It’s been a while since I sat down with pianist Clay Whittington at Port City Java on Market Street in 2013. The Kinston-born North Carolinian had moved to Wilmington only a few months prior in order to fulfill his passion for performance in theatre, film and music. Leading up to his move, Whittington had been in shows like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Clue,” “TEXAS,” “Disney’s High School Musical On Stage” and “Nunsense!” in various venues throughout the southeast. He found himself on the set of the TV show “Sleepy Hollow” as an extra and was playing keys throughout Wilmington on the heels of his debut album, “Hymprov,” featuring a series of hymnals interpreted through his own style of classical jazz or rock piano.
Whittington then set sail on new adventures: playing live piano on cruise ships for a little more than two years before docking in November 2018. He acknowledges now he may have dodged the proverbial bullet by leaving the cruise industry before a global pandemic.
“I keep up with many friends that are still out there,” he tells. “Most, if not all of the entertainment staff have had their contracts cut short.” He has witnessed friends losing thousands of dollars, many of whom now do livestream concerts and some partaking in GoFundMe campaigns.
“The quarantine orders also seem to have sparked new creativity with many of my artist friends,” Whittingtton adds. “Some are crowdfunding for albums while others are offering online lessons.”
Catching up with the artist now, it’s impossible not to note the sign of the times as “Sleepy Hollow” and ILM’s film industry has long since said adieu—though slowly seems to be building up again. And forget about meeting at a coffee shop for an interview. As for Whittington, all of his work as a gigging musician, choir director and student has moved online.
“It’s keeping me fairly busy,” he says. “I am actually keeping my grass cut to a reasonable height! I also started back at East Carolina University in the fall, so classes are keeping me busy. Turns out you can do music theory and history online.”
While completing his bachelor’s degree in vocal performance, with a concentration in sacred music, Whittington is making the most of his time at home and still playing live shows, online, of course. Enter: “Quarantunes with Clay,” livestreaming on Facebook every Thursday night at 7 p.m. We caught up with the entertainer via email before his next performance, April 16.
encore (e): Does all of this COVID-19 business make you question taking a cruise ship job again?
Clay Whittington (CW): I had my reasons for leaving—mostly the feeling I had “served my time” and that it was time to move on. As for this affecting my decision to take similar jobs again? Nah. The cruise industry will bounce back with a vengeance, and they’re good about taking care of their employees, especially their entertainers.
e: Tell us more about starting “Quarantunes.”
CW: I spent most of my spring break with the East Carolina University Chamber Singers in Alabama. While we were there, we got word classes were being moved online for the remainder of the semester. When I returned home, I played at Tails Piano Bar on March 14. This was the last live gig I played since things really started to go south that weekend. By Monday, my performance calendar for April and most of May had been wiped clean.
I also had been performing a regular Thursday night show at Don’t Tell Scarlett, a new piano bar inside the Queen Street Deli in Kinston. Especially after the stay-at-home order, I had to find a way to reach this audience and let them know we’d be back up and running soon, so I tried a Facebook Live piano bar on Thursday night and it was a hit!
Coming down from the high of a successful first night, I decided to make it a weekly show. So here we are every Thursday in quarantine, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
e: Do you take requests? What do people often ask to hear?
CW: “Quarantunes with Clay” is an all-request show. I’ll start and end with a few personal favorites, but the majority is audience-driven. They’re asking for many piano bar favorites, such as “Piano Man,” “Sweet Caroline,” etc., but there are requests for rock and pop hits from the past few decades (i.e. Queen, Elton John, Ben Folds, Toto, Backstreet Boys).
e: What’s the craziest song request you’ve ever gotten anywhere?
CW: I have had a lot of crazy requests, but some favorites that stick out are:
“Come Sail Away” (in the style of Eric Cartman)—which will wreck your voice.
Fergie’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”
Anything from Joe Exotic (God save us!)
“Baby Got Back”—always a crowd favorite.
e: Give us an idea of what we can expect to hear in the coming weeks.
CW: I like to learn a few new songs each week and staying at home has made that quite easy. After much resistance, I finally sat down with some of the Tiger King’s “music” (using the term “music” loosely here) and plan to include it in this week’s show. Just like my regular performances, if there’s a request I don’t know, I try to learn it before next week’s show—but yes, this week will include more Ben Folds, Seger and Speedwagon.