By Jeff Lytle
When they write the history of the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club, residents will muse on the legacy.
Was it the personal service and very public welcome championed by the Watkins family, vresort owners since 1946? The beach? The holiday meals?
Yes to all. Yet, amid all the words, let’s not overlook the music. Live music, that is, kicking off with a bang in the mid-1980s.
That soundtrack has been lively, sedate, soft and loud – and mostly free to the public via the Summer Jazz Series and year-round Sunday evening parties. And there was more, at concerts and galas to raise money for charities large and small.
No single detailed chronology exists, so any attempt at a complete summary – even by a writer who has been in Naples since 1979 — may have gaps. Photos from the early days are hard to come by; with today’s technology there would be thousands.
Music forged the bond that thousands of locals of all ages felt with the hotel, which is two seasons away from a major facelift by the incoming owners, The Athens Group, based in Phoenix and synonymous with iconic top-shelf resorts. An official with the Athens Group says it is too early to tell what if any of the public music traditions will carry on.
One major figure of that music tradition, Alan James, has a story mirroring that of the Beach Club. After working with rock legend Roy Orbison, James arrived at the hotel modestly in the 1980s as a solo singer/guitarist and leader of the bar band AJ & The Cruisers. From there he graduated to a band first known as Power Haus, then Powerhouse, still playing often at the hotel. Today that band has expanded to 12 performers as Powerhouse: The Next Generation, headlining conventions and celebrity wedding parties around the world.
But it is his seminal role in the “musical landmark’’ Sunday celebrations that especially tickles him.
“One day in early 1986 the food and beverage director at that time, Jack Cain, came to me and asked “How can we have more entertainment out here”? I looked at the chickee hut by the pool and said “Why don’t you have a band play out there on Sundays and serve drinks?’’ His reply: “We cannot afford a full band out here. Maybe you could do a solo”?
“My answer: ‘Tell you what. I will have my band play every Sunday for a month for next to nothing and let’s see. If it goes well we can negotiate a reasonable fee for the band moving forward.
“The rest is history. Sunday night at the Beach Club has become a Naples tourist attraction and is known worldwide.
“Occasionally I see Michael Watkins (the Beach Club’s president and co-owner) on the property and he never fails to tell me how much he appreciates my foresight and how the hotel has enjoyed the exposure from those Sunday nights Club throughout the years. It’s a good feeling to have played a part in local entertainment history.
“One footnote: I still have to buy my own drinks when I go there today. LOL.’’
Meanwhile, the marquee summer jazz series – which also has included pop, blues and zydeco bands – is headed for its 35th straight year in 2020.
“The late Susan Kennedy, who was active in the arts, had this brilliant idea to have jazz concerts in the off season on the lawn,’’ recalls Ellin Goetz, wife of Beach Club President and co-owner Mike Watkins. “They started with three per summer.’’
She adds: “Mike came up with the idea of sponsorships as a way to highlight the generosity of local businesses to the year-round residents.’’
Goetz goes on: “Amazingly very few concerts have been canceled due to weather, with the notable exception of 2017 when ‘Irmageddon’ shut Naples down during September!”
“It really is a magical evening and folks have even made it a tradition to treat themselves with a ‘staycation’ by booking rooms overnight so they can enjoy a special slice of Naples on The Gulf.”
But wait. There’s more. The Woodstork concerts – named for Woodstock and actually benefiting wildlife causes – went on every May from 1989 to 1993.
“They were right after the Great Dock Canoe Race, which was perfect for us,’’ recalls Lanny Sherwin, the former publisher of Gulfshore Life and leader of the band Mid-Life Crisis, the headliners. “Pre-lubricated fans were our dream come true!’’
Sherwin moved on to a successful career in children’s music, jazz and painting in Nashville and now Santa Barbara, California.
Amid the same era another concert series, known as Fillabelly, raised awareness and money for hunger.
Led by a cadre of civic figures such as Dr. Bob Wald, Michael McDonnell, Bob Duncan and Jill Stephen, the shows booked some of the biggest names in Beach Club music lore, such as John Denver, Peter, Paul and Mary and Don McLean. Other stars performing at the hotel over the years included Tony Bennett, Peter Nero and The Righteous Brothers.
Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host at the Naples Daily News. Jeff can be reached by email at Jlytle@comcast.net