Old Black Magic Box
The first-floor lounge of the Radisson Deauville Resort Hotel is precisely the kind of place one would expect to find the cocktail set. Fifty blocks north of bustling South Beach, this gem of postwar-modern design features a sprawling lobby of sweeping curves and giant columns. Behind the bar the large windows that overlook the pool should frame the reflections of sophisticated globetrotters, sipping on Manhattans or martinis and listening to the sweet musical murmurings of the house band.
At least that would have been the scene thirty -- maybe even twenty -- years ago. But at nine o'clock on a recent Friday night, Charlie and Yvonne Brown, the house's husband-and-wife musical act, are playing to a smattering of casual listeners: guests having an early nightcap before heading up to their suites, or folks who have strayed from some event in the ballrooms. Two guys in jeans and T-shirts sip drinks separately at the bar, each lost in his own thoughts. A few middle-age snowbirds, married couples in their forties and fifties, sit passively at small tables. Another half-dozen customers chat around a coffee table off to the side, ignoring the music altogether.
"All you wanna do is ride around, Sally," Yvonne coos, taking the edge off "Mustang Sally," Wilson Pickett's R&B anthem of rueful resentment, and turning it into something sexier than Pickett or its author ever intended. Charlie, sitting behind the ebony-color piano, rides shotgun on bass guitar. Together they sound smooth and confident, despite the unmistakable thump and wump of canned music emanating from the black box in front of Yvonne. At the end of the song, she picks up a remote control, points it at the box to turn down the volume, and switches to the next track. The two or three couples who've been following along applaud lightly.
"Musicians don't retire," Charlie says during a fifteen-minute break from the four-hour set he and Yvonne play at the Deauville every Friday and Saturday night. "They die." He isn't being maudlin; he's just trying to explain the drive that keeps him and his wife in the business even when it means playing, as on nights like this, for only a handful of sympathetic listeners.
Charlie and Yvonne Brown have been performing together for twenty-five years, seven years longer than they've been married. They've worked clubs and hotels from coast to coast, including a number of Miami hot spots back in the early Eighties. They'll tell you the business hasn't always been like this. "We worked a hotel lounge in Detroit once, about ten or twelve years ago," recalls Yvonne. "We'd be leaving at 12:30 a.m., and people would be waiting in line, still trying to get in to see us." She remembers singer Teddy Pendergrass, who was performing at a local theater and staying at the same hotel, dropping in to catch their act.
"Charlie and I caught the tail end of show business the way it used to be," remembers Yvonne, as her husband excuses himself and heads back to the piano. "There was that Rat Pack aura: Sinatra, Sammy Davis." She's using shorthand for a time when audiences expected even a night out at a local watering hole to be a jazz-and-gin-fueled trip to the moon. "There used to be clubs all over South Florida in the late Seventies and early Eighties -- Bachelors Three, the Forge -- and people didn't mind driving up and down I-95 to get from one place to the other. Those were the days of the battling bands." It was the same story all across the nightclub circuit. "New York clubs we played," she adds, "weren't concerned with the décor of the room. They were more concerned with the entertainment."
So what changed? For one thing the club scene began catering to a younger clientele, one that doesn't develop the same kind of loyalty to specific performers or venues. "Kids go to South Beach or Las Olas Boulevard, not any one place," Yvonne declares, reaching for the cocktail glasses in front of her to illustrate her point. She lines up three of them to suggest a row of night spots on, say, Washington Avenue. "Kids do this," she explains, her index and middle fingers simulating a gaggle of 21-year-old legs. "They check out the first place. Hey, what's going on here?'
Hey, what about next door?'
Hey, what about next door to that?'"
But it isn't just a case of the younger crowd's attention-deficit disorder. For their parents -- those who still venture out into the night -- the hottest action is found in restaurant kitchens rather than in the dining rooms that once featured live bands. "In restaurants," says Yvonne, "it's all about the food now, not the music. People come to see the chefs. They're the stars."
The result? Musicians have a harder and harder time finding regular gigs, mostly because the owners of today's nightclubs, restaurants, and lounges don't believe quality of entertainment factors into their joints' success. Few places are willing to pay for musical acts, and when they do, the cash usually is not enough to support more than one or two musicians.
So Charlie and Yvonne Brown's band dwindled from four or five pieces to two, relying on a synthesizer and sequencer to enhance their pared-down act with prerecorded tracks. The couple began integrating the technology into their show about four years ago. "It was a novelty; it was cute," says Yvonne, "but we didn't think it would end up replacing the whole damn band."
The Browns do not care for the electronic accompaniment. They remember a time when audiences also scoffed at the mechanical riffs but admit with some resignation that listeners have grown accustomed to the sound. "When we first started using instrumental tracks, we tried to be as discreet as possible," Charlie says, smiling sheepishly. "Now no one seems to care. It's all out in the open."
Although no longer strictly taboo, the technical witchcraft cannot conjure the excitement of a swingin' combo. "There isn't a drum machine that can play with brushes, or even off the beat, and you won't ever replace the sound of that baby grand," Yvonne notes, looking affectionately over at the piano and at Charlie who sits behind it, playing a heartfelt rendition of the Ray Charles classic, "Georgia on My Mind."
Not surprisingly Charlie and Yvonne would like to see a revival of the adult lounge scene on Miami Beach. "They don't have enough music in these rooms down here, not like in New Orleans," Yvonne observes. "I mean, this is a resort city. No one's playing for people over the age of 35 or 40. Why don't these hotels and clubs hire three or four musicians with some real instruments?"
Despite their frustration the couple thinks they've been lucky, and they know their experience counts for something. "Coming out of New York in the Seventies, you had to do a little bit of everything, play all kinds of music," says Yvonne. "When Charlie and I first met, we did standards, pop music, then moved into disco." She grins, proud just to have survived this long in a fickle industry. "Now we're right back to where we started, doing mostly standards, and it's beautiful; it really is...." Her voice trails off as she catches an exchange between Charlie and a gray-haired man in a polo shirt sitting alone near the piano.
"New York, New York' for this fellow over here," announces Charlie, repeating the gentleman's request for the benefit of the three remaining patrons while he switches to the appropriate track with the remote control. Yvonne shakes her head and smiles. "That man," she says, marveling at her husband, "will entertain one person." And then, calling across the room, she urges Charlie on: "Sing it, baby!"
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