Starting at the age of fourteen, pianist Larry Wegner would sometimes play Glenn Miller hits with the Bob Murphy band at dances at American Legion and VFW halls in Yuma, near the eastern border or Colorado. He’d get home around 5 a.m., get some sleep and then play organ at church. A decade later, in 1971, Wegner had moved to Hollywood, where he was a contestant coordinator for the Chuck Barris-created television shows The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game. Wegner was also the original pianist at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard, where he accompanied comics like David Brenner, Red Foxx and Flip Wilson.
During that time at the Comedy Store, Wegner also shared the stage with actor Frankie Avalon, who brought his trumpet down to play “Laura,” as well as actress Cloris Leachman. “She was pretty loaded,” Wegner says. “They got her up to sing. And really, quite frankly I didn’t know what she was singing, and I’m a pretty good faker. But I wasn’t doing it to her satisfaction. So she really let loose and chided me out on stage, which just made her look bad. It was just one of those late-night things that you remember."
Wegner remembers that era at the Comedy Store, when musicians mingled with comics. “Drinks were fifty cents," he says. "Doors were open to anybody. So singers dropped in as well as comics. It just balanced out. There was a group called the Comedy Store Players. They would get up and do improv and jump in if they went into opera and things like that.”
Wegner says it was very much like the weekly burlesque and comedy shows hosted by Naughty Pierre at the Clocktower Cabaret (formerly Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret), where Wegner has performed for the last decade. After he’d been performing there for about a year, Wegner met singer CJ Nicolai, who fronted the bluesy rock band Reckless Red but was equally at home singing jazz standards.
“She phrases differently,” Wegner says of Nicolai. “She's ballsy in how she approaches music. She's just a wonderful all-around person, and that’s very important to me. I mean, she could sing like the greatest thing in the world, but if I didn't like her, I wouldn't have anything to do with this. I’ve enjoyed watching her because her background had been with Reckless Red — very loud and that kind of stuff. So, her getting together with me allowed her to really discover a whole new voice, which excited her, which excited me.”
They started their friendship at the Clocktower Cabaret, so it makes sense that the two are celebrating the release of their new EP, Just You and Me, there on Sunday, October 16. After performing professionally for nearly six decades that includes nearly thirty years as a resident house pianist at the Brown Palace and stints in Al Fike’s band, the album marks the 71-year-old Wegner’s first recording.
Wegner says it was something he’d planned on doing for many years, with family members telling him, “Just put something down for posterity for the family.” He also fulfilled a promise to his late aunt and uncle with Just You and Me, which includes jazz standards like “I Can’t Get Started,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” and “The Nearness of You,” as well as the Wegner bluesy boogie original “Very Larry” and “Smile,” which was made famous by Nat King Cole. The EP also includes a gorgeous rendering of “Les Feuilles Mortes,” with Nicolai singing in French and a swinging take on “No Moon at All.”
Throughout the disc, Wegner's swing feel on the piano is superb, which stems from the fact that he played drums for about a year before playing piano at dances as a teenager.
"It’s hard for me to play anything now, even today, without a beat to it, because I grew up on dancing music," Wegner says. "Put a beat to it. Obviously, I can sit and not do that, but I have a good sense of driving rhythm, slow or fast, just because I was ingrained with that when I was young."
CJ Nicolai and Larry Wegner, EP Release, 7 p.m., Sunday, October 16, the Clocktower Cabaret, $5.
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