With Flying Colors: Singer Guitarist Joe Cipolla

Joe Cipolla performs tomorrow evening from 6 to 8 p.m. at 705 in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Guitarist Joe Cipolla is retired, but you’d never know it

For Joe Cipolla, known around Hermosa Beach as Singing Joe, it was an easy transition.

“Right before I retired,” he says, “I walked into the Mermaid [just as] a kid walked in with a guitar on his back. And I said, ‘Do you play?’ He goes, ‘Well, mister, I’m taking lessons.’ ‘Okay. Do you mind if I play a tune?’” The young man handed over his guitar. “I broke into ‘California Dreamin’, which is very dear to me. It’s a song that I sang every day when I was in Viet Nam, because we all flew into California when we came home after our tour of duty.

“I guess I sang it okay,” Cipolla continues, “because the manager walked over and said, ‘Hey we’re lookin’ for someone on Sunday nights.’ At that point I was running a company and working, and I hadn’t really played that much, only for my own enjoyment. But I said, ‘Gosh, I’ll try it,’ and the rest is history.

“I’m in my third year at the Mermaid, every Sunday night. I’m at 705 every Friday night, and I’ve played The Lighthouse, I’ve played Waterman’s, I’ve played Patrick Molloy’s, I’ve played Hennessey’s; I’ve played The Shore. It’s just great fun; it’s the best way I can retire.”

Jokingly, he’s asked what makes him so special that he gets asked to perform at nearly every music venue in downtown Hermosa.

“I was really thrilled that The Lighthouse asked me back so many times,” Cipolla replies. “I did a show on Memorial Day for them – and maybe it’s the fact that I throw in a little patriotic twist. I do ‘Proud To Be An American’; I close my show with that frequently – and I pass out the words to the chorus to all the people in the audience so they can sing along, and it really is quite touching.”

The late Al Qaeda mastermind even helped him out one evening.

“The night that they found Osama bin Laden,” Cipolla says, “was during my show at the Mermaid. They asked me to stop for a moment; then they put the news on. They watched it for about five minutes and got the gist of what had happened. As soon as they turned the TV off I broke into ‘Proud To Be An American’ and the place just went absolutely nuts.”

Man about town

Joe Cipolla grew up in Hawthorne, “Beach Boy territory” as he quickly points out. “Dennis Wilson used to shop in the men’s store I bought in 1976 in Westwood Village.

“I moved to Manhattan Beach and bought my first home at the very tender age of 24, so I’ve been here nearly 40 years. I moved to Hermosa about 22 years ago, and I own a home right here on Hermosa Avenue and live with my wife. Our children have grown up; we have two grandkids, a little boy and a little girl, and they’re our joy.

“I ran retail stores,” he continues. “I owned a store in Manhattan Beach for a good many years on the corner of Highland and Manhattan Beach Boulevard, and for the past 15 years I ran a chain of stores, one of which was in Manhattan and one in Redondo, and P.V., and the South Shores section of Pedro. I spent my spare time coaching youth sports; I coached soccer, basketball, and baseball for ten years. I was the president of Manhattan Beach Little League in the mid-‘80s.”

Cipolla also served his country in Viet Nam, having joined the Navy when he was 19-years-old.

“I spent three months on a riverboat, where I saw some action. I had taken the test for promotion in Long Beach before I went over, but it took them three months to get the results to me. When the results came to Viet Nam I was immediately pulled off the riverboat and put into an office. I worked in Danang harbor, right on land, for nine months. Warehouse supply; I was a supply officer.”

So your memories of Viet Nam are fine?

“Sure,” he replies. “I certainly underwent sniper fire on the river, and also many, many nights of rocket attacks even when I was on land. But – it’s only human nature – you sort of block out that stuff, particularly in light of the fact that I’ve always been an upbeat, positive person. I don’t look back on it as a scary situation.” There’s a brief pause. “The saving grace is I have my medical taken care of at the VA, and it’s absolutely wonderful. The Long Beach facility is state-of-the-art.”

All your favorites

Other than his vibrant personality, what makes Joe Cipolla so popular?

