The Gig of a Lifetime
Jim Bannach is in his 32nd Year Performing at the Windrift
By Dave Bontempo
“Let the Good Times Roll.”
The original version of that tune came out in 1956, the year Jim Bannach was born. The song title also describes Bannach’s rich musical journey: performing, producing, traveling and corroborating.
The entertainment road includes keyboards, first with his exposure to the piano at age 5. It entails drums, which he began studying in fourth grade; the performance gene launched with his first band in fifth grade; and a gradual, lifelong engagement with an audience.
This year, Bannach celebrates the roll of a lifetime, an unheard-of 32nd year performing at the Windrift Hotel Resort in Avalon. That’s an eye-popping number in the world of changing business climates, aging patrons and new artistic paths. Five years would be an exceptional tenure. Thirty-two is, well, off the charts and way beyond the realm Russ Buckingham envisioned when he helped hire Bannach in 1987.
“We were looking for a house band in the late 1980s and we heard about Jim’s group playing at Resorts in Atlantic City,” says Buckingham, a Windrift executive at the time. “We really liked them. One thing that stood out was how well he played the tune from ‘Beverly Hills Cop.’ He nailed it. I thought, ‘These guys are really good.’ ”
Bannach’s group, BLT, was hired for five nights a week. House bands have largely disappeared in the entertainment era of cost-cutting, yet Bannach’s hasn’t. He may have retooled, as a one-player, multi-part entertainment system in many venues, but he remains. And when he walks into the Windrift lounge area, Bannach owns it.
“I don’t know anybody else who has been able to do all of this at one place,” says Buckingham, who remains friends with the performer who still pops over to his house, just to visit, and to play.
“It’s been a wonderful fit for me and for them,” Bannach says. “We go from April to October every year and it has a special feel to it. We’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere, the people. The joy for me is being able to convey a message about my feelings to someone else through the music, make that person feel what you are feeling.”
The joy here emanates Monday, Thursday and Saturday nights in the 60-seat piano bar. Every other Sunday, Bannach appears in a larger section of the Windrift with the BLT band, before about 200 patrons. One of the band members is his son Michael, adding the special dream concept of sharing the stage with one’s child.
“Whoever said that ‘If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life’ was right,” Bannach says, with a huge grin. “I don’t work.”
Could have fooled us.
The performer who turned 62 on July 30 hits the first rung of Social Security eligibility at warp speed. His expanding “non-working” life extends to the Stone Harbor, Avalon and Sea Isle City yacht clubs, the new Shore Club (formerly Wildwood Country Club), several Atlantic County and Philadelphia establishments, private parties and a winter Florida circuit. He has the best of many worlds, a growing audience and a signature engagement in Avalon.
Bannach embodies the musician’s creed about the journey outweighing the destination. The next big show is, simply, the next one.
Although he plays locally, Bannach sports enough big moments in his 45-year career to denote a top-tier presence. Bannach says he has written 15 songs, recorded many Philadelphia artists in his Blackwood studio, played all over the country and in Canada during the 1970s. He was involved in a major project with Allan Slutsky, detailing the life of legendary bassist James Jamerson and the Funk Brothers, Motown’s unseen studio band. Slutsky wrote the book, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which later was made into a Grammy-winning documentary. The award-winning writer and producer, at one point, played alongside Bannach.
Other notable associations Bannach recounts are Lou Rawls (jammed with him), Billy Paul (the “Me and Mrs. Jones” singer with whom he sang), Miss America Vanessa Williams (he sang “You Are So Beautiful” to her on the Resorts stage) and then-casino owner Donald Trump (for whom he played a private party).
It’s all in the personal collage. Big venues, small venues, weddings, par-ties. The size of the stage doesn’t matter, it’s about cranking up the music. Bannach’s Windrift tenure connects the eras of Trump and Ronald Reagan, a whopping 10 presidential terms.
That’s serious longevity.
Bannach invests time to find material, prides himself on connecting with his audience and “non-works” long hours. A Saturday Windrift show might end at 1am, with the ride back to his Ocean City home and the performer’s post-event adrenaline often ensuring he’ll see the sunrise before sleeping. On one recent July evening, he performed 52 songs.
Bannach’s blueprint is spontaneity. He’ll arrive at Windrift with a piano that also contains drums, horn and guitar sounds. The set list? Uh-uh. It creates itself as Bannach scours the room, surmises a genre and matches songs to the crowd’s perceived interests. Sometimes the show is four hours, sometimes it’s seven. He can eyeball a person and recall his/her favorite song. Bannach might have done it before, especially if the tune was on the most-requested level of “Sweet Caroline,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Margaritaville” or “Summer Wind.” But he’ll always do it again. Look for the biggest smile in the room, it’s worn by the entertainer.
And the good times roll.
He’ll perform in the 60-seat area one night, a 200-seat area a couple of days later. The BLT band was formed by Bannach, musical partner Phil Taormina and Sal LaBruna, who later left the band and was replaced by Jim’s son, Michael. There’s always been a family connection to the music of Bannach, who grew up in Hatboro, Pa.
“Our first band in fifth grade played at a school picnic,” he recalls. “In junior high, we played various venues. The band was called the Lemon Meringues. We wore white shirts with yellow vests my mother made for us.”
Later, he sold pianos and organs; looked to the Beatles, Gino Vannelli, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie and country artists for inspiration; and began walking the road he still traverses. Each step brought him another piece of the action.
Which brought him to a standstill when asked of his greatest musical thrill.
“I have to think real hard about that one,” he says. “I don’t think I can give you the perfect answer.”
He just had. The biggest thrill was nothing, in particular, yet everything in general.
Why work? Let the good times roll.
In September, Jim Bannach will play at the Windrift for the Barefoot Ball, which benefits the Helen L. Diller Vacation Home for Blind Children. The annual event is scheduled for Sept. 8 from 5 to 9pm.
The Diller vacation home operates for eight weeks during the summer. It provides a week-long, expenses-paid shore vacation for visually impaired and blind children with supervision from experienced and certified counselors and administrators. Up to 20 children, ages 7 through 15, reside in the home for a one-week period. The guests take part in camp activities including arts and crafts, a learning series with the Bay Atlantic Symphony, and much more.
“We're always happy to be part of this,” Bannach says. “It's a great cause.”
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