Ken Bichel: San Miguel’s famed piano man returns

By Fredric Dannen

Ken Bichel

Certain people can point to a single year of their lives as an annus mirabilis – a watershed year – and for Ken Bichel, the prodigiously talented pianist and composer who makes his home in San Miguel, that year was 1969. Bichel was about to graduate from Juilliard, with a master’s degree in piano performance, when an encounter with electronic music pioneer Gershon Kingsley led to Bichel becoming a founding member of the First Moog Quartet. Only months later, Bichel was performing on a Moog synthesizer at Carnegie Hall. Meanwhile, he and three fellow musicians formed the psychedelic rock band Side Show, and in 1969 the group was signed to Atlantic Records. Almost overnight, the classically trained Bichel had become a hotly sought-after keyboard player in the worlds of pop, jazz and rock, and he soon found himself recording and performing with the likes of Peggy Lee, Judy Collins, Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, and a host of other stars.

Baby Jane Dexter with Ken Bichel
“Rules of the Road”
Fri, Jan 31, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
Tickets: 300/150 pesos
Tickets avaiable Teatro Ángela Peralta

Bichel has lived in San Miguel for a decade, and within the city’s musical community, his inordinate talent has made him something of a cult figure. So when the New York cabaret superstar Baby Jane Dexter told me she was coming to San Miguel for a single engagement at the Teatro Ángela Peralta on Friday, January 31, and requested an accompanist, there was no doubt in my mind whom I was going to recommend. Bichel’s public performances have become rare events, but he agreed to appear with Dexter, and the Peralta concert will be their first-ever collaboration. Dexter, who just finished a sold-out run at the Metropolitan Room in New York City, and whom The New York Times calls “formidable” and “maybe the most talented singer” in the field of cabaret, says she is “very excited” by the prospect of working with Bichel. Tickets for their Peralta concert go on sale at the theater on January 17.

Bichel’s accomplishments are not limited to music. He studied Tao philosophy for 20 years and became a tai chi master; he and his wife Wendy (herself a singer-songwriter) are certified teaching monks of Ishayas’ Ascension Meditation. He has come a considerable distance from his not-so-liberal upbringing in Detroit, Michigan. While his mother, a piano teacher, detected Bichel’s musical abilities early, and began giving him lessons at age five, his father encouraged him to learn how to handle firearms. By the time Bichel was a teenager, he had won a piano competition playing the Liszt Piano Concerto in E flat – and he also had a sharpshooter classification from the National Rifle Association.

Luckily, music paved the way for Bichel’s future. In 1977, Phil Ramone was hired to produce Billy Joel’s breakout album The Stranger, and, knowing of Bichel’s prowess on both traditional keyboards and synthesizers, Ramone brought him in to work on the song “Just the Way You Are.” Searching for a particular sound, Ramone had Bichel and Joel sing backup “ahs” together – “for several hours,” Bichel recalls – and then electronically modified them. The song became Joel’s first gold record hit. “It’s the biggest single I ever performed on – and I wasn’t even playing a keyboard,” Bichel muses.

That same year, Bichel appeared on Broadway as Norman in the original cast of the Cy Coleman/Michael Stewart hit musical I Love My Wife. The role, which garnered him a Drama Desk Award, required Bichel to sing and play the piano on stage. His hair-raising stride piano playing in the Act II opener, “Hey There, Good Times,” stopped the show. (Bichel’s performance was included in the 1977 Tony Awards broadcast, and can be seen on YouTube.)

Bichel says he never expected to leave New York City, where he was happily running a tai chi school, and playing keyboards for film scores by Carter Burwell and Howard Shore. But a chance remark by a woman he and his wife met in the early 2000s at a holistic health center in California led the couple to San Miguel. “I come here for the first time,” Bichel recalls, “and on the drive from the airport I see there’s no water – this is a desert. I come into town, and there are no stoplights. I’m getting depressed. And then,” Bichel says, “I fell in love with the place.”


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