Rock 'n' roll singer Jimmy Angel may have just turned 81, but he is nowhere near contemplating retirement. In fact, the local favorite has no less than four Burbank shows scheduled in almost as many weeks, appearing at Joe's Great American this Thursday with additional gigs at Viva Cantina (May 27), the Smoke House (June 4) and at the downtown Holiday Inn on June 18.
Angel's relentless drive is almost superhuman — the singer's piercing blue eyes require no corrective lenses; in performance, he still executes a nonstop barrage of kinetic, funky dance moves and his war-cry pipes ring as authoritatively clear, true and powerful as they did when he begin making records more than 50 years ago.
Rock 'n' roll wasn't his chosen avocation. As a teen, Angel aspired to a career in professional baseball but an injury sidelined him. One day, hanging out at the local record store, everything changed when Joe Simonetti, a prominent New York talent agent whose clients included Louis Prima and was out scouting for the next Elvis, happened to wander in.
"When he found me, I really didn't want to be a singer," Angel said. "But I had my mom to take care of me. I wanted to play baseball, and my arm was shot, so there were no other jobs for me. We all went back to the projects and they gave my mom $5,000. Next thing, we were in New York, I made my first record and away we went."
Angel became a protégé of the Joe Colombo, a Profaci family enforcer who rose from the ranks to become head of that crime organization in 1962. "Joe Colombo 'adopted' me in 1960, and he took care of me," Angel said. "Without the Colombos, I would have been washing dishes somewhere. I could barely read or write — they saved me. And they made me a teen idol. I could never repay them for what they did for me. Never."
The result was a stupefyingly unlikely career that took him to the stages of Manhattan's Peppermint Lounge and Copacabana (he appeared there over a dozen times) along with innumerable jobs on rock 'n' roll package shows, a long run on the Sunset Strip and press coverage in everything from Teen Beat to early '70s skin mag Oui. After Colombo was mortally wounded by a Crazy Joey Gallo-dispatched assassin (on live television, no less, during one of the Don's infamous Italian American Civil Rights League rallies), Angel went on to a fruitful late '70s stint in Nashville, followed by stops in Hollywood and Tokyo — where he performed an average of six nights a weeks for more than 20 years, becoming a renowned figure who regularly appeared at Tokyo Disneyland and halftime during ballgames at the Tokyo Dome Stadium.
Angel remains a bandstand powerhouse, one whose forceful, fiery style — a mixture of Memphis funk, classic rockabilly and almost evangelical testifying — is delivered with oft flabbergasting zeal that has made a staple on Burbank's rock club and lounge circuit. Now, with a new album, "Love Fever," due in July on Pat Boone's Gold label and as the subject of his own documentary "The Jimmy Angel Project," Angel is as restless and driven as ever.
"It's the only thing I know. I want to leave footprints, with the time I have left," Angel said. "I want more."
Who: Jimmy Angel
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: Thursday, May 26, 8 p.m.
Cost: No cover, two-drink minimum
More info: (818) 729-0805, joesgreatbar.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."