Jim Craine was known as the Singing Cabana Boy before he was known as the Singing Lifeguard. But now, he’s simply a singer — though also an impressionist, music shop owner, WOND radio host and, finally, a bandleader.
“A lot of acts always come from the heart,” said Craine, 57, of Galloway Township. “You’re there to entertain people. It’s like having people in your living room, but it’s an awful big living room.”
He’ll be performing his biggest gig yet Friday, when he and his Atlantic City All-Star Band perform at the Middle Township Performing Arts Center. It is the latest highlight in his long and colorful life in show business — dating to his days growing up in Atlantic City, when he remembers watching “The Al Jolson Story” on Sunday afternoon TV.
“I watched the whole movie, and at the end I stood in the living room with suspenders, singing” — at this point he segued into a pretty good Al Jolson impression — “and my father came in and said, ‘Oh no! He’s going to be in show biz.’”
Soon, the nuns at Holy Spirit grade school found out he could sing and placed him in the choir. “I did my first show when I was 8 years old, and that’s no lie,” he said with enthusiasm, practically as soon as his interviewer sat down.
“We had a show in the auditorium and a nun, Sister Bernardo, she puts me in this show with eight other guys behind me,” he recalled. “I sang ‘I Love to Laugh’ from Mary Poppins. I remember doing that and getting laughs, milking the audience. ... Here I am 38 years later, and I’m still doing it. As a matter of fact, I still sing ‘I Love to Laugh’ in the show.”
From there, he got a job at the Steel Pier at the ripe age of 9 — “I forged my work papers saying I was of age to work,” he explained — where he worked jobs ranging from usher to diving bell operator to running the occasional midway game.
“My first job was at the milk bottle game,” Craine said. “The joke was that when a big storm hit the pier, the bottles all kept standing right up.”
Another glamorous job was to be the groom at the diving horse attraction, “cleaning up after them, drying them off. As I said in the show, ‘I shoveled horse poop, but I was in show business.’”
But his most treasured memories involve seeing and meeting the celebrities who stopped by the pier during his 10 years there, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher and Duke Ellington — whom he said he got to sit next to at the piano during a practice.
Ellington was intrigued, Craine said, by a child so young who was still “fascinated” by his music. “Kids weren’t paying attention to him at the time,” Craine said, referring to his days at the pier from 1963-73.
When management changed, he followed his old boss, Barney Cipriani, to the Versailles Hotel in Miami Beach, where Cipriani bet cabana boy Craine a hundred bucks that he wouldn’t get up and sing with the band. Craine did — “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” was his song of choice — and a good reaction led owner Sheila Barr to offer him a show one Wednesday night in the Taboo Room, the same venue where a young Gloria Estefan would perform with her family.
“It was Dec. 14, 1974, to be exact,” Craine recalled. “It was the first time I ever performed in front of people doing my act. ... They called me the ‘Singing Cabana Boy,’ and I sang ‘Yellow Ribbon,’ ‘Babyface’ and ‘Rockabye Baby.’ I told two jokes I’m still telling in my act today. I got a standing ovation at my first paid show, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Coming back north, he got a job with the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, where he was known, naturally, as the “Singing Lifeguard.”
“I’ve actually had pictures of me coming in the front door in my uniform and coming out the back door in my tux at the end of the day,” he said.
He performed at Resorts when it first opened in 1978 and got his first opening-act job at the Playboy casino, where he came on before the Platters.
“I was driving on the Walt Whitman Bridge and I saw a billboard: ‘The Platters, with the Singing Cabana Boy Jim Craine,’” he recalled. “I went all the way to Philly and turned around so I could come back and take a picture.”
Craine continues appearing with his band as he runs the Pleasantville Music Shoppe. “I married the boss’s daughter,” he said, explaining his entry into business.
The band’s makeup has been fairly steady, with Tony DeLuca on piano, Tom McGill on synthesizer, Jimmy Hines on bass, Stan Richards on guitar, Joe Kane on percussion and Ray Nunzi — once profiled in Different Drummers himself — on, what else, drums.
He described his upcoming Middle Township appearance as a “stage show” — “The first time ever as a stage show,” he said. “I’m really glad for the opportunity to be there.”
Why does he love the sounds of Sinatra, Bennett, Dean Martin and Bobby Darin?
“I love the American songbook,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t like new music. I like Katy Perry, I like Lady Gaga, I hate to say it — she has a great voice, even if she’s kind of weird — Madonna, Train, Green Day, Foo Fighters, they’re old guys. But I grew up with the big band sound. My dad hooked me on Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. Then Dean Martin really is my favorite. And I love Sammy.”
So he returns to the stage, to keep doing what he’s been doing by the pool, on the beach, and practically everywhere else.
“I’ve been at this for 38 years,” he said, “and I’m going to do it until I get it right.”
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Do you know of anyone in our region whose devotion to their craft, hobby or pastime is truly awe-inspiring? Let us know at 609-272-7275 or at SLemongello@pressofac.com