June Tonkin: Pianist at El Gaucho Bellevue

El Gaucho and “Junie,” as she’s affectionately called, crossed paths over 50 years ago, when she started playing at the original El Gaucho, on the corner of Olive and 7th, in 1958. It was her first professional position as a musician, and she quickly became known as “the girl with 1000 tunes in her head,” because she could play almost any request thrown at her. She would play the early shift, between 6-8pm, after working a full day as a secretary at Boeing. After falling asleep one day taking dictation from her boss, he kindly asked if she could continue to do both jobs. After mulling it over, she decided to pursue her music passion, and has never once regretted it.

“I was blessed with good genes,” she began. “My mom lived 91 years, and my father 97 years. Both played musical instruments; Mom played violin and acoustic guitar, my dad played piano by ear (only black keys!). They both encouraged me to play, and my sister is a fabulous classical pianist. During my high school years, friends who were in band and orchestra enjoyed “jam sessions” at our home on Saturday nights,” she recalls.

Through the years, June has played at many Seattle establishments, including Clark’s Round the Clock, Dublin House (“an absolute jewel of a restaurant” she recalls), but then married and became a mom. She decided to forego her career and stay home, but one day got a call from the old Olympic Hotel who asked if she’d be interested in playing in the “Lion’s Den,” an exclusive mens-only lounge, for the power lunch time of 12-2pm. For three months, she played while her daughter, Dianna, went to the neighbor’s house to play. “It was a marvelous experience,” she recalls, but she felt she was missing out too much on her daughter’s growing years, and became a stay-at-home mom again until Dianna was a senior in high school.

June’s career took off again, playing at Simons of Southcenter, The Hyatt House, Stars at Pacific Place, and then to the Seattle Waterfront Marriott. She started at El Gaucho Bellevue opening week in 2008, 50 years after her initial gig at the original El Gaucho.

“One of my favorite moments of returning was in my first week back, a tall gentleman came over to introduce himself as an original El Gaucho regular. Bill comes in often, and I get a kick out of it!” she laughs. “I am great friends with he and his wife, who live close by and can walk over.”

When asked how the El Gaucho experiences differ, she says, “the original was small (unlike the spacious El Gaucho in Bellevue), but both have extra-special treats, and the servers go out of their way to give the best service.”

She quickly goes on to say, “My favorite part about working for El Gaucho now is that from the beginning, over 5 years ago, the entire staff embraced me – they tease me, spoil me, share pictures of their weddings, babies, lives…I spend only 20 hours a week with them, but it feels like my extended family!” She goes on, “I enjoy the fellowship with regular guests. The restaurant can be magical when dimly lit; late-night flambés fired in several areas…it’s just one extraordinary restaurant!”

“My favorite motto is, ‘If you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,’ and it’s true! I have no plans to leave. They can’t get rid of me,” she laughs. “It’s like there’s super glue on the bench! I feel so fortunate. There are better pianists, but I fit here, and I’ll keep on playing.”

You can hear June live at El Gaucho Bellevue every Tuesday-Saturday at 6:00pm.

More fun facts about June’s life and career:

Where were you born and where did you grow up? Born in Seattle, grew up in Alderwood Manor and graduated from Edmonds High School in 1953.

Who or what influenced you to become a musician? While working at Boeing, I took coffee breaks with a Seattle jazz bassist, who suggested I switch making airplanes to making music!

Who is your musical idol? Now, and as a child, and in-between? In the early 50s, I attended amazing jazz concerts at the Old Seattle Civic Auditorium, and flipped out over jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Errol Garner, etc. Following that period, I became a huge fan of Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Jack Jones, and local jazz vocalist, Greta Matassa, and Primo Kim.

Have your performed with anyone fun or famous? In the late 1960s, I met Robert Kennedy at a luncheon at the airport Hyatt House where I was a pianist. A few months later he was assassinated in LA. In the 80s I met Tony Martin/Cyd Charisse and played for him at the 410. While playing at Stars, Dale Chihuly dined often and I’d play for him, which was always a joy. At the Seattle Waterfront Marriott, I met legendary White House reporter Helen Thomas, as well as a Saudi Prince, whose family and entourage took over an entire floor and had a lengthy stay while his brother was in the hospital.

What is your favorite song to play? What is the most requested song to play? I enjoy playing everything by Cole Porter, Gershwin, Michel Legrand and the Bergmans. My most requested to play are Sinatra songs.

Tell us about your family: I have a small family: My daughter, Dianna, and my grand-daughter, Christiana. However, my sister and her husband provided me with a wonderful, talented, big family! I have a treasure-house of friends from high school years up, many of whom I call family. And I’ve made some invaluable friendships among musicians.

What are your most important accomplishments, personal and professional? My daughter, Dianna, and her music, her generosity – the whole package! Also, my ability to keep performing over the years. Professionally: as a song-writer, I am honored to be in the book, “Classic American Songs – 2nd Half Century” in which the authors included three of my original ballads. I share the book with Cole Porter, Steven Sondheim, etc. I’ve also composed over 100 songs, including a (yet to be produced) Musical ~ “Ladybug.”

Anything else you’d like to share? My daughter is a professional singer and was with Royal Caribbean for 13 years. She treated me to some amazing cruises, including the Mediterranean. I flipped over Italy and the Isle of Capri! Also, I traveled to Tuscany several years ago, for the commitment ceremony of close friends. We stayed at Il Burro, a resort owned by the Ferragamo family. It was an unforgettable experience, and I got to play on the ancient grand piano in their lobby, which Frederic Chopin once played…I hope he approved, as we held nightly “sing alongs!” Lastly, my daughter was honored to sing the National Anthem for the Seahawks/Cardinals game this past December 22nd, in front of 58,000 fans and one proud mama!


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