Performing Arts

With a new record and a little help from a famous friend, iconic Coconut Grove folksinger Bobby Ingram enjoys a fresh moment in the sun

Video: Coconut Grove folksinger Bobby Ingram enjoys a fresh moment in the sun

An unexpected alignment of the stars has led to a new indie-label album for Bobby Ingram. The album, "Postcards from Coconut Grove," on Kingswood Records, has sold out its small initial run.
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An unexpected alignment of the stars has led to a new indie-label album for Bobby Ingram. The album, "Postcards from Coconut Grove," on Kingswood Records, has sold out its small initial run.

One day, a few years ago, the phone rang in folksinger-rocker-dolphin activist-seafarer-family man and raconteur Bobby Ingram’s cozy Coconut Grove cottage.

“It’s Neil,” said the voice on the line, as Ingram recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Well, I have a lot of friends named Neil.’ ” Bobby began running down all the Neils he knew in his head before giving up and blurting out:

“Neil who?”

“It’s Neil Young the rock’n’roll star, dammit!” came the reply. “Who do you think it is?”

Yep, it really was Neil Young. No huge deal, though. Just an old friend calling to let Bobby know he was coming to town.

Bobby Ingram has been in the Grove since the salad days of the ’60s, when the village was a bright satellite at the tail end of the folk-music revival that briefly swept the nation. Bewitched by the sun and water, the lush greenery, the cheap digs and the Grove’s freewheeling ways, everyone who would someday be someone hung out, played the coffeehouses, smoked dope, wrote songs or made it a point to come through. Bob Ingram was a foundational lodestone of that scene. Bobby knew everyone, and everyone knew Bobby

.

Over the years, even as his star rose, Young would drop in unannounced, once to wash his new car, a two-seater, in the Ingrams’ driveway, frightening Bobby’s young daughter Bryn, who thought the Wolfman was at the gate; or to anonymously sit in on guitar behind Ingram and his band at his long-running ’70s gig at the old Monty Trainer’s, the rock’n’roll star hidden at the back of the chickee, unrecognized.

Stories like these flow out of Bobby Ingram, one after another. Told time and again, until they’re finely honed, like the songs Bobby has been singing to the world for more than 50 years.

There’s one tale that has attained semi-mythical status, and it’s likely even true, about hooking up best amigo and erstwhile singing partner David Crosby with Joni Mitchell at a Grand Avenue folk club. And another one about Ingram and Crosby’s penchant for taking sailboats from the Castle Harbor school at Dinner Key for unauthorized late-night cruises on Biscayne Bay. And yet another about ill-advising a young and unknown Jimmy Buffett not to leave the Grove for Key West, where Ingram had been posted on a submarine crew while in the Navy, because all he’d find there was sailors and “no p----.”

It’s not that Ingram needs the bona fides, at least not to those in the know. They will readily tell you that as a singer and interpreter, as bandleader and balladeer, Bobby Ingram is equal to most. Even if few outside Coconut Grove know the name these days.

As the Grove folkies moved on, some to stardom, others to semi-obscurity, Ingram, too, rambled some but then came back to stay, playing where he could and, when the Grove’s music scene fizzled out, working steadily for more than 20 years as a union stagehand while performing only sporadically, and for a time hardly at all.

Today he’s the last of the originals still making a musical stand in the Grove. And, at 77, after years of relative musical inactivity, Ingram is enjoying a bright new moment in the sun.

An unexpected alignment of the stars has led to a new indie-label album, with Crosby lending harmony vocals on three tracks. To mark its release, Ingram led a more-or-less impromptu show with a full band at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club’s outdoor veranda so cooking hot it’s being spoken of in epic terms by those lucky enough to have been there.

The album, Postcards from Coconut Grove, on Kingswood Records, has sold out its small initial run, with another batch on order. Bobby is fielding demands on a regular basis for a follow-up show, basking in the glow and pondering his next move.

No one’s more surprised at the turn of events than Ingram, who long ago chose family and Coconut Grove over chasing the big time in L.A. or New York, and made a good life of it.

“Yes, I’m an overnight success,” he said, cackling over a lunch of whole fried fresh snapper and a Red Stripe at the suitably unpretentious sailing club’s terrace, one of his favorite Grove spots, shortly after his October performance. “I’m a legend in my own room.

“I’m just bemused by it all. I’m delighted, of course, for all of us.”

Ingram’s many friends and musical followers plainly hope the record will bring Bobby some belated recognition and a chance to perform regularly again in his own hometown, a place that seems to have erased many of its musical memories like it has its landmarks, its local music venues, and so much else. Somewhere else, they say, Ingram might be celebrated as a musical elder statesman, just like Willie Nelson — whose mellow, behind-the-beat singing style Bobby’s sometimes recalls — is in Austin.

