It’s not what you play – it’s what you don’t play

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Alfonse Subarsky

By Ralph De Palma

Alphonse at the 2021 MOTM performing with Howard Livingston and the MM24 Band.

As a twelve-year old growing up on the Jersey Shore, Alphonse Subarsky watched the Ozzie and Harriet TV show and was mesmerized by the smooth sounds of Ricky Nelson, who would play a song at the end of each show. He committed himself to becoming a guitar player. He surrounded himself with older musicians and self-taught to play the guitar.

His first gig was at a temple in Asbury Park, New Jersey, playing for a dance.  The Jersey Shore was a great place for music in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Alphonse ripping it up at Schooner Wharf.

Between 1982-1988, Alphonse played with a seven-piece horn band. One night a baritone sax player, Stephen Munter (stage name Fifth Reed.) gave him some advice that has helped him in his music career. Munter said, “Al, it’s not what you play that makes music happen – it’s what you don’t play.” Some players overplay. Some musicians don’t leave any space for other music and musicians. Subarsky said it takes a while to understand this concept. When you’re playing, you have to listen, say what you want to say, and quickly get out. It was the best music lesson he ever had.

Alphonse played lead guitar with a show band called the Party Dolls, a four-piece band with three female vocalists, that toured the Northeast for eleven years. The Party Dolls opened for Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and many others.

One of the last sunset gigs at the “Top” of the La Concha.

Alphonse had vacationed in Key West since 1982. He moved to Key West in 1999 and played on a Christmas Parade float. After touring for eleven years, Al decided to leave the Party Dolls. Through Jersey friend Coleen Feeney, who worked at the La Concha Hotel in Key West during the winter season, he was able to get a four night a week gig at “The Top” of the La Concha beginning in September 1999. He continued playing that gig until “The Top” closed in May 2014. After “The Top” closed, he was quickly back to six shifts a week at Captain Tony’s, Two Friends, Rick’s, and other venues.

Closing night at the “Top” a very sad day.

The La Concha Hotel changed management in 2013 and decided to turn the rooftop sunset bar into a high-end spa, removing live music from the entire hotel.  They also turned a beautiful street level piano bar into a lifeless wine bar that seemed virtually empty space until recently – Peter Diamond currently performs on Thursday nights, jazzing up the place, and it’s hard to find a seat. Hopefully, they’ll reopen a sunset venue with live music again at “The Top” soon.

Everyone is Alphonse on closing night at the Top.

We started a pool on closing day. To see who could guess how long it would take for the La Concha management to see the error of their decisions and restore sunset music at the Top of the La Concha. So far seven years later no winner and no music. Hope springs eternal.

For Alphonse, one of the big differences in Key West was the early shifts for music.  After playing shifts to two or three o’clock in the morning most of his career, he loves playing the noon to 4 p.m. shift.  Like other musicians, he sees the climate, people, and art culture of Key West as part of the chemistry that makes the music scene here so fantastic. One of Alphonse’s favorite things about Key West is he is always about nine minutes from anywhere he needs to be, unless a chicken gets in the way.

Alphonse will always be the Top.

Year after year, he has noticed that tourists return for another vacation and another music experience, and look for him and other musicians as part of their vacation enjoyment. Several other musicians have made the same comment. Key West is becoming a music destination.

Alphonse plays a lot of private parties as a band member of the “Prime Movers” with Brian Roberts, Rob Distasi, and Ray Spence. Alphonse has recently began performing with Howard Livingston and the MM24 Band, opening at the recent Meeting of the Minds on stage to an audience of over 2000.

One afternoon a while back, Subarsky had the sunset shift at the DoubleTree Grand Key Resort bar. The late Jerry Jeff Walker was playing that night up the Keys. Alphonse had been playing Walker’s music for years, and he had wanted to attend the concert but couldn’t pass up a good paying gig. While Alphonse was setting up early, with only one other person in the bar, Jerry Jeff Walker, who was staying at the Double Tree Grand Key, walked in.  Walker came on stage and the two of them talked about music for ten to fifteen minutes while Walker awaited a ride to his gig. Jerry Jeff asked if Al wanted to hear a new song he had just recorded. He grabbed Al’s guitar and played his latest song that no one had heard. It was just another “Only in Key West” moment.

Alphonse is still the Top. Hope springs eternal.

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