The King of Ocean Drive

At sundown, they come. From all over South Florida and all over the world, they come to hear and see him. They are his loyal subjects and he is their king. He rules over no country, no state, no province. Just a street. A glitzy, noisy, congested, exhaust-choked street. His fans sit at the bar or at tables. They stand five-deep on the sidewalk, to keep from overflowing into the slow-moving traffic. They gather across the street as well, packing the sidewalk, lying on the grass, hanging out of trees.

At last he appears, acoustic guitar in hand, on an elevated stage about four feet square. Tall and tan, he has blue eyes and sun-bleached, shoulder-length blond hair. He wears a black silk shirt (the top three buttons undone) and pleated trousers. Like royalty, he is adorned in gold. A gold chain circles his neck, a gold bracelet decorates one wrist, a gold watch the other. He wears a gold ring on each hand. A small gold hoop clings to his left earlobe.

His name is Alex Fox, though his devotees know him as the King of Ocean Drive. In four years of gigging there at I Paparazzi restaurant, the 40-year-old Argentine crooner -- whose appearance and manner suggest nothing so much as Fabio unplugged -- has transformed himself from a mere restaurant performer into a one-man cottage industry.

He plays five sets a night, three nights a week, almost inevitably to a full house. He plays his own songs (an amalgam of Italian, classical, Argentine, and pop music, with a dash of rumba), as well as covers of Carlos Santana or Ottmar Liebert. He is, to put it mildly, exuberant. He swings his guitar around as he plays, lowering and raising it to hide and reveal his crotch. He tosses his mane back; he turns around and shakes his butt, to the delight of the crowd.

Although Fox once followed standard restaurant-performer protocol, playing from a seat in one corner of the room, his style expanded a few years back. He began standing when he played, then grew more daring -- he crossed the street or climbed onto the restaurant's roof or the hoods of cruising cars, playing his guitar all the while. People loved it. Things eventually got so out of control that the police intervened. "I had to stop because it became a mess," Fox recalls. "The police told me 'You can't do this here any more.' So I stopped."

These days two or three off-duty cops are often necessary for crowd control, but Fox has toned his shtick down a bit. The wildest part of his act comes about every other song when, he invites his limber accomplice Liza Luna to join him. She hops on-stage in strappy silver heels and one of several revealing outfits -- sequined bikini tops, sparkly hot pants, and Lycra sarongs are her staples -- and prances about in a mix of lambada, salsa, cha-cha-cha, and flamenco.

A slender 31-year-old from Australia, Luna was just a tourist enjoying a drink at Paparazzi's bar when she first discovered Fox. Overcome by his music, she jumped to her feet and began dancing. Almost four years later, she is Fox's designated dance partner and biggest cheerleader (the de facto mistress of ceremonies, she introduces him as the "Great Alex Fox").

And while it may be alarming to see a woman in three-inch heels bouncing up and down like a kangaroo, Luna says her only close call came during the first few months of her collaboration with Fox, when he nearly whacked her on the head with the neck of his guitar.

The moment one of Fox's 30-minute sets ends, he and Luna plow onto the sidewalk to shake hands, pose for pictures, sign autographs. She hawks his three CDs, which sell for twenty dollars a pop. Purchases are placed in a white plastic "Alex Fox" bag, decorated with a poorly rendered silhouette of the guitarist and phone numbers for more info.

Fox came to Miami in 1984 from Buenos Aires, where music had occupied his life from an early age. At six he began piano lessons. Soon he moved on to classical guitar. As a teenager he received a scholarship to train with the director of the Symphony Orchestra of Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires; it was there he learned to conduct and write his own music. Fox earned a living teaching music and playing in his own band, but it wasn't the good life he had envisioned. "I came here to follow my dream," he says simply.

In Miami, Fox became a student of Jose Adan, a disciple of contemporary Spanish guitarist Pepe Romero. For five years he worked at odd jobs and played the occasional weekend show. In 1989 he began strumming at the former Cafe des Arts. Plunked right on the then-narrow sidewalk lining Ocean Drive with only his guitar and a small amplifier, he played pop covers, classical pieces, and the occasional bolero or cha-cha-cha.

