Cliff Sawyer … the King of Key West cool
Cliff Sawyer was born to Robert and Naomi Saunders Sawyer. He along with brothers Randy, Lloyd, Thomas, Robert, and sister, Ruth were raised in Key West’s Bahama Village. Cliff has been singing since he was four years old. He remembers hearing street corner bands in the late 1940’s that included Fats Navarro playing outside his window. His father played the trombone with Fats Navarro.
He played the kettle drums in his elementary school band but was mainly a vocalist. Cliff sang in the church choir and at Douglas Elementary School. The first song he ever sang was “Bad, Bad Whiskey …it could make you lose your happy home”. His favorite singer was Johnny Mathis. According to his sister, he would lock himself in the bathroom and practice singing like Mathis. Cliff attended Key West high school for one year (after full integration), graduating in 1966. His high school friend, Andy Johnson, played guitar while Cliff sang.
Cliff and his cousin, Charles Hall, were cast as natives in the movie, PT109 which was filmed on Big Munson Island (now Little Palm Island). Cliff remembers during their breaks that he and Charles would sing. Actors Cliff Robertson and Robert Blake tried to talk them into recording in Los Angeles.
Coffee Butler was older than Cliff but their mothers were the best of friends and were together almost every day. Consequently, Cliff got to see a lot of Coffee while growing up. The two families were very close and enjoyed a lot of holidays and special times together. Later in life, Coffee and Cliff also became the best of friends.
At age 19, Cliff was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam and suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He still gets flashback nightmares of seeing an Army friend’s face smiling and happy and, then, the next vision is the image of the same friend minutes later dead. He came back from Vietnam a changed man. He began drinking and smoking, far out of character, and developed an alcohol problem. Cliff received help from the Veterans Administration and learned to manage those demons but the images still haunted him.
He worked as a commercial fisherman and sang Gospel music at his First Adventist Church in Bahama Village. He had a gig at Little Palm Island for over 20 years, ironically where he worked as an extra during filming of PT-109. Over his career, Cliff worked with almost every musician in Key West and recorded a CD with Fritz Zigler called Looking Back.
Cliff occasionally sat in with his life-long friend, Coffee Butler, at the Hukilau on North Roosevelt and usually sang the Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, or a Johnny Mathis hit, or duet with Coffee.
In 2005, Cliff organized a concert at the Tennessee Williams Theater, it sold out. The orchestra included a plethora of Key West musicians. Performing in such a huge room was quite a contrast from the intimate clubs Cliff was used to. The concert included a special guest performance by Coffee Butler, who was introduced by Cliff with a special rendition of “My Buddy.” Coffee walked on stage and sang “A Wonderful World” with Cliff.
Cliff and friends threw a fiftieth anniversary party for Coffee and Martha Butler in 2007 at the Key West Double Tree Grand Hotel. Cliff, Robert Albury, and several others performed for Coffee. Some of Coffee’s old Junkanoo band members started to play their songs and he couldn’t stand it any longer. Coffee got up and sang, “Who Put the Pepper in the Vaseline?”
After Coffee lost Martha in 2011, Cliff would visit daily, often bringing fresh grunts to cook. Cliff lost his longtime companion, Carol Favors in 2016. Cliff and Coffee continued to get together almost every day to talk and sing. They always talked about the most loving of memories of their mothers.
Cliff has been suffering from cognitive decline. The death of Carol six years ago, the passing of his closest friend, Coffee, in January, and the recent passing of his small poodle mix, Jack, had left Cliff alone. The COVID shut down did not help, virtually eliminating opportunities to perform and share that amazing voice.
His sister Ruth is no longer able to personally care for Cliff. Key West will be losing another legend as Cliff will be moved to the Veterans Administration facility in Pembroke Pines.
I am going to miss my good friend, Cliff Sawyer. His wonderful voice and talent was equaled only by his kindness and heart felt goodness. Cliff has been through a lot in his life and had always come through it with a self-assured collective cool.
I will always remember the preparations for our five sold out Coffee Butler concerts together from 2016 – 2019. The three of us would sit together on Coffee’s front porch, with a morning café con leche, selecting the music for the next performance. Cliff would ask Coffee if he remembered an old song they use to perform and would start a verse. Coffee would quickly come in and the two would start to sing. This would go on and on. I would be the beneficiary of my own private concert between two legends.
Cliff Sawyer’s magnificent voice, love of music and entertaining, and his lifelong friendship with Coffee Butler was something to behold. May you always keep your music close to your heart my friend.
Clayton Lopez, neighbor, friend, City Commissioner
We lived across the street. I was singing Beatles songs with Calvin, Cliff’s younger brother Randy, and my cousin Lee. Every now and then inside the Sawyer household, before he became “the voice”, I would listen to him practice singing Johnny Mathis… and think… the style is similar but he sounds better than the record! Even now when I listen to Cliff sing… I’m taken back to those days.
Joe Dallas, educator, Big Band Leader
As the music swirls around for Cliff to sing his first note, everyone waits, and the moment he does… Everything just melts… every time.
Larry Baeder, guitarist, educator
Cliff’s deep Baritone captivates and demands your attention. It’s not only how rich and beautiful his voice is, it’s his phasing and sense of time. You know you are being treated to something special. I am honored to share the stage with him.
Skipper Kripitz, musician, percussionist, educator
40 years of playing with Cliff, and he never, ever… lost his ability to entice the ladies, and impress everyone, with his class, sexy lyric delivery, and spot-on singing. To me, he was the immortal Key West version of Billy Eckstine.