Bandleader-promoter Mark Tortorici is an old-school showman. For the past seven years, the sharp-dressed, sweet-talking swinger has been presenting a wild variety of live music acts at Burbank nightclub Joe's Great American Bar and Grill and packing the joint every Monday and Tuesday, two of toughest nights for any working musician hoping to pull a crowd. But for Tortorici, known to his avid cult of jitter-bugging followers as Torch, it's simply standard operating procedure.
Whether headlining the room with his own nine-piece rhythm and blues group, the Hollywood Combo, or manning the turntables as DJ between sets by local Western swing favorites the Lucky Stars, Tortorici curates an always-exceptional weeknight experience.
With offbeat touring acts like Canadian hillbilly throwbacks Petunia & the Vipers (yes, Petunia is actually a man) or New Orleans Tin Pan Alley specialist Linnzi Zaorsky, Tortorici's knack for showcasing disparate musical genres reflects an unusual attitude, best summed up by his own self-description as "a live-music junkie."
"My philosophy is to book the bands and music that I really like," he said. "I think I have a good taste in music and if you do it with honesty and heart, people will respond to that. They'll support that."
That flexibility has allowed Tortorici to carve out several successful careers. His popularity at Joe's has expanded to four consecutive nights there, from a Sunday blues party through the recently inaugurated Rockabilly-Roots Wednesdays. As a bandleader, he makes two international tours a year, storming through Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary — even Russia. He runs his own music label, Swingin' Records, and also works closely with venerable R&B legend Big Jay McNeely, a volcanic tenor saxophonist who has been an important figure in Los Angeles music since 1949.
That alliance has resulted in some spectacular music. When McNeely turned 80 in 2007, Tortorici's Hollywood Combo accompanied him on what turned out to be one of the wildest performances the sax man had made in decades. Neither the band nor the dancers could keep up with McNeely that night. And that's what keeps them coming back — the prospect of hearing what Tortorici calls "something genuine."
"The music always comes first. I try to stay away from the 'swing night' moniker, but dancing should be a byproduct of good music," Tortorici said. "I wanted to have something where dancing was a part of it, but it was also a real bar, where you could get a drink and have a little debauchery going on. And dancing adds a certain energy, so instead of trying to push it away, I embrace that and try to strike a balance.
"To me, it's about having a good symbiosis. And it can be really kind of euphoric. You bring a band in because you like them, and all of a sudden there's 200 people in the place."
The room has real atmosphere, Tortorici goes on: "I like Joe's honky-tonk feel, I love the sound of music as it's filtered through an audience, people talking, laughing, glasses clinking. That's a sound you can only hear when you're part if it. It's a really positive environment. Musicians come and hang out, dancers, drinkers, bikers, TV producers, writers, people from every walk of life. To me, that's beautiful."
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."