Great Balls of Fire, Literally
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 flamb flame, like you'd see on a crpe 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."
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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