank spoke about taking risks, a crucial part of stepping up to the next level.
Tucker was a few years into his career in Denver when the opportunity to take a major, potentially life changing risk presented itself. After two years playing piano in the Red Slipper Room at the Cherry Creek Inn (where his repertoire included Sinatra, Sondheim and big band), he moved on up to the piano bar at Gabriel’s Dinner Theatre, a spinning restaurant atop the Holiday Inn, then relocated to the hotel’s main piano bar. He enjoyed the clientele, which included Hank Williams Jr. among others, but was still serving as a background dinner pianist. He had yet to have an opportunity to share his vocal talents.
Only three months into his nightly gig at the Holiday Inn, Howard Connor, GM of the exclusive Fairmont Hotel, loved what he was hearing and offered Tucker a deal for two weeks at the hotel’s star-studded Marquee piano lounge. “I had to make a quick decision,” Tucker recalls. “It was a risk leaving my steady job on the piano at the Holiday Inn, but I chose to leave because I wanted two weeks at the Fairmont on my resume. The long and short of it is that Howard held me over for 26 weeks. The crowd loved me and I began to build my repertoire, sing, play, tell jokes and really learn how to entertain. It was a totally different type of engagement, and it turned out to be the right decision. It was wonderful to realize they were coming to hear me sing!”
Among those who became enamored of Tucker’s all out performances at the Fairmont were regulars Diahann Carroll, Sarah Vaughan, Vaughan’s pianist Butch Lacy and Vic Damone, whom Tucker once asked to sing “An Affair to Remember.” One night, a man came up to Tucker and said, “I really like your piano playing. It reminds me of my father.” The man was Peter Duchin, son of Eddie Duchin, a famous high society pianist and bandleader in the 1930’s and 40’s whose life was chronicled in a film starring Tyrone Power. The moment was meaningful to Tucker because a few years earlier, during a past life regression with famed psychic Howard Starkel, it was revealed that he had a previous spiritual connection to the elder Duchin.
Tucker’s own entry into the rarefied air of high society entertaining happened soon thereafter, towards the end of his six month stint at the Fairmont, when a wealthy patron from Ft. Worth named Carl Motheral took an interest in the singer and became his mentor and manager. Motherall invited Tucker to play at his home and helped develop and structure him as a high society pianist, complete with a new haircut and tuxedo. Moving to Texas, Tucker played at various private affairs and secured a gig singing and playing the concert grand on the mezzanine of the Americana in addition to occasional shows at the Ft. Worth Club, frequented by wealthy oilmen. He was on this whirlwind for two and a half years, then began playing at the elevated piano bar at Loews Anatole in Dallas.
Tucker has fond memories of his years in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, which had some of the greatest supporters of arts and music he had ever met. By this time, his repertoire had grown exponentially – and included pop and country material from everyone from Kenny Rogers and Willie Nelson to Lionel Richie, Rachmaninoff and many Broadway standards. At one point, he considered working in the cruise industry and was asked by potential employers if he knew 100 songs. Tucker replied that he probably knew 2000 by memory and could fill two hours each dedicated to country, Broadway, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and the sophisticated piano music of Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavallaro.
Carl Motheral was instrumental in helping Tucker secure his first major piano bar engagement in New York City at Sign of the Dove, a legendary opulent landmark of romantic dining on 3rd Avenue which was famously the site of a party Jacqueline Kennedy threw for the economist John Kenneth Galbraith that marked one of her first public forays after JFK’s assassination. After having been groomed as a high society pianist for two years, Tucker was ready for the Big Apple. In 1982, Motheral flew Joe Santo, owner of Sign of the Dove, to a special party at his home where Tucker was the featured performer. Duly impressed, Santo offered the pianist and singer the gig of a lifetime where, Tucker says, “I met all the people I needed to keep me employed the rest of my life.”
The clientele during his run at the restaurant’s Piano Café included Jackie (then Onassis), Elizabeth Taylor, and Paul Newman. At one point, Tucker was offered the opportunity to fill in for the legendary Bobby Short at The Carlyle, but his six nights a week engagement at Sign of the Dove precluded him from accepting it. “I read a statistic that in the 20th Century, less than 10 percent of piano players worldwide performed at one of the four most famous venues in New York, Sign of the Dove, the Rainbow Room, Tavern on the Green and the Waldorf Astoria. I am proud to be one of them.”
During Tucker’s six months at Sign of the Dove, in addition to meeting and entertaining an ongoing flow of celebrities, Tucker met and impressed two influential resort developers that would take his career to exciting new heights – not only as an entertainer but as a designer and creator of piano bars on exclusive properties in Arizona and New Mexico. Tucker worked for Scottsdale developer Lyle Anderson for a total of 22 years, creating and headlining popular piano bars at the 850 acre community Desert Highlands and 8,000 acre master planned community Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, and the 4800 acre private community Las Campanas in Santa Fe. All three properties featured Jack Nicklaus designed golf courses.
