Below is an article that appeared in the Phuket Gazette in March of 2007. Written by Marque A. Rome, it was entitled “The Piano Man”.
Jimmy Cicero was playing the baby grand piano in the classy Horizon cocktail lounge in the Dusit Thani Laguna hotel in Phuket. I went to see him recently, on a Thursday night. Every seat was taken – a rare event for most such venues, where patrons pause only because they must. But Jimmy is a musician of rare musicality, and he packs ’em in nightly.
A group of hip-looking Germans pulled up closer to the piano while he intoned the refrain to Breaking Up is Hard to Do, one of his best tunes. Jimmy’s voice is a silky tenor. Kind of like Tony Bennett’s, one that never strains. His delivery, moreover, can be compared with that of Mel Torme, called the greatest voice in jazz.
The German group were regulars: “Hoo! Jimmy,” they called out, applauding, then lamenting audibly as he announced that the next number would be his last for the evening. “I hope to see you all again tomorrow night,” he said, pretending to ignore their dismay, then tried to close with the suggestively titled (I want to go) “Home”, by Michael Bubly.
“Hey, Jimmy! One more,” one of them called. The Horizon was still full, but it was closing time. “What do you like to play? Play us your favorite!”
He agreed, happily, closing with Jesse Belvin’s lush, charmingly romantic Goodnight My Love.
Jimmy is 60+. He’s lived some pleasant dreams over the years – admits to rough times as well – but is always hoping for a sunnier, brighter tomorrow.
Like many famous singers, Jimmy is an American of Italian heritage. “But we’re not an East Coast Italian family,” he said, explaining that the famous ones are associated with New York.
Hayward, California, on the other hand, Jimmy’s home, has never been associated with singers. That might have been different had Jimmy struck a different chord, so to speak. He might have done for Hayward what the Beatles did for Liverpool. His beginnings were promising enough.
“I started playing piano and singing professionally when I was about 12,” he recalled. His mother encouraged him to take piano lessons as a child. In fact, his mother played saxophone and sang. She worked in a band with Jimmy’s aunt who played piano for many, many years in the East Bay Area.
“My first gig was singing at a church dance.” That was in 1957, two years after Elvis Presley’s emergence and three years into the rock ’n’ roll era. On Jimmy’s side of the bay, rock ruled but Elvis wasn’t king. There, R&B artist Chuck Berry, a defiantly twangy black guitarist from nearby Oakland, had shot to fame. Berry thumbed his nose, musically, at Beethoven and Tin Pan Alley, singing his own unvarnished lyrics. His music, like that of Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, spawned a movement that transformed how white artists played. Jimmy Cicero was among the seminal group of white Bay Area R&B performers.
Rolling Stone magazine critic Michael Rozek in a November 1974 review of Tower of Power’s album Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now noted that the band’s leader, Emilio Castillo, and its white members were part of a mass Bay Area “white-love-for-soul-music” trend about 1967. Rozek, however, thought “a white ‘horn band’ called the Spiders playing Curtis Mayfield and Gene Chandler tunes” had greater influence.
“But who showed the Spiders their schtick? Maybe another local white named Jimmy Cicero…” Cicero, Rozek averred, was perhaps the first white kid to “cop black licks ’round Hayward”.
As a teenager, Jimmy developed playing local clubs and dances. Although he describes his style now as a “a mixture of jazz and soft pop”, he started as a rock ’n’ roll singer: “I was lucky ’cause I could always sing,” he drawled disarmingly, “even though I had kinda neglected my piano.”
“I started to put on dances, and eventually owned my own teenage nightclub when I was 18. It was in Hayward and was called Cicero’s.” That was not the first, or the last time he would trade on his surname, which might come straight from a Sinatra film.
During the late ’60s, Jimmy had a six-piece R&B band “and played the Hammond B-3 organ”. Back then Hammond B-3 organs were very hip, and listeners loved ’em. Hammonds are regarded as having a classic sound. Billy Preston played one on the Beatles’ timeless Let It Be.
“My first Hammond was an M-1 spinet,” Jimmy noted, “but after a couple of years I moved up to a B-3,” the Rolls-Royce of electric organs.
Having turned 21, he hooked up with popular Bay Area artists Stan Cristo and The Casuals: “I worked with them for a couple years and really learned a lot, especially from Stan. He was such a great guy. I was also fortunate to have great press coverage.” Oakland Tribune entertainment columnist Perry Phillips took a shine to him: “He always mentioned my name in his weekly column. He was a very kind man and we became good friends.” Having achieved local hero status, Jimmy expanded his group to six pieces.
