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Talent Night Encore : The Palomino tradition that began in the 1950s is back every Thursday night.

August 19, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Somehow this was an offer Jeff Ross chose not to refuse. He's spent the last 20 years playing fine electric guitar behind an impressive roster of country acts that includes Rank and File, the Desert Rose Band and Kelly Willis, taking him to certain career heights, recording for major record labels and traveling on national concert tours.

Yet when Sherry Thomas, owner of the Palomino in North Hollywood, asked him to spend every Thursday night at the club as bandleader for the returning Talent Night, he ultimately agreed. Why? After all, the level of talent at any talent contest is uncertain at best. But Ross remembers the old Talent Night at the Palomino, a rich tradition of musical highs and lows that began with the club's opening in the 1950s.

Before the Palomino's long-running contest was discontinued two years ago, Ross was a regular there, dropping by after his own gigs when possible.

Now Thomas has re-established the weekly ritual at the club as part of her effort to restore the Palomino's role as a major venue for emerging local country music talent.

"The Los Angeles talent scene as far as country music goes is being totally overlooked," says Thomas, the widow of club co-founder Tommy Thomas. "There is a big gap in Los Angeles for the live local bands to have a place that's their home. In the old days, a lot of the acts that performed here--a lot of them got discovered here and went on to bigger and better things."

Ross has been at it for three weeks now, and has gathered three other experienced session players to accompany a mixed bag of singers and players every Thursday. "Sometimes it's rough," says Ross, relaxing in the club shortly after the end of the second installment of talent contestants. "You'll get somebody up there who doesn't know what their doing, and they don't have (music) charts. You just have to bear through it. And sometimes you'll get guys up there that just kill.

"Or you'll get people like from the old days that are so odd and take themselves so seriously that it's funny. I used to come down here and play on the original Talent Night, and I'd be laughing so hard I could barely play. These people are so comical, it's like the bearded-lady show, or the circus."

On the first night of the new talent contest, the first performer was a man who somewhat distractedly wandered onto the stage to sing a few lyrics a cappella, before drifting back off to polite applause. Soon after, other singers offered heartfelt readings of songs by Loretta Lynn and others, or over-amped covers of rock 'n' roll chestnuts.

Either way, it was a chance for aspiring vocalists to win the $100 first prize and perform with a professional band capable of handling virtually any country, pop, rock, jazz or blues curve thrown their way. "It's a great way if you don't have a band, because to get a band together is horrendous," says Mark Sellers, a singer who won a second-place award of $50 on the first night. "It takes a lot of time. I'm an actor, too. So this keeps me going."

For Peter Carlisle, who is the host for the talent show and has a country music radio show on Riverside's KPRO (1570 AM), Thursday night is now an opportunity to survey some of the emerging talent in the L.A. area. "This is a great place to be showcased," says Carlisle, who also helps host the Palomino's Tuesday night Barndance with Ronnie Mack. He remembers "just hanging out" at the old Talent Night. "It was really the place to be every Thursday."

Carlisle accepted the invitation to help guide Talent Night back, in part because it's one of the few talent contests that still features a live band. "Many of the things in town are this karaoke stuff," Carlisle says with a shrug. But at the famed North Hollywood honky-tonk, he says, new singers can instead benefit from "the fact that they're playing the Palomino, which still has a good name.

"I'm very impressed with the quality of the talent, because at these talent nights you're really open to almost anything. But the people we've been getting have just been superb."

Carlisle also suggests that a contestant could impress club owner Thomas enough to earn a place on the entertainment calendar.

"It's a stepping stone," Thomas said. "Where else can somebody go and play with a great band like this? As it gets going, I'm sure it will happen that we will find some talent for other nights."

Carlisle said this is the second week for a number of the performers. "They're very talented, and as the audience builds they'll get known, and it's a good way to get your foot in the business," he said.

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