Song of the day

Bob Greenwood

Bob Greenwood at Saigon Diner in Shopper’s Square on Plumb Lane.

Bob Greenwood at Saigon Diner in Shopper’s Square on Plumb Lane.

Photo/Kent Irwin

You might see Bob Greenwood behind the counter at Saigon Diner, a little pho shop in Shopper’s Square, where his wife, Diane, works as a cook and proprietor. Unless you asked, however, you might never know that the man unloading a crate of coconut water had performed music for two presidents, or that Paul McCartney once sat in for one of his concerts.

Today, Greenwood considers himself first and foremost a keyboardist; however, it wasn’t piano or keyboards that got him into music, but percussion. Though he eventually left the drum set behind him, he believes that it had a lasting impact on his writing style.

“When I write, I write rhythmically,” said Greenwood. “I think every musician would benefit from learning the drums.”

Though the Big Band era bestowed its fair share of influence on Greenwood, he says he really awakened to the world of jazz through a close friend, who turned him on to Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

“What really appeals to me about jazz is the self-expression,” he said. Even more than rock ’n’ roll, jazz allows you to express yourself.”

Everything changed for Greenwood when, in 1965, his ship left for Vietnam.

“I bought a Wurlitzer electric piano, like Ray Charles used on ’What’d I Say,’” recalled Greenwood. “I took it with me aboard the ship, and I put a band together.”

Greenwood worked on an oil tanker, which was used for a task known as ’underway replenishments.’ A ship would come alongside the tanker, which would send over hoses to pump them full of oil, a process that took two to four hours. With plenty of time to kill, Greenwood set up his band to play for the other ship.

“The term for underway replenishment is ’unrep.’ So our band was called Unrep A-Go-Go,” recalls Greenwood with a smile.

After returning stateside, Greenwood formed a band that lasted 15 years.

Then he retired, only to return to Vietnam, where he stayed for the next three years before meeting his wife. He took that time to focus on composing songs, about 70 of them.

“I read a book by Henry Mancini,” explained Greenwood. “He said, ’I’m not an inspirational writer.’ Nor am I. He says, ’I sit down at my keyboard with my coffee, and try to write a tune.’ So I started doing that. It was just something I did, like going to the gym. I wrote a song every day for two months.”

One song was called: “The Singapore River Is Calling,” which expressed the idea that the river could beckon visitors to discover more about Singapore, another place Greenwood visited.

Another song was written after Greenwood moved to Da Lat, a mountain town built by the French in 1907. A popular destination for tourists in Vietnam, it was nicknamed “The Riviera of the Mountains.” But Da Lat also had another type of reputation.

“My wife told me that in Saigon, a lot of the young girls would find a married man to come up to Da Lat with on the weekends, and they called them ’Saigon Girls.’ So I wrote a song on that premise.”

After a long, enlightening stay in Vietnam, Greenwood returned to the United States where, in 2003, he performed with Paul McCartney at Moody’s Bistro, in Truckee.

“It was a snowstorm one night, and he came and had dinner while I played,” said Greenwood. “He came up and sang three songs. One of them he made up right while he was listening to me play. He called it the ’Truckee Blues.’”