“If Bobby were anywhere else, he would be revered,” said longtime Grove friend Barbara Lange.

All that recent love has come as welcome balm to Ingram. Ten years ago he lost his son Liam, a boat captain, to a car accident in Alaska. In 2012, he lost his wife and near-inseparable companion of 46 years, Gay. A tall, athletic former dolphin trainer turned anti-captivity activist, Gay Ingram was also a founder with Bobby and lifelong friend Ric O’Barry of the Dolphin Project, and a longtime journal editor and professor’s assistant at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. By all accounts, Bobby was devastated by Gay’s death, of cancer, at 70. Bobby and Bryn were at her side when she died at home in the Grove.

Then, two years ago, Ingram had a heart attack on stage while playing a rare concert at the Barnacle state park in the Grove. (He finished the set. “People told me after, ‘You sounded pretty good,’ ” Bobby said.)

That he’s managed to get a record out after so many years is something Gay would have been inordinately proud of, Bobby and Bryn say. It’s the first solo recording he has released. The one previous effort, for CBS in the early 1970s, was “a disaster” derailed by a producer’s inexperience and Bobby’s lack of preparation, and, despite a stellar backing band and at least a couple of good songs, it was never released, Ingram said.

“It’s about time. That’s what she’d say,” Bobby said, referring to Gay while sitting in the screened-in back porch of the cottage on a recent afternoon. “She would have loved the record. When she was alive, I sang every song to her whenever I was performing and she was in the audience. She was a great pal. She was a lot of fun. I miss her. We all miss her. I was loved for 46 years as well as anyone can be loved.”

Take it from Crosby, who calls Bobby “one of his oldest friends in the world.” Ingram’s the real deal, and the record’s real good.

“I like it a lot,” Crosby said by phone from his home in Northern California. “He’s a terrific singer. He’s a really good musician, really old school. He’s not at all like the slick, highly produced bull---- that’s popular now.

“But this is bigger than a career move for him. It’s a life thing.”

The recording deal grew out of last year’s shows marking the 50-year reunion of the Flick, the Coral Gables coffeehouse near UM — today the Titanic brewpubwhere Ingram and Crosby once played as a duo, figuring out Beatles chord changes between sets out behind the venue. It’s also the place where Joni Mitchell learned how to present her unconventional songs to a sometimes-unappreciative live audience.

At the reunion, organized by comedian Gabe Kaplan of Welcome Back Kotter fame, Bobby and his longtime sidekick, guitarist and singer Kevin Hurley, shared the bill with another old Ingram pal, Vince Martin, the first well-known folk singer and songwriter to move from Greenwich Village to the Grove in the early ’60s. Ingram and Hurley, who’ve played together for 30 years, mesh their guitar playing and singing effortlessly. And they were on.

“We got up there and kicked ass,” Hurley recalls. “You don’t find too many people where everything comes together the way it does when you play with Bobby. It’s just not hard. He’s got a great groove.”

The show led to an offer from Kingswood Records, a small label with a roster of mostly young folk musicians. All those connections of Ingram’s paid off. Alana Amram, daughter of composer and bandleader David Amram, was also on the Flick reunion bill. She records for Kingswood, whose owner came to the anniversary shows, and had done a CD of Vince Martin songs for them.

Postcards was recorded in a Tamarac studio with a crackerjack cast of South Florida musicians, including Hurley on scintillating acoustic guitar, former Weather Report drummer Bobby Thomas Jr. and daughter Bryn, now an impressive belter with a ringing voice. They were joined by an eclectic supporting crew comprising recent grads of UM’s Americana music program and, on two cuts, Celia Cruz’s old bass player and arranger, Ramses Colon.

The 10 songs range from rocking blues to old-school country and folk, most loosely linked by connections to the Grove, written by Grove folkies or simply old favorites. Only one is an Ingram composition, his signature Jasmine Town, which Bobby wrote years ago while working on a UM research ship out in the Gulf. Naturally, it’s about longing for Coconut Grove.

Though he has written a few tunes, Ingram’s mostly a singer of other peoples’ songs, putting his own stamp on them. His voice has worn smoothly, with a bit of a rasp, but Bobby can sound as sweet as Willie Nelson.

“I just learn songs and bang them out,” Ingram said. “Some people put me in that singer-songwriter category. I’ve written some songs. But I’m a song interpreter.”

Hurley, who came to the Grove relatively late in the day, when Ingram was playing Monty’s, said he was bowled over when he first dropped in to check him out.

“He was the first really good singer I ever saw. He knows how to wrap himself around a song. He’ll take a song by someone else and totally make it his own. I said to myself, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it,’ ” Hurley said.

