Great Balls of Fire, Literally

Greg Topper still rules the lounge

Photo by James BunoanNearly any tale that begins with the words, "I always wore cotton underwear" holds some promise, don't you think?

Greg Topper, the once and always king of OC rock & roll, is holding forth on his resplendent period in the 1970s and '80s, when he wore light-up capes and burgundy fluffy shirts—"Some nights, I'd come out looking like a dessert, you know?"—and routinely set his piano on fire. If you ever torch a piano, Topper recommends using Bacardi 151.

"I always wore cotton underwear, and it saved my huevos," Topper says. "This was back in the cocaine days. Bartenders, waitresses, judges, firemen, doctors, everybody was doing it. I enjoyed it, but I never was out of control. I mean, yes, I'd light the piano on fire all the time, but I only lit my crotch on fire once for real.

"I would have the lounge kill the house and stage lights. I'd throw some 151 on top of the piano, pour a bit of water on my crotch as a buffer, and splash just a bit of 151 on top of that. Then I'd light them and go into 'Great Balls of Fire.' It was dramatic. People loved it. Well, one night, I forgot to pour the water on my crotch first, and I was wearing these 100 percent polyester pants. I torched the piano, torched my crotch, and while I'm playing, all people could see was a piano on fire and my crotch on fire. It was like a little flambé flame, like you'd see on a crêpe suzette or something, but when I tried to smack it out, it spread. My drummer had to jump over his kit and roll me on the stage to get the flames out. I had serious burns on my legs, but thanks to the cotton underwear, it didn't get to my privates."

And so Topper has remained a blessing to the womenfolk of the county, while his pumping piano and robust singing are enough for the rest of us. This past month marked Topper's 40th anniversary as a professional musician. His first gig was in 1962 at an airmen's club on Okinawa, the only white guy in an 18-piece black R&B band called the Downbeats. Topper was a 16-year-old Marine at the time, having lied about his age to get out of Orange County.

He'd spent much of his youth in the county, and some of his earliest rock memories were of sneaking out to hear Little Richard, Johnny Otis and others at the OC Fairgrounds before he was 10. But at that age, his family moved to Montego Bay, Jamaica, where his mother built the famed Half Moon Bay hotel. Topper spent six years there, qualifying him as one of the few white people who can say, "Yeh, mon," without sounding like a dolt.

Palling around with Noel Coward and drinking, driving and getting laid from age 13 on, did not prepare Topper for his return to the shave-and-a-haircut OC lifestyle, so at 16, he hitched up with the Marines. He tried settling down upon his return, going frat boy and getting a degree in journalism from Cal State Fullerton (where he also produced concerts featuring Frank Zappa, Spirit, Alice Cooper and others). He got some suits and a respectable job, but soon he chucked that aside to play piano at an Anaheim joint called the Bean Hut—"It was kind of a Mexican Mel's diner"—and he never looked back.

"I quit my job, gave my suits to the Goodwill, he says. "My father wouldn't speak to me for three years because I'd thrown a career aside to play piano for $25 per week at a drive-in. But playing rock & roll was what I loved."

To Topper, "rock & roll" means the straight stuff: Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and the others from that innocent time when the licentiousness of the music really meant something. He'd been banging on the piano since the third grade—never had a lesson, never learned to read music, but played by ear off the radio and records.

Topper sideman Matt Quilter, who also plays in the award-winningly edgy instrumental band the Reventlos, says, "He doesn't just play the obvious hits. He'll pull up great songs that made it to No. 39 in 1962 that you haven't heard since, and they're always ones that get you."

Over the years, Topper became the proverbial big fish in the small pond, rocking the decades away in the lounges of the Airporter Inn, the Anaheim Sheraton and other bistros.

"I never cared about the record business, having a hit or touring the world. That's not sour grapes; I just never wanted that life," he says. "I saw these one-hit wonders killing themselves on the road with nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, I was making six figures, living in Newport Beach, playing five nights a week for four hours where I could take breaks, chase babes and drink and have seven days a week off to go to the beach. I had it made. Some of these one-hitters wound up working my off-nights, playing to the waitresses on Sunday and Monday."

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