His gold record? The piano beloved by touring acts
Veteran entertainer Gary Raffanelli knows that necessity, mixed with a bit of frustration, is a catalyst for invention.
He successfully mixed them to create the Slam Grand Piano, a lightweight replica of a grand piano that’s been loved by touring musicians for two decades.
Years ago Raffanelli and Sandy Selby had the very popular act, “Gary and Sandy,” that performed all over the country — including a stint in which they helped open the MGM Grand in Reno.
“Everywhere we went they would provide me with a grand piano, sometimes out of tune, sometimes in tune, ” Raffanelli says.
In 1991 he got a three-year contract at the Excalibur Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
“I read through the contract and it said, ‘supplied with a piano and tuned once a week.’ So we drive down there, we set up the day before and there was no piano on the stage,” he says.
Discovering the casino wasn’t going to supply a piano, despite the contract, Raffanelli was forced to make major changes to his act.
“I borrowed one of the other bands’ keyboard, but I felt naked,” he said. “Sandy sits on the piano and sings and we use it as a prop as well as everything else. So I had my portable grand that weighs 400 pounds shipped down. Which cost me a fortune.”
Returning home to Sparks, he joined with a friend to build the first Slam Grand Piano — a hollow shell that’s a replica of a grand piano. An electronic keyboard, which never needs tuning, sits inside.
The Slam Grand piano weighs about 200 pounds compared with 800 to 1,500 pounds for a full-sized grand.
“We had no idea of what we were doing, no idea at all, and it took us about three months because we’d cut out each piece and we built it in layers,” Raffanelli says.
Later the MGM not only wanted to hire his act but, after seeing the Slam Grand, ordered four of them. Now Raffanelli had to figure out how to produce them faster.
“So that’s when I started looking for a different process. I started calling in all these people from different companies on the process, on how to bend wood and have been doing it ever since,” he says.
The first units were built in the Bay Area but now Byecraft Cabinets in Sparks builds them. Byecraft foreman Scott Buchanan has proven invaluable, Raffanelli says.
Once production was stepped up, Raffanelli began showing the product to potential customers.
“I took it to the National Association of Music Merchants Show, as it’s the biggest music show. Disney and John Tesh were my first two clients and that’s when it took off,” he says.
The weight makes the Slam Grand easier to transport and load in and out of a venue. Yet it’s strong enough for people to stand — even dance — on the top. So when Taylor Swift is lowered to the stage at the start of her show she’s playing a Slam Grand Piano.
“You could never do that with a regular grand piano,” Raffanelli said.
The heart of each piano is built to a standard template at a base price of just under $4,000. The surface can be colored according to the client’s needs. Mariah Carey’s Slam Grand is painted with butterflies, Kid Rock’s is camouflage and Carrie Underwood’s has a hammered chrome surface.
“We bought the chrome in the Bay Area but a shop here in Sparks did the work,” he said.
Madonna was a challenge as her piano had to be 40 inches tall for the show but only 22 inches tall for storage. That was accomplished with a set of hydraulic legs.
Not long after Raffanelli and his wife Jeanene formed the Slam Grand Piano Company in 1992, they noticed a surprising trend. They were getting orders for two pianos at a time. “And that was the first time I heard of dueling pianos,” he says.
Seeing yet another new market he and partner Van Walraven started a dueling-piano agency that was booking acts in 300 clubs across the country.
At is peak, Slam Grand Piano Co. built 20 to 30 pianos a year. Orders slowed, but didn’t stop, during the recession. Customers often contact the company through http://www.slamgrand.com
“I’m just going to keep on going. When the orders come in, we cut the pieces out and we build them. We always have two or four ready to go,” Raffanelli says.
When he started performing in the mid-1960s, Raffanelli hoped one day to record a best-selling record.
“I never got a gold record in my life but I’m grateful that I’ve helped so many acts on tour,” he says. “To see Celene Dion and David Foster singing at the Olympics with my piano, that was a gold record to me.”
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