He had thousands of songs in his hands and his heart, and a smile to accompany every one. A pianist and lounge singer who led bands around Washington for the past 40 years, Johnny Bradford could answer any request from his inexhaustible memory bank of music. Yet in all his years onstage, working in the outer rings of show business, he never managed to become a star.
If he didn't quite reach the top line of the marquee, Bradford did something that might have been even more admirable: Night after night, year after year, he helped create memories for the thousands of people whose first dates, slow dances and heartfelt looks took place to the sound of his music.
He knew all the standards -- he opened each evening with Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" -- but he also played Latin music, country and R&B and kept learning new pop hits right up until Sept. 20, when he died of stomach cancer at 66.
"There are a lot of people in this world who are musicians but aren't entertainers," said Dan Finck, an owner of Sea Sea & Co. in Occoquan, where Bradford led his band, JB & Soda, for 25 years. "Johnny was a pure entertainer."
He also reigned over the piano bar at Squire Rockwell's, a pub in Annandale, for 20 years, getting to know his regular fans so well that he worked their names into the lyrics of the songs he sang.
"In his music, he made a lot of people happy," said Harold Mann, a drummer and Bradford's friend for more than 30 years. "Younger women wanted to kiss him, older women wanted to adopt him."
Trim, soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, Bradford was anything but the stereotype of the irresponsible musician with a messy personal life. He didn't drink, he was meticulous in his appearance -- he even ironed his sheets -- and he was never late for a gig.
"At 9:30 every Friday and Saturday," Finck said, "he was at that piano, ready to go."
He grew up as an only child in Greensboro, N.C., where he sang in a church choir and began playing piano when he was 6. He attended Morgan State University in Baltimore for a couple of years in the late 1950s, leaving to join a group called the Giggolos, which went on tour as the opening act for the Platters.
In 1960, he joined the Navy and became a communications specialist, but he found time in his off-hours to lead a band at a club in Japan. After settling in the Washington area in 1964, Bradford had occasional out-of-town dates in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Miami, but most of his work came in area restaurants and clubs.
"Some people get notoriety and fame because they were in the right place at the right time," Mann said. "His story was just the opposite."
One of Bradford's proudest moments came years ago at Washington's old Black Sheep lounge, when Frank Sinatra sat for two hours listening to him perform -- one saloon singer's salute to another.
Bradford recorded an album in the 1980s, "JB on the Rocks," but he measured his success on a smaller scale, in the weddings he sometimes worked for free and in the faces smiling up from dance floors every week.
One smile across the piano at Squire Rockwell's led to his meeting Joyce Vaughan, a Northern Virginia teacher who was his steady companion for the past eight years. She taught Bradford sign language -- he sometimes signaled "I love you" to her from the stage -- and he taught her golf, which he loved almost as much as music.
For the past seven years, he also worked as a courier for a Kinko's store in Herndon, where he was remembered for his kindness and for bringing a cake whenever someone had a birthday.
After his first surgery in February, he was back to work at both his jobs within six weeks. As he recovered his strength, he played with his old energy on the bandstand and regained his smooth swing on the golf course. The last time he played, in July, he shot one under par.
When his cancer returned, he insisted on returning to Sea Sea & Co. for one last weekend. Weak and ailing, he played two sets on Saturday, Sept. 10, singing his traditional closing song, "Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight," for the final time. The crowd stood and applauded.
"You've been listening to JB & Soda," he said. "We're going to take a break. JB needs to go lay down for a while."
"I knew," said Vaughan, "he'd never go back on stage again."
Days later, Bradford entered Capital Hospice in Falls Church.
"The day before he died," Finck said, "we got him to the piano. For a half-hour, the old magic was still there. You could just see it in his countenance."