Memorable Meetings: Justin Bieber

By Joe Alterman, 2/6/14

About five or six years ago, I had a summer job playing piano at a restaurant in Atlanta called "The Tasting Room." There were a few nights that summer when a group of teenagers would come in and the staff would whisper that it was hip-hop producer Dallas Austin's son and his friends. On one of those nights, one of the waitresses pointed out the youngest one of the bunch, a blonde haired 13 or 14 year old kid. She told me that he had recently been signed to Def-Jam Records and that he was a great singer and fast becoming a "YouTube sensation".

I found that hard to believe considering how young he looked, and I just continued to play. A few minutes later, I noticed that that kid was standing behind me watching me play. I didn't really think anything of it, especially at the end of the song when he began to ask me questions; they were all very typical questions of a young person who had just begun to play the piano. 

However, I was immediately struck by his sensitivity. He was very shy and seemed extremely hesitant to say anything about his own music; in fact, I felt that he seemed a little un-confident and even a bit nervous. However, I remember thinking that those qualities worked in favor of his sincerity, with which he seemed filled. I could tell that he was extremely interested in learning about music; he seemed to also be was very enthusiastic and excited about being at the beginning of his musical journey. 

I mentioned nothing of the rumors I'd heard and asked more about him. He told me that he played a little piano ("Just a little," he laughed, pointing at my hands.) and that he also wrote a few songs. After a little coaxing on my part, he finally asked me if I wanted to hear one.

As soon as he began to sing, I realized that my decision to let him play might have been a bad one, and actually by mid-song I began to panic, thinking that it might cost me my job. It's not the he was bad, because he wasn't; however, he wasn't sensitive to the environment (a small restaurant), and he began banging loudly on the piano and literally belting the song as loud as he could. 

Everything about it was very "beginner" to me; his piano playing was way too loud to complement his singing and it was obvious to me that he couldn't hear the music well enough yet to know when, or how, to be sensitive in his playing or singing. It was obvious too that he couldn't quite reach some of the notes in his singing that he was aiming for. However, I remember thinking to myself that the song was extremely catchy and I was very impressed with him that he had wrote it; I remember thinking to myself that "this song could actually be a hit." I was right, hah! The song he played for me that night was "Baby". Of course, at the time, I had no way of knowing that the song would become one of the biggest selling songs of all-time; I do remember us laughing when I commented that "there's a lot of 'baby's in that song".

Although he was THE Justin Bieber, he wasn't famous then, and I saw him as I would see most 12/13 year-old beginner piano students. However, I do remember thinking to myself that he did have a lot of charisma, and that after a few years of practicing more, he would be great. 

He finished the song and asked me a few questions about it. (I can't quite remember what they were, but I remember showing him some chord voicings.) Then he asked if I'd play something else. I did, and I'll never forget his look of astonishment when I finished. He sort of blushed, and said "Now, I'm embarrassed to have played before you." We laughed and he said something like, "Wow. You can play real music," which, in retrospect, is very interesting to think about when considering where he is now. 

I told him that he will too, one day, and was very confident in saying that when I did. I realized that this kid really did have a lot of potential and charisma, and after really getting it together musically, he'd be a complete package.

He came in a few more times that summer and each time he'd come in, he'd always spend a good bit  of time standing behind me watching me play. The job ended at the end of the summer when I had to go back to school, and after that I never saw him again. After a little while, my Dad began bugging me about some kid he'd just read about in the New York Times; he had saved the article for me to read. Finally, I picked it up and was shocked at who I saw: that kid!

Considering the things he said to me and the way he acted on those nights that I saw him, the immediate success of Justin Bieber is a very interesting thing for me to think about; here was a kid who was obviously talented and had great potential -and was recognized for that at a very young age-, but had he been given time (more than 4 months) to really develop as a musician (instead of being capitalized on immediately) he could have really been something phenomenal. Even though he was just a random kid in the restaurant that day, anyone could've seen that he had real potential. It's a shame that he was rushed into stardom the way he was, because he was honestly only at the way beginning of his musical journey, and he knew it. I can only hope that all the money and fame hasn't taken away his sincere, child-like excitement about the musical journey that lay ahead of him, and that his ego hasn't blown up and tricked himself into thinking the journey's finished.