After a few stints in Coconut Grove and Coral Gables restaurants, Fox returned to Argentina in 1992, just in time to avoid Hurricane Andrew. The eight months he spent away from South Florida lent him a new perspective on where he should take his talents. Coconut Grove was a college kid's paradise, no longer a place which to make a living performing solo in upscale restaurants. The hip crowds were gravitating to South Beach, and Fox quickly set his mind to going back there.

"I saw this place [I Paparazzi] as very big and thought it would be a nice place to play, so I asked for an audition. They said they already had musicians and they didn't want any more. I asked them to at least listen to me and, if they wanted, give me the opportunity to play in the daytime. So I auditioned for the owner. After I played three songs, he offered me a one-year contract."

Fabian Basabe, I Paparazzi's owner, tells a slightly different story. "Alex began by helping out the musicians we already had playing at night. We gave him a chance to play during lunch, and that's when he started proving himself. It has been a gradual evolution. His willingness to learn and his ability to catch on to ideas quickly have helped him. Plus, he's a showman. He's made coming to our restaurant more than just having dinner; he's made it an event."

Relegated to the lunch shift, Fox soon worked his way into the evening rotation. His repertoire began to change as well. The days of Beatles covers ended when he met two former members of the Gipsy Kings, Manolo and Lito, who performed at the restaurant and around town. Playing percussion, Fox sat in with them a few times and picked up some choice guitar tips. Specifically, the Spaniards taught him to play the passionate, frenetic, flamenco-rumba rhythm. He was inspired to begin writing songs with a distinct Latin flavor but with plenty of pop appeal as well, a genre commonly called nuevo flamenco.

It didn't take Fox long to build a fan base. But, as is so often the case in the life of Alex Fox, his fans wanted more. They wanted to be able to take his music home. So he borrowed money from a friend and went into a recording studio, where he created two cassettes of original songs. "People started buying them like crazy, so I bought better equipment, paid for better sound, and started hiring musicians," he says. Fox has self-released a CD every year since 1994. (This year's edition is due out later this month.)

Fox doesn't like to talk about sales figures, but it's safe to say that over the past four years they've reached well into the tens of thousands. Most of his diehard fans, of course, are tourists. Computer executive Robert Parr heard Fox while on a visit from Puerto Rico three years ago. He bought a CD and took it home to his wife Susan. She was hooked. This trip, he and Susan cruised to Miami on their boat. Naturally, seeing Fox is at the top of their agenda. They not only took in Fox's stage show but also bought his other two CDs to round out their collection. The guitarist poses for a picture with Susan. "What does his music do to me?" she squeals. "It's incredible! You don't want to know!"

Admiration isn't limited to fans. According to I Paparazzi owner Basabe, other restaurant owners "have tried to steal him away ten times a day by offering him lots of money and the chance to play."

Among fellow musicians, Fox's reputation is not quite as stellar. "I don't really like what he plays, but you have to admire the way he markets himself," says Gus Cuervo, a classically trained guitarist who plays for local art-rock band LOKI. "He's got a lot of stage presence and he does everything himself, like selling his own CDs. He really is that corny American dream: the self-made success story."

Ironically, the more popular Fox becomes, the less he performs on Ocean Drive. At this point, he limits himself to weekend nights during the busy season. This restricted schedule gives him time to pursue a growing number of other projects.

Last year, for instance, he played guitar on Julio Iglesias's album La Carretera. This year he was asked by Elle magazine to perform at a tribute for the late fashion designer Gianni Versace, at Versace's Fifth Avenue boutique in Manhattan. Fox will appear as himself and play one of his own compositions in the Eddie Murphy film The Holy Man, which is now being filmed in Miami. During the summers he tours (and sells CDs) in Europe.

With business booming and opportunities aplenty, why does Fox continue to play at an Italian restaurant geared primarily to tourists? Why hasn't the King of Ocean Drive reached for national success? For a couple of reasons, actually. First, Fox is a monarch who seems quite comfortable on his smallish throne. And second, he believes he owes his loyal subjects his continued presence.

"If someone offers me a contract -- a good deal -- I would probably take it. But this is the best place for me to be right now," he remarks, surveying the restaurant's bustling dining room. "I get great exposure here. I do great sales, and I respect very much the people who own the restaurant. There's no better thing than to share with the people. When I play on-stage, I sometimes forget they are there because I'm giving it my all, but when I finish and I see that look on their faces, the happiness that music creates, it's wonderful.

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