Front Porch

Roman Palacios: A Singer for All Seasons

Roman Palacios.

Even for the novice not fully acquainted with all things SINATRA, it’s easy to grasp entertainer Roman Palacios’ devotion to the era of the Rat Pack.

The trio or quartet backing him on stage is cooking. Palacios himself embodies the well-dressed man, right down to his perfectly positioned breast pocket handkerchief. The many venues where he plays (The LOT, Manhattan restaurant, and La Valencia in La Jolla, and Café 21 in the Gaslamp are just some of the rooms) undergo a Rod Serling transformation. Suddenly, it’s no longer 2019 but 1961, and Roman is leading audiences back in time to the Sands Hotel, minus the pervasive cigarette smoke of the era. Palacios even performs with a vintage microphone that looks great. “It’s a Shure Unidyne,” Roman explained during a break from a recent Wednesday evening show at the Manhattan Restaurant. “I gutted it and replaced with a Beta 58 capsule.” He grasps the microphone in a manner not unlike Francis Albert’s pose; what one concert reviewer famously described in the 1940s as Frank Sinatra having “the artistry of a geisha dancer.”

At any given moment in Palacios’ set, another transformation occurs. Roman places the microphone back in the stand, positions himself back a few feet, and releases vocal power. It’s no longer the Sands Hotel of old Las Vegas but La Scala in Milano. It’s time for Palacios to sing opera. Probably the person most surprised at Palacio’s musical diversity is Roman himself, a kid who grew up in a Portuguese family where his father was actively involved in the tuna fishing community. Palacios attended Castle Park High in Chula Vista and still calls the South Bay home, where he lives with his wife Maritza and daughter, Isabella.

Roman attended Palomar Elementary during a period when the arts were an integral part of the curriculum and not subject to the current atmosphere of budget cuts. “I had a teacher in the third grade, Mrs. Drake” said Palacios. “She was English, and I remember she used to let us sing a lot of Beatles songs. One day, she asked me to sing and I was scared!” Fortunately, courage and self-assurance were to define Roman as he entered adulthood. Forward to 1996: the swing revival—represented in the charts by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot” and locally by bands like Big Time Operator—was in full flight. KPOP AM 1360 was home to the Great American Songbook and passionate swing revelers, young and old, flocked to the Lafayette Hotel’s Red Fox Inn to see Shirley Allen’s piano bar sets. Piano bar singing is a notch above typical karaoke as there are no teleprompters. The singer either knows the lyrics or…

Palacios came to the Red Fox Inn prepared and, with the support and advice of Shirley Allen, David Shaw (clarinet, trumpet, saxophone) and drummer Mark McMullen, made the transition from amateur to professional and began searching for gigs in earnest. He now has a revolving group of local musicians, all with impressive resumes. Jazz pianist Tommy Gannon’s stage presence is felt through his thoughtful arrangements and quick wit. Gannon’s past includes performing with Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. His solo release, Love. Positively!, received an enthusiastic review by the Troubadour’s Paul Hormick in February 2015. Other local musicians are drummers Tim McMahon, Gary Nieves, and Richard Sellers; saxophonists Jim Weiss and Donald Bowman; guitarists Julio de la Huerta and Jim Molina; and pianist Rob Whitlock.

At the recent show at the Manhattan, Palacios covered a lot of ground, delighting the audience with solid renditions of “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” “Beyond the Sea,” and “Old Black Magic.” He is clearly attached at the hip with the Great American Songbook, the profoundly important period in the 20th Century where composers created an impossibly high standard of music. Some of the major composers from the early decades were Harold Arlen (“One for my Baby,” “Over the Rainbow”), Hoagy Carmichael (“Stardust,” “Georgia on my Mind”), Jerome Kern (“A Fine Romance,” “Just the Way You Look Tonight”), Irving Berlin (“Blue Skies,” “Cheek to Cheek”), Duke Ellington (“I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Take the A Train”), Cole Porter (“I’ve Got You Under my Skin,” “I Get a Kick Out of You”), and Harry Warren (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “The More I See You”). There were also the celebrated teams of George and Ira Gershwin (“I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me”) and Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (“All the Way,” “Come Fly With Me”). Richard Rogers was blessed to have worked with two exceptional lyricists: Lorenz Hart (“The Lady is a Tramp,” “Where or When”) and, later, Oscar Hammerstein (“Hello, Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance?”).

Palacios will be exploring further the Great American Songbook with the release this month of a new CD appropriately titled, The Old Standard, Vol. 1. Although it’s apparent that Roman enjoys the vocal stylings of many recording artists, it’s no secret that the man from Hoboken is at the top of his list. “Sinatra had the timing and the phrasing. He knew the notation; he knew how to read music. And he knew how to feel the music.”

The operatic moments of Roman’s live shows were derived from his friendship with international tenor Daniel Hendrick, who met Palacios at the Red Fox Inn. Hendrick has appeared on stage in such masterpieces as Carmen, Madame Butterfly, and La Boheme. He encouraged Roman to embrace bel canto. In his influential book, The Harvard Dictionary of Music, musicologist Willi Appel described bel canto as “the Italian vocal technique of the 18th century, with its emphasis on the beauty of sound and brilliancy of the performance rather than dramatic expression or romantic emotion.” Also assisting Roman with the bel canto technique was coach Janie Prim from the San Diego Opera.

Palacios has studied the great singers Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza. Like later phenomenons Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, Caruso and Lanza enjoyed tremendous crossover appeal in their day. Roman’s training has allowed him to perform Broadway songs. While not operatic per se, “Music of the Night” from The Phantom of the Opera and “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha do require the discipline of an opera singer in order to be successfully performed.

A man of faith, Palacios is now placing his talent and energy in devotional music, performing at the house of worship he calls home: Shadow Mountain Church. “I recently performed “The Lord’s Prayer,” said Roman, “and the real challenge was to give back to God what he has given me.”

La Valencia presents Night Under the Stars with the Roman Palacios Quartet on Saturday, June 15, 6pm. For information on his new CD and upcoming appearances, visit romanpalacios.com.

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