Slidell artist Lori Gomez spent 300 hours restoring a 120-year-old upright piano and transforming it into a Beatles-themed work of art, but the five minutes Ringo Starr spent playing and signing the piano will make it far more valuable to the East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity.
The group is auctioning off the piano to build a home for a military veteran — or two, if it fetches a high enough bid.
Gomez has used a piano as her canvas before, saluting Louisiana music legends for a piece that was auctioned off for Habitat last year. Signed by local jazz great Ronnie Kole, that piano brought $3,000, the highest bid at Habitat’s “Home Is Where the Art Is” auction last year.
She decided that was a winning formula — Habitat usually gets a lot of pianos donated — and she chose a Beatles theme because of the group’s enduring appeal.
Getting one of the two surviving members of the group to sign the piano wasn’t something she had contemplated. But Kim Bergeron, one of the organizers of the annual art-themed auction, saw the hand of destiny in the fact that Paul McCartney and Starr were both playing in the area.
She began working every contact she could think of to get the musicians to autograph the piano, finally taking the campaign to social media, creating the blog Right Brain Diaries to generate support for the quest.
“I knew it was a lofty goal, but the only sure way to fail is if you fail to try,’’ Bergeron said.
The group struck out with McCartney, whose U.S. tour included a performance at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans earlier this month. But with a little help from friends at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, they were able to get Starr to affix his signature to the piano.
Gomez, Bergeron and Debbie Crouch, president of the Habitat affiliate, drove the piano to Biloxi in a Habitat van equipped with a lift, pulling up to the loading dock.
They were standing underneath the part of the hotel where the sound check was underway. When the music stopped, the three knew they were about to meet Starr.
“He walked in, and we had to pick up our jaws,’’ Gomez said.
The piano is covered with the names of Beatles song titles, and Starr immediately began searching for one of his, causing Gomez some momentary panic because she hadn’t chosen the songs with authorship in mind. But Starr found “Yellow Submarine’’ on the back of the instrument. “He was tickled to see it,’’ she said.
Then the drummer decided to give the piano a try, causing more qualms for Gomez, who said the instrument had been in pretty bad shape after decades in storage. After six tunings, it still needed more work, and she sent up a silent prayer that it would be in tune.
Starr played what Gomez described as a bit of boogie-woogie and said he loved the way the piano sounded.
The three women are still starstruck at what they described as a private concert, albeit a brief one. But the real thrill is the expectation of bringing in a large sum to help with building the veteran’s house.
The signed piano, as well as other artworks, will be on display at a preview show from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Habitat offices at 747 Old Spanish Trail.
The seventh annual “Home Is Where the Art Is” gala will be held from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Northshore Harbor Center, 100 Harbor Center Blvd. Tickets are $50 per person or $75 per couple and are on sale at the Habitat office.
Habitat hopes to raise a little more money by asking people to donate to have their picture taken with the piano at the auction. But the piano itself won’t go on the block that day; it will be auctioned separately, Bergeron said, probably through an online auction.
Starr no longer gives out autographs, Bergeron said, and her contacts at Hard Rock told her that their request was the only one that gained his approval.
But Bergeron said she never doubted it would happen.
Her favorite Beatles song is “Let It Be,’’ she said. “That was the anthem for the whole journey.’’
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.