Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

‘You can make people happy,’ says accountant-turned-piano man | We the People

Kurt Martin is the Wednesday piano man at the Lits Building at 8th and Market streets in Center City, where he's been playing for 27 years.

Kurt Martin plays for passersby and regulars at the Lits Building.
Kurt Martin plays for passersby and regulars at the Lits Building.Read moreTIM TAI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When pianist Kurt Martin plays the theme from The Godfather in the food court of the Lits Building, Billy the barber comes out of his shop with his imaginary machine gun at the ready.

Pow! Pow! Pow!

When Martin plays the theme to All in the Family, Anna Mazella, who travels every day from Pennsauken just to hear the piano played live, reminds Martin that she "does not like that song."

He still closes out with it almost every time, anyway, because, "Those were the days."

And when his performance is over, Martin joins a table of workers from the nearby federal courthouse who have eaten lunch together at the Lits Building food court every Wednesday for the last five years, just to listen to him play.

"It makes it special to come in. It's not like I have an office job where I have people I can talk to on a daily basis," Martin said. "I could come in here and not talk to anybody, but they make it fun."

Martin is the Wednesday piano man at the Lits Building at Eighth and Market Streets in Center City, where he's been playing for 27 years. He was brought in to the gig by Mark Randall, the pianist who plays there the rest of the week.

For 40 years, Martin, a man with bright eyes who laughs often, has made his living as a pianist. He has an accounting degree from Drexel University, but only worked three years in the field before deciding he'd rather tickle the ivories instead of tackle tax returns.

Martin takes freelance jobs and works other steady gigs, including a weekday show at Liberty Place, weekend shows at the Joseph Ambler Inn in North Wales and a Friday morning show at Pennswood Village, a senior living community.

"I like the effect you can have on people. You can make people happy," he said. "It's surprising when somebody acknowledges you. You'll see them and they look really down and out and all of a sudden they'll come over and say, 'Hey, that sounds great, man. Thank you.'"

Martin plays mostly from memory, some old songs like "Autumn in New York" and some new ones like Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." When pushed, he'll even sing a song or two, like Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind."

"When Kurt sings, you would not know the difference between him and Willie Nelson," Mazella said.

Martin prefers it when he's likened to Lou Rawls over Willie Nelson or Neil Diamond, but so it goes.

While the piano, which Martin learned to play as a teenager, is his favorite instrument, it's not his only one. The Northeast Philly native learned to play the accordion at the age of 8 because "everybody played the accordion on my block growing up," he said.

Martin now owns seven accordions — seven — which he plays at events like Oktoberfest and Bastille Day.

"I'm proud of that, because the accordion is making a comeback," he said.

Why Philadelphia?

"I like Philadelphia because we have everything New York has but one-tenth of the rat race. This area in general I like because — with the exceptions of bomb cyclones — we don't have hurricanes, cyclones or earthquakes."

What has been a classic Philly moment for you?

"When The Mike Douglas Show was being taped in town, I was walking down Chestnut Street and ran into comedian John Byner. He had two great impressions he did, John Wayne and Donald Duck. I go up to him and say, 'John, you've got to do the duck for me.' He pulled in his Adam's apple and did the Donald Duck for me. Two weeks later he was on Johnny Carson and Johnny asked him, 'Has your life changed since you've become more recognizable?' and he says, 'Yeah. In fact, two weeks ago a guy came up to me and asked me to do Donald Duck,' and I realized he was talking about me."

If you had a wish for the city, what would it be?

"I wish that everybody could have access to a great education in the city. When I read about what the public schools are going through it rips my heart out."

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you'd like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

Want more We the People?

  1. Last week's profile: At 88, Elaine Peden, who secured honorary U.S. citizenship for William and Hannah Penn, crashed a VIP event to meet Joe Biden.

  2. From Dec. 27: Bucks County native Tracy Locke is one half of Girls Gone Green, a Philadelphia Eagles song parody duo.

  3. From Dec. 20: Every Christmas season, Benjamin Franklin impersonator Robert DeVitis gets into character to ring the red kettle bell for the Salvation Army.

  4. From Dec. 13: Hip-hop Grandpop Matt Hopkins busts holiday dance moves at City Hall.

  5. From Dec. 6: People pay $1 just to take a photo of Anthony Smith and his dogs, Noodles and Diva. Smith takes his well-dressed dogs to events around the city in his bicycle basket.

  6. From Nov. 29: Danie Ocean is a musician with a rare eye disease that's left her legally blind, is one of the founders of a co-op music studio that requires its members to do community service.

  7. From Nov. 22: Nearly every day for 17 years, oil painter Mark Campana has hauled his easel from his home in South Philadelphia to Rittenhouse Square to paint scenes in and around the park.

  8. From Nov. 15: Haircuts 4 Homeless barber Brennon Jones continues to serve people who are homeless at his new barbershop, which was given to him by a stranger who was inspired by his mission.

  9. From Nov. 8: Street performers Eli Capella and Seraiah Nicole create music in real time that's inspired by the people who pass them on the streets of Philadelphia.

  10. From Nov. 1: John Sebastian, the maintenance director at Reading Terminal Market, was a steel drummer who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and jammed with Jimmy Buffett.