Bill “Papa Rocco” McGinnes Delivers His Own “Jukebox Opera” to Gulf Shores
A renowned tenor plays a house concert for the restaurant owner and some friends
By Fran Thompson
Tenor Arnold Rawls has performed with the Metropolitan Opera and won acclaim for his unique combination of vocal and dramatic skills in performances from Seattle to Switzerland.
But he’s rarely performed at a house party anywhere in the world, let alone at a nice house near the Gulf Shores Sportsplex.
But that’s where Rawls was on Sept. 10 at the invitation of concert sponsor Bill “Papa Rocco” McGinnes, his friend of 20 years.
Robin and Mark Frolich (owners of Sassy Bass restaurants) provided a welcoming atmosphere and exceptional cuisine in their beautiful home, and McGinnes provided Rawls with his set list.
What followed was 60 minutes of resounding high notes, creamy low tones and beautiful Italian lyricism for around 30 guests.
Although he performed at recitals outside of the theater and participated in “opera jukebox” fundraisers, Rawls said it was one of the few times he performed a concert. house over a 40-year career that included performances at the Sydney Opera House, the Dallas, Indianapolis, Chicago and Sacramento Operas, the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria and the Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland.
He was even criticized in The New York Times as a tenor “whose voice has an easy flow in the midrange but sounds thrilling in the big high moments”.
“Dad decided he wanted an entire concert of special requests. So here I am,” Rawls said before taking the congregation with him on a fervent and expressive journey.
“We have been friends for 20 years. I was more than happy to do a jukebox opera show where dad picked all the songs,’ he added.
A transplant recipient himself from Michigan, McGinnes said he first became interested in opera after buying a copy of Life magazine specifically to read the story of Dr. Christiaan Barnard performing the first-ever heart transplant in South Africa in 1967.
In that same issue, there was a story about the eight greatest opera tenors in the world.
“I was still in my twenties, I wasn’t married yet, and I was really impressed,” McGinnes said. “It was a really powerful article by a guy named John Daily. ‘I wanted to know what he was writing about. So I went out and bought some albums that these guys were singing on. I never realized that it encompassed such a broad spectrum. I didn’t like everything. But I found that I liked a really good aria.”
Dad attended performances in Detroit when possible, but he earned his opera chops by listening to live performances on his Metropolitan headphones on Saturdays while watching his beloved Wolverines play football on television.
“I love opera, but hey, I wasn’t going to miss a Michigan football game,” he said.
Shortly after Papa Rocco (the home of hot beer and cold pizza) opened on the highway. 59 in Gulf Shores, he began making opera trips to Pensacola. He met people who befriended at the shows – artist managers, backstage staff and other aficionados.
He became a member of the opera community and eventually a patron of the Pensacola Opera. He’s even a big star on the sidewalk outside the Pensacola Saenger.
“I’ve met a lot of really good people through my association with Pensacola Opera. That’s what I liked the most. That part was really good for me,” he said.
“It’s also what I loved most about Gulf Shores when I moved here,” he added. “When I moved here, it was really the Redneck Riviera. But all the other restaurateurs were ready to help me. They were people who had been there and had done that. Believe me, I made it a point to listen carefully to what they were saying.
“I have been very lucky with my business. But I will never forget how others were so willing to help me,” he added.
Although he was the jeans and polo guy, McGinnes would dress up for trips to the Pensacola Opera House, and he came to enjoy the well-dressed pageantry while mingling before the show.
“I don’t really like German opera, but I like all Italians – La Bohème, Pagliacci, Paolitaze,” he said. “People ask me how I can enjoy it so much when it’s not even in English. Well, I know the stuff. And I ask them if they enjoy a good guitar part or someone who blow in a good horn. You don’t need to know the words. The larynx is an instrument.”
Dad said it might seem a bit eccentric to enjoy opera as much as he enjoys old rock n roll, big band and country. But that’s not the point.
“It doesn’t matter what gender,” he said. “If it’s good music to my ears, I’ll listen to it.”
The Scottish native opened Papa Rocco’s on March 15, 1985, after a 20-year career as a project manager for Modco, the world’s largest manufacturer of cutting tools.
He wanted a simple menu. He wanted live music every night, even in winter. He wanted to serve food until midnight.
He knew serving a good pizza was a good idea. And he knew there wasn’t another year-round oyster bar in Gulf Shores.
He didn’t want to serve fry. Customers decided how crispy they wanted their wings based on how many times the wings went through the pizza oven.
None of that has changed in the nearly four decades since then.