Longtime musician friends gather around a piano, an instrument that has figured prominently in each of their various careers. From left are Sterlin Colvin, Lavon Stevens, Martin Lesch, Scott Morlock and John Brackett. COURTESY MARTIN LESCH

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about the evolution of the music scene on Hilton Head Island and, eventually, in Bluffton.)

By the late 1980s, the Lowcountry music vibe was evolving from a resort ballroom scene full of high-paid, career-twilight crooners to a thriving rock scene with musicians planting roots on Hilton Head Island.

Spots like The Earle of Sandwich, Wild Wing Cafe, the Grog & Galley, Remy’s and the Old Post Office sprung up, serving as a rock incubator that birthed local music celebrities like The Mundahs, and became a must-play locale for up-and-comers like Hootie & The Blowfish.

Money was flowing readily in a booming real estate economy and a growing island population. Musicians tried being businessmen, with a slew of them opening their own clubs. David Wingo, one of the early faves of Dick Mariotte’s “Talk of the Town” column in the twice-weekly Hilton Head News, was one of the few that proved able to juggle both hats – creating an epicenter of lyrical creativity in the late ’80s.

These are all names and plotlines at the backbone of music history, but one legend we missed in our kickoff of this series was John “The Mayor” Brackett. We heard tales from so many of you of the legendary Monday night jams at Big Rocco’s, where Brackett first held court. Jazz was the island’s calling card for much of the ’80s – the roots of the rock evolution – thanks to pioneers like Freddy Cole and Bobby Ryder. 

Brackett came to the island in 1989 from Virginia with his girlfriend for a visit that evolved as a back-up plan. The mechanic-by-day, musician-by-night finally had a week off, and the couple were scheduled to travel to Newburyport. Massachusetts. When a snowstorm threw off those plans, his girlfriend’s half-brother on Hilton Head invited the couple to housesit while he headed to France for the summer.

“He really undersold this house. No windows, screened in, but it’s on the water. We got here, and it was just paradise. We knew we were staying,” Brackett said. “I was making a living as a photographer and an auto mechanic, but music was the passion. I played piano but trombone was my main jam to begin when I was playing traditional jazz. When we got to the island, my eyes just lit up with the possibilities and I just started hitting all the clubs and getting to know folks.”

One of the first folks he befriended was Bill Barnwell. The piano man was a key cog in growing the burgeoning jazz scene on the island. The Hilton Head Jazz Society formed in 1986, led by legends like Bob Masteller and the Bay Street Stompers, with jam nights at spots like Top of the Isle and Fratello’s. 

Barnwell was both a musical anchor (alongside bassists Delbert Felix, Ben Tucker and Teddy Adams) but was also a social connector for many of the talented newcomers.

“I was Bill’s chauffeur at first,” Brackett said. “When we weren’t heading to gigs in his boat, I’d drive him to the Fratello’s gigs. That was where Santa Fe Café is now, and they became a place where musicians would come to jam late into the night.”

Late in 1989, a buzz was making the rounds that Rainer Geingross was taking his profits from the sale of Café Europa, and that he and wife Olga were opening a new spot, Big Rocco’s (the site of Nick’s Seafood today on Park Lane). 

The very opening of the joint got Geingross sued for breaking a five-year non-compete clause he signed when he sold Café Eurora, but the brash entrepreneur missed the nightlife action enough to pay the legal fees. 

“They were looking for a house band, and so I jumped in and applied to be the leader,” Brackett said. “I got the gig and Darryl Horne joined up. We built a following and carved a spot onto the music calendar.”

What took Brackett and his Prime Time Band from popular to legendary came by accident.

“Mondays was our dark night, but we were always hanging around before going to check out other bands and shows. One Monday, we got asked to play a few songs and we obliged.”

Those “few songs” turned into a jam session that spawned an integral part of the early ’90s island scene: the Monday night jam at Rocco’s. 

Musicians and their groupies are notorious for foggy memories, especially when it comes to the height of the “Snow Island” era where cocaine and its accomplices were as plentiful as the ocean water along our shores. But fans remember Big Rocco’s Mondays vividly for the non-stop party atmosphere.

“The locals showed up every Monday night and it was a party because everyone knew it was going to be great,” said long-time resident Terry Bergeron. “Most of the local musicians and theater folks from the Playhouse (later the Arts Center) were off on Mondays, so they showed up to jam or sing with the band.”

Julie Mariotte, Dick’s daughter, wouldn’t miss a Monday.

“You just never knew what or who you were going to see,” she said.

“John always made it fun,” said fellow music fan Holly Hoover. “It was just always an event, always something we knew would deliver.”

Brackett said it was far from him alone. 

“We invited so many musicians and they all came. The first three to play would get 75 bucks, but it was free beer for musicians and free pizza at midnight,” Brackett said. He said the place could hold 300 people, but others remember even bigger crowds that warranted monitoring by the fire marshals.

Brackett, always one to pass on praise to others, said musicians like Bob Alberti, Sterlin Colvin and, in the later years, Martin Lesch, made it truly special.

“Such talents, all of them. We’d get the touring bands that would play The Jazz Corner that would come over after their sets. We’d get musicians from Savannah, Charleston. They all wanted to be in on it,” he said. “We had this guitarist from Detroit that was incredible. We had John Mellencamp’s drummer, Kenny Aronoff, sit in a bunch. Edwin McCain – just so many. We were blessed.”

The jams also attracted celebrities that enjoyed the mix of off-the-beaten path action and an anything-goes vibe that made it a welcome hideaway. Sylvester Stallone, Michael Jordan, Chris Farley, Arsenio Hall and Isaiah Thomas were just some of the names folks were willing to name.

“I mean, I’m not a name dropper, and the anonymity is what they enjoyed. They liked music and they could just vibe like a groupie, like a nobody. I mean, a nobody with a bodyguard, but still, just one of us,” said one of the regulars in the Monday jams.

Big Rocco’s run lasted for eight years until Gerngross sold the place to the Huge Seafood Company.

“It was a different thing. I think I lasted three months after the sale,” Brackett said. He went on to concentrate on growing his photography business and his family. The key tickler later returned to playing regular gigs when the Blue Night opened and has been playing island gigs ever since – the latest a 13-year-long Wednesday night residency at Redfish. 

Oh, and he’s also been a charter captain for the past 16 years and runs Sweet Pea Fishing. (Stop hogging all the professions, Mayor.)

But you never forget your first. And for Brackett, Big Rocco’s was the ultimate.

“It was a heckuva run,” he said with a smile. “We had some fun. A whole lot of fun.”

Fans like Bergeron agree wholeheartedly and are thankful to Brackett and to have been witness to the magic melodies.

“It was a special moment in time in the history of music on Hilton Head Island,” Bergeron said. “There was nothing quite like it before and I don’t think there ever will be again.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.