Musician has been playing since 1961.
He recounts his work, including setting himself on fire.
Greg Topper (Los Angeles Times / July 15, 2010)
COSTA MESA — The Rock 'N' Roll King of Orange County wants the world to know that after 50 years of scotch and cigarettes (which he quit six years ago), five wives, three heart surgeries and a fight with cancer, he's still rocking.
Greg Topper, the man who may be O.C.'s longest-running resident musician, is set to start a new gig Saturday at the Pierce Street Annex in Costa Mesa. His mix of more than 500 1950s, '60s and '70s oldies has packed dance floors since the Bay of Pigs invasion 49 years ago.
"If I can make it to 2011, I would have played half of a century in Orange County," Topper said. "I started in 1961 at the Tamasha Club in Anaheim in 1961 with the Crescents. I've been so blessed throughout these 50 years with great audiences, great musicians, and some of the acts I've played with have been just incredible. I've performed with Little Richard, Roy Orbison, the Turtles, the Righteous Brothers. … I've been dubbed by the local media the Rock 'N' Roll King of Orange County.
"That's not a self-proclamation — K-RTH and the OC Weekly have been dubbing me that for ages, so the title just kind of stuck. It's to the point where I can call Bill Medley or Dick Dale and say, 'Hello, this is the Rock 'N' Roll King of Orange County,' and they'll say, 'Hey, Topper!'"
Topper spent more than 10 years performing at the Village Inn on Balboa Island.
"I've been such a fixture at the Village Inn that it's almost been like a mini culture shock at the Pierce Street Annex. This place has dancing, which the Village Inn doesn't, and a lot more parking. But I had some great times and great memories of the Village Inn over 11 years," Topper said.
"But when I think back on 50 years, I don't even know where to begin. I was really good friends with Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. I've had so many great artists [perform] with me. Charlie Daniels sat in one night; I had the Righteous Brothers sit in with me probably 50 times."
Over the years, Topper has been a resident of countless bars, lounges and bistros. Perhaps Topper's most famous (or infamous) incident, he said, is when he lit himself and his piano on fire.
"I used to wear cotton pants and cotton underwear," Topper began ominously, "and I used to throw a little bit of water in my crotch and the piano, along with a teeny bit of 151. There was polyurethane on top of the piano, so it never burnt. I would have management turn down the house lights, take out a lighter, light the piano, light my crotch, and go into 16 bars of 'Great Balls of Fire.' When the room was completely dark, it was really dramatic. People were more interested in seeing that than my playing. … Well, one night I forgot to put the water base on, and I had polyester pants on."
The pants, naturally, started to melt.
"In a panic, I started to slap myself down there to put the fire out, and that just made it worse. My drummer, Tommy, jumped over the drums and actually rolled me on the carpeted stage to put it out. Nothing serious happened; fortunately, I was wearing my cotton underwear."
But the man behind the stories of debauchery and good times also has a strong philanthropic streak.
Topper was involved with the inception of the national Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and founded the Orange County Musicians Foundation, a charitable organization aimed at helping musicians (many of whom don't have health insurance) and their families with medical bills.
The organization garnered some big names for its board, and Topper produced headline-making shows to raise funds for it, but he and two other people soon found themselves doing most of the work, so they let the organization go dormant.
"We kinda shut the doors and turned out the light because we weren't getting enough volunteer involvement," Topper said. "Now I devote my charity to other stuff," including Alzheimer's research organizations.
"My favorite charity now is the Orange County Council on Aging," Topper said.
One of his favorite events is an annual effort to reach 2,500 seniors who live in nursing homes and have no family to visit them at Christmas. He and other volunteers get gifts, wrap them together and deliver them during the holidays.
A third-generation O.C. native, Topper spent much of his youth in Jamaica and boarding school. He moved to Jamaica as the equivalent of a third-grader.
"I went into the schoolhouse and looked at the piano in there, and I'll never forget what it did to me," Topper said. "I looked at that piano and I knew, just by looking at it, that it was right for me. I remember a song was playing on the radio in the car on the way to school. I sat right down at that piano and played that song. I've never had a music lesson in my life."
Next was three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, receiving the Bronze Star for service in Viet Nam. Topper graduated from CSUF in 1969 with a Bachelors degree in journalism (with honors), then went on to do some graduate work at UCLA. He then went into the business and political arena, but soon found himself frequently sitting in with other bands at gigs. He then realized that what made him truly happy was music.
"My dad, after putting me through college, wouldn't talk to me for a long time," Topper said. "But then, when I started getting good notices and was making six figures, all of a sudden he started getting respect for me. When he saw what kind of business I was doing, filling 500-seat rooms every night, then he felt that I wasn't a failure."
If You Go
What: Greg Topper
When: 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday and every first and third Saturday thereafter
Where: Pierce Street Annex, 330 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa
Cost: One-drink minimum