Ricki Derek Does It His Way

Frank Sinatra would have understood. When Lady Luck blows on your dice, you have to take your shot. For Ricki Derek, good fortune came grimly on May 14, 1998, the day Sinatra died. The next night, Derek was debuting his new jazz lounge act at Club Clearview, performing the sort of tunes Sinatra made famous. Local media covered the show, and an unexpected crowd was on hand. As Derek would put it, "Holy shit." The audience wasn't just for him but there to remember Ol' Blue Eyes.

A little fortuitous publicity thanks to a dead crooner, and the next thing you know a quirky retro jazz act becomes a staple of Dallas nightlife.

That's life. You can't deny it.

My first impression of Derek came a couple of years ago when I was familiarizing myself with local music. The hip retro jazz he performed every Sunday night at the Cavern sounded like a nice reprieve from the usual rock-laden Dallas scene. Plus, I kind of missed the Swingers sensation that brought swanky back with zoot suits and a wave of little big-band music. Derek sounded like a cool deal.

Turns out, he's the real deal.

"I'm a guy trying to do these great old tunes in a good way," Derek says over a cup of coffee at his neighborhood Starbucks.

A hulking 6-foot-2 presence with a slightly gritty voice, a spray of silver in his dark hair and a set of piercing yet soulful eyes, Derek enters the coffee shop in a gray Adidas sweatshirt and sunglasses. Still, he exudes a quiet star quality and before even getting in line, he is recognized by two people, gives a genuine smile and basks in it a bit. I ask if they were fans or friends.

"I was being polite," he says.

For the past decade, Derek has been Dallas' own Sinatra. With well-cut suits, slicked-back hair and sometimes a drink in hand, the MacArthur High School graduate cuts a striking nostalgic figure complete with a voice that could fit right in with Bobby Darin and Mel Tormé on any Ultra-Lounge compilation CD. But over the years, he's learned that it's not just about singing. "It's more about being [an] entertainer than singer at first. I really like the music. By people's reaction, I feel like I could do this really well."

He may be doing it too well. He started becoming "that Sinatra guy" around town. He knows he has a niche market, but at his core Derek is a musician and artist. "When I first started doing it, definitely, the comparisons are flattering. Whatever music you're into, you can't deny the sound," he says, but then adds, "I don't want to be considered an impersonator, but then you go to my show and people say, 'You're doing 80 percent Sinatra songs, are you sure you don't want to be?' Plus, I hear that term so much that it kind of cheapens it. Am I really the kind of guy that sounds like him, or is that the only generalization they can use?"

Derek may have painted himself into a crooner's corner with 10 years of evoking the one thing that put him on the map. "The bottom line is it can be frustrating," Derek says. "It could be my lack of going out there on a limb. I'm not denying the use of the word 'fear,' but it's a different kind. There are times I thought it'd be cool to do a modern pop album. Is that taking me out of my comfort zone that I'm still very much exploring? I don't know, but [I get to] feel a little trapped."

There's more to Derek than his Sinatra shtick, though. He also offers irreverent humor with his "Night OH Cabaret," touted as the longest-running variety/comedy show in Dallas—a not-so-seamless blend of singing, sketches and juggling reminiscent of The Carol Burnett Show. Cabaret staple Nick Gibbons, whose Tony Clifton-esque character Shekkie Bergman is a must-see, offers, "I will go to my grave saying what a freaking amazing show the cabaret is. I'm upset more people don't come to see it. It's a travesty." Three or four shows a year feature Derek, Gibbons and the rest of the gang including singer Mikey Dino, musician Brandon Lusk and longtime cabaret companion and friend Richard Ross, aka Dicky van Tastic, who fills in as DJ between sets or if a sketch "requires someone wearing a diaper," he says. All are gearing up for the show's 10th anniversary later in 2008.

While he may be somewhat hindered artistically by the comparisons, Derek's retro style has brought him success most bands would kill for. He's landed stable gigs and is now about to don the hat of club owner. Despite all his time in Dallas, he'll soon be opening his Scat Jazz Lounge in Fort Worth. Derek and business partners Neal Connell (from the Cavern) and Cary Ray (from Daddy Jack's) paid meticulous attention to detail, creating a venue that sounds more like a time machine than a club. "It will have an alley entrance with a '20s-era neon sign arrow. Take the elevator down, pass the curtain and enter through wood doors," Derek says. Featuring mostly straight-ahead jazz, himself included, he hopes Scat will reach music lovers across the spectrum. In short, he says, he simply wants to spread cool a little bit. But we won't be losing Derek completely; he'll still be doing his Cavern stint. "I'm making it up as I go," he says. Besides, he has bills to pay.

Does he hope Lady Luck will be around for the grand opening? "I could sense that things were aligned," he says of that debut night. "There was a purpose in a weird way." A purpose, it would seem, that has found its way across the Trinity and then, maybe someday, to Las Vegas.

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Rich Lopez