“I sing music that people are familiar with, and that they can sing along to. They know the words; there’s no confusion about it. I sing oldies but goodies and Beatles. Because of my wife’s prodding, I’ve mixed in a few newer songs, but to me a new song would be from the ‘90s.”

As far as playing all over the area:

“I don’t really go out and look for jobs, per se,” he replies. “I’ve been fortunate because the Mermaid is such a popular venue; it’s packed every Sunday night. Actually, the owner of Waterman’s saw me in there. That’s how I worked [at Waterman’s] for six months.” As for The Lighthouse, “I went in one Saturday and there was someone playing that I knew. He wanted to take a break and he asked me to come up and sing. So I went up and sang four or five tunes, and the general manager said, ‘Hey, I’d like you to do some shows.’

“He booked me for a solid month of Saturdays, and then he booked me a Friday night [during] which I filled the place, because I have an extensive e-mail list that I’ve developed over the past couple of years, mainly from the Mermaid. My Memorial Day show, the place was wall-to-wall people; it was just awesome.”

How many songs do you have in your repertoire?

“I have about 200 songs,” Cipolla says. “They range from The Beatles, James Taylor, John Denver, Jimmy Buffet, The Doors… the Internet’s my best friend when it comes to music. Years ago when I was a kid I’d have to buy the sheet music, and I have some sheet music from the ‘60s that I paid 75 cents for, with The Beatles and Paul Simon and The Righteous Brothers. And I’ve saved them; they’re really neat. But now you go on the Internet [and] you get any song, any chord, any key; it’s just wonderful. I do about 50 Sinatra songs, swing songs – and then about another 150 on the guitar.”

Are there some evenings where it’s exclusively Sinatra?

“The Mermaid really likes the Sinatra. I have people who come in specifically to hear the Sinatra. [At] the Mermaid I mix it up; I’ll do 20 minutes on the guitar, then I’ll switch to the Sinatra stuff. And I’ll switch back and forth to keep the people interested.”

When he sings Frank Sinatra, Cipolla is doing so to pre-recorded music.

“I have discs that I’d had personally made,” he says, and keeping in the same ballpark he also covers tunes made famous by Dean Martin, Mel Tormé, Nat King Cole. “I have quite a selection of songs, and in the Mermaid they really want to hear that.”

At the same time, Cipolla enjoys livening things up a little.

“I do some fun stuff in there. I do ‘Yellow Submarine,’ The Beatles’ song, and I wear a yellow porthole that my granddaughter and I made; and I do Jimmy Buffet’s ‘Cheeseburger In Paradise’ – I wear a funny cheeseburger hat. I put on Elvis glasses and sing two Elvis songs. It’s a show rather than just some guy up there singing, phoning it in.

“I really try to entertain ‘em. I guess I’ve always been a ham; having sold clothes all my life, you’re basically on stage when you’re selling – and I guess it’s come natural to me.”

And now tomorrow night

Jeremy Buck and The Bang is among the South Bay’s favorite rock bands, having polled number one in various annual best-ofs. It’s a group that Cipolla likes, and he feels they’re on the verge of national success.

How did you meet up with Jeremy?

“He and his wife Caroline are dear friends of mine,” Cipolla says, “and I met them about six or seven years ago at The Lighthouse. I didn’t even dream at that point that I’d be doing this now, in retirement. I just know I’ve always liked good music and I saw an incredible talent, an incredible songwriter, and I was so impressed by him that my wife and I would go and watch him every single Friday at The Lighthouse. Every Friday he had a 4 to 8 show, which is perfect for us. That’s how I got to know him. I’ve had him perform for a party I had, he and his band.

“Jeremy’s right on the verge of making it big. He’s got a song that’s been getting airplay on 100.3; he’s been interviewed by topnotch morning radio shows, even Mark and Brian (on KLOS). Jeremy’s going to make it, and I support that.”

As for himself, Cipolla is fine where he is: “I’m not looking to be a star; I’m just having a great time playing and singing in retirement.”

Joe Cipolla performs tomorrow night (Friday) from 6 to 8 p.m. at 705 (705 Pier Avenue) in Hermosa Beach. He’ll be followed by Jeremy Buck, also performing solo, until about 10:30 p.m. Call (310) 372-9705. ER

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