Jason Atkins has played keys for more than 100 local bands.
It’s not that he’s a bad bandmate, he’s just more of a gun-for-hire than a set piece for any one musical venture.
There is one team, however, that Atkins has been a steady part of for the last four years: the Charlotte Checkers. Known as Greazy Keyz in his role as organist during Checkers home games, Atkins has spent the last four seasons sitting behind the Hammond C3 organ that has been stationed in the coliseum since it opened in 1955.
A couple hours before the puck dropped for a sold-out “1950s Night” at the coliseum on Jan. 15, we sat down with Atkins to chat about how this gig differs from the countless others he has played and continues to play in the city.
How long have you been playing music in Charlotte?
I’ve been actively playing music in Charlotte for about 25 years. I moved to Charlotte from Greenville, South Carolina, back in 1997 to play music. I was just out of high school and decided to move here to focus on my band for a while, and from there just met a lot of different musicians. Over the years I went from being solely in a band to being more freelance, which has worked out great for me. I’ve played with over 100 bands in Charlotte and recorded on many of the local releases that have come out over the past 20 years. I’ve gone from being a background keyboardist to now I’ll play solo shows where I’ll sing and play, not so much as a singer/songwriter per se, but doing more cover music and that kind of stuff.
I’m just filling my schedule. I’m very blessed. I basically play a gig a night, sometimes two gigs. Like tonight, after the game, I’m going to head over to Smokey Joe’s and be part of the open mic there. I went over to set up over there earlier, because as long as we don’t go into overtime, literally as soon as the game ends here we kick it up over there. That’s always a blast.
How did you end up with a gig like this?
This gig came about whenever the Checkers moved from the Spectrum Center, which at the time was Time Warner Cable, back to Bojangles’ Coliseum. They had renovated the interior of the coliseum here and kind of pepped it up, and management wanted to reincorporate the vintage Hammond organ that was here on site that had been a part of the games in the past.
They reached out to a good friend of mine Jessica Borgnis, who is a fantastic singer/songwriter and piano player in her own right. We both came in and auditioned. Fortunately, the organ itself is a Hammond C3, which I was already very familiar with. Hammond organs are pretty much used on every style of music generated over the past 50 years, from jazz to rock to blues to everything, so for a keyboard player like myself it was already like stepping into very comfortable territory, which the management liked a lot. It showed they had someone who was confident and could cover a range.
The first season [Jessica and I] split the games, and I sort of took on my in-game persona of Greazy Keyz. I wore my sunglasses, I got my own jersey. The fans really took to that. They’ve been really beautiful and really sweet about incorporating me and coming up and talking, because the organ is right near the ice, so that’s really cool.
The second season, Jessica, I guess it didn’t connect so well for her or she had other aspirations that she wanted to focus on, so I took the mantle and I took the lead of all the games. So for the past three years I’ve been pretty much here for all the games.
What does an average game night look like for you?
Every game, we get here two hours prior to faceoff. When doors open, it’s on me to play the organ and help set the mood, setting the tone. Between 5:30 and about 6:15 or so, I just get to play whatever I want, which is cool. My background is a lot of classic rock and blues and soul, so that’s generally what kind of stuff I’m playing during that open time. And then the players will come out and warm up for 20 minutes and they’ll switch back to the DJ, more upbeat dance, polky kind of stuff to get them pumped. Then once the game starts, then it becomes mostly kind of reading the crowd and going on what our in-game producer tells us to do.
Any time a whistle blows and they stop the play, they’ll have commercials or something like that on the jumbotron, and it’s up to me or the DJ to pad music underneath that, so I always just try to play to that. I’ll do everything from 2Pac to Steve Winwood — fun little organ musical ideas that people can recognize and pick up on.
I was digging the little “Still D.R.E.” clip you played the last game I attended.
It is a blast. I love all styles of music and have been a person to never say no to any kind of gig, so there have been gigs that have come up where it may be more R&B or hip-hop slanted, or some classic piano parts. So I have that in my repertoire of things. For me, what makes it a lot of fun in the games particularly is the amount of time I get to play is seconds, so it’s looking out and looking for those quick little musical cues that people can connect with, because then it’s over, that’s all I get. So it’s really fun to incorporate that into those little snippets.
How do you like playing with that 1950s Hammond?
Oh I love it. It’s a keyboard player’s dream to have a Hammond organ. There’s nothing finer. And I don’t have to bring any of my own equipment. It’s there, I just show up and sit down, power it on and play, power it off and split. It’s a dream come true. It really is.
You can check out the remaining Charlotte Checkers schedule here.