FLOYD’S YOUR UNCLE, FROM SPAGHETTI DINNER TO SUPPER CLUB

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, January 31 2019

He’s been branded a menace to the morals of impressionable youth; a living standard-bearer for an all-but-forgotten style of humor and song, and a colorful cultural ambassador for Jersey pride — a human equivalent of pork roll (that’s a compliment) in a porkpie hat, and a LOUD jacket that would give pause even to the late great Mets announcer Lindsey Nelson.

No less a showman/fan than David Bowie (who saluted him in the song “Slip Away“) praised him as “one of the Last Entertainers” — and, in a career that’s taken him from the brink of nationwide stardom to the spaghetti dinner at your local firehouse (and all points between), Floyd Vivino has staked a claim to that mantle like almost no other performer alive.

“Comedy can heal or destroy,” says the veteran vaudevillian best known as Uncle Floyd. “It’s the most delicate form of entertainment, because unlike a music act you have to give the comedian your full attention, instead of hitting the dance floor.”

“You really need to look at the performer.”

For just about half a century now, Vivino has “made ya look” — and not only via those signature mega-decibel duds.

“I have very few checked blazers left…and forget finding porkpie hats anymore,” he says. “They’re in disrepair, but I manage to keep ‘em together, as long as you don’t look too closely.”

More than that, Floyd Vivino has made you listen, through a mastery of early 20th century popular piano styles and an encyclopedic knowledge of joke-book chestnuts, vintage novelty ditties, Italian favorites, singing-cowboy standards, and other Hit Parade paraphernalia from the era of sheet music and wax 78s.

To an entire mildly misguided generation of Garden State boomers, however, the man at the piano will forever be the host of The Uncle Floyd Show, the cheerfully anarchic, low/no budget “children’s program” that aired in various broadcast forums and formats from the mid 1970s to some time in the late 90s.

A throwback to the earliest pioneer days of television in terms of production values — and, for a demographic that grew up on the likes of Soupy Sales, Chuck McCann and Sandy Becker, a cherished echo of the “local kiddie host” era — the show was a madcap minestrone in which Floyd and his stock company of regulars (including Scott Gordon, Looney Skip Rooney, Mugsy and Netto) bulldozed their way through a very loose collection of puppet segments (featuring Oogie, Bones Boy and Mr. Tony), old-school songs, character skits (Eddie Slobbo, Cowboy Charlie and Joe Frankfutter, to name but a few), and viewer-generated “pictures on the wall.”

Somewhere along the line, the Floyd show got noticed and embraced by a burgeoning scene of punk/ new wave artists who jockeyed for exposure within the claustrophobic confines of the modest suburban studio. Lip-sync guests ranged from breakout acts like the Ramones, and NJ-based favorites like The Misfits, Smithereens, and Shrapnel — to downtown NYC avant garde percussionists, and even the occasional visitor from across the pond.

More legendary than lucrative, the TV show inspired Floyd to hit the regional road (with castmates, puppets, and full band featuring brothers Jimmy and Jerry Vivino) for a series of live gigs at nightclubs that included Asbury Park’s much-missed Fast Lane. While that TV heyday is sadly long past, Vivino has remained a frequent returnee to Asbury town — and when the entertainer comes back to the circuit this Friday, February 1, he’ll be taking it topside to the space-age saucer roundhouse of Tim McLoone’s Supper Club.

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ROBERT GORDON: THE ‘FIRE’ STILL BURNS BRIGHTLY

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, January 24 2019

Take a stroll through the Asbury Park Pop-Up Museum, the temporary exhibit now open weekends on the boardwalk through mid-March, and you’ll see among the many artifacts, images and ephemera of the city’s architectural, cultural and sociological history a set of photographs taken at the old Fast Lane nightclub back in 1978. The pictures show a recently clean-shaven 28-year old Bruce Springsteen in a very familiar setting: jamming on the Asbury stage with a visiting musician; seeking out and finding that common ground in a shared influence, a fondly remembered song, or, failing that, a boundary-busting Chuck Berry riff for any occasion.

Then there’s the out-of-town guest whose gig that was some forty-plus years ago — a slick and slender figure sporting a mile-high atom-age mutant pompadour, a finely tailored sharkskin suit, and a knowing grin that lets on he’s well aware of the value of this cool moment.

The visitor in question was Robert Gordon — and the common ground was “Fire,” the classically catchy slowdancer that Springsteen originally pitched to a still-breathing Elvis Presley during that weird interlude between Born to Run and Darkness; a time when The Future of Rock and Roll was stranded in a jungleland of litigation, even as he was giving generously of his time and talents on projects involving everyone from Lou Reed and Patti Smith to those monumental first few albums by the Jukes.

While the prisoner of Graceland apparently had other peanut butter banana sandwiches to fry — and while The Pointer Sisters would be the ones to score an eventual hit with the tune — it was Robert Gordon (and his band that included the legendary guitar wolf Link Wray) who lent his king-ly baritone and his old school “he’s good bad but he ain’t evil” savoire faire to the song’s debut in the public arena. And whenever the rising-star veteran of the same CBGB scene that spawned Blondie, the Ramones, and Talking Heads passed within fifty miles or so of the Asbury HoJo’s, any rock fan might reasonably expect that “Fire” could spark a duet between the song’s ace interpreter and its proud papa.

“Bruce and I used to do ‘Fire’ a lot in those days, not just in Asbury but in some other places,” recalls Gordon, at the top of a winter tour of northeastern nightspots. “Thanks to that song, I feel like I have a real connection to Asbury Park…I’ve been coming there forever, and I’ve always loved the place.”

The old sky-high pomp may have retreated back to earth — and the svelte suits may have been mothballed in favor of a working-class wardrobe of black slacks and bowling shirts — but at the age of 71, the voice that lent new life to the music of Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Johnny Burnette and Jack Scott (and, lest we forget, introduced many of us to the songwriting skills of Marshall Crenshaw) has lost little to none of its smooth bourbon-y blast. As the self-described “rock and roll singer” tells it, however, there’s one traditional ingredient that’s gone missing from the old vocal recipe.

“I struggled with it for a while, but I finally gave up smoking cigarettes cold-turkey, about three years ago,” he says. “I made that choice for my voice…and I made the choice for my heart. I had a heart procedure a while back…I’m feelin’ good, and I consider myself lucky to be around.”

That said, when Robert Gordon comes around Asbury town once more this Friday, January 25,  he’ll be falling back into one of the happier habits of his long career.

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