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Saltwater Portrait

Matt Avery: Rocker finds his groove in Rehoboth

Energetic entertainer knows 4,200 songs, never takes breaks
March 19, 2019

No one enjoys a Matt Avery show more than Matt Avery himself.

It’s obvious he loves what he does when he takes the stage at Conch Island Key West Bar and Grill on Rehoboth Avenue, where he has enjoyed a standing weekend gig since opening night in 2010.

The singer/acoustic guitarist moves smoothly between genres. After Paul McCartney’s “With a Little Luck,” Avery may follow with “Whistle” by Flo Rida or Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” pausing only to down half a pitcher of water or joke with the audience.

That pause is the only break Avery takes during his energetic four-hour sets, a major rule he set for his shows while playing in Key West.

“You take a break, people get up and leave. They’re not engaged. So that’s what I do here, and that’s the bar I set for entertainers, and they may not like that very much,” he smiled.

Avery took a circuitous route to his home at Conch Island. Growing up outside Columbus, Ohio, in the 1970s, he was influenced by Queen, Foreigner, Boston and Def Leppard.

“Radio back then, we had one channel and songs would go from the Bee Gees to Kenny Rogers, The Carpenters and the Osmonds,” he said. “I was a child of diversity; there was a wealth of diverse music.”

In Columbus, Avery and a couple friends started a makeup band called Scarlet. “Lots of singers wore makeup like Kiss, Bowie, Queen, Poison, Bon Jovi,” he said. “We liked that androgynous look.”

Soon after, the band moved to Los Angeles, where they hooked up with 16-year-old pop phenom Tiffany. “We went to what we thought was a rehearsal studio, but it was actually a recording studio,” he said. “The producer said Tiffany would be big, and we ought to try out for her band because we had ‘the look.’”

Tiffany was just coming off her mall tour and needed a band. Spandex-clad, ’80s hairband Scarlet got the job. “We were so excited to watch her song burn up the charts,” Avery said. “She went from No. 40 album in the country to No. 18, No. 7 then No. 1. They told us, get new clothes you’re going on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson! I got to call my mom and tell her to watch me on TV.”

Two nights later, they played “I Think We’re Alone Now” on Solid Gold, then American Bandstand. Scarlet played with Tiffany while she promoted her first album, but the band was not hired for her live tour. “They needed studio musicians,” he said. “We were garage musicians who trained ourselves.”

While the band did not land that job, Avery stayed in touch with the young star. In 2014, he invited her to sing at Conch Island, where he played with her once more. She is now touring with Rick Springfield and other ’80s headliners on a cruise ship, he said.

Nonplussed, the band continued. “We got a good writeup in the L.A. rags, and I could almost smell a record deal,” he said. “Then Star Search came up in a really weird sort of way.”

His then-wife was hairdresser to music arranger/conductor turned television producer Buddy Bregman, who made a call to Oscar-winning composer and arranger Nelson Riddle.  “He got off the phone and said, ‘You got an audition for Star Search next Wednesday,’” Avery said. “I played a track with music and sang to this one guy sitting alone in a dark theater glaring at me.”

Avery did not hear anything until a year later, when he got the call, “Dude, can you get a band? You’d be perfect. We’re taping in two days.”

Avery’s band The Touch played Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night,” and won the competition’s first round. “So I can always say I won Star Search,” he laughed. “We came back in three weeks and taped another song, a country-rock song written by a friend, but they didn’t like it I guess. We didn’t get a call back.”

After his relationship ended a few years later, Avery moved back to Columbus. He played 26 out of 28 nights the February he returned, earning the tagline, “Matt Avery, where are you? Averywhere!”

“I thought, this has got to serve me somehow. What could set me apart?” So he packed his guitar and tried out Key West.

“I walked into a bar and asked, ‘Who’s your entertainer tonight?’ They had no one, so I told them, ‘it’s me!’” he said. “I turned the place upside down, playing for about seven hours and through maybe 40 shots of tequila.”

About 5 a.m., he said, they asked if he could come back that night and do it all again. “I played four days straight, and they gave me a standing gig any time I wanted.”

After a few years living and working in Las Vegas, he decided to move to Key West. “I drove all the way with two freaking cats in the car,” he said. “[Bar owner] Irish Kevin had heard about me from my time playing before and told me to move there and work for him. I stayed 10 years, and by the end, there were 30 taxicabs driving around town with my face on them.”

By that time, Avery became sober. “I met this wonderful girl who was on vacation from New Jersey, and I knew I wanted to turn the page and grow,” he said. “I knew there was something else for me, and it turned out to be my kids.”

Avery and Donna Lee married in 2006. For two years, he remained in Key West and performed while he planned his move to New Jersey. That’s where Cape Region local and Conch Island owner Bryan Derrickson came in. “We had mutual friends,” Avery said. “Bryan saw me play in Key West. He knew I was planning to move to South Jersey and wanted to hire me. I had never even heard of Rehoboth Beach.”

Avery knew he could not bring the same Key West-bawdy show to Rehoboth. “I told him that’s not possible here because this is civilization,” he laughed. “There’s no logic in Key West - it’s such a bubble down there. Anything goes. So I had to ride the line and create a new work recipe.”

Derrickson says the recipe works. Avery attracts regulars who come to see him each weekend, once a month or even once a year while on vacation. “The idea was to bring Key West here and give our customers the island experience,” Derrickson said. “Matt has the energy of a band, and he knows a lot more songs than most bands. I counted, he knows about 4,200 songs! From a business-owner standpoint, if the numbers weren’t there, we wouldn’t keep booking him.”

While Avery still has a home in Key West, he said Conch Island feels like home. “I love Conch Island because everyone is friends, and no one gets out of control,” he said. “It’s a different vibe and atmosphere. They’ve become like family.”

For Avery, the best part about playing is making people happy. “I like to see the surprise on their faces when I play a one-hit wonder song they won’t hear elsewhere, and I see them light up and dance,” he said. “They’ll dance to Donny Osmond or ‘Don’t Pull Your Love Out on Me Baby,’ songs they haven’t heard in 40 years - and I love it.”

Just recently, Avery and his Scarlet bandmates got the call they were waiting for. “Yes, 35 years later this hair and makeup band finally has a record deal! The contracts are in our hands, and all we have to do is put ink to paper, probably within the next week or so,” he said.

The rock singer at night and Mr. Mom to his three kids during the day has found himself right where he is supposed to be. “Having kids softens you a bit. I’m not the rock star I used to be, I’m not the Key West guy anymore, but I made my point,” he said. “I fell into what I do here. People like it better, and I’ve made a lot more friends.”