"Speedy" Garfin and the Garfin Gathering have been a staple band around Northern Nevada for decades. On Saturday, they will present a concert at 7:30 p.m. at the BAC Performance Hall, 511 West King St.
"We do a lot of music that's jazz- and Latin-flavor, a lot of broadway show stuff, some country sprinkling in," Howard "Speedy" Garfin said. "I do a lot of comedy, but it's all within music. I'm not standing there telling jokes."
Garfin, a sax-player from the Bronx, started playing professionally in resorts in the Catskills when he was just 14. Through the years, his bands have played on the Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson Show, and at one point, a 19-year-old Lynda Carter (alias "Wonder Woman") was his lead singer.
Garfin originally moved west in 1960 to play in Don Rickles' backup trio in Las Vegas.
"When I was there, the lounges were almost 'round the clock. Entertainment was just great. I was like a kid in a candy story," he said. "We were treated like first-class citizens. I had a dressing room, money - more money than I had been making (in New York)."
When that gig ended, Garfin hooked up with a group out of Rhode Island and they toured around Nevada, starting in small lounges in small towns like Winnemucca and Elko and struggling to make ends meet.
Then a new casino opened in Stateline on the edge of Lake Tahoe. The band signed a three-year contract in 1964 with Sahara Tahoe, now Horizon Casino Resort. During the next several decades "Speedy" Garfin and the Garfin Gathering played all around the region.
He met and wooed his wife, Laura, at Stateline one summer when she came up from Fresno to work as a change girl. They moved to Carson City 31 years ago and raised their son and daughter, who both graduated from Carson High School and University of Nevada, Reno.
The makeup of the "Gathering" has changed over the years, while "Speedy" has remained the constant.
Today's "Gathering" consists of vocalist Jakki Ford, Kerry Shacklett on keyboard, and George Stigliano on drums. Speedy, whose main instrument is the saxophone, also plays clarinet, flute, conga drums, or vocals as needed.
Garfin's talent and versatility has kept him working and able to support a family on a musicians wages, something few can do anymore. In recent years, opportunities for musicians have thinned out.
"It's very sad. We only have lounges now. If there is a lounge going, it's maybe just Friday, Saturday. Acts that come in, there's no individuality in these groups anymore, no wardrobes. You can't blame them. There isn't money in it to buy wardrobes anymore."
Most musicians need to supplement their band income with other jobs, Garfin said, including his Gathering. Ford does freelance conventions, Shacklett teaches piano, and Stigliano sells real estate.
Garfin has had enough success in the past to be mostly retired now, and the slower pace suits him.
"I play a couple times a month with the big bands (like Mile High Jazz Band and The Tahoe Dance Band)," he said. "There are a lot of guys my age and we talk about what it used to be like."
Garfin is hopeful for the future of live music, however. Bars are rediscovering that live music can attract more customers. And when one brings in a band, that forces neighboring bars to consider live music, also.
For Garfin, living through the heyday of back-up bands and lounge acts has been very satisfying.
"I won the game."
Tickets for the "Speedy" Garfin and the Garfin Gathering concert on Saturday are $16.50 general admission, and $13.50 for students, seniors, and MHJB and BAC members. Tickets are available at the BAC box office, online at breweryarts.org, and at the door. For information, call MHJB at 775-883-4154.