By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
Gary Burt has weathered a particularly difficult storm during the pandemic. He lost a sister to COVID in October and over the Christmas holiday his wife was sick with heart trouble and he couldn’t visit her. Also, he couldn’t work his usual gig of singing Frank Sinatra songs under his stage moniker “The Frank Guy.” But through all of that, Burt has maintained a really upbeat attitude by sharing his vocal talents with his neighbors on most Sundays throughout the pandemic.
Before the COVID crisis, Burt padded his pension from his years working in a power plant in St. Lois by working as professional entertainer at retirement facilities in the region, singing the Sinatra catalog.
“There’s a pretty steady market for that,” he said. “I wasn’t making a lot of money — a hundred bucks a pop — but even so, two or three of those a week and you’re retired that’s not too bad an income. Then about March all my gigs went poof. This thing hit hard, they locked everybody down, but I needed to keep my chops up.”
Burt kept his chops up taking inspiration from a local opera singer who was entertaining neighbors in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood. He decided to do his own shows “until the city runs me off or they tell me not to do it,” he quipped.
He put on weekly concerts nearly every Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. from his home near the corner of 71st Street and Stanford Avenue up until the summer.
“It got miserably hot so I kinda quit. I didn’t get out there when it’s 100 degrees. It’s too much,” he said. “But it started getting nice out and by November, I had all my Christmas stuff ready to go so I started doing my own Christmas show.”
Besides singing for his neighbors, Burt also entertained them by playing Santa Claus over the holidays.
“I began reading ‘The Night Before Christmas’ for the little kids out there and acted it out. They had a good time. I took my grandson with me and he was my elf because he was on to me last year,” he said.
Burt literally grew into the role of St. Nick because he decided to not cut his normally well-coifed hair after his wife shaved it off at the very beginning of the pandemic. He set a goal of growing out his hair and beard until he either gets both his vaccination shots or April Fools’ Day, whichever comes first.
“I tell you what, I made a terrific Santa Claus. I looked the part. I cloned him, I really did,” he said.
Burt also put out a box for food donations to a homeless shelter during his shows and has collected enough donations to feed a family for a month.
“So I feel pretty good about that,” he said.
Since he began his free concerts, Burt said he has gained a little following on Facebook and coupled with time away from regular gigs, the new notoriety has prompted him to begin working on new material and begin recording an album. But he points out, recognition is not the main motivation that drives him to perform his weekly concerts.
“If there’s only one person, I don’t care. One or none — I’m still out there singing. I’ve had some big crowds and I’ve had some small crowds. Every week it changes,” he said.
What is important to Burt are the connections his shows are creating in his neighborhood.
“I know who my neighbors are now. They come by and we talk. People used to walk up and down the street and they didn’t know who each other were. When I’m out there singing, they’re stopping and listening, I’m getting to know them and they’re getting to know their other neighbors,” he said.
The community building that his shows has brought to himself and his neighbors was especially important to him over the holidays when his wife was in the hospital recovering from heart complications.
“I was still out here singing because I couldn’t go to the hospital. I was feeling pretty glum,” he said. “But I got out here singing and people found out my wife was in the hospital and they’d come by and they reassured me.”
Burt started singing in high school when a teacher told him he had a natural baritone voice. He began studying with a vocal coach who encouraged him to sing Sinatra. Singing took a backseat when he started his family, but he still recorded “here and there” over the years solo or in gospel groups.
In the 1980s, Burt dove into the karaoke craze in St. Lois, where he gained a following singing the large catalog of Sinatra that karaoke made available to singers.
“That’s the thing: How do you become a Frank Sinatra singer? Think about it, if you don’t have a big band, how are you going to do that from scratch? Well, karaoke made it possible for me to sing with a big band because it’s all recorded,” he said.
When the COVID crisis is past him, Burt said he looks forward to returning to entertaining beyond his front yard and also sharing his new album, which he views as another silver lining for him in an otherwise cloudy period of time.
For more information about Gary “The Frank Guy” Burt, visit www.thefrankguy.com.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.