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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist email@example.com
The Lounge Guy didn't become the Lounge Guy overnight. It took a dry throat, knots in his stomach and a battalion of bourbons on ice, with a splash, for the voice to emerge, grow stronger and cast its warm glow about the room.
Roger Martin is a singer. A couple days ago, I played his five-song CD for my father, an armchair expert in all things Sinatra, Bennett, Davis and Torme, and in the music that Martin refers to as the Great American Songbook.
"That guy can sing. He phrases just like Sinatra," Dad said, after hearing Martin's version of "Fly Me to the Moon."
You wouldn't think it to look at him. You'd think: big guy who hasn't had a shave in awhile. Maybe a former operative. Don Johnson's sunglass-wearing partner in "Miami Vice."
"It's all about the voice," Martin said, when I told him he didn't look like a guy who could sing songs like "The Way You Look Tonight," "Mack the Knife," and "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)."
Martin barely knew he had a voice until 10 years ago when he made a CD for his mother and father for their anniversary. Martin and Ron Vasquez, his brother-in-law, barricaded themselves in a room for the weekend at the Best Western on La Palma in Anaheim and recorded 10 American standards. His parents liked it and so did a friend he met at a gas station. She told him she knew somebody who was having a Rat Pack party and asked if he was interested in singing at it.
"I was pretty good and it was fun," Martin said. "It gave me the courage to keep singing."
"Courage" that did not include quitting his day job, fixing sprinklers. I heard about the Lounge Guy from Pete Tittl, the longtime Californian restaurant critic for whom the 61-year-old Martin was working.
"You ought to talk to him," Tittl said. "He's interesting."
The Rat Pack party led to Saturday nights at McGee's steakhouse, New Year's parties at the Bakersfield Country Club and dates at the Padre, Wiki's Wine Dive & Grill, The Mark, the Noodle Bar, and Bella La Vina Winery in Terra Bella. Business has grown and now the Lounge Guy is booked seven or eight nights a month.
Martin grew up in Pico Rivera. His father was a drummer in a big band. The house was filled with the music of Sinatra, Count Basie and Cole Porter.
"l saw Tony Bennett with the Count Basie Orchestra at the Melodyland Theater in Anaheim before it turned into a church," Martin said.
In 1991, Martin, his wife, Marie, and their daughters, Sarah and Robin, moved from Yorba Linda to Tehachapi and then a couple years later to Bakersfield.
"We fell in love with Bakersfield," Martin said. "It had a sense of community we hadn't found in Orange County."
Martin's landscaping and sprinkler business boomed along with the explosion in the housing market. When the market collapsed and Martin's business slowed to a trickle, he began devoting more of his time singing the smooth, unhurried music of his father's generation. Martin became the Lounge Guy, donning a cream-colored jacket, a gray fedora, a black shirt, wingtips, black sunglasses and sang while caressing an old-fashioned microphone.
Marie, his wife, works the sound levels with the help of a computer, a brain (an equalizer) and an effects pedal.
The extra money has been good -- he can make $500 in three hours plus tips -- but there is more to it than that.
"The songs unlock something in people, especially older people," Martin said. "This might be their first Christmas after losing their mate of 50 years. Once I was singing 'The Way You Look Tonight' at a New Year's Eve party and a veteran in a wheelchair told me he had proposed to his wife in 1944 at the Waldorf Astoria with that song playing in the background."
Martin likes working on sprinklers. Many of his customers are older, people who he says are sometimes taken advantage of by contractors.
He sings while he works. If customers inquire, Martin gives them a CD and tells them about the Lounge Guy.
"People can sing circles around me, but I can do this," Martin said. "I might come into a lyric a beat late or a beat early, but by the end of the phrase I lock it in."
The Lounge Guy has sung through tough times. Music has been good to him. He is grateful.
"Some day, when I'm awfully low
"When the world is cold
"I will feel a glow just thinking of you
"And the way you look tonight."
Lounge Guy Productions, firstname.lastname@example.org. (714) 686-2877
On His Rocker
Visit with Herb on his front porch in his series of videos at bakersfield.com.