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Local musician Gary Coco remembers Tampa Bay’s Golden Age of Music

Published on: January 6, 2016

By LISA STARK

Gary Coco enjoys playing solo in local venues such as Latitudes, Sunset Grill, Circles and Woody’s River Roo.

Gary Coco enjoys playing solo in local venues such as Latitudes, Sunset Grill, Circles and Woody’s River Roo.

Singer-guitarist-keyboardist Gary Coco is a familiar face on the local music scene, performing in neighborhood venues like Latitudes, Circles, JF Kicks, Woody’s River Roo, and Sunset Grill at Little Harbor.

“I would say I’m a career musician,” said Coco. “I’ve been playing in Florida for over 30 years.”

Coco’s solo act is an eclectic mix of classics by Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Matchbox 20, Tom Petty and the Eagles.  He also includes a selection of Latin blues acoustic instrumentals by Santana, one of his favorite guitarists.

“I play the crowd-pleasers that everyone expects to hear, but I also include some songs I play just for myself,” Coco said, “guitar instrumentals that are more unusual and musically rewarding to me.  It’s a double-win for everyone.”

At 54, Coco chooses to play just a few days a week at a select list of restaurant/bars that cater to a quieter, more mature audience.

“You don’t have to be loud to be good,” he said.  “As an entertainer, I’m very aware of the comfort of the crowd. I want people to enjoy their dinner and conversation while they listen.”

Although he now considers himself a part-time performer, Coco remembers a time when he lived a much more hectic life — the life of a national touring musician chasing the glamour and gold of the U.S. music industry.

The city’s best entertainment strip has historically been in Ybor City, where local musicians have thrived.

The city’s best entertainment strip has historically been in Ybor City, where local musicians have thrived.

Growing up in Ybor City, Coco got his big break at age 19 when he was hired by one of the most successful rock bands in Tampa, Hit-N-Run.  “For me, it was like being picked up by the Beatles,” he said, as it led to touring nationally and playing at a large variety of venues around the U.S.  His stint with Hit-N-Run led to other jobs with regional and national bands, including Hotline and Rumor Hazit.

Throughout the ’90s, it was common for Coco to play with a full band six to seven nights a week, earning top money.

“I remember playing for 56 nights in a row at City Limits in Fort Lauderdale during spring break, and at the end of that job, we were scheduled to play for another three weeks in Valdosta, Ga.,” he said.  City Limits closed at 3 a.m., and the band had just enough time to pack up and drive to Georgia to set up and play again, with no time for sleep.  “It was crazy,” he said.

But Coco didn’t mind the hectic life of a musician on the road, as he was earning over a thousand dollars per week, a hefty sum for any player at the time. “I worked at that pace for most of my 20s and 30s, and never needed another job.  I was happy to be a full-time musician, doing what I loved to do.”

Throughout his career, Coco often found himself performing back in his hometown of Tampa, playing in the bustling nightclubs and beach bars of Ybor City, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

“It was the Golden Age for musicians in Tampa Bay,” said Coco, recalling a time when club owners would hire bands for long-term gigs that paid handsomely.  “It was easy to make a living as a six-piece band in Tampa,” he said.  “It was a gold mine for musicians, and I never had the need or desire to do anything else.”

Coco plays an eclectic mix that includes the music of Santana, Pink Floyd and the Beatles.

Coco plays an eclectic mix that includes the music of Santana, Pink Floyd and the Beatles.

But sometime in the mid-’90s, things changed on the Tampa scene, as bar owners began finding more profitable ways to run their nightclubs.  Instead of employing a “house band” for six nights a week, many clubs began to hire a full band only on weekends, filling in with less expensive solo acts and DJs during the week.

“A lot of talented musicians suffered,” said Coco, who went from making a few thousand dollars to a few hundred dollars a week.  “I was in my late 30s, and for the first time in my life, I had to look for another job to supplement my living.”

He went back to school, taking courses at Hillsborough Community College and University of South Florida to pursue trades as a cable installer and veterinary technician. He concentrated on the more stable long-term gigs, including a 10-year stint at Circles in Apollo Beach, and a five-year appointment at the large Van Dyke Church in Lutz, where he performed as a vocalist and keyboardist.

Today, said Coco, he finds personal reward in playing solo gigs in comfortable upscale clubs and restaurants with familiar neighborhood regulars.  “I now have time to pursue other things I want to do,” he said, including caring for his elderly mother in his hometown of Lutz.  He also gets requests to entertain at private parties and special events, like a recent offer he received to play at an Italian Santiago Debutante Ball, where he earned over a thousand dollars in just a few hours.

Crabby's Bar and Grill offers live entertainment, food and a waterfront view.

Crabby’s Bar and Grill offers live entertainment, food and a waterfront view.

“Every so often there’s a giant perk that comes along like that [that] makes being a musician all the more satisfying,” he said.

For more information, look for Gary Coco on Facebook or your local club entertainment calendar.  You may also email him at GaryCoco@yahoo.com.

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