Everyone has a story, but not everyone has stories as interesting as longtime working musicians. Faith Page, who plays piano and sings a few nights a week at the Westgate Hotel's Plaza Bar, calls piano bars “the trenches” because the work is as hard—but it's also fun. Despite long hours, less-than-stellar pay and, at times, a half-attentive audience that only claps a third of the time, performers seem to love their jobs. If working the happy-hour and night shifts in small watering holes wasn't their plan to begin with—the gigs were intended to be merely a way to put food on the table while they chased bigger and better stage dreams—they certainly aren't now. Joe Cromwell, a piano man and singer at Kelly's Steakhouse in Mission Valley, counts his regular patrons, who come in to sing while he plays the tunes, among his best friends. Rick Lyon and David Smith have become local legends, putting Imperial House and Albie's Beef Inn, respectively, on the map, and old Richard Johnson down at the Turf Club has so much life experience that he has an anecdote for damn-near everything.
What follows are simple stories about interesting people. No angle, just honesty. Brace yourself for some major nostalgia and a sudden desire for a Scotch on the rocks.
The bashful legend
Albie's Beef Inn is just like it sounds—an old-fashioned hotel bar and restaurant that serves as many steaks and potatoes as it does good times. On any given night, Albie's famous oil-painted nudes stare coyly over the tops of patrons' mostly silver-haired heads while uniformed waitresses wheel around salad carts and deliver trays of stiff drinks. Some nights, 80-year-old Conrad does the jitterbug and ends his modest performances by yelling in a whiskey-graveled voice, “Now, that's what it's all about!” Other nights, gussied-up women in red ruffled pantsuits play grab-ass with unsuspecting divorcées while Cole Porter's “I Get a Kick Out of You” rattles the glasses behind the bar. And every now and then, small groups of counterculture kids fill a booth or two, talk about music and nibble on fried appetizers and garlic bread.
At the center of it all, every night except Sunday and Monday, David Timothy Smith brings it all together by tickling the ol' ivories.
At exactly 6:47 on a recent Friday night, the barstools around the piano—or, in Albie's case, the piano-shaped bar surrounding Smith and his two electronic keyboards—were completely filled. A man with a '70s haircut and glasses, Hawaiian shirt, gold necklace, bracelet and matching gold pinky ring grasped the foam-covered microphone and belted out Sinatra while Smith effortlessly laid down the tunes—synthesized drumbeats and all.
“That was a real nice trip, Danny,” Smith said at the song's conclusion. “We even landed right.”
Truth is, Smith lands almost every song just right. He grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and learned as much about music from his two years in college as he did in St. Louis' nightclubs. He did the band gig for a bit in his younger days but eventually joined the Navy and took a break from music. When he got out, Smith realized music was pretty much all he knew how to do.
He scored a solo gig at The Boondocks in La Mesa and followed it with a five-year stint playing at Red Tracton's piano bar across the street from the Del Mar racetrack. Then Smith stumbled across Albie's, signed a contract and has played there five nights a week for the last 10 years.
“I didn't even think I'd last one year, but anyway,” he said, pouring himself a cup of black coffee but never taking a drink, “I guess that's about it.”Smith is a modest man. If you ask if he feels like he's earned himself a spot as one of San Diego's longtime local music legends, he'll shake his head, nervously laugh and pull at his wire-rimmed glasses.
“You know, I've got people that like to come back to this place, whether they're my fans or not, I don't know. But I think I'm a part of the place so, you know, that feels good—that feels really good. I mean, a lot of these people have been coming here for 30 years, they've seen people come and go. To the older members—I call them ‘members' since they've been coming here so long—I'm still the new guy.”
Smith laughed. “Man, I never talked about myself for so long in my whole life. It feels weird. I better get back to work.”Most requested song: Sam Cooke's “You Send Me”David Timothy Smith plays Tuesday through Saturday at Albie's Beef Inn, 1201 Hotel Circle South in Mission Valley.
The queen of magic
Faith Page can sing in eight different languages. But that's not what makes her such a damn-good entertainer. In the right situation, with the right people, a performance by Page can be what she calls “goosebump material.”
“You put me in a room with the right people,” she said, “and I'll make magic happen. It's a one-on-one, touching-people-with-music situation and there's nothing like it. It's the most incredible thing. I never, ever dread going to work, ever, because I'm more alive, more on this planet when I'm here in this bar.”
