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Pursuit of Fame Muted by Chords of Harmony

October 13, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

OXNARD — For Bobby, it started in the second grade on Long Island. He'd listen to his sister struggle through piano lessons. When she was done, he'd sit down and play the classical pieces straight through--by ear.

For Lee, it started in the first grade in suburban Boston. She'd decided she could sing. Others made the same decision. In the Weymouth, Mass., parade, she sang "It's a Grand Old Flag."

Music was always in their homes. Bobby's father, a dentist by day, played saxophone in Joe Venuti's swinging band. Lee's mother sang professionally.

Bobby and Lee committed to the uncertain destinies binding so many musicians--they followed their inner pulse. Bobby went to Woodstock in '69, played in a rock band, had a high school guidance counselor tell him he ought to get serious. He went to the University of Hartford and attended Hartt School of music, then dropped out.

Lee loved animals as much as music. Though she was a rave at her high school talent show singing Marilyn McCoo's "One Less Bell to Answer"--"All the guys who had bands asked me to be their singer," she recalls--she followed high school with work in veterinary medicine.

At home in Long Island trying to figure out what to do, Bobby took a call from a woman identifying herself as Nat King Cole's daughter. Natalie was starting a band. Word was out about Bobby's keyboard wizardry. Would he sign?

He toured for two years with Natalie Cole and Cool Breeze, playing the Holiday Inn circuit but also monthlong gigs at posh resorts in Bermuda. Work in Natalie's pre-album days, however, was sporadic. So Bobby dropped out.

Lee was working the nightclub circuit in Boston, getting home at 3 a.m. and rising in a stupor at 7 to give pre-surgery injections to dogs and cats. She needed the day job money but knew that music played at night was her soul.

She worked with a band of Bonnie Raitt's former musicians, opening for Stevie Ray Vaughn and Kenny Rankin. One night she saw her name on the marquee of Boston's Paradise Theater and said to herself: " 'That's it. It's going to happen for me.' "

Back home again in Long Island, Bobby got another call. Chubby Checker was auditioning pianists. Bobbie tried out on a Thursday. Checker handed him a piece of paper and said: "Here's my song list. Learn it by Tuesday. Then we go to Detroit and Vegas." Bobby did. In Las Vegas, he found himself in a hotel suite getting introduced to Elvis Presley and Linda Lovelace.

That gig lasted two happy years before Bobby decided "the volume was just too much." He dropped out and enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music, submitting to the mind-bending work of musical theorists. A week before graduation, Natalie Cole, two Grammys in the bag, again found Bobby. She gave him time to graduate. He joined her tour in Japan and London. In Oakland in '76, at the Kool Jazz Festival, they played before more than 30,000.

Then Bobby met Lee. He'd again dropped out of Natalie Cole's band, but this time instead of returning home he headed for the Massachusetts woods. There, he'd find his musical center. The woods happened to be near Weymouth.

Lee got a call from a friend who said there were these guys in a cabin nearby who needed a lead singer. Lee is careful about such things--she has show-stopping good looks. But musically, things hadn't actually "happened" for her as she'd hoped. She went. She knocked them out with her voice. And she knocked Bobbie Orgel out in every way.

Lee got the job, but soon she and Bobby started playing music alone together--him on synthesizers for the full-band sound, her singing. They fell in love. They played the lounge circuit in Boston for handsome, reliable money. Lee finally dropped out of veterinary medicine. They married in 1983.

At the suggestion of a Thousand Oaks friend, Bobby and Lee came to California in 1986, to Malibu. But they found work up north, at Mandalay Beach's precursor, Embassy Suites. They thought Oxnard shores were beautiful, commuting ugly. They bought a home, with ocean and mountain views, a block from the beach.

Now Bobby and Lee are what you might call the house band at The Lobster Trap, at Channel Islands Harbor. With sailboats bobbing behind them, they play to people bloated on dinner and a fair number who simply come to dance and have a good time. No stadium crowds, no names on marquees. No recording deals, no press. Just good old rock 'n' roll, played with smarts and soul, by unpretentious masters of the form.

Everyone here seems to know Bobby and Lee, and many talk about their lovely 6-year-old daughter, Jacqueline. Jacqueline, evidently, is not only inclined to the visual arts but sings. She has joined her mother more than once in duets on Disney tunes.

Bobby recently took his first day job in 20 years as a salesman for Century 21. Ironically, this pleases him. "As long as we play music at night, and we do 50 weeks a year, everything feels right," he says, beaming. "Music is our joy. We have been lucky and realistic."

Lee nods in agreement, though she admits she'd love to someday experience The Big Tour if, say, a Don Henley needed backup vocals.

However it goes, one thing is clear: Bobby and Lee Orgel, itinerants who followed their pulse, are living out a work and love and family gig that is singular. It's the one gig from which neither could imagine dropping out.

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