When rock ‘n’ roll singer Jimmy Angel hits the stage at the Smoke House restaurant on Saturday, it will be just another stop along a decidedly tumultuous five-decade career path. Angel, who specializes in a mixture of retro-1950s big beat and fiery Memphis soul, has performed from the Tokyo Dome to Las Vegas showrooms to Manhattan’s famed Copacabana — where he appeared no less than 39 times.
Angel, now 77 but as clear-eyed and energetic as a man half that age, had a unique ace-in-the-hole throughout his early career: He was a close protege of Mafia don Joe Colombo, a Profaci family enforcer who rose from the ranks to become head of that crime organization in 1962.
While Angel’s involvement with Colombo was always either strictly on the bandstand or on social terms, the pair formed a bond that lasted until Colombo was gunned down in New York’s Columbus Circle in June 1971.
The singer had led the life of a prince — he had access to four Manhattan townhouses, a lavish rock ‘n’ roll wardrobe, the keys to a small fleet of luxury cars — but after the near-fatal shooting, Angel faithfully paid his dues as caregiver for Colombo, who lingered in a semi-conscious state for the next several years.
“Joe Colombo ‘adopted’ me in 1960, and he took care of me,” Angel explained. “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.”
This wildly unlikely alliance is the subject of a forthcoming documentary film, “Teen Idol: Music, Mommy & the Mob,” but as the project finalizes, Angel continues doing what he always has: rocking and rolling.
His dynamic presentation, an amalgam of declarative shouting, passionate crooning, James Brown-style dance moves and blunt, at times confrontational social commentary, ranks Angel as a one-of-a-kind rock ‘n’ roll attraction. To call him old school would be a tremendous understatement.
“The ‘50s were the best, cat,” Angel said. “Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean, Ricky Nelson, Eddie Cochran — that’s what I care about. I don’t need any Madonna or heavy metal. Anything past 1964, I don’t even think about.”
The eccentric Angel, who appears at Burbank’s Viva Cantina every Wednesday night, sports an eye-popping Elvis-in-overdrive hairpiece, but he is no mere impersonator. As a songwriter, he crafts ideal vehicles for his singular brand of soulful bop ‘n’ roll, and such originals as “Teen Age Rebel,” “Underage” and “Love Fever” are always the show-stopping highlights of every performance. And Angel’s been on a creative roll of late, having written and recorded three brand-new numbers in recent weeks.
“We’re going to be doing all my new songs at the Smoke House,” he said. “And the guys I have with me, the Jason Gutierrez Trio, are fantastic. They sound just like Booker T & the MGs. It’s going to be great.”
That path that’s brought him from the Copa and Peppermint Lounge through a fruitful late-1970s stint in Nashville, plus stops in Hollywood and Tokyo (where he performed an average of six nights a week for more than 20 years) has been a drastically colorful slice of rock ‘n’ roll life, and Angel shows so sign of slowing down.
“They tell me the documentary will be released next spring, and the deal is, I want to get America back before I die,” Angel said. “I’m already 77 years old. And I want to go out rockin’, leave some footprints behind, like the movie, all my songs. I’m just a ‘50s bop cat. It’s that simple.”
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.”
Jimmy Angel appears at the Smoke House, 4420 W. Lakeside Drive, Burbank, Saturday, June 23, 8 p.m. No cover charge. (818) 845-3731. Also at Viva Cantina, 900 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank, every Wednesday, 8 p.m. No cover charge. (818) 845-2425