Greg Watts is one of those people who is a friend to everybody. Self-effacing and unassuming, he listens to everyone’s problems, shows up to help out at everyone’s benefit or fundraiser and does his best – often at detriment to himself – to make sure that those he loves are happy. What many people do not know is that sweet Greg, with his corny jokes and compassionate nature, has done things in his life most can only dream of. Through what Greg in his modesty describes as a “fortunate series of lucky chances”, he used to model for Calvin Klein, travel the world as a famous roller skater, do stunt work for Hollywood and star as Cher’s love interest. Oh yeah, and then there’s the work he’s done as a musician and songwriter. I felt like it was high time everyone got to know the man behind the bass. This is the story of my friend, Greg Watts.
Greg Watts was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1983 (just kidding, it was really 1946). “I was adopted by a wonderful family,” said Greg. “My dad was the vice president of an electric company, and we moved to a small community outside of Cleveland, Ohio called Chagrin Falls when I was little.” Greg, who describes his family as “wealthy”, spent his youth traveling back and forth between Santa Monica, California and Ohio, depending on his father’s jobs. The family would also spend between two to three months a year on the island of Spanish Wells in the Bahamas, where young Greg learned to SCUBA dive and become a state champion relay swimmer.
Greg loved California, never really feeling like he fit it in Ohio, so this led to his leaving home at a young age. “I wanted to stay in Santa Monica, so when my family came back to Ohio when I was about 15, I hit the road and ran away to California,” said Greg. This being the dawn of the 60’s, he became very involved in the ‘beach scene’ there – volleyball, surfing and coffee houses – or, as Greg describes it, “Post- Beat, Pre-Hip.” But it was short-lived. “In my junior year of high school, I had to come home because I was broke,” he told me, laughing.
“When I came back to Cleveland, I started sneaking out – escaping – down to the area of 105th Avenue and Euclid by the U.N. Circle. I was mesmerized by all the blues and jazz groups playing in the clubs, and that’s when I first became interested in music,” said Greg. “I not only saw the great Jimmy Smith, I was inspired by Winston Walls. I was so glad to be able to tell him about it years later when he came to play at the Barking Shark here on the Beach just before he got sick.” Greg told me that back then blues and jazz were “lost in a summer season then, and limited to small venues in bars and coffee houses”.
Greg was bitten by the bug and began to play. “I took up the bass and was accepted in the small blues community. I ended up playing for groups like B.B. King, Guitar Slim, Elmore James, and Mr. Stress (Bill Miller) in small venues like ‘La Cave’ and ‘Jessie’s Playboy Club’,” said Greg, adding, “I just love that name – Jessie’s Playboy Club.” Greg tells us that he felt like he was just in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t know how good I was back then, but I loved the blues and I feel so fortunate to have fallen into such a great learning experience,” he said. Greg would eventually make his way back to Santa Monica, a pattern he would follow often until finally moving to Fort Myers Beach years later, but first he moved to Denver, Colorado.
“Again, I lucked out and ended up with two great singers and players that had connections to the S.F. Images Agency – a big modeling agency in Denver – and they booked us into Playboy Clubs in Phoenix, and International Playboy Clubs in a big circle that included Durango, Cheyenne, Scottsbluff, Nebraska and Vail and Aspen,” said Greg. “And these clubs, I mean, we’re talking Nik Nik (disco) shirts, French cut pants and patent leather platform shoes! Yikes!”
After awhile, Greg says that he got tired of driving in giant concentric circles to play gigs and he missed his sister Marilyn – who lived in Venice at the time – so he headed west. “This was in 1974, and I was fed up with being cold, too,” he said. “So I returned to California where I was once again a Santa Monica beach bum playing music on the sidewalk. I did this for a couple of years when a friend comes up with a pair of roller skates in my size. My guitar player said, “Hey, why don’t you put those skate board wheels on the roller skates” so I did.” Greg had no clue where this seemingly goofy idea would lead. “I skate six blocks and outdoor roller skating explodes,” he said, describing the beginning of yet another of his “lucky breaks”.
