In the early 80s, I was hired to be a singing busboy at the Great American Food and Beverage Company, home of the singing waiter. I knew the job was going to be different from, say, your average coffee-shop gig, but I really didnt have a clue as to what I was getting into. I was told that if I came to work early on the first night, I could have dinner before they opened the restaurant. I ordered a burger. The chef came out with a group of waiters, all of them smiling as they handed me my plate. There, sandwiched in the bun, right where my burger was supposed to be, was a dead rat!
This job was going to be different.
The Great American Food and Beverage Company (the G.A.) had been around since the 70s. Famous singing alumni include Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Lowen (Lowen & Navarro), Peter Tork (after the Monkees) and Vonda Shepard (long before Ally McBeal).
Having grown up in Los Angeles, I used to go to the Great American Food and Beverage to celebrate friends birthdays. I knew people who worked there in high school, but I never imagined that I ever would. Having studied art in school (because John Lennon did), I came back to Los Angeles with a BFA and was trying to be a singer-songwriter a la Jackson Browne. After a few years, I needed a job and the G.A. became my home for two and a half years.
Waiters, busboys and hostesses all sang at the G.A. We didnt rehearse; the music was wonderfully spontaneous. Each person seemed to have his or her special songs, and after a while, we all knew the routine, but the lineup changed depending on who was working that night, and that kept us on our toes.
Picture the fast pace of a restaurant like Gladstones at the beach. There werent any stages at the Great American, although one room did have a piano where wed gather around to back up whoever was playing. As a waiter or a busboy, wed be doing our jobs, and if we saw a split-second lull, any one of us could grab a guitar and either ask for accompaniment or go solo. The idea was to stand somewhere in the vicinity of the tables we were responsible for and entertain. You might start off alone and be surprised by other employees jumping in on the guitar, accordion, vocal, sax, trumpet, fiddle, or by rubbing two menus together -- a wonderful form of percussion. Sometimes the song was a ballad, and other times a blowout where the lead singer stood up on a table and belted out a song, and everything in the room stopped.
As soon as the song was over, wed put down our instruments and get back to work. Poof!
The tips were wonderful, and the better the entertainment, the better the tips!
We were a transient group of musical gypsies, so the management was constantly hiring new budding stars to entertain and serve (not necessarily in that order). Auditions were held every week. People came from all over to try out. Most were wannabe rock stars looking for work. Its hard to eat and pay the rent when youre not famous yet. If you had to get a job, the G.A. seemed like the place to be!
I wish I had video footage of those auditions. They looked like casting calls for Hair. Everyone received a23 the same instructions: Play something upbeat and well-known. Invariably, every week, at least one of the applicants would pull out a 12-string guitar and start fingerpicking a slow song in a minor key theyd written about their dog.
When I came to the G.A., it was the early 80s, so the musical selections were pretty eclectic. We sang everything from current pop songs of the day to Motown, Beatles, musicals and pretty much everything in between. If I remember correctly, I auditioned singing a country song by Dan Fogelberg, but dont tell anybody!
I started off as a singing busboy and worked my way up to a singing waiter at the ripe old age of 26. Fellow waiter Stephen Feldman (now a songwriting therapist) said that I was older than jazz. Id wait on friends from high school who would be surprised to see me there.
So, Id say, what are you doing these days?
Oh, theyd reply, Im a doctor now!
Thats nice, Id respond. Would you like to see a dessert menu?
Weekends were crazy. Guests often had a three-hour wait on a Friday or Saturday night. They came for the food and the music, and there were lots of both! We served plank feasts, 3 to 6 feet long, thick wooden planks piled high with rice, fresh fruit, artichokes, chicken, ribs and flank steak. These were carried out by two people and placed in the middle of the table. It looked like the Beggars Banquet record cover and got very messy once everyone dug in. I dropped a pile of rice on a customers head one night, but it didnt faze him -- all part of the zoo atmosphere.