At one point, during her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I did start to feel my skin pucker up a bit. I was one of three awkward strangers drinking at the Westgate Hotel's Plaza Bar on a Tuesday night but, by the end, we all felt like good friends. Page asked us about our lives and told us all about her life, too, all the while playing pieces from her 5,000-song repertoire and throwing in some music history, trivia and war stories.
“This is the trenches,” she said, sipping a glass of red wine and motioning to her French Rococo surrounds. “Most performers, they're used to all their electronics and their planned programs and the distance from the people, so they can do whatever they feel like, and it gets huge applause because of the lights and all the this-that-and-the-other, but if they're in this little room all by themselves with nothing but a piano—no drum machine, no discs, no anything—playing the piano and singing, they'd go down the tubes. This is the hardest job of them all. It really is; and I've done them all. And it's wonderful, really, it's wonderful, because you have this personal one-on-one with people and you can actually change their life.”
Like the time Page was playing on a cruise ship while a guy proposed to his girlfriend. Without knowing it, Page just happened to play the song that was playing during the couple's first kiss. In her version of events, it just may have helped sway the gal to say yes.
“Can you think how beautiful that was?” she asks with a huge smile. “Isn't that goosebump material? Those are the things that happen.”
Or there's the time when Page was playing at an upscale Mexican restaurant and, in the middle of a high-energy, salsa-driven set, out of nowhere she felt the overwhelming urge to play “Amazing Grace.”
“By the end of the song, I was in tears,” she said. “It was the strangest thing.”
A woman went up to Page after the song and, also in tears, said she'd just come from her husband's funeral. In the hospital, shortly before he died, he told her he'd come back for a visit through the song “Amazing Grace.” She had brushed it off as a kind attempt at comfort but was floored when Page started to play the song.“Books,” Page said, eyebrows raised. “I could easily fill books with these stories, and that's just the bonus part of my job.”Most requested song: French songs, but Page insists that “Besame Mucho” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” are the Nos. 1 and 2 most requested songs in the world.Faith Page plays Tuesday and Wednesday at The Plaza Bar at the Westgate Hotel, 1055 Second Ave., Downtown, and Thursday through Saturday at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, 5951 Linea Del Cielo.
The jolly old piano man
Walk into Kelly's Steakhouse alone and you probably won't go unnoticed for long.
“You here to sing?” one of the patrons sitting around the piano bar will ask.
If you're not there to sing, you better be there to listen, because the animated man behind the piano, Joe Cromwell, and the eclectic characters perched on the stools around him are there to put on a show.
“The people who come in here come to sing,” Cromwell said, leaning back and snapping his suspenders, which are black and covered in tiny white music notes, “and they run the gambit from really good to really bad.”
Cromwell's bushy eyebrows bounce up and down as he laughs and looks over at Jeff, his high-school buddy who sits at the center of the rounded bar.
Most of the people who come to sing at Kelly's are actually pretty good, including Jeff, whose soft falsetto provides the melody to Cromwell's harmony in the duos that follow that night. The regular singers at Kelly's have been coming in for years, and they're usually armed with a few songs they've mastered.
“Mike Bloodworth,” Cromwell said between singing Beatles and John Denver songs, “we call each other ‘Si' and ‘Gar' because the very first time we met, I was playing at Boondocks in La Mesa and he came in one night and sat down and said, ‘Hi, how you doing?' I said, ‘How you doing?' and I passed him the microphone and we ended up singing ‘The Boxer' by Simon and Garfunkel. We ended up doing a lot of singing after that, and now we're very close friends, as well as singing buddies.”
And then, of course, there's Mary and Jerry Gartner, Cromwell says, a couple who come in every Wednesday to sing—he with his black cowboy hat, penchant for country songs and the nickname “Bronx Cowboy,” she with her beautiful Broadway voice and '60s flair. The two met at Kelly's a long time ago.
“In fact,” Cromwell said stroking his beard, “I have a couple of couples who've met and married from here. I've got a couple of young ladies that come in, too. We nicknamed them Laverne and Shirley because they're such a crack-up.
“And there's the girl we call ‘Boots,'” he continued. “You know, it's like, everybody who meets her knows she sings ‘These Boots Were Made for Walking,' so they just come in and they wait for her to sing it.”
