By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
He cleaned up the alley entry, ordered the Kit Kat sign and briefed pianist Pike on how Thursday nights were about to change. He even gave him some Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins charts, just in case.
Pike had already seen it all, having begun his career at what was probably Denver's penultimate swingin' lounge, the Tropics. "I was only a teenager, and I ran the house band there," he says. "There were strippers like Lili St. Cyr, and this incredible six-piece band. Those were the days of the clubs."
Pike played his way through a University of Colorado music degree, then moved to Southern California, where he worked scoring movies for thirty years. When he returned to Denver in 1990, he immediately gravitated to the piano-bar circuit. "I worked Simms Landing, H. Brinker's, the Manhattan Cafe--and then Larry Wright asked me to work at Herb's," Pike says. "I went to see it, and I didn't like the looks of it. All the winos. My wife and I argued about it. She said, `I think you oughta go inside.' Yeah, I said, and I'll have to fight my way in. But it turned out to be your affluent-type people."
The Kit Kat nights came as an equally welcome surprise. "The kids all tell me the music of today is not worth listening to," Pike says. "So they're reverting back to their grandparents' music, which is good for me, good for Mel Torme and great for Tony Bennett. My theory is: You stay with your own era, and it will come back."
Pike, for example, has always focused on the Forties and Fifties. "The Sixties were the Dark Ages," he recalls. "There were these rock bands like the Grateful Dead and--what was that other group--The Who? I was into bebop then. Now I do a lot of Sinatra stuff. The kids call 'em Frank tunes. Do some Frank tunes, they'll say."
"Do some Frank tunes!" shouts Sharp, unable to contain himself any longer. Pike swings into "The Way You Look Tonight," and Sharp begins to sing--louder than anyone else has all night. He sounds like a world-weary traveling salesman. His peers are impressed. A waitress in a fuzzy black kitten outfit appears with a tray full of martinis and Manhattans. The back door opens, and in comes the crush of people Stubbs has been hoping for. Genteel conversation gives way to the intimate ear-screaming that is the hallmark of a successful evening--with this crowd, anyway. The lounge is officially swingin'. The atmosphere is fabulous. No, swell.
"We all want to be purists," James Sharp pronounces. "We want the essence of elegance, of good taste, of having a swell time. I prefer to say swell. Swell has a little bit of heart."
It is 11 a.m. in the basement offices of Comedysports, the improv group for which Sharp works as a telephone reservationist. It is a swell job for him, as it allows him to sleep late and do what he wants when the phone isn't ringing.
What he wants to do more than anything else is expound on the Lounge Life. His next-favorite activity is living it. He doesn't care that the Lounge movement has already peaked on both coasts and is regarded by some music lovers as nothing more than the province of posers. "To give you an idea," he says, "I was born in Las Vegas. What says Lounge louder than that?"
Although Sharp engaged in brief flirtations with new wave, death rock and gothic music, he's serious about Lounge. "Lounge has stood the test of time," he explains. "It's so presumptuous to assume that people my age are the only ones who know how to party. I see these Thirties and Forties movies, and everybody's at some kind of elegant dinner with cocktails and a floor show--I mean, The Thin Man movies, I love that stuff. And a floor show--how wonderful! I wonder, could we ever pull it off? One of my plans is to meet some of these old people who used to work in the dinner clubs and talk to them and ask them how it really was."
This is just one of Sharp's many Lounge-related goals. He thought of interning at radio station KEZW--"such spirit they have, such swingin' tunes"--but when he found out KOSI was housed in the same building, it gave him pause. "KOSI bows to the altar of the playlist," he says. "They play Barry Manilow, which is atrocious. Low-brow pop."
Which assumes the existence of high-brow pop, one of the infinite Lounge distinctions that might be invisible to the average barfly. "High-brow pop is--Neil Diamond? No, no, no," Sharp opines. "High-brow pop is Burt Bacharach. Burt is an incredible songwriter who sounds as fresh today as when he came out. And he was married to Angie Dickinson."
Angie Dickinson cool? To Sharp, she single-handedly saved the Seventies. (Well, Angie and the Partridge Family.) "The Seventies were a dark time for the Lounge," he says. "It wasn't pure. Lounges that have stayed true are hard to find."
Not that Sharp himself is a complete purist. From the waist down, he is dressed in Fred Astaire's rehearsal outfit from Royal Wedding--but his shirt is all weird American polyester, circa 1974. And he is wearing his trademark matching gold earrings, which are more Grace Kelly than Shirley Bassey.