It’s a Saturday night in Little Rock’s bustling River Market, and there are plenty of restaurants to chow down in and a couple of music clubs to get your groove on. But only one place has three entirely different experiences: Willy D’s.
Willy D’s serves up a dueling piano show in the main showroom, a smoking-allowed lounge called “Prost” for beer pong, pool and conversational fun, and the DEEP nightclub below ground for dancing – all under one roof.
Open since 2003, the hotspot serves up a good time to hundreds of people on Fridays and Saturdays, but is also open for fun on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Tuesdays feature karaoke in Prost as well as the dueling piano shows, while Thursdays only have the piano show and DEEP is open only on the weekend nights. All the fun can be had for either $5 or a $10 cover, depending on the night.
According to Susan Erwin, a prime pianist as well as the club’s entertainment director, the result is a space that can appeal to nearly anyone’s sense of fun.
“Our main audience is 25 to 55, but we get everybody from just birthday girls at 21 to people celebrating their 80th birthday,” Erwin said. “So we really are a mix. It’s hard to really define, and that gets a little challenging for me on the marketing side. What is the target demographic with such a wide age range? Now, if you’re talking about the nightclub, that tends to be a 25 to 45-year-old crowd for DEEP lounge.”
An Arkansas native, Erwin mastered the art of dueling piano while performing in Los Angeles and Las Vegas venues before traveling the world with her own show in piano bars around the world. She returned home in 2016 and met her husband, who performs a duo show with her at the Oaklawn Casino and occasionally plays the fiddle during the full-band portions of the piano show.
Erwin is right in the mix of each night’s action, as one of the several players who rotate all night due to the non-stop, high-energy aspect of shows that can run over six hours long. Each pianist also switches to another instrument over the course of each night for the full-band songs, with Erwin banging the drums while others play guitar and bass behind the pianists of the moment.
“There’s not a lot of us. We do play lots of instruments to be able to do more than one thing since the music is nonstop for six hours of show,” she explained. “And so we do round-robin, where we have a team of four and we rotate throughout the night. So the music never stops and we take all requests, usually high-energy top 40, but we can do any genre and we’re very, very heavy on crowd interaction.”
While Erwin relies on a resident staff of piano players primarily, she tries to have traveling players from around the nation come through each week. The local regular pianists have been with the club for up to 10 or even 20 years.
The night’s songs can range from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Lynyrd Skynyrd, all the way to Bruno Mars. Ninety’s country and current country hits are also in favor, while songs like Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Sweet Caroline” are nightly staples.
Besides taking requests, they accept $20 tips a couple of times per night, in which the tip-giver can take the mic and sing a song themselves, although Erwin notes they work hard to not let the show turn into a karaoke night. Another way crowds can have fun is with the “Phrase of the Night,” in which they can tip the players to write their friends’ celebratory messages on a giant mirror behind the stage, or tip to change an initial phrase chosen by the players to other fun sayings throughout the evening.
“The connection with the crowd is absolutely magical,” Erwin mused. “To use music, to facilitate fun and have people come in and have a good night and forget about their week and just enjoy music is a real privilege. We’re up for birthday and anniversary celebrations, any type of celebration because we will do a tribute to the guests of honor and we’re a very, very good spot for wedding parties and birthdays and anniversaries.”
Willy D’s is located at 322 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock, Ark. 72201. Call (501) 244-9550 or visit willydspianobar.com.