When a relatively unknown singer/songwriter from L.A. stepped onstage to headline a 1975 New Year’s Eve bash at Phoenix’s Celebrity Theatre, otherwise known as "The Round," he had no way of knowing that it would become one of the Valley’s most treasured traditions.
"That’s kind of amazing, anything that lasts 30 years," says Jerry Riopelle, who these days divides his time between his houses in Scottsdale’s McCormick Ranch and Kona, Hawaii. "The 25-year (anniversary) in 2000 was my retirement show, and then it was like, ‘Well, 25 years, that’s a great run, let’s hit it one more time and say thanks.’ "
Born in Detroit and raised in Florida before moving to L.A., where he became a renowned session musician working with the likes of famed producer Phil Spector, Riopelle released a few solo records in the early ’70s that caught on with pioneering, free-form Valley radio station KDKB (93.3 FM), where program director Bill Compton began spinning Riopelle’s blend of R&B, country and rock.
"We had a tremendous amount of airplay — they had eight cuts in rotation at one time — and they offered me 1,500 bucks to open a show (in Phoenix)," Riopelle remembers. "I’d never made more than $300 for any show, and I said, ‘What is going on here?’
‘‘I opened a show for David Bromberg at the Celebrity, and it was like, wow; everybody was standing up and dancing! I’d never had these experiences before."
Riopelle was asked to open a New Year’s Eve show for Dr. John in 1974, and it went so well that in 1975 he was asked back as the headliner. A tradition had begun: Every New Year’s Eve, Valley fans knew that Jerry Riopelle would be performing on the Celebrity’s rotating, circular stage.
Although his national exposure was limited, Riopelle played dozens of sold-out shows at the Celebrity, where he is the biggest ticket-seller in the venue’s history.
Riopelle has been inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame, and Saturday has been proclaimed Jerry Riopelle Day by Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
During his retirement from performing, Riopelle has been busy running a company that has sprung out of his own musical invention, Human Beams, and has drawn interest from several companies.
It is currently being used in musical therapy programs in hospitals and in schools for special-needs students.
"It’s a little hard to explain, but once you see it you understand exactly what it is," Riopelle says of the instrument he invented in 1994. "It’s a device that uses laser beams for strings, so you don’t really touch anything when you play it. All you do is put your hand in one of the beams, and that causes musical results.
‘‘All of the music is sympathetic, so you can’t make anything horrible happen, and you can get real good at it.
"We’ll use it in the beginning of the (New Year’s Eve) show to show it off, and then I’ll use it as a fiddle later in the show," Riopelle says. "You can use it a lot of ways, but the real idea behind it is that there are 250 million people in this country who don’t play musical instruments, and most of them would like to, and anybody can play (Human Beams) right away. Even a 4-year-old can have a lot of fun with it."