Great Balls of Fire, Literally

Greg Topper still rules the lounge

Friends and I used to borrow Nick Lowe's phrase "the Abominable Showman" to describe Topper because he was just so on all the time, with the capes and windshield wiper-equipped sunglasses, schmoozing with the clientele, doing all manner of shtick—and that's before I'd even heard about his soon-to-be-discussed crotch-crooning routine.

But you'd have to be soul dead not to notice Topper's utter sincerity through it all. Even Jerry Lee probably doesn't love doing Jerry Lee as much as Topper does. He feels the music, and he has the chops to deliver it live. Guitarist's guitarist Albert Lee—in England working with Eric Clapton at the moment—routinely drives down from Malibu Canyon just to play with Topper because hardly anyone plays the old masters the way Topper does. That, and Topper's a big-hearted teddy bear. He has done innumerable benefits for others and organized the Orange County Musicians Foundation, which established a fund to help typically broke musicians through medical crises.

* * *

And now, the crotch.

"Women were always jumping up onstage; they'd dance on my piano for shots," Topper says. "So I'd always have one sit on the piano in front of me with their legs spread. I'd take my microphone off my boom and put it down her pants, and then hunker down and sing into her crotch. Their jeans didn't muffle the sound any more than a pop screen would, so you could hear me perfectly. The girls loved it."

Personally, I avoid singing into pants with microphone-sized bulges, but you can't argue with success. It was a staple of Topper's act until a husband got physically indignant one night. "That seemed like a good time to retire the microphone-in-crotch segment of my show."

Topper tried retiring himself in 1996. He had been diagnosed a few years earlier with congestive heart failure, and the decades of five-nighters finally started to get tiresome to him. He couldn't stay away from the stage for long and was soon playing occasional gigs. A few years ago, he had a heart attack, and doctors installed a defibrillator in a pouch sewed into his chest.

"It's only gone off once, but, believe me, you notice it," he says. "It's the same sort of thing you see in the movies, where they yell, 'Clear!' and jump-start your heart. I felt like I got blindsided by Mike Tyson."

He was with someone at the time, the sort of "with" that entails moist, conductive contact. "I hadn't mentioned to her that I had this thing in me, and here it was, this tender moment, and suddenly, she's got 20,000 volts going in her," he says. "She ran out thinking I was some kind of weirdo. Haven't seen her since."

Did we mention that Topper has been married five times?

"The crazy times, crazy hours, and the circumstances of playing rock & roll, they're just not conducive to having women in love with you," he says. "My biggest regret is blowing my last marriage—a wonderful woman. I had my daughter by my fifth and last wife, and she's the joy of my life now."

These days, Topper keeps the hours down to one night a week, Saturday, at the very pleasant Village Inn. Newer generations of OC lounge rockers have come along, but Topper's primacy is such that he can afford to be magnanimous. On one recent evening, he relinquished his keyboard to a visiting musician who played his ass off. Topper's compliment to him: "It takes a king to slay a king."

And he has advice for the rest of us: "The best remedy for a hangover is ice-cold beer with tomato juice. People should work harder at their marriages. Stay away from drugs, excessive alcohol and from cigarettes. I never thought I'd see the day I'd say that. I don't smoke anymore. I quit."

As he says this, his umpteenth cigarette of the day dangles from his left hand. Topper smokes so much that if his defibrillator is ever removed, he should use the pouch in his chest to store his cigs.

"And there's one more thing," he says. With Topper, there is always another Connie Francis or Lightnin' Hopkins song, another story, another nugget of wisdom.

"Hey, don't sweat the petty stuff, and don't pet the sweaty stuff."

GREG TOPPER PLAYS AT THE VILLAGE INN, 127 MARINE AVE., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 675-8300. EVERY SAT., 9 P.M.

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