People often say that the Alley, an Oakland piano bar that's been around since 1933, is like a time capsule from a bygone era. And one of the people who made the classic neighborhood establishment feel timeless was pianist Rod Dibble, who passed away peacefully on Dec. 18, according to an announcement on the Alley's Facebook page today.
Rod Dibble was and will always be an integral part of the Alley. He kept The Alley, as well as the Great American Songbook alive by playing night-after-night, song-after-song, with singer-after-singer for the better part of 50 plus years. By all accounts, he literally wore out 10 pianos in the process. He kept The Alley going and virtually unchanged throughout the decades keeping its unique character and grit intact. While the neighborhood around it changed, The Alley and Rod remained a constant with the walls layered and caked with its history and a repertoire of songs frozen in time.
Dibble, who was born in 1932 and manned the Alley's piano bench since 1960, was a talented musician with over 4,000 songs committed to memory. Patrons of all walks of life, ages, and musical abilities frequented the bar to sing karaoke with Dibble's accompanying them on piano. All the songs in his catalog dated from before 1970, and, even as music evolved, he stuck to classic standards, gaining a reputation as a local music historian.
"I always lay out the ground rules: If you want to play in my backyard, you sing my songs," Dibble told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2011.
Dibble's supporters remember him as an eccentric character that gave the Alley its unique personality. "When people come to town, it’s part of the list, like, 'You have to come to the Alley,'" says Jason Stinnett, the talent buyer at Starline Social Club, who first started frequenting the Alley in 1994. "It’s one of Oakland’s oldest establishments and it's such a gem, with Rod being the center of that."
Author and artist Mimi Pond remembers visiting the Alley in 1977, when she was a college student at California College of the Arts. "I was fascinated with Rod Dibble because he was the actual, real version of the kind of thing Tom Waits was playing at in his act," she says. "Rod Dibble seemed to play into this idea of the sleazy piano lounge and the gravelly-voiced singer. He was the real deal. ... We came away completely charmed by his performance."
Pond says Dibble is one of the unique Oaklanders who informed her best-selling, semi-autobiographical graphic novels, Over Easy and The Customer is Always Wrong, which take place in Oakland in the late '70s.
"He’s definitely another one of those weirdo characters -- Oakland has its own unique eccentricity that I just find fascinating," she says. "There’s a lot of pockets of deep weirdness that are really genuine and homegrown. It’s nice that there are still things and people like that in Oakland."
Jessi Phillips, a semi-regular Alley patron who profiled Dibble in SF Weekly in 2016, says Dibble's piano playing, refreshingly, offered people a chance to make person-to-person connections through music.
"He created this really special atmosphere. He made people who never sung before feel comfortable," she says. "He fostered an atmosphere where people were listening to each other."