Gay musicians Gary Floyd and Bill Shafer serve up ambiance at Dallas hotels and restaurants

RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer [email protected]

Gary Floyd and Bill Shafer

GUY TUNES | Regular gigs at hotels and restaurants keep musicians like Gary Floyd, left, and Bill Shafer in the game. (Arnold Wayne Jones and Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice)

Maybe you don’t think too much about the musicians tickling the ivories in a hotel lobby or working the saxophone as a backdrop to a nice steak dinner. But many local gay musicians have found a niche gig doing just that. Les Farrington entertains at Del Frisco’s and Buddy Shanahan, Paul Allen and others have been spotted playing piano at Nordstrom.

And then there’s Gary Floyd and Bill Shafer.

Shafer can be seen playing sax and piano and singing at the new cigar lounge of Chamberlain’s Steak and Chop House in Addison. The spot is a far cry from his stints at the gay piano bars across the gayborhood.

“I was ready for something different,” Shafer says. “Chamberlain’s is a fun gig and I get to eat some great food.”

Shafer moved to North Texas from Hawaii 15 years ago. A former band teacher, he came to Dallas with his partner at the time, but opted to break from music. After playing professionally since age 12, the moratorium seemed warranted. But the music bug eventually itched, and he scratched it.

“Music is such a core part of me, but after being a music teacher for 14 years, I thought about not being in the music biz,” he says. “I was going to Cathedral of Hope and got hired to run sound for them.”

The part-time job led to singing at church — his first experiencing playing for the gay community. It soon snowballed. Shafer worked with local gay music staples including Shanahan, Floyd and Denise Lee, picking up gigs at Bill’s Hideaway before scoring a solo gig at Alexandre’s.

“I wanted to do stuff on my own,” he says. “I went to Alexandre’s for Tuesday and Sunday nights. After four years at the piano bar, Shafer noticed a shift in the audience requests.

“The crowd started getting younger, though, and requesting stuff like Lady Gaga. I did contemporary stuff as I could, but it didn’t seem enough.”

That’s about the time Chamberlain’s was looking for entertainment for New Year’s Eve. Shafer and his partner, who also plays, stood in for Larry Barnett to welcome in 2009. When they expanded, they called Shafer and ultimately booked his current gig.

“Chamberlain’s was putting in the cigar lounge and I helped set up the sound system,” he says. “When it opened last summer, I played a couple of nights a week, but now, I rotate with five other musicians.”

The upscale spot has introduced Shafer to some high rollers: He’s played in front of pro athletes (who are great tippers, he says) and other high profile types, but he’s kept some of his gay fans from the Hideaway days.

“On one hand, I don’t mind doing clubs,” he says. “But there is a gay presence up north and it’s nice to see that, even if they don’t know my story. The best part though is living so close. I get off at 11:30 and I’m in bed by midnight —for a 51 year-old man, that’s good!”

For Floyd, technology threatens to get the better of him at times. Other musicians with similar gigs (Farrington and Shafer for instance) bring backing tracks mixed at home or in studio. But Floyd relies on his fingers and voice to navigate the booking maze of this town.

“I’m not a tech guy and that may have hurt some opportunities,” he says. “One restaurant I pitched to required backing tracks and so I lost out on that one.”

But after doing this for more than 30 years, Floyd isn’t worried. He’s been able to make a living as a working musician and plans to continue for a while to come. Unless he gets to that moment where he doesn’t realize he’s past his prime.

“I may already be at that point,” he laughs.

Nah. Floyd has a solid reputation as a reliable and professional musician. At least once a week, he’s listed on a live music calendar somewhere. Until recently, he was at Hotel Zaza piano playing and singing by the pool or in their Dragonfly restaurant.

Zaza was a new environment for Floyd. This wasn’t the small piano bar with a regular gay crowd. Zaza is for trendsetters and millionaires. The bottom line was Floyd would be playing for a whole new group of people.

“I got that gig from someone hearing me play,” he says. “The thing was, I knew people at the Hideaway related to me, but I didn’t know if the cool people would. The music took over and they did.”

Serendipitously, he got the job days after the Hideaway closed.

“Denise [Lee] and I had thought about the club needing to close for us to move on,” he says. “When you get a steady gig you want to keep it, but sometimes we just get complacent.”

The stint lasted a year, but like Shafer, playing music is core to Floyd and whether he had the full-on attention of the crowd or filled the lobby with this piano and vocals, it was all good.

“I’m not beyond background music,” he says. “Even if you get just one person to stop and listen, I guess that’s what makes it worth it.”

He isn’t’ fretting over the lack of a regular booking right now — he’s too busy working on a new CD which comes out later this month. And that’s music to his ears.

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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 18, 2010.