Blues pianist tackles music with a fiery kind of cool

By MICHAEL GRANBERRY / The Dallas Morning News

Published: 12 April 2010 02:32 AM

Radoslav Lorkovic was a classically trained pianist as a boy, but that changed when the teen years hit and he discovered Top 40 radio.

Obsession and passion are concepts that Radoslav Lorkovic fully understands. But in his case, they’re often tangled up in a single instrument: the piano.

This Croatian-born, classically trained pianist has been known to accept invitations to women’s homes based entirely on the quality of the piano they own. He and a lovely lady might arrive at her place at midnight, but at 6 a.m. he will still be playing her piano, nimble fingers and long hair flying.

“In every state, he knows some woman with a great piano,” says Austin-based singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave, for whom Lorkovic, 51, plays piano and accordion on most of his albums and tours, as he did last month at Poor David’s Pub.

“He used to have this trail of women who would put him up, and they all owned great pianos.”

Lorkovic’s friends lovingly call him both a terrific talent and a character they love to tell stories about. LaFave has been known to refer to him in concert as “the Beav,” because of his striking resemblance to Jerry Mathers, the lead actor in Leave It to Beaver, a sitcom staple from 1957 to 1963.

Born in Zagreb, Lorkovic and his family moved to London when he was 5, then to Minnesota a year later. Three years after that, they ended up in Iowa, where his father became a renowned academician. By fifth grade in Iowa City, everyone was calling him the Beav.

“It wasn’t even a vague resemblance,” he says over a sandwich at a downtown Dallas Starbucks, before banging the keys at Poor David’s. “It was like I had walked off with Jerry Mathers’ head. Look at my fifth-grade picture, and it’s the same guy. People thought I was Jerry Mathers.”

As his musical homies say, the Lorkovic folklore is all tied up in his prowess on the piano and his placement in an extraordinary family. He’s the second of three children, whose father, neurophysiologist Hrvoje Lorkovic, wrote a landmark paper during the 1960s that scientists considered such an enormous breakthrough it enabled him and his family to flee the tyranny of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Lorkovic’s mother, Tatjana Lorkovic, is the curator of the Slavic, East European and Central Asian collections at the Yale University library. His older sister excelled at modern dance and choreography before becoming a publisher and writer, and his younger brother is a chemist with a degree from MIT.

Tatjana Lorkovic remembers Radoslav the toddler as “a little crawler” who, when listening to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, would begin to sing.

She remembers a son who was gifted at playing Bach and Mozart but who, once the teen years arrived, caromed in a different direction. “I fell in love,” he says, “with my little green transistor radio, and of course, Top 40.”

Soon, his mom says, “he started going to bars, and I was petrified. I thought, ‘Bars, that’s the end of it. He’ll start drinking.’ And then I started going to these dives to hear him.”

Over the years, Mama Lorkovic has heard him play in such dives with the likes of Iowa’s Greg Brown, who helped him appear on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. When Keillor came to Yale, he roared to Ms. Lorkovic, “So, you’re the mother of that incredible blues player!”

Her son, she surmises, inherited his piano passion from his paternal grandmother, who during her day was the premier pianist of Yugoslavia. His great-grandfather was one of the great conductors of Eastern Europe. But from adolescence on, his passion took a sharp turn from Mozart and Bach to the Grateful Dead, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jackson Browne.

As a young performer, he cut his teeth with the Cody Jarrett Band and Bo Ramsey, before playing piano for such gifted singer-songwriters as Greg Brown and Richard Shindell. He met LaFave during the 1990s and moved to Austin in 2005. Around that time, he also became a valuable sideman to the late blues great Odetta.

“Odetta,” he says, “stands alone. She is by far the best musician I have ever played with. She taught me so much about music, not so much in words, but in gestures, directions, stares, even smiles, and all with her sense of grace.”

LaFave, he says, has “returned me to rock ‘n’ roll.” Poor David’s got a healthy dose of that, when Lorkovic went wild on a tour de force of piano solos, even hitting the keys with his feet.

“He’s like a mad genius,” LaFave says. “If I know a crowd’s not responding, I’ll throw a Hail Mary to Rad. His showmanship adds so much flair to a live gig.”

He has passions other than piano, Lorkovic says, but if a Steinway & Sons, Model D, is anywhere in his vicinity, he has a remarkable radar for knowing where it is.

“I have a sense of connecting visually with my music,” he says. “I always see pictures when I play. I have no complaints. I’m on my own path.”

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