When George Giroux was not quite 9 years old, his dad taught him to play three basic chords on the piano.
Six months later, he began earning money as a musician.
Giroux began his music career in the early 1940s, accompanying his father, who was a fiddler. They played at square dances Saturday and Sunday nights at a rustic dance hall in the Plattsburgh area. Giroux earned $7 a night.
Hear George Giroux play at Prime at Saratoga National, 458 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. April 15, May 8 and 29, and June 10 and 20.
“It was essentially my father on the fiddle and I was on the piano and we had a guy that called the square dances, so really, it was a two-piece band,” the 81-year-old recalled.
Over the years, the Glenville resident’s repertoire has grown from simple jigs and reels to between 6,000 and 7,000 songs. Many are from the Great American Songbook. All of them are memorized.
“He has the gift of an ear,” said Mary Ellen Giroux, his wife of 61 years. “He can hear a tune and reproduce it with the right chords or he can look at a piece of music for a popular song and just close it up and play it.”
Some of his greatest influences were famed jazz pianists
“I fell in love with Art Tatum and later on, Oscar Peterson. They really motivated me,” he said.
George Giroux played piano all through high school, and his talent helped keep cash in his pocket while he attended SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music.
After graduation, he served 16 months in Korea as pianist, clarinetist and arranger for the Eighth Army Headquarters Band. He played at Army-controlled service clubs in Seoul every night of the week, and did extra shows on weekends.
“Anywhere the American GI goes, he’s gonna have to have a place to unwind socially. Even during the height of World War II they went places,” he recalled. “The chosen hotel was a big hotel right in downtown Seoul that hadn’t been bombed out. That was our major job. On Saturday night we played there. I had an eight-piece band, but most of the time it was a trio — bass, drums and piano.”
Often requested were songs like “Night Train,” “When the Saints go Marching in” and “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy,” he said.
Following his time in the service, George Giroux had a 34-year career as head of a high school music department, about a half-hour outside of Rochester. He also played three to six nights a week at nightclubs in downtown Rochester, as leader of the George Giroux Trio.
Mary Ellen Giroux, a musician herself, has always been there for support. She was a church organist and kindergarten teacher before staying at home to raise their children.
“There’s a few things I’ve been very fortunate with in life, and one of them is marrying her,” George Giroux said. “She essentially brought our children up while I was working.”
The couple had four children, all of whom are musically inclined. Three attended Crane, like their father, and two are music teachers. The talent also got passed down to their grandkids; three out of 14 have earned degrees in music and a fourth is working on one.
“Two grandsons are real jazz oriented. We play a lot together,” George Giroux said. “They keep me in shape. They challenge me.”
The Girouxs moved to the Capital Region in 2005, to live closer to their youngest son, Peter, who is band director at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School.
Seventy-two years after he started picking up chords as a kid, piano playing’s still putting money in George Giroux’s pocket.
He plays six or seven times a month at 677 Prime in Albany, Prime at Saratoga National and The Wine Bar in Saratoga Springs.
Last Monday morning, he sat down at the Yamaha grand piano in his living room and, upon request, whipped off a jazz-infused version of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
“I like to work off the crowd. I like people telling me what to play. I would be happy if everybody would name the songs they wanted me to play all night long,” he said.
He estimated he’s played about 8,500 gigs in nightclubs, at times accompanying known musicians, including jazz trombonist Urbie Green, jazz vibraphonist Red Norvo, and Bobby Hackett, who played trumpet, cornet and guitar with the bands of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
George Giroux also had opportunities to accompany jazz singers Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan, as well as Helen Forrest, who sang with popular big bands of the Swing Era.
“I had an offer to travel — to go on the road — but I was already playing a lot, so I turned it down,” he noted.
He said the money he’s made playing piano has been instrumental in elevating his family’s lifestyle.
His wife reminded him that his talent has done much more than that.
“It enriched all of our lives — just that expression,” she said.