As I discovered throughout an evening spent drinking Budweiser, talking music, the bar business and Robert Conti, Wayne Harper is chemically dependent. The 66-year-old guitarist/saxophonist/trumpeter, student of classic American showmen and proprietor of the Martini Club for the last 26 years, will die if he doesn't take the assortment of pills prescribed to him. A man who has lived through two heart attacks and prostate cancer, Harper hung it up last Saturday, citing a multitude of anatomical assaults. He has handed over the keys and called it a day as the owner of Martini's. I should have asked him about the mysteries of life. Instead, I asked him about his bar.
Purchasing the members-only night club that previously operated under J. D. "Shady" Strickel, Harper signed a five-year note on the club.
"The joke was he didn't think I would make it. He thought he would collect the down payment, six or eight months of interest payments, I would bail and he would sell it again," he reflected. "But, no, I was determined to make it work."
Harper paid the bar off in two-and-a-half years, playing Tuesday through Saturday in the house band.
The nondescript venue nestled inside a shopping center behind North Star Mall (8507 McCullough Ave.), styled with shag carpet, black and thick like a Neanderthal's rugged torso, a small but comfy dance floor, wood paneling, mirrors and glittery curtains, has been the weekend gig for three of the city's best musicians and a wellspring of musical appreciation and drunken revelry for San Antonio. Keyboardist, arranger and backup vocalist Ernie Kreth, a brilliant musician who looks like a prog rock Bach, and drummer/vocalist Michael Canales, a Berklee College of Music grad and the man who handles much of the hip-hop material and dons an appropriately hilarious hat for every song requested, complete the ensemble.
The group functioned as a cover band; playing whatever you jot down on your napkin, in lipstick preferably, (for the sake of aesthetics) and accompanied by a five, 10 or 20 — if you want to hear your tune played right away. They careen through pop standards of the last 70 years, Harper pausing between each tune to gauge the audience's vibe and to slip into his next persona. He raises his trumpet to his lips for a rousing rendition of "Volver, Volver" and before you know it the trio have drifted right into "Brown Eyed Girl," Harper drawling and yipping just like Van the Man, but playing the lead guitar line, as well. And then into "Mama's Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys," singing both Willie and Waylon's parts.
The bottom line and the real story, for me as a music fan, is that Harper headed one of, if not the best band in town. From his days as a session player in Detroit, a hired hand in Vegas, a sideman in San Francisco and a picker in Marco Island, Florida and Lake Charles, Louisiana, his skills as a musician and a learned performer have been honed in the nocturnal neon. He also studied the best, taking in the mannerisms, asides, timing, banter and nimble-mindedness of the lounge circuit's most captivating performers. And it shows.
The magic of the group is their dynamism. Their ability, like the best bands of all time, to make you forget what ails you. Even if it's through a spot-on, campy but mesmerizing performance of a medley of Neil Diamond numbers, their ability to pull you in and shoo your worries away at the drop of a trucker hat (worn by Canales on Pat Green numbers, a former bar regular) is something few bands can do.
Kreth and Canales will stay on as the house band under the new ownership of Robert Binovi, a local who has tended bar, overseen the construction of numerous watering holes with the Muy Company, has worked as a professional musician and, despite making some updates to Martini's, plans to keep the atmosphere true to what has made the venue a prominent destination, which Harper sums up better than anyone else:
"The bottom line is: make people forget their problems ... A good entertainer will get your mind focused only on that moment in time. If you can make it a positive moment in time, you've achieved more than every hot lick or fancy chord ever invented."
The band, like lounge bars such as Martini's, are truly a dying breed. First were the house bands, which gave way to the original bands and increasingly the DJs — cheaper to pay, never subject to poor performances or bad renditions. But these players, a generation of day-in, day-out, four-sets-a-night entertainers, are dissipating.
And down comes another one. A man who, with a voice that its owner has forgotten what it's supposed to sound like due to so many years of molding and shifting it to resemble that of the requested singers, parted the once-teeming seas of nightlife, exclaiming, "Those that want a show, come with me."
And we did. We outlasted Wayne. We've got that going for us. But, fear not, for those who never had the pleasure of witnessing the trio tear through anything you want to hear, pausing only to scan the newest napkin or shoot bourbon with patrons and friends, Harper promises to sit in occasionally. You'll just have to put in the time necessary to catch him. It'll do you good.