Fittingly, Bobby’s CD opens with a gem from the Grove’s reclusive folk godfather, the late Fred Neil, the singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter. Mentor to Dylan and to Crosby and Stephen Stills —Crosby, Stills & Nash at one point purportedly thought of calling themselves Son of Neil instead — Neil wrote perhaps the ultimate Grove song, Everybody’s Talkin’, the theme song to Midnight Cowboy. Ingram recasts Neil’s mournfully bluesy A Little Bit of Rain as a bittersweet lovers’ duet, trading verses with Bryn.

He also re-tools Lovin’ Spoonful founder John Sebastian’s waltz-time Coconut Grove — another one from back in the day — with a Latin groove, merging the old Grove sound with modern-day Miami. Halfway through, the musicians rip into a full-fledged montuno under a scorching Santana-like lead by the band’s electric guitarist, Tommy Hall, trading off with Hurley’s acoustic. The song closes with Bobby’s delighted cackle.

“I told Tommy, do you have a Santana button on that guitar?” Ingram said, alluding to the famed guitarist’s characteristic fuzz effect. “And he did.”

There’s also a lovely rendition of the folk classic The Dutchman, one of two songs on the record by Michael Peter Smith, another Flick veteran once labeled by Rolling Stone magazine as “the greatest songwriter in the English language.” It’s maybe a cheeky choice, ensconced as it in the canon in classic versions by Steve Goodman — another Flick regular — and Irishman Liam Clancy.

But then Ingram has never been short on confidence as a singer. One day, when Dylan showed up for his set at Monty’s, someone dared Ingram to play Lay Lady Lay. Ingram did, and no one flinched.

Postcards was a chance to finally put what he does best on a record, Ingram said, even if it’s in the age of the MP3 and music streaming. He has always tried to follow the advice that Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary, gave him 40 years ago, Ingram said: “To try to find songs that relate to my life in some way. And if it makes somebody cry for the right reason, that’s an achievement.”

Ingram’s father, Edgar, played banjo and guitar professionally. Bobby was born in New York City, but the family moved to Miami, where his father was playing hotel gigs, when he was 14. Bobby started on the ukulele, and his dad taught him Mexican folk songs. A big Hank Williams fan, Bobby began playing in public during assemblies at Horace Mann Junior High. At Edison High — where he was a classmate of Miami historian and UM trustee Arva Moore Parks, who counts herself a fan — he had a doo-wop group.

Ingram joined the Navy and, while serving on a submarine crew out of Key West, sailed from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean. He fondly recalls off-duty carousing — the vivid details are off the record — on sallies to pre-Castro Havana. When he left the military, Ingram got a seaman’s license and crewed on a Mobil gas tanker and on merchant ships. Like the lead character in the Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, Bobby early on would sign up for a voyage to supplement his inconstant musician’s income. One time, he told Gay he was going to look into a job, got on a ship in Jacksonville and was gone six months, a friend recalls.

But it was music he lived for, and it took him to Greenwich Village at the peak of the folk revival. The first time he realized he might make a living at it was in early 1960s, when he met Martin, who’d had a big hit by then, Cindy, Oh Cindy, backed by a group called the Tarriers.

“I thought, if that’s all it takes, I can do that already,” Bobby recalls.

Around 1962, Ingram’s savings helped a friend finance the opening of a Miami coffeehouse, called, simply, The Coffeehouse, on Douglas Road south of Coral Way. It launched the local folk scene.

“Suddenly kids were coming out of the woodwork,” Bobby said. Martin was the first to come down, to invest the proceeds of his hit in a boat-charter business, followed by his singing partner Neil, thus giving the Grove scene instant cred. “He was the bait,” Ingram said of Neil.

Not long after that Crosby rode a Greyhound bus down from New York and crashed in a friend’s Grove pad, where he and Ingram met and instantly hit it off. “We immediately wound up singing together, and he hitting on my girlfriend,” Bobby said. “He was a horndog.”

Crosby remembers Ingram teaching him to play God Bless the Child and being impressed by Bobby’s knack for figuring out song chords.

“He took me in and got me my first job at a coffeehouse he was running,” Crosby said. “We sang pretty well together.”

They also began running together. Crosby recounts taking sailboats out after playing coffeehouse gigs. But it wasn’t stealing, he emphasizes, because someone had the keys to the pier gate.

“It’s possible that we were high,” Crosby said drily. “Man, the Grove, before it got boutiqued out? We had a blast.”

Ingram and Crosby then joined Les Baxter’s Balladeers, a popular group, along with Crosby’s brother Ethan, and went on tour on the national folk circuit — costumed in Beatles-like uniforms that Crosby recalls as “terrible” — with “Mama” Cass Elliot. But Crosby left the group to join a girlfriend elsewhere.

“The Balladeers broke up,” Ingram said, his voice tinged with a remnant of regret these many years later. “That was my one shot.”

With no income, Ingram came home to the Grove. Crosby, meanwhile, joined a new group called the Byrds and helped invent folk-rock with their version of Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, a hugely influential hit for them in 1965.