“From a V.W. van with 25 pairs of used rink roller skates with skate board wheels on them, we went on to become the first outdoor roller skate rental store with 800 rentals and 30 franchises,” Greg told me. “All of a sudden, we became the newest fad for Hollywood. Man, they were all riding Harley’s, now they were roller skating and bowling!” he said, bursting into laughter at the memory.
“At first, most of my customers were beach bums like me,” Greg said, “but because Robin Williams, Kate Jackson and Cher were skating, the next thing I knew our company was supplying skates and skating equipment for a Cher television project called ‘Cher and Other Fantasies’ and they wanted me for the lead role – Cher’s love interest. Yikes again!”
Greg said that he found himself thrust into a world he couldn’t believe. “I was a small time musician, roller skating beach bum that was totally in love with Cher,” he said. “Knowing I wasn’t a good enough dance skater, I went for it anyway because I felt it was part of the portfolio of life experience.”
Skating became so popular that Greg ended up doing parts in movies -‘Skatetown, U.S.A.’ with Patrick Swayze and ‘Xanadu’, with Olivia Newton-John (a movie this reporter admittedly watched endlessly at the age of 9, dreaming of being a skating queen). He was also given the opportunity to go to Hong Kong, leading a dance team sponsored by the British-American-Korean tobacco company, Kim, so he left his roller skating business behind and headed overseas.
“I was only in Hong Kong for a month or so, but we were treated like superstars,” Greg said. “We had our own limos and stayed at expensive hotels. I even got to become the first person to skate on the Great Wall of China. Eventually, even though I had the opportunity to go into television there, I became homesick and went back to California.”
The roller skating gig led to more brushes with fame. When Greg returned to the town he loved so much, he was offered and took jobs as a stuntman for C.H.i.P.S., acting parts in Chuck Norris movies – “always as a punk” – and modeling. “I wasn’t really that good looking, but back then I had a certain look that the photographers loved so I ended up doing print work for Calvin Klein and White Stag,” Greg told us. At one point, he adorned a billboard on the Sunset Strip and even appeared, as a roller skater, on the Merv Griffin show in 1982.
Greg also got to work with horses when he starred as a wrangler in ‘The Duchess and the Dirt Water Fox’. “I became friends with the wranglers working with us on the movie and I loved it,” said Greg.
When he thinks back on this time in his life, Greg recalls a conversation he once had with Matanzas manager Chris Aronberg. “After I told Chris about all I had done, Chris asked me, ‘How did you end up here?’ and I told him that I didn’t start doing all that stuff until I was in my late 20’s. In that business, that’s already old, and when you’re old, you’re done,” he said. “Plus, I wasn’t really all that great at any of it. I was just lucky.”
Greg’s biggest love was music, and he eventually found his way back to playing the bass. “I began playing in bars in Venice where I got to play with musicians who were looking for a place to gig while they were off the road,” said Greg. “Guys like Dean Haegen, Ken Parks, Kitaro and numerous other great drummers. Again, another lucky learning experience.”
Most of the clubs Greg played in were run by either the Hell’s Angels or the Heathens – two gangs that ran Los Angeles at the time. “In L.A., whatever gang runs your neighborhood, you become an affiliate of,” Greg explained. “But I was never scared to play in these places because there was a code of honor then. Other band members would act frightened and I would tell them that they were safer playing in a Hell’s Angel or Heathens clubhouse than at a frat party at UCLA.”
Greg also got into songwriting then, and is especially proud of writing the first Guitar Center commercial. He also has a credited song in the Andrew Dice Clay movie ‘Brainsmasher – A Love Story’, from which he still receives (tiny) royalty checks every once in a while. It was about this time, when Greg was writing songs, that he became involved with a woman named Shane Ferris, who was the lead singer in a band called ‘Johnny Mack and the Straightjackets’. Little did Greg know that it would be this band that would eventually lead him to his permanent home – Fort Myers Beach.
“This band and I got invited to come to Las Vegas to back up the lead singers of bands like ‘The Drifters’,” said Greg. “Since we were to be a back-up band, we had no use for a singer, so Shane left the band. For the next fifteen years, I played with these guys at places like Excalibur, Circus Circus and Luxor – basically becoming the rhythm section and harmonizing with guys like J.J. Jackson and Brenton Wood.” The band members were still living in Santa Monica, however, and the scene there was rapidly deteriorating as the 80’s became the 90’s.
