He arguably played to more Orange County music fans than any other rock musician, even though his name wasn’t McCartney, Jagger, Petty, Springsteen or Elton.
He went simply by Topper, but for nearly 60 years, singer and pianist Greg Topper entertained audiences five, six and sometimes seven nights a week, year in and year out, plying the energetic early rock ’n’ roll that inspired him to a life in music, pounding out the hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the other early rockers who inspired him.
Still performing as recently as December, Topper died Tuesday, longtime friend and bassist “English” Gordon Taylor said. He’d recently suffered a pair of heart attacks and had been admitted to Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach earlier in the week, Taylor said. Topper told The Times in an interview several years ago that he had a defibrillator implanted after a previous heart attack more than 20 years ago, and that he also struggled with substance abuse.
Starting his long road as an entertainer in 1961 with his first engagement at the Tamasha Club in Anaheim, with his band the Crescents, Topper became a local fixture, with notable extended stints at the Airporter Inn (later rechristened the Atrium) in Irvine, where he was a regular for 14 years, the Sheraton Anaheim for six years, the Village Inn on Balboa Island for eight years and most recently, the Pierce Street Annex in Costa Mesa.
He began offering his spin on that body of work when it was still relatively new and stuck with it as the years rolled by, becoming a leading progenitor of rock oldies — at times connecting with and performing alongside such heroes as Lewis, Domino, Little Richard and Roy Orbison.
"No one else plays the ’50s rock ’n’ roll; I love the way Topper does,” veteran English rock-country guitarist Albert Lee, a frequent guest with Topper, said several years ago.
For Topper, songs such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Long Tall Sally” had no expiration date and would always have a receptive audience.
"There's been an enormous infusion in Orange County over the last five years of people between the ages of 35 and 60 who love that genre, but who haven't been able to go anywhere and get it [live],” he told The Times in 2000.
"These are the people who don’t like country, they don’t like jazz, they don’t like reggae, they don't like Top 40, hip-hop or big-band music, but just want that real old go-getting rock ’n' roll.”
Greg Topper was born Aug. 11, 1945, in Los Angeles, the son of an executive for Fox West Coast Theaters. His entrepreneur mother developed the Half Moon Hotel on 400 acres in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where, after divorcing, she moved with Topper and his older brother.
It was in Jamaica that Topper first became infatuated with the piano.
“I went into the schoolhouse and looked at the piano in there, and I’ll never forget what it did to me,” Topper told the Daily Pilot in 2010. “I looked at that piano and I knew, just by looking at it, that it was right for me. I remember a song was playing on the radio in the car on the way to school. I sat right down at that piano and played that song. I've never had a music lesson in my life.”
After several years in Jamaica, his family returned to Southern California, settling in Fullerton. He served in the military during the Vietnam War and studied journalism at Cal State Fullerton after his discharge.
Initially exploring opportunities in marketing, politics and publicity, Topper soon felt the pull back to music.
“My dad, after putting me through college, wouldn’t talk to me for a long time,” he said in 2010. “But then, when I started getting good notices and was making six figures, all of a sudden, he started getting respect for me. When he saw what kind of business I was doing, filling 500-seat rooms every night, then he felt that I wasn’t a failure.”
He took a break in the 1990s to focus on raising his daughter, Caitlyn, then resumed club performances in 2000. Beyond the mainstay performances in Orange County, he also did stints in Hawaii and Las Vegas, and he landed a bit role in the 1978 Burt Reynolds-Sally Field comedy “Hooper.”
He also released a couple of albums under his own name, produced by Little Richard/Sam Cooke producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, that consisted primarily of cover songs, but also a few originals.
“When I think back on 50 years, I don’t even know where to begin,” he said nearly a decade ago. “I was really good friends with Ricky Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. I’ve had so many great artists [perform] with me. Charlie Daniels sat in one night. I had the Righteous Brothers sit in with me probably 50 times.”
Yet he said his proudest achievement was his work with various charities. According to his website, he donated nearly $600,000 over the years to organizations including the Alzheimer’s Assn., Vince Ferragamo’s Special Olympics, the now-defunct Orange County Musicians Foundation, Lupus International, Cystic Fibrosis and L.A.’s Midnight Mission.
“Life is not meant to be a journey to the grave in a pretty & well preserved body,” he wrote on his official website, “but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, & loudly proclaiming: ‘WOW! WHAT A RIDE’.”
In addition to his daughter, Topper is survived by a son, Jeff, two half siblings and three grandchildren.