By Cathleen Ferraro, Bee Staff Writer
If you’re the last one to squeeze into Harrington King’s roving purple truck, be ready to be pulled into his musical act.
Inside the vehicle – reconfigured as a nightclub – you won’t meet King. You’ll meet Winko Ljizz, his performing alter-ego. (“Winko” because he was born with one eye open. And “Ljizz” for “legitimate music,” meaning classical compositions, and “jazz.”)
This one-man band is the warm-up act, headliner, bouncer and everything else needed to run the somewhat-wacky, always-unique performance he gives weekly.
“OK, it’s your call. Last one in chooses. What do you want to hear?” King implores a walk-in on a recent cold and rainy Saturday night at Sacramento’s 10th and R streets outside the Art Foundry. It’s a plea the musician will make throughout the evening as small groups wander in and out of his cabaret on wheels, dubbed the “Acoustic Sanctuary.”
On most Friday and Saturday nights, King sits behind a Starr baby grand piano and faces five bar stools stationed around the piano’s edge.
Like guardian angels waiting for their cue, some 30 instruments hang behind King in a semicircle – all ready for his special brand of fiddling, strumming and blowing.
During the night, he will take dozens of requests that range from Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff to jazz songwriter Dave Grusin.
King’s fingers run up and down the keyboard easily; his voice occasionally struggles to reach some notes and sometimes his brain strains to remember certain lyrics.
“I’ve been coming here for seven years,” said Paul Taormina, an Acoustic Sanctuary devotee. “Every time I see his little purple truck I know there’s nobody, no song, I can ask for that Winko can’t play.”
He doesn’t know every song, but most of the time King accommodates listeners.
Tonight he’ll play a bevy of tunes including “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and the theme song from “The Pink Panther.”
King, 47, considers his gift at playing a number of instruments simultaneously so rare that he describes himself as “a freak of nature.”
Through the evening he plays the glockenspiel, mandolin, trombone, guitar, accordion and saxophone as effortlessly, it seems, as he breathes.
King may be the only working musician, too, whose act includes trilling on a toy piano, plucking an acoustic bass restrung with weed-whacker line and slapping a rubber-tipped door stop attached to a ceiling-mounted mirror that reflects the musicians’ hands at the keyboard.
The entertainer does it all sitting at the piano he’s fitted with cables, springs and turnbuckles so that he can control 18 bass notes with his left foot.
King’s left heel plays the bass drum mallet. His right toes operate the snare drum, while his right heel triggers the high hat. His left hand spills out harmony on the piano while his mouth and right hand bring to life a number of wind instruments.
His name could very well be ‘Coordination King.’
“Doing this was difficult many years ago,” he said. “But it’s like riding a bicycle, I don’t even think about it anymore.”
In the end, the local musician’s vision of his piano bar is a pursuit that’s part-financial, part-spiritual.
“This is like a street church with no denomination,” he explains. “People come in, listen and feel good. I serve people, not drinks.”
There is no cover charge to enter the sanctuary, but there is a small wicker basket for tips. King does charge $200 to perform at private parties and festivals.
Part of King’s act, too, is telling stories, especially ones that keep customers off balance with humor, imagination and musical quirkiness.
Picking up a “Renaissance clarinet” King made from PVC plumbing pipe, he gives it a quick blow and explains that people living during the Renaissance period made clarinets out of pipe.
“That’s why we didn’t get indoor plumbing for so long,” he tells the sanctuary crowd. “They used all of our PVC pipe.”
King also serves as a savior of musical misfits. Over the years, he’s taken in flood-damaged pianos and broken fiddles. Often they morph into one of King’s own creations, like the “Guicello,” a cello and guitar hybrid.
He has a piano, too, in nearly every room of his Oak Park house, including a baby grand parked in the kitchen.
King considers the Acoustic Sanctuary his career. But to make ends meet he also takes odd jobs – giving music lessons, repairing instruments, fixing cars, fabricating neon signs or doing carpentry.
King grew up in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Other than excelling at math, he claims not to have been much of a student, even flunking a college music appreciation class. King moved to Sacramento in late 1988 when his wife was transferred to McClellan Air Force Base. They divorced two years later and she moved away. But King – still searching for his musical niche – stayed in Sacramento.
“I like the weather here,” he said. “The bugs don’t eat you alive.”
That doesn’t keep King from occasionally making fun of his adopted hometown.
“Okay, now we just fade out,” he tells his sanctuary audience, “like everything else in this town by 11 p.m.”