While a balding man at the bar sipped a Bud and watched Dancing with the Stars on the bar's TV, Cromwell, who recently celebrated his 12th year playing at Kelly's, told me about his regulars. Since Kelly's is part of a hotel, he gets people from as far away as Alaska who come just for the piano bar.
“When people come in from across the country,” Cromwell said, “it's like they've never seen this before. Larry and Charley from Maryland, they have nothing like this where they live.”
And, of course, there's the short, fat Texan named Reese, who used to be a state senator.
“There's a song called ‘Long Tall Texan' that he likes to sing,” Cromwell laughed, “but he's short and squatty. Whenever he comes to town, it's a party.”Most requested song: “Piano Man” by Billy Joel—which also happens to be the ringtone on his cell phoneJoe Cromwell plays Tuesday through Friday at Kelly's Steakhouse, 500 Hotel Circle North, in Mission Valley.
The old-time crooner
It's Sunday evening at the Turf Club and, under the soft glow of a plastic orb depicting Budweiser's Clydesdales, Richard Johnson sings Frank Sinatra's “My Way.”
Crowds of hipsters half listen. Most are yelling out drink orders at the bar or piled up around the open grill, squeezing entirely too much teriyaki and soy sauce onto their generous hunks of meat and seafood kabobs, saying things like, “Dude, you never touch another man's bread” while flames dance close to their tattooed forearms.
“Regrets, I've had a few,” Johnson sings, barely above the noise, while his old but agile hands dance across the keys, “but then again, too few to mention.”
A few gals around town have had the opportunity to sit on Richard Johnson's lap while he looks into their eyes and sings Sinatra. It's quite the religious experience, if I do say so myself; if there's one thing Johnson worships more than music, it's women.
Next time you're at the Turf, ask Johnson about his lovely little “Angel” down in Chile. He'll take out an old photo and tell you all about the first time he met Angelica and how and why they've been engaged for more than eight years.
And if you're still waiting to be seated in one of the booths, ask Johnson about his second wife, the one who bought him his snazzy polyester performance shirts (one in every color and two in different shades of pink, from a place in Palm Springs where Liberace gets his shirts).
“She died in the middle of making love,” he says. “I'll never forget it as long as I live.”
We'll let Johnson fill you in on all the sad details.
Johnson's been performing at the Turf Club for only two years—he was preceded by George Lee, who played the bar for more than 40 years—but has been in and around San Diego since 1951, mostly using it as his home base while playing the cruise-ship circuit, which he's done for 20 years.
“I think I'll probably go back to the ships,” he says during a break. He pulls a hand-rolled cigarette out of his pant pocket and watches two drunken street people argue in front of the club. “But first, my plan is—have you ever seen that TV show Deal or No Deal? I'm pretty sure I can get on that. I've got some good gimmicks, plus I wrote a song for Howie Mandel.”
Blowing a puff of smoke through his nose, Johnson starts singing in the crooner's voice he's developed over the years, “Howie Mandel, the Deal or No Deal is the greatest thing on TV / and your bevy of delectable beauties is really something to see / but beware of the banker, he yearns to be an anchor to some boastful degree / So, Howie, I'm hoping you choose my Angel and me.”
He smiles, his watery blue-green eyes sparkling a bit.
“Right now, everything's sort of up in the air,” he says. “I really want to get on Deal or No Deal, but I got to wait until Angel gets up here.”
Johnson stubs out his cigarette, goes back inside, wades through the crowd of young patrons, sits back down at the piano and fingers a few of its many cigarette burns on the keys, and then launches into “New York, New York.”Most requested song: Sinatra stuff and “Piano Man” by Billy JoelRichard Johnson plays every second and fourth Sunday at The Turf Supper Club, 1116 25th St. in Golden Hill.
The rip-roaring Lyon
Rick Lyon' s reputation precedes him. Seriously—if you haven't heard of the guy, you're living under a rock somewhere deep in Balboa Park. But aside from a few rock-star-like qualities that Lyon quite possibly doesn't even realize, they guy's as normal and nice as they come.
“Kids come in and say, ‘Oh man, you're famous,' but I don't know how true that is,” he said. “I think they're just yanking my chain.”
His chain, by the way, is long and gold and holds a quarter-note-shaped pendant—rock-star quality numero uno.