The Summer of Love came and went but the Bay Area remained a hotbed of musical invention. “Those days,” he recalled, “were a lot of fun.” “For a long time” he “played right next door” to Tower of Power at a nightclub in Oakland’s Jack London Square. He also sat-in with Santana for six or seven concerts during their peak, and later he played with Chuck Berry. Those were truly great experiences,” he said.
Then, in 1971, aged 24, he moved to Reno, a resort town near Lake Tahoe, straddling the California-Nevada border. Fueled by gambling revenue, it was and still is a magnet for entertainers.
Jimmy stayed there for 17 years, playing clubs and casinos and opening his second Cicero’s as a restaurant and nightclub. It was steady money.
Then Jimmy became interested in jazz: “I actually played a lot of jazz in Reno. For many years I had a B-3 trio – organ, sax and drums.” He played bass with the organ pedals.
Also during that time he toured with Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon band for about a year and a half. Pretty-boy TV star Nelson, of Ozzie and Harriet fame, had been fielded as a substitute heartthrob for teenage girls while Elvis served in the army during the late ’50s.
In 1989, Jimmy moved again. This time to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he opened entertainment agency Jimmy Cicero Music Productions, and stayed five years. “My company provided top quality entertainment for many Corporate events and Venue Consultation for many 5 star hotels.”
JIMMY CICERO MUSIC PRODUCTIONS
PARTIAL CLIENT LIST, SCOTTSDALE, AZ
The Fiesta Bowl
Phoenix Suns Charities
Pointe Hilton Resorts
Scottsdale Camelback Resort
“I have always written a lot of music, and although I have not had a lot of luck getting it placed, suddenly things changed and I was fortunate to get three songs in a major motion picture, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Florentine. The songs were “Here You Are”, “I Love Your Smile” and “People Like You, People Like Me”.
The past decade has seen Jimmy in transition. He became a licensed real estate agent in California, then decided to try his luck in farther flung: “I spent a short time in Istanbul and that had a profound effect. I’ve written many pieces of music based on my visit and on my intensive study of Turkish history.” Jimmy married a Turkish woman – but they divorced because “we did not know enough about each other.” He was 54.
A few months later two airplanes rammed into the World Trade Center and Jimmy, a man who in four decades on stage had seen nearly everything, wept for weeks on end. “I knew I had to make a big change. I had to go somewhere I had never been.”
Seizing on Thailand, Jimmy came to Phuket and started Phuket Paradise Properties. But property sales could never replace music, so Jimmy cast round for gigs and discovered… dearth. “There’re not too many places to play this kind of music here in Phuket,” he said.
So he’s more than happy about the gig at the Dusit, where he plays Tuesday to Saturday. They’ve signed him for the rest of the year: “It’s my kinda place.”
He keeps the customers satisfied, playing music by, among others, Michael Franks, Billy Joel, Elton John and Johnny Mercer – but nothing remotely Turkish.
Perhaps, like many, he’s found the groove he really likes. “I don’t miss the US. In my heart, I feel like I’ve found my true home.”
To find a musician of Jimmy’s caliber playing in a Hotel lobby lounge is so remarkable that it brings to mind the final two lines of Piano Man:
And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, man, what are you doin’ here?
Here is more info about Jimmy’s appearances in Thailand:
PAN PACIFIC HOTEL / Bangkok, Thailand
SIAM @ SIAM / Bangkok, Thailand
DUSIT THANI LAGUNA / Phuket, Thailand
MERIDIAN ROYAL PHUKET / Phuket, Thailand
ROYAL PHUKET CITY HOTEL / Phuket, Thailand
ROYAL ORCHID SHERATON / Bangkok, Thailand
WITCH TAVERN / Bangkok, Thailand
BROWN SUGAR / Bangkok, Thailand
SHERATON LAGUNA / Phuket, Thailand
LE MERIDIAN PATONG / Phuket, Thailand
HOLIDAY INN PATONG / Phuket, Thailand
IMPERIAL QUEENS PARK HOTEL / Bangkok, Thailand
FACEBAR / Bangkok, Thailand
Currently you can find Jimmy back in Bangkok. After a year in Chiang Mai, he decided to move back to Bangkok. He is still involved with music, but does more teaching now.
You can find some of his songs at these websites:
You can contact Jimmy here:
Facebook: Jimmy Cicero