“I was working as a bill collector and driving in my car, and I turned on the radio and heard Mr Tambourine Man, and I almost put my fist through the windshield,” Ingram said. “That drove me for years. If he can do it, so can I. Well, not really.”

There were some other chances. In 1967, during the Summer of Love, Ingram drove a VW with a pregnant Gay to Northern California, where Bryn was born. He shared a steady Wednesday gig in a Sausalito cafe with Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, and made an album with singer Gail Garnett as a member of her backing group, the Gentle Reign, which he helped assemble. Though the band’s two psychedelically tinged records enjoy a certain underground appreciation today, Ingram didn’t think much of the music they produced. Once more, Bobby came back to the Grove.

But when the Byrds unceremoniously kicked Crosby out, Crosby bought an old schooner in Fort Lauderdale, had it refurbished with plans to sail around the world, and docked it for a while at Dinner Key. It was on the deck of the Mayan, on a sail from Dinner Key, that Crosby co-wrote the CSN classic Wooden Ships with Stills and the Airplane’s Paul Kantner.

One day, when Joni Mitchell was playing the Gaslight South, the Grove coffeehouse Ingram eventually ended up managing, Bobby urged Crosby to come see her. Ingram doesn’t remember introducing them, but he jokes: “I’ll go with it.”

Crosby says he’s pretty sure of it. “He said, ‘You have to come listen to this girl,’ ” Crosby said. “Naturally, I fell for her.”

Infatuated, Crosby took Mitchell back to L.A., where he produced her first album. And joined a fledgling group that took the name Crosby Stills & Nash. Ingram sums it up: “Crosby left and I stayed.”

But the friendship endured. Bobby kept playing music and took day jobs to pay the bills and, eventually, to buy a house in the Grove. For a year he was a rep for RCA records, squiring around old musical friends like the Airplane and Jose Feliciano when they were in town.

Then Crosby came calling again: He needed help sailing the Mayan to California and back. Crosby said he and Ingram would sail “thousands” of miles together on the Mayan. And when Gay died, Crosby invited Bobby to accompany him on his tour bus to distract him for a spell.

When the music jobs dried up in the late ’70s, Ingram gamely went to work full time backstage, mostly at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, hanging lights and running sound — sometimes for people he used to play with, like Feliciano. For five years after that two-decade gig, Ingram ran the theater at Ransom Everglades high school near his Grove home and taught on the faculty.

There were small tastes of the big time, too. Ingram was in the all-star band that played several benefits for the Dolphin Project, including a semi-legendary Tokyo show in 1977. When Grove pal and collaborator Slick Aguilar, a guitarist who had joined Crosby’s band and later Jefferson Starship, recently needed a liver transplant, Ingram played a benefit at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall with Crosby.

But life for Ingram centered around home and family, Bryn said, even if some of the houseguests were household names, like Rick Danko of The Band, or John Sebastian. The Ingram house on Palmetto Avenue, where Bryn today lives in the rear cottage, was the scene of some famous Christmas parties to which the entire neighborhood was invited.

“There was always music and musicians around,” Bryn said.

Through their friends, though, they also learned fame wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Fred Neil became a semi-hermit in a cottage around the corner before moving to the Keys, where he died alone, of cancer. Crosby had his well-publicized bouts with the law and substance abuse.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Bryn said. “The people who made it big sacrificed a lot of their personal lives. The road is a lonely place. A lot of them had children, and they weren’t around for them. Dad lived through Coconut Grove’s heyday, and it was super magical. Whenever he does play, he always draw a crowd. Wherever he plays, it’s always the busiest night of the year. People are just drawn to him and love his signing.

“People ask me, ‘Are you sad he didn’t make it big? And I say, ‘No, I’m glad I had him around.’ 

Ingram, who kept on traveling the world with Gay up to the end, says he has no regrets.

“Lack of ambition seems to be my mortal sin,” he says, laughing. “I wanted to have a great life. Coconut Grove was the place to come to. This was a little village. It was cheap. It was a matter of finding a cottage, paying the rent and living the life, and that’s what we did. I think it was a no-brainer. You could take a boat from Castle Harbor out on the bay at midnight. Everyone was in love with somebody. Everyone discovered the joys of dope. There were high levels of sincerity in the air.”

And he says he’s not jealous of his famous peers, so long as he gets to perform now and again.

“It’s what I do. You saw it,” he said, referring to the sailing club show. “It’s a little rowdy. Once I get feeling good, I keep on feeling good. We’re all doing the same thing at different levels of success. I’ve done a lot of Willie Nelson songs. I just don’t have the bus or the money.”

But, he adds: “Buffett has two seaplanes. Now that’s something to envy. That’s to my mind the most glamorous form of travel.”

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