For nearly a decade, four days a week, three weeks a month, Pete Papageorge has been strumming peacefully on a stool in a tiny loft under a TV set at the Irish Times.
He has to be the Buddha of the cabaret world—or at least a bodhisattva.
“Pete’s still on the same schedule now as he was when I first hired him,” said Tony O’Conner, one-time manager of the Capitol Hill watering hole. “It’ll be 10 years in September.”
Papageorge’s repertoire is a mixture of folk, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, pop, and country, a shifting mixture of shower-tunes to which everyone on the planet knows the words. Numbers like “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Southern Cross,” and “Dirty Old Town” are classic examples of a very specific genre: songs you want to sing along to when you’re drunk and it’s so crowded you can’t move your arms.
He sings in a warm, wavering bass/baritone, occasionally surprising the crowd with a foray into higher registers. When Papageorge does “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” his voice in the first few bars makes the beer in customers’ pint glasses shimmy.
He sings and plays, takes two breaks in four or five hours, then stops.
“I wasn’t that impressed when I first came in,” Papageorge recalls. “You know, there were peanut shells on the floor and all. Not too much was going on. But…you just never know.”
Originally from Arlington, Papageorge has been performing music since he played bass for a combo called the Partymakers at age 16. Later, he played bass, keyboards, drums, and/or guitar in a series of Washington-area bands with names like the Boston Monkeys and Dirty Dilbert and His Orange Fandango. Before he landed in the crow’s nest at the Irish Times, he played lead guitar for folk singer Donal Leace and did nine months on the road with roots-rocker “Big” Al Downing. Papageorge moved into solo work in 1982, playing his guitar and singing standards at Murphy’s, the Tucson Cantina, Quigley’s, and, finally, the Irish Times.
Papageorge has had his share of small triumphs in the years since. In 1988, he co-wrote a song called “I Grew Up Gettin’ Beat on by Leon” with a singing podiatrist named “Dr. Joe”—and the song charted in Cashbox. In 1991, ’92, and ’93, Papageorge was voted “Most Promising Male Songwriter” by the Tennessee Songwriters’ Association. His “Please Please Louise,” a fast-paced rockabilly tune, was one of three songs chosen to attract the interest of Bocephus Music—Hank Williams Jr.’s publishing company.
A member of five music and songwriting associations, Papageorge recently established his own publishing company, Once in a Lifetime Music. “I enjoy the pitching part of it,” he says of the songwriter’s grind. “It’s exciting to be out there. When I contacted Garth Brooks’ offices, they told me, “Go ahead and send your stuff.’ I’m always amazed at that. It’s like water on a parched throat. People are much more open than you think.”
When Papageorge does pen his “Low Places,” nobody will be happier than the Irish Times constituency. Jeff Schroeder, who’s been tending the bar for eight years, says Papageorge is almost singlehandedly responsible for the venue’s often claustrophobic conditions.
“Ever since the college kids discovered me, this kind of took off,” Papageorge explains. “They’re very sweet. Very sincere. It blows my mind. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t grateful.”
A clutch of Papageorge’s Catholic University (CU) supporters once bestowed the highest of collegiate honors on him: They printed up a batch of T-shirts declaring “We LovePapageorge.” (They also made one for him that said “I Am Papageorge.”) Tapes of Papageorge’s live material are for sale at the CU bookstore. “He’s a legend,” says graduate student Mary Kuser. “When you say his name, everybody knows him. You’re not cool if you don’t know him.”
While belting out standards to boozy collegians might strike many musicians as the ultimate indignity, Papageorge’s ambition is decidedly human-scale. “It’s a philosophical thing with me,” he says. “Of course I admire other people for their music and success, but I don’t want to be miserable in order to have success, and I don’t think you have to be.”
Besides, says Papageorge, “I’m still waiting for that one big cut.”