Lyon is the centerpiece of Imperial House. He sits at a big black grand piano, on top of which he places a large Yamaha electronic keyboard and busts out everything from “Midnight Rider” by the Allman Brothers to “Little Darling” by The Diamonds.
“Everything from Bach to rock,” Lyon said. “That's my logo.”
The crowd eats it up. When Lyon plays the first few notes of Neil Diamond's “Sweet Caroline,” the leather booths are cleared as everyone heads for the tiny dance floor.“My boss loves Neil Diamond,” Lyon said, “so I try to keep him happy. Plus, a lot of people say I sound like Neil Diamond, so they ask for it.”
On top of the grand piano, next to the oversized Stella Artois glass that doubles as a tip jar, which always seems to boast a substantial pile of singles and fives, Lyon sets up a wood sign with his name in gold lettering and a cute little cartoon lion burned into the grain.
“That lion is my logo,” he said. “That's what I'm going to use when I print my T-shirts. I'm hoping to get them done this summer.”
T-shirts with your name and logo—there's rock-star quality No. 2. And No. 3 is his gold rings and unusually long, well-manicured nails.
But what makes Lyon so regular-guy-esque is the fact that, for starters, he lives alone in Jamul with his dogs and has been commuting to his Imperial House gig for the last seven years. And he's never bothered to record an album. He's got tons of originals and he could probably even make a buck or two from sales at Imperial House alone—Rick Lyon fans are pretty obsessed—but he hasn't gotten around to it yet.
“I've just never gotten to the point where I thought it was going to work or the timing was right,” he said. “At one point in my life I was going to do it, but, you know, I always wanted to be a songwriter really. I never wanted to perform. I never wanted to be on the big stage, you know, with 100,000 people. I always just kind of wanted to be in the background.”Most requested song: “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond and “Don't Stop Believing” by JourneyRick Lyon performs at Imperial House, 505 Kalmia St. in Bankers Hill, starting at every Friday and Saturday night. Check him out at www.myspace.com/ricklyonmusic.
The Vegas entertainer
It's 10 p.m. on a Sunday, and the crowd at the Red Fox Room is thin. Ed Repaci plays muted trumpet while his boy Joe Demers plays keys. It's easy to picture Repaci out in front of a big band, puffing out his cheeks and playing “I Can't Get Started” to a thick Las Vegas crowd. He's got the kind of swagger and style that screams, “I'm an entertainer!”
To the uninitiated, it may seem awkward to see a duo performing live in a bar and restaurant without a proper stage, but it's a Red Fox tradition that didn't die when the bar's famed longtime pianist, Shirley Allen, passed away in 2005.
“I love this place,” Repaci says. “There's an intimacy about the room. I tell my friends, I says, I worked so many clubs across the country, but the thing I like about the Red Fox is I feel like people are coming into my living room, and you can talk to them and play for them, you know—it's a comfortable feeling.”
Repaci didn't set out to play at the Fox, though. Born in San Diego, he left early on to join the Air Force and played in the official Air Force Band. When he got out, he headed straight for Vegas, Tahoe and Reno, where he toured for years with a 20-piece big band. He eventually quit and started his own five-piece combo with three guys and two girls—dancing, singing and the whole bit.
“But Vegas has changed quite a bit,” Repaci said, sadly, stirring the ice in his water glass. “It's not like what it was when Sinatra, Dean Martin and all those guys were there, you know? I got to meet Frank and Dean. I was 23 years old at the time and it's changed. It's not the same Las Vegas. It seems like they just want to build bigger and fancier hotels, but they don't want to bring the stars in.”
“What do they have now?” he asked. “Circus du Soleil? And how many topless shows can you see? I mean, really?”
Now two years into his five-nights-a-week residency at Red Fox, Repaci misses the bright lights and ringing machines of the strip, but he likes what he has going. He gets to play his favorites, some jazz and even The Beatles if he feels so inclined. And he makes people—young and old—happy. Just recently, in fact, he decided that's his purpose in life. Vegas will always be in his blood, but, for now, he's content.
“I love San Diego, you know?” he says. “I always come back to San Diego. I left my heart in San Diego, I always say, but I left all my money in Las Vegas.”Most requested song: Frank Sinatra's “Fly Me to the Moon,” plus standards by Tony Bennett and Dean Martin The Ed Repaci Duo plays Wednesday through Sunday nights at the Red Fox Room, 2223 El Cajon Blvd. in North Park.