On a quiet Tuesday evening in January, a familiar face walked into Palm Beach's Café L'Europe and grabbed a table next to David Crohan, the restaurant's house pianist. He heard patrons whispering the unexpected guest's name: Billy Joel.
So Crohan, who is blind, played a song he thought the piano man might appreciate: a cover of "Baby Grand," Joel's duet with Ray Charles.
"So then, he came over and said, 'You're doing a nice job with the song. You are seriously sick.' Which I guess is a compliment," the 69-year-old says. "Then, he sat down next to me, and we started playing [Dave] Brubeck's 'Take Five.' Then, we swapped places on the bench. I can't deny that I enjoyed it thoroughly."
Crohan, who will perform Tuesday night at the Harriet Himmel Theater in West Palm Beach, says his encounter with Joel wasn't the first in his 60-year career behind the piano. Joel was a frequent guest at Crohan's restaurant, David's Island House on Martha's Vineyard, which he owned during the 1980s and '90s. He lived on the island before moving to Lake Worth in 2003.
Crohan, born premature, lost his eyesight in an incubator after doctors failed to adjust the machine's oxygen levels. His eyes calcified.
"I'm of the opinion that without the incubator, I wouldn't have survived. So it's a tradeoff I'm willing to live with, I guess. Either you live and take the chance of blindness, or you die," says Crohan, who has performed six nights a week at Cafe L'Europe for 11 years. "Blindness has only been an occasional pain in the ass."
His aunt, a self-taught pianist who rattled off ragtimey arrangements of popular music on the family's upright piano, taught Crohan "40 to 50 songs a week" after he returned home from Boston's Perkins School for the Blind.
He memorized each song easily — from jazz standards such as Walter Lloyd Gross' "Tenderly" to Beethoven's sonatas — and, borrowing his aunt's imagination, would improvise arrangements for his church's choir.
His classical music training at the New England Conservatory of Music taught him to read sheet music in Braille, in which he read measures of a composition with one hand and recited them from memory with the other. He says the process forced him to "memorize sonatas from the inside out," which paid off when he began taking gigs performing in Martha's Vineyard in 1964.
"Right now, at my age, my skill and dexterity have not diminished at all," Crohan says. "In fact, I think I'm at the top of my game. And I have 60 years of experience playing. It brings a dimension that wasn't there back when I was 30."
The concert on Tuesday night, a fundraiser for the Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches' LITE Club for kids, will offer a confluence of music from his youth: popular and classical. His setlist will include songs by the Beatles ("Yesterday" and "Norwegian Wood," he says) and Beethoven ("probably 'Moonlight Sonata' ").
Next to his piano onstage will be his service dog Walker, an apricot standard poodle, at a comfortable spot at Crohan's feet.
"Beethoven was like a meteor dropping into the life of the music world. The Beatles did the same for the 1960s," he says. "I've been playing both for years, and I remember them equally."
David Crohan will perform 7-9 p.m. Tuesday, March 18, at the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace, 700 S. Rosemary Ave., in West Palm Beach. Admission is $5-$10. Call 561-848-7200, ext. 3248 or go to LighthousePalmBeaches.com/concert.