“My years with Lyle were special years,” Tucker says. “He loved me and my kids, and I became his exclusive pianist for his private parties and charitable events, to the tune of 300 total gigs a year. I felt like I really came into my own as a singer at Sign of the Dove, and just as importantly, discovered my ability to make lasting and meaningful connections with people far beyond my humble beginnings just playing piano in the background. Being able to engage people at a high level was a wonderful gift I didn’t know I had, and I was able to bring that confidence to my later endeavors, entertaining thousands of people at Kyle’s resorts.”
Tucker’s other great success in Santa Fe was building from scratch and becoming part owner (with Palm Beach, Florida based developer Jefferson Vander Wolk) of Manana at the Inn of the Governors Hotel. His four year run there (1988-92) was so popular that the piano bar was nicknamed “Tucker’s Place.” “Santa Fe is an amazing, beautifully eccentric and artistic place,” he says, “and it’s a place I have considered home and always felt I could come back to. One of my fondest musical memories at Manana was singing the beautiful Elvis Costello song ‘She’. I had several gay friends in the audience that night and they asked if I would sing it as ‘He’ and so I performed it like that, just for them.”
In the late 90s, Tucker recorded a wonderful album to sell for patrons at the piano bar titled Tucker At The Piano – which is now available on PSB Records. The album begins with four of Tucker’s original piano-only compositions (including one dedicated to his adult children “Harrison and Lauren”) and features the Sinatra classics “Summer Wind,” “Witchcraft” and “The Way You Look Tonight” (also his daughter’s wedding song), the contemporary pop hits “Wind Beneath My Wings” (which he sang at his mother’s funeral) and “How Do You Keep The Music Playing” and the lovely, spiritual themed Alabama tune “Angels Among Us.” Tucker also performs instrumental renditions of his father’s favorite song “Come Back to Sorrento,” “Endless Love” “Theme From the Godfather,” Francis Lai’s “Man and a Woman” and “Yesterday When I Was Young.” He closes the 17 song set with a soulful vocal rendition of “Two for the Road.” Though he never recorded it, Tucker says that his favorite instrumental score of all time to play is Maurice Jarre’s music to “Dr. Zhivago.”
Between the end of his time working at Anderson’s resorts in the late 2000’s and officially retiring in 2016, Tucker played at an Italian restaurant in Santa Fe and moved to Midland, TX (where the mother of his children lived), where he played regularly in a wide variety of intimate settings, from the Petroleum Club and a sophisticated assisted living facility where former first Lady Laura Bush’s mother lived. He enjoyed going back and forth to Texas to sing throughout his career because he felt no city was as strong in its support of the arts as Dallas-Ft. Worth.
Growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena, Tucker was blessed that his father believed music was as important as math and reading, and insisted that all three of his sons – Tucker, John and Nick – learned to play music at an early age. The Binkleys’ mom was an accomplished classical pianist and their dad was a great lover of drinking bourbon, smoking cigarettes and 1950’s piano bar music. Early on, Tucker learned accordion, Nick (a future renowned recording artist in his own right) took up guitar and John played piano. Feeling comfortable playing and being around music from an early age, Tucker learned piano, then drums and trombone later while attending the Desert Sun school in his mid-teens. In the early 60s, Nick and Tucker performed folk music (a la Peter, Paul & Mary), and Tucker realized that he could play by ear and memorize charts quickly.
Despite his obvious musical gifts, Tucker, who joined the Marines for a six year stint at 18, didn’t start taking music seriously as a possible profession until a few years after he left the service and kicked his drinking and recreational drug habits. He realizes that none of his success would have ever been possible had he not gotten sober in his late 20s. A friend who was a piano bar performer knew of Tucker’s great talents and told him he was good enough to headline a cocktail hour, a confidence boost which led him to his first official gig at the Cherry Creek in Denver and all the incredible personal and professional experiences to follow.
“The greatest joy of my life is bringing happiness to people,” says Tucker, who even in retirement entertains neighbors and friends at the grand piano in his condo in Santa Fe. “There’s that incredible moment when I’m singing where something happens with the audience that doesn’t happen in any other situation in life. It’s an intimacy like no other. I always loved when there was a couple sitting in front, asking me for a special song. I would begin to sing and it was as if they were letting me into their private space where they’re falling in love. What a blessing it is to become part of that for even a moment. There’s nothing more gratifying than when I’m allowed into that space, connecting my heart with the heart of my audience.”