He gave Kenny Rogers a gig in 1959 and replaced David Clayton-Thomas in Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1972, but piano player Bobby Doyle made the most impact locally by establishing Ego’s, a dark apartment complex lounge on South Congress Avenue, as a live music venue in the early ’90s. A musician’s musician, Doyle succumbed to lung cancer in 2006 at age 66.
Able to handle requests for songs by everyone from George Gershwin and Nat King Cole to Jerry Lee Lewis and Stevie Wonder, Doyle, who was blind, was a brilliant, self-taught piano thumper who possessed a raspy, soulful voice.
“There aren’t too many white guys that can do Ray Charles, but Bobby Doyle was one of them,” said keyboardist Riley Osbourn.
“He had such a broad range,” Osbourn said. “He could play blues, R&B, gospel, jazz. . . . He had his own style by combining all those things.”
He was “the main cat,” said former Asleep At the Wheel pianist Danny Levin. “If you were thinking about doing a solo piano thing, Bobby Doyle was the guy you looked up to.”
A Houston native, Doyle moved to Austin at age 7 to attend the Texas School for the Blind. While at McCallum High, where he was the first blind student to graduate, he played on KVET-AM on Saturday mornings.
“Bobby always had a transistor radio in his pocket,” said Eddie Wilson, who would later book his former classmate at Threadgill’s. “He’d be bopping to the radio in class. He’d keep it just loud enough for him to hear, but not the teacher.” Bassist Jon Blondell, who played in a trio with Doyle in the ’90s, said the pianist “had the ears of a bat.”
After high school, Doyle started the Bobby Doyle Three, a popular local jazz outfit, with a University of Texas student named Kenny Rogers on standup bass. Rogers soon dropped out of college to play full time with Doyle, singing high harmony and playing bass on the 1962 album “In a Most Unusual Way.”
The trio disbanded in 1965, and Rogers went on to become a country-pop sensation.
“Bobby told me that he used to write checks for Kenny Rogers for five years, then Kenny went on to make $200 million and ain’t written Bobby a check once,” Wilson said.
But the Gambler never forgot Doyle; about 10 years ago, David Letterman asked Rogers to name the best musician he’d ever played with, and “Bobby Doyle” came out instantly.
Doyle also impressed producer Phil Spector, who used him on several sessions in the late ’60s, when Doyle lived in Los Angeles.
When Clayton-Thomas left BS&T in ’72, Doyle was tapped as a replacement, but the piano player didn’t last long with the horn-driven pop band, appearing on only two tracks on 1972’s “New Blood.”
Doyle moved back to Austin in the late ’70s and performed five nights a week at an East Riverside Drive lounge. But he was soon back on the road, ending up with steady work in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe during the ’80s.
He moved back to Austin for good in 1990, performing every Thursday and Friday at Ego’s, a dive he’d enjoyed playing during visits to Austin.
The word got out that there was an incredibly soulful singer and piano player at Ego’s, and Doyle’s sets soon were frequented by musicians and hipsters. Two nights a week, the dank, hidden joint on South Congress was cooler than any basement jazz club in Greenwich Village.
Because of Doyle’s draw, the club started booking other acts, even rock bands, and the dive was transformed into a scrappy stop on the live original music circuit.
Doyle also played regularly at the Driskill Lounge and Eddie V’s. Doyle played regularly until two months ago, when he became too ill. Wilson said playing music was one of Doyle’s few pleasures after his wife, Mary, died in August 2004. They had been married for 17 years.
“They were quite a team,” Wilson said. “I’ve never seen a couple have so much fun together. He was ready to go the day after Mary died.”
Footage of Doyle singing “Blowin’ In the Wind” at the Playboy Mansion in the Hugh Hefner documentary has led to more interest in Doyle’s career.