By Tom Marshall
On a warm afternoon, Jerry Velasco shuffles into the San Clemente Villas By The Sea retirement residence home to do what he has been doing since a teenager—entertain an audience. His gait may be a bit slower and his hair a few shades grayer, but at age 90 he will be performing for senior citizens, many of whom are younger than himself. This is not just some local guy who can play and sing.
Raised in San Diego before World War II, Velasco got his first “gig” at a club there in 1944 while still in high school playing with blues legend T-Bone Walker. What a way to enter show business! He was later “discovered” by jazz immortal Lionel Hampton in Los Angeles.
During the ensuing years he performed with many of the music business royalty including Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Cab Calloway, Quincy Jones, Lena Horne and regularly lunched with Harry Belafonte while Velasco was selling his songs at New York’s fabled Tin Pan Alley. He was performing on three different occasions when controversial comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested. He has toured the U.S. and Europe as a featured jazz musician. Today, he mainly sings and plays keyboard, but in the past has played everything from bass to harmonica.
Velasco’s movie credits (both as musician and actor) include Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (with Robert Redford), Ocean’s Eleven (The Rat Pack), and Fun In Acapulco (Elvis Presley) and the television mini-series The Winds of War (Robert Mitchum.) He’s played golf with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Chevy Chase and pro golfer Byron Nelson.
What brought him to live in San Clemente? In a recent Historical Society Oral History video interview, he says a friend from here let him stay with him for a while in the mid-1960s.
“This is the best place with the best weather of anywhere I’ve been in my life,” Velasco said. That’s pretty cool, as he’s spent time in the French Riviera and Hawaii.
While performing all over the country, Velasco made San Clemente his home base. In his autobiography, Just Who Is Jerry Velasco, he comments, “In 1965, I’m playing piano bar at the San Clemente Inn. The whole town is buzzing at the news the Hollywood Hackers will be in San Clemente for a weekend celebrity (golf) tournament.”
This is a group of actors and musicians who played for various charities. Local duffers ponied up $50 each to play with the likes of Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan fame), Claude Akins, Jose Ferrar and Jack Albertson. Ole Hanson’s grandson, Don Hanson, donated fish and helped cook at a Saturday night Fish Fry at the Elk’s Club for the players.
On July 4, 1973, Velasco got an urgent call from his San Clemente Inn boss, Paul Presley. Even though it was his day off, he was being called into work for a hastily arranged party. He arrives and is immediately introduced to the large crowd by the unofficial mayor of Hollywood, Johnny Grant. After his first set, the crowd parts and up walks local resident and President of the United States Richard Nixon. “He says ‘I really enjoy your music’,” Velasco recalled.
“Nixon then tells the audience, ‘My fellow San Clementeans, thank you all for coming to celebrate the birthday of my daughter Julie.’”
Many of Jerry’s show-biz friends played at Sebastian’s West Dinner Playhouse, which is today the Casino San Clemente. Comedian Martha Raye stayed with the Velascos when playing there. One visit during an impromptu jam session at the Velascos, Raye collapsed in mid-song. Rushed to the hospital by ambulance, Raye was found to have hyperventilated. And then there was the time…well, we’ll get into that in another column.
Tom Marshall is a member of the board of directors of the San Clemente Historical Society and a retired journalist.