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Years of Odd Jobs Made Perseverance His Theme Song : Jazz: Bobby Gantt's work ethic got him through a 20-year dry spell. Now his busy schedule includes Bistango engagements.

March 31, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Bobby Gantt's riding a wave right now. The jazz and pop singer is working four and five nights a week these days. One engagement, at Bistango in Irvine, has been going for eight months.

"That's rare in this business," Gantt, 48, said in a telephone interview from his home in Inglewood recently. He appears Wednesdays and Thursdays at Bistango.

Gantt's had his moments in the footlights. His first professional gig--in 1974, when he was signed by the Department of the Navy--took him to bases in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Back in the States, he sang backup for Marvin Gaye, Kenny Rogers and B.B. King. Over the years, he's performed at such Southern California nightspots as the Nucleus Nuance, the Alleycat Bistro, Truly Yours, Bon Appetit, Le Cafe, Chadney's, Concerts by the Sea and Manhattan Jazz.

Still, there have been some down times for the man who first sang in public when he was 12 at a talent show at Foshay Junior High School in Los Angeles. He married while in high school, and he and his wife quickly had three daughters. Then, in 1972, his wife died of cancer at 26.

"I felt like I had been shot in the heart," Gantt said. That started him on a 20-year period of working odd jobs.

"I've delivered pizzas, been a day laborer, driven trucks," he said. "I was a heavy equipment operator, I've done office work, I drove a bus part time for the RTD."

Gantt did not especially revel in his non-musical activities, but he persevered, applying skills that he said he learned in the late '50s and early '60s while playing on two championship football teams at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.

"Football was one of those work-ethic things," he said. "In the music business, I've been through some really rough, rough times where I wanted to give up, where I thought that I should be doing something else, but I persevered. That game taught me that."

Things have finally turned around for him. The spry, upbeat Gantt has made his living entirely from music since 1991, when he quit his last "day gig" as a stock clerk for Continental Airlines.

"At this point in life, I can say I'm content and happy with myself," he said. "I'm not rich. But I don't mind getting out of bed in the morning and going and pursuing my heart's desire. . . ."

On stage, Gantt is smooth and persuasive, plying his 2 1/2-octave range at will. His repertoire includes such classics as "Misty," "Moody's Mood for Love," "Wave" and "Unforgettable." He can swoop to low tones that recall the deep baritone of Billy Eckstine, then soar easily to thin pitches, in the manner of one of his early influences, Johnny Mathis.

At Bistango, Gantt's place in the spotlight is somewhat diminished, he said, since entertainment is kept intentionally low-key, so as not to intrude on diners.

"I sing softly there," Gantt said. Though he may have to sing subtly at Bistango, Gantt still gets a shot at self-expression, and communication. "I get to sing what I like, tunes that have melodies and colors that I like," he said.

"Songs from the classic American popular songbook allow me freedom, vocally, and those tunes uplift my spirits. I get to convey and express the music, and the audience gives back to me with their smiles and their applause."

* Bobby Gantt, pianist Ron Kobayashi and saxophonist Doug Webb play from 8 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays and Thursdays at Bistango, 19100 Van Karman Ave., Irvine. No cover, no minimum. (714) 752-5222. Gantt also sings Friday and Saturday nights at Gazella, 525 E. Broadway, Long Beach. (310) 495-7252.

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