Search our archives

The Piano Man

Jimmy Binkley has been playing the blues in Peoria for years


of the Journal Star
March 9, 2006

Ask the ageless Jimmy Binkley how old he is and the following often happens:

His head tilts backward. His eyes widen and illuminate behind his lightly tinted eyeglasses. His smile expands and exposes both rows of perfectly aligned white teeth. His laugh escalates quickly into a trademark chest-heaving, barrel-full-of-monkeys expulsion of air and throaty ha-ha-has that sound like his whole heart is laughing.

Then he doesn't tell you.

"I'm out there playing to the public all the time," he said after the laughter stopped, though the smile remained. "Some things I got to keep private. For me."

Chances are good if you've been out on the town anytime in the last, say, four decades, or happen to live in an area nursing home, you've heard Binkley, age whatever, play the piano and sing "It's a Beautiful World." Or "September Song." Or "Moon River." Or any of the hundreds of other songs in his vast repertoire that he's performed regularly since moving to Peoria from his two other hometowns, West Chicago and The Road, in the early 1960s when Binkley was who knows how old.

He grew up in Chicago, four blocks from where the United Center now stands and within walking distance of the school he attended, Herzl Junior College, now Malcolm X College.

He comes by his musical abilities from the maternal side of his family. His mother's sister was La Julia Rhea, he said, a prominent black classical soprano who was a graduate of Chicago Musical College and debuted in a Kimball Hall recital in 1929, according to a brief Encyclopedia Brittanica online biography. She was a Cecil Mack Choir soloist in the "Rhapsody in Black" tour with Ethel Waters in 1932 and also sang with the American Negro Light Opera Association. The encyclopedia also said she performed the title role in "Aida" in a Chicago City Opera Company production and "opened the door for other black opera singers."

His mother played the saw.

"I remember my dad hand-cranking the old Model T and taking my sister and me to go pick her up downtown (Chicago)," Binkley said. "She made a dollar a show and started each one with 'Let Me Call You Sweetheart.' I start my shows with the same song to honor her."

Road to Peoria

Binkley took a few piano lessons as a boy and remembers playing piano in bands as a teenager. At 17, his band, Jimmy Binkley and the Blue Notes, got an audition with a booking agent who liked what he heard and plugged them into a rotation of bands that prowled the Midwest stopping and playing in American Legion Halls and small clubs in places like Fargo, N.D., St. Louis and Dayton, Ohio.

"Our booking agent would get us into these places where they would have black bands play for two weeks followed by white bands for two weeks," Binkley said.

The Road ended in Peoria when the band was offered a regular gig at Collins Corner, a notorious club located at Eaton and Washington owned by the legendary businessman, and occasional federal prison inmate, Carbristo "Bris" Collins, who was either scoundrel or saint depending on a person's point of view.

"Bris was my friend. He always treated me with respect," Binkley said, smiling at the memory. "And his club was the swingingest joint in town. We broadcast live on the radio some weekends and all the big-time musicians coming through town would always stop in and we'd just jam all night."

But Binkley couldn't hold the Blue Notes together. Collins couldn't afford a four-piece jazz band forever, and three of Binkley's bandmates returned to Chicago. Binkley's solo career was born.

"I stayed in Peoria and played in the bar downstairs at the Jefferson Hotel, place called the Hunting Room," Binkley said.

In 1970 he was hired to play piano at Jimmy's Downtown Steakhouse and stayed there 17 years, until Jumer's hired him away.

"Downtown Steakhouse was also a swinging, swinging place," said Binkley who worked 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Monday through Saturday nights. "Same late night jam sessions. Bars would close in Sunnyland or Pekin at midnight or 1 a.m. and people would head Downtown and jam until 4 a.m. They served steaks until five-to-three in the morning."

Friends in high places

Closing in on 50 years of entertaining residents of central Illinois, Binkley counts among his countless number of friends people from every level of the socio-economic spectrum.

Two Peoria mayors have read Jimmy Binkley Day proclamations into the official city records. He's played for the wealthy at the Peoria Country Club and the old, sick and poor at area nursing homes for the past 19 years. He usually visits two or three nursing homes on a pretty regular rotation each week. His twice-a-year parties for the elderly draw hundreds and Binkley arranges presents for them all.

Now, Binkley - sporting an elegant suit and tie and singing in his gravelly, Louis Armstrong-like voice - can be found at Sky Harbor restaurant on Wednesday and Saturday nights. He plays the same for packed houses as he does for crowds of one plus the bartender.

"Doesn't matter. Either way I give it my all," Binkley said. "Forty years I've never been late, I've never got drunk and I've never given no one any problem. Not one problem in 40 years."

Binkley is well known for his generosity, friendliness and authenticity, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that there are other elements of his personality that have allowed him to thrive in Peoria. His guarded nature about bringing his own thoughts and personal circumstances into the conversation might be an attempt to befriend all, offend none. He adores talking about the residents of the nursing homes he entertains, but draws back when the subject turns to Jimmy Binkley.

"Are you married?"

"Yes."

"For how long?"

"Twenty-six years."

"What's your wife's name."

"Sandra."

"Children?"

"No, uh-uh, no."

He said he's an avid watcher of cable television news programs and a huge sports fan, but offers no specific TV program, team, sport or player that he watches or cheers for as if mentioning he's a Chicago Cubs fan might alienate his St. Louis Cardinal fan friends

"Everybody's my friend," Binkley said.

See you soon

After an hour of playing name-that-tune with 50 or more friends and residents in the brightly-lit cafeteria of the Washington Christian Village nursing home on a recent weekday, Binkley wrapped up with a rousing boogie-woogie. It was met with modest applause clearly disproportionate to the effort from the keyboards. Binkley doesn't mind.

"Well, all right," he said, clapping himself and standing up from the bench. "Well, I'll see you guys in a couple of weeks."

Then he went around the room one by one and spoke to every member of the audience. He grasped hands. Touched cheeks. Rubbed shoulders. Told them he loved them.

"Did I tell you how much I love you all," he said, backing out of the room.

"I love you Jimmy," one woman said.

The sentiment triggered the launch of the Binkley laugh sequence.