Upon entering Norm’s Restaurant and Lounge on a Thursday or Friday evening, at first you hear the gentle strains of a keyboard playing. Then, you notice Pete Byers is behind those pensive, sweet tones of “It’s a Wonderful World.” With eyes closed, he seems to be reliving a very poignant moment from his past. Then, the fun starts.
Byers has a voice of easy listening, but it’s his talented keyboard wizardry and, his talents on the saxophone that make him entertaining. And, that’s exactly what he is there to do: entertain.
From the start, he is cajoling the audience, encouraging them to sing, tell jokes and offer up silly stories. Whether you are young or not, Byers captures your attention and soon every single person is joining in on the fun, either singing, humming or tapping their toes in rhythm, as Byers plays. In-between playing, Byers tells corny, almost-clean jokes and has them laughing — proof that he has achieved his mission.
It’s a feel-good show. Intermixed with nonsense, his performance becomes more fun, more alive, to an audience that is looking for a good time. “This is an antique sax,” Byers says, “and an antique sax player. So, I’m going to play you an antique song.”
He breaks into “When the Saints Come Marching In,” and it’s obvious he’s had extensive training. He evokes a carnival-like sound from the keyboard, and as his white-socked foot bounces from pedal to pedal, he encourages an imaginary drummer, dubbed Sticks, to “Pick it up … these people won’t live long enough to hear the end of the song.”
Then, he’s got the audience laughing again, as he reminisces about the old days, when as a youth he played at many Boston gentlemen’s clubs.
Leaving the keyboard and heading for the dance floor, he prepares to play his version of “Harlem Nocturne,” but warns the gentlemen to watch the ladies, because Byers is never quite sure of their reaction. His suggests that if they start to climb on the table and strip off their clothes, a gentleman should steady the table. The audience howls, and some of the seniors look as though they are seriously considering the act.
He soon pulls an audience member into the next song after a Chicago lawyer visiting the area volunteers his wife for the accompaniment. But, the lawyer ends up taking the stage instead, and plays one of Byers’ favorite instruments. It is a stick with a bell, pie pan and spring attached, used to give a country flavor to Byers version of “Rocky Top Tenn.”
The most remarkable thing, however, is seeing the audience completely mesmerized and involved with the show.
Byers gets right back to his banter and says, “There’s nothing like a little sax.” And it really is a little sax. About half the size of a regular saxophone, this diminutive soprano sax looks almost silly, but sounds resonant. The instrument is old, but Byers says, “The older the better, not like cars or vacuums.”
Finally, Howie joins in on the fun. A puppet, long-time pal and collaborator in the Pete and Howie Show, Howie is difficult to describe, with wild, brown fur and a beak-like nose. Of no particular species, he looks like something between a miniature Big Bird and an electro-shocked Cookie Monster.
“I don’t know what he is,” says Byers, “everyone sees something different.”
Byers, of course, plays it clean, while Howie gets all the good lines. You may see Byers’ lips move, but the voice is convincing enough to keep your attention on the wild-eyed puppet when he speaks. After 27 years together, the pair has their routine down pat.
Byers is originally from Cape Cod, and still plays the Poland Spring Resort in Maine during the summer.
As a child, he was forced to take piano lessons, but staged an adolescent walk-out when they tried to make him play classical music. As a compromise, he was allowed to play the horn.
He later joined the Air Force Band, and for eight years, got to play all over the country and toured Europe. “That’s where I really learned to play,” he says.
Byers relocated to Riverside, Calif., and went to college to become a teacher, eventually teaching shop class. “I taught for a while — hated it,” Byers says, and ended up going back to his first love, music.
He quickly learned that entertainers were paid better than musicians, after he accidentally got a dancer’s paycheck mixed up with his own and saw who made more. “That’s when I decided to be an entertainer, not a musician,” he says.
Eventually, Byers, his wife and Howie relocated to Naples. “It was a dream my wife and I had, once the last kid was gone. I always liked this area,” he says.
Byers plays it all, from sensual jazz to foot-stompin’ country, and finishes up with a love song, Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” He gets the audience on the dance floor, doing everything from the fox trot to ballroom and even a little dirty dancing.
One thing is certain, at the end of Byers’ performance, everyone has been entertained.
Byers is available for private bookings. Contact him at 775-8053.