The moment the music ended Saturday night at the Key West Theater, the phrase “Buena Vista Social Club” was on the lips of several attendees. An island cross-section of nearly 300 Key Westers including treasure hunters, police officers, caregivers, attorneys, doctors, educators, artists and fellow musicians, packed the Eaton Street venue to hear three local, old-school crooners perform in front of a most receptive crowd.
For those not familiar, the term “Buena Vista Social Club” resurfaced in the late 1990s when American recording artist Ry Cooder and Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González lured a dozen or so Cuban musicians out of retirement. The actual club, in which many had played, was located in the Marianao neighborhood in Havana and flourished in the 1930s and 1940s. Once the Cuban Revolution took hold in 1959, such clubs were closed and the musicians began to fade away. Fifty years later, gentle nudges quickly rekindled their musical passion and what was once old was new again.
Saturday night’s “A Night of Key West Soul with Coffee Butler and Friends,” conceived by photographer Ralph DePalma, was billed as an encore to the show that packed The Studios of Key West, in December of 2015. Backed by musical director Larry Baeder, Ericson Holt, Ken Fradley, Ray Spence, Bubba Lownotes, Joe Dallas, Tony Thomas and Lopez family members Calvin, Clayton and Mina, the three-tiered show featured sets by Robert Albury, Cliff Sawyer and Coffee Butler, proud Conchs all.
The Lopez family started things off with a set including “Purple Rain,” and “My Girl,” then Robert Albury, a mainstay at the Ocean Key Resort’s Sunset Pier, delivered, among others, soulful renditions of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “What’s Goin’ On.” Next up was Cliff Sawyer’s set, in which the quiet, smooth-voiced lifelong Key Wester included his personal fave, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
Finally, 87-year-old, Lofton “Coffee” Butler took a seat at the large, black, grand piano at center stage. Bathed in blue spotlights, Butler, flashing his trademark, borderline-mischievous grin, played classics like “Let Them Talk,” and “A Mother’s Love,” the latter drawing tears from many in the audience. In addition to “Who Put the Pepper in the Vaseline,” one of the octogenarian’s signature tunes from popular gigs at the Hukilau Restaurant, the piano man paid tribute to his former music teacher, Miss Ellen Sanchez, by playing her iconic island tune “The Beautiful Isle of Key West.”
With the showing nearing its end, all involved joined in for Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” with the eldest Lopez belting out some of Smokey Robinson’s “I’ll Try Something New.”
When asked Sunday afternoon what he thought of the show, Butler, whose popularity continues to grow as with his lifelong friends, Robert Albury and Cliff Sawyer, simply stated, “well, bubba, it turned out pretty nice, don’t ya think?”