“I had met the love of my life, Lena, and I was living there with her and her four kids – Joshua, Jeremy, Kyla and Kim – when the gangs really got bad,” Greg told me. “There wasn’t many music gigs anymore, and I loved those kids like my own and wanted to get them out of there. Plus, those kids had never seen a frog!” Illustrating how ‘dead’ L.A. is, Greg told us a story where Jeremy saw his first pelican not long after moving to the Island. “He said, ‘Dad, look! A big pigeon!” Greg remembered, saying, “Now that’s deprived!”
Greg and his band were offered a gig playing on the Sea Cruise Europa, which used to operate off of Fort Myers Beach, and, even though it was on the other side of the country, they jumped at the chance. “We got here and loved it,” said Greg. “We got a house off of Coral Road, and the kids went to Beach Elementary. I was involved with the Cub Scouts and all the Bay Oaks sports. My kids were great athletes.”
After awhile, the gig with the Sea Cruise turned sour when they started cheating the guys out of money. While he still returned to Vegas with the band to play for 10 weeks every year, Greg began looking for other ways to support his family. “I went up to Tom Kolar, who owns the Lighthouse, and suggested starting the Tiki Bar. “By that time, things with Lena were really starting to fall apart, so I moved out and Tom was kind enough to let me live at the Lighthouse for free,” said Greg. “Since I had bar management experience from L.A. (yes, he did that, too) I offered to manage the bar in lieu of rent because I felt guilty about that.”
Since what Greg really wanted to do was play music, he began a singles act at the Lighthouse Tiki Bar. “Once I was ready, Gisela at Matanzas Inn hired me, and that’s when I met this wonderful person named Mary Winner,” said Greg. “I’ve been playing with her for the last 14 years and now we have a band with Jo List called ‘Habitat for Harmony’.”
Greg loves his life here, and – despite all his experiences – calls his decision to move to this island, “The best thing that ever happened to me”. He is also very appreciative to the community he has adopted as home. When Hurricane Charley hit, his home was demolished, and Matanzas manager Chris Aronberg put him up at the Matanzas Inn until it could be rebuilt, something Greg is eternally grateful for.
A couple of weeks ago, another tragedy befell Greg Watts when he was taken to the hospital on the brink of death – the result of a very rare glandular infection. “One of the glands in my lower torso got abscessed, and the infection caused my kidneys to fail,” Greg told us. “When I got to the hospital, I was in extreme pain and my skin was all gray. The infection was so virulent they had a hard time finding the right antibiotic for it.” Again, Greg cites his unbelievable luck when he says, “I had as a surgeon Dr. Dike – one of the best there is, and she saved my life.”
Greg says that, in spite of what has happened to him, he still feels blessed. His eyes burn with the intensity of his feelings when he says, “I’ve had other terrible things happen to me, too, which I’ve never told anyone, yet I feel so lucky, so blessed by God. As a musician, I’ve had lots of other types of work, and the reason that I love music so much is that it allows you to be your own boss. I thank the Lord that I moved to this wonderful place. It is so rich in friendship and community spirit. That’s what true wealth is.”
Greg wanted us to make sure we thanked all the people in his life that have helped him so much, both through the years and during his recent tragedy. “I want to thank my fellow employees at Matanzas, especially Chris Aronberg, Marty, Jerry, Doug, Gisela and Kathy Glover – she detailed my car while I was in the hospital! – and all my friends at Matanzas over the years. Oh, and thank you to Leonard Hughes of Paradise Taxi for giving me a job after Charley. I love you all.”
For a man who is well liked, the proof is not in how much you are loved but in how you are loved by others. Judging by the amount of people that showed up at Greg’s benefit a couple of weeks ago, the love he feels for this community is well-received. Good luck, Greg – I hope to always count you as one of my dearest friends!
Keri Hendry – originally published in the Island Sand Paper, Issue 396, September 11, 2008