If you thought playing an instrument was hard enough, meet Portlander Michael Conley.
Conley (or “Shoehorn,” as he’s known onstage) is not only a talented sax player—he's also a skilled tap dancer. And he does both at the same time.
“It’s an unusual act and some people are skeptical, especially if you just describe it with words,” says Conley. “It’s a hard act to sell on the phone.”
Conley plays year-round at restaurants, festivals, school assemblies, and community events. When he isn’t playing in his own group, the Shoehorn Hat Band, he splits his time between gigs with such musical acts as Northwest throat-singing folk legend Baby Gramps, Smut City Jellyroll Society, and Fools in Paradise.
I was first introduced to Conley when I rolled into Clyde’s Prime Rib late on a Friday night in April. Conley was playing that evening with Norman Sylvester, the self-described “original Northwest boogie cat.” (He was subbing for Sylvester’s first-call sax player, Renato Caranto.)
Between the blues and funk standards, Sylvester would let “the Shoehorn” take a solo—which entailed Conley tap dancing on a small wooden board while blowing his sax to a packed dance floor, all without dropping the beat.
It was pretty unreal. I filmed a few videos and sent them to music nerd friends. Their answers said it all: “Are you serious?!” “No way.” “WHAT.”
Conley says he picked up music as a kid growing up outside of Chicago. He started with the harmonica, and he sang with friends and in the church choir.
His family was musical, too. His mom was a singer and a guitar player, his grandmother was a singer, and his great-uncle played stride piano.
After studying Spanish in school, he wound up on an exchange program in Peru.
“I was always into this idea of the grand adventure, traveling around, having my own personal saga,” Conley says, citing influences like Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac. (Musically, he’s drawn to jazz greats Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Stan Getz.)
Peru was his first grand adventure, he says. After that, he hit the road, starting out on the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and later hitchhiking to cities like Montreal, New York, and Amsterdam. Conley busked his way around the world for nearly 20 years. He eventually landed in Portland and has lived in his Concordia neighborhood home for the last 26 years.
As for his unusual act? Conley says he was simply walking home one day, playing the harmonica, when he began to shuffle his feet to the tune. Something clicked, and tap dance became part of his act. He’s a self-taught tap dancer, though he was influenced by “jazz hoofers” he met in Boston and New York, and lists such influences as Prince Spencer and Charles “Honi” Coles. But it’s Gene Kelly who really gets him talking.
“Singin’ in the Rain is the one that got me,” he says. “I just went, like, ‘Holy cow, that’s how I want to go through life.’ Singing through all the rainstorms and I’m smiling and I got a song in my heart, rhythm in my step and I’m wearing a nice suit.”
Want to see Shoehorn for yourself? He’ll be at the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta in July, and at Portland Saturday Market in August. You can also catch him the first Friday of every month with Baby Gramps at Laurelthirst Public House.