It makes you want to turn back the years and visit this taste of a Florida tourist industry that has all but disappeared.
Privately released restaurant albums are among the most rewarding and the most frustrating habitués of your local dollar bins. Twelve-inch souvenirs of a night out on vacation, these records are performed by house bands whose smooth lounge music, to varying degrees and with the help of tropical cocktails, created an ambiance that made the cut of meat on your plate almost an afterthought. Are they worth revisiting as music? Probably not. But even if the amateur trio behind An Evening at Arnie’s Lounge, led by a man known as “the singing bartender,” doesn’t make a profound musical statement, they make good on their sincere wish to entertain their customers and make them want to come back. By that standard, the album is a success: it makes you want to turn back the years and visit this taste of a Florida tourist industry that has all but disappeared.
The cover of An Evening at Arnie’s Lounge instantly lures the kitsch-seeking crate-digger into its 12” web. Greying crooner Arnie Aka-Nui stands before a steel guitar, a huge tiki figure and a string of leis strategically placed on the floor between his legs. He is flanked by a white-haired vixen on organ and a young man who we might presume is his son on drums. Each member of the trio wears a matching Hawaiian shirt, their stage decorated with shag carpet and wood paneling, “ALHOA” spelled out in flowers on the wall behind them.
The lounge singer, born Arnold Becker, ran a restaurant in Palm Harbor, Florida in an era when one presumes such establishments were all over the place (visit Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai for one of the last traces of this once popular restaurant-floor show experience). A 1979 article in the St. Petersburg Times confirms that the drummer is Becker’s son and identified the white-haired organist as Adele Edwards, who’s pictured in the article playing the organ with one hand and the trumpet with the other. I bet that golden girl had an overflowing tip jar by the end of the night.
The Times article notes with approval that “you won’t find any hard rock or disco music at Arnie’s,” but their album proves this wasn’t necessarily the case. Along with cheesy tiki fare like “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” jazz standards like “Caravan” and pop standards like “My Way,” Becker sneaks in something for the young folk: a smooth cover of Barry White’s “You”ll Never Find.”
As a performer, Becker – I mean Aka-Nui – is a complete ham, which is what you’d expect. Still, it’s a treat to hear someone enjoying what they do so thoroughly. The album was recorded in the studio, but as Aka-Nui sings “Hawaiian Love Song,” you can almost hear him leading a sloshed audience to raise their arms and clap and sing along.
Before launching his career as a singing bartender, Becker had been a real estate inspector in upstate New York, where he also owned a gas station. When he and his wife were on vacation in Sarasota, he looked at his wife and reportedly said, “Why go any further?” They moved to Florida and opened up a restaurant and a dream. Arnie Aka-Nui passed away in 2008. An obituary in the Tampa Bay Times notes that when it came time for Becker’s son to fill out some forms at the funeral home, he stopped for a moment at “occupation” before proudly filling in “entertainer.” An Evening at Arnie’s Lounge is a souvenir, indeed, of a lifetime’s work that is worth far more than a dollar.