Friday, Oct. 13, 2006 | 8:03 a.m.
Watching 65-year-old Sidro Garcia play electric guitar at the Rampart's Addison Lounge, you would think he has discovered the fountain of youth.
When he's in the spotlight with his band Sidro's Armada, musicians half his age work hard to keep up as he blows away audiences with old-time rock 'n' roll, fast-clipped Latin numbers, country, rhythm and blues, ballads and standards.
Hair still dark, skin still smooth, Garcia bristles with energy - despite the pacemaker implanted last year.
And the left hand.
After almost 60 years of fingering strings, the left hand could eventually end the career of a Las Vegas lounge legend, who's opened for the likes of Johnny Mathis, George Burns and Willie Nelson.
"My father played until he was 86," Garcia says. "I plan to play at least another five years, but I don't know."
Arthritis has taken a firm grip on the fingers of his left hand. The pinky is useless. The thumb's knuckle is swollen to twice its normal size - after three or four hours of playing it swells even larger. Fire shoots through the index finger, even when he isn't playing.
"I ignore the pain while I'm playing, but I sure suffer after," Garcia says "I have to play with only three fingers. Some think I'm playing with six because I love it so much."
He loves the music, he loves performing and he loves his fans.
"People still remember Sidro's Armada," he says. "That's important. People feel you have added something to their life."
He's been adding an evening of enjoyment to lives for more than 56 years, starting out in his father's dance band when he was barely 9.
One of 14 children, Garcia grew up in Willard, N.M. - population 130, about 60 miles southeast of Albuquerque.
A gifted athlete, he had a chance to play for the Albuquerque Dukes (a Triple-A baseball team) but instead accepted a basketball scholarship to nearby St. Joseph's College, where he majored in physical education, history and Spanish.
While in college, he formed a band, the Sneakers. He dropped out in his third year to tour briefly with singer Sue Thompson ("Sad Movies Always Make Me Cry" and "Norman"). After eight months, he slipped back into the Sneakers. Thompson convinced him to move to Las Vegas in 1964, where the band opened for Jackie Mason at the Aladdin.
Garcia's wife at the time, Beverlee Brown, was the lead singer and the band included his brothers Sal and Ray and two cousins.
"Beverlee and I grew up together in the business. We married, had a son and eventually found out we weren't meant for each other," Garcia says, although they remain close friends. "She was a natural entertainer - dancer, singer, comedian."
A lot of celebrities came to see the Sneakers, including Jim Nabors, who featured the band on his TV variety show several times. The Sneakers, a show band with lots of choreography and comedy, sizzled in the '60s and '70s, getting gigs at every major casino in town, plus Reno and Lake Tahoe. The band performed at a birthday party for Nancy Reagan. Their names appeared on the marquee with the likes of Harry James and Louis Prima. Elvis Presley came to see the band at the Frontier and invited the members to his show - and his parties - at the Las Vegas Hilton.
After Garcia split with Beverlee, the band became Sidro's Armada - a reference to the historic Spanish fleet. Soon after their divorce, Beverlee returned to the group and remained until 1987, when she retired and moved back to New Mexico. "We were just a good team together," Garcia says.
There were a series of female singers after that, including Kelly Clinton, who was with the group from 1996 to 2001, and the current lead female vocalist Mary Ball, who joined the Armada as a backup singer 17 years ago.
"I was a big fan of Sidro's for many years," says Clinton, who runs the celebrity karaoke at the Bootlegger and is entertainment director at the Stirling Club. "I loved working with them. They not only knew the music but knew the show business part of it; they knew how to entertain people, which is not a common thing anymore."
The traveling became a grind for her, and she left the band so she could spend more time in Las Vegas. But she misses the group.
"Sidro's very generous, very supportive of other people with talent," Clinton says. "He still has the fire, still loves the music, loves to play."
And he loves to help talented musicians.
"We joke around about Sidro Armada's alumni," says Ball, who grew up in Las Vegas. Her mother was a dancer, and her father, Tom, managed the Kim Sisters, the renowned trio from Korea. "It seems as if, at one point or another, every musician in town has worked with him."
She credits Garcia's longevity to the fact that he's always surrounded himself with musicians who are not only talented but perform from the heart.
"Sidro was really a key individual as far as helping me get my feet on the ground out here," says Mariano Longo, pianist and musical director for Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. "But not just me, he helped many, many musicians get established."
Longo came to Las Vegas in '94 and played with the Armada for five years, on and off.
"When I first started playing music as a teenager in Ohio I heard about Sidro's Armada, the band in Vegas," Longo says. "It was one of the big acts here. I never dreamed I would work with him."
These days Garcia performs two or three nights a year in Las Vegas. The rest of the time he travels.
"What a shame that the entire genre that he represented so well is disappearing or has already disappeared," Longo says. "He truly is a piece of Las Vegas history."
"It was a highlight of my career," says Billy Hildershiede, another member of the Union Gap who played drums with the Armada from 1985 to 1998. "A privilege to work with him and a lot of fun. I learned so much. So many played with him, they'd have to rent out the Convention Center if they were going to hold a reunion.
"He was just a dream to work with, a funny guy. You can't find anyone who would say anything bad about him."
Garcia says he always had the best musicians in town.
"And when they had an opportunity to move on I would always tell them to go, that I would always be here. Most of them would go on and do good because they were good."
In addition to Ball, his current band includes drummer/vocalist Steve Jordan, keyboardist Rick Bisbee and Steve Sand, who plays fiddle, keyboards, saxophone and guitar. The band just finished a gig at Buffalo Bill's in Primm and is making a swing through casinos in Northern Nevada.
"It's amazing, the differences between the cities - Las Vegas and Reno," Garcia says. "In Reno they still appreciate the person doing good music. Albuquerque is like that, too."
Garcia says he used to think that things went in cycles and that eventually live lounge music would come back to Las Vegas.
"Now, I don't know," he says. "I feel very lucky to have been here when I was. I feel very lucky to have lasted this long and that I am still able to work."
Today, when he isn't on the road, he stays close to home and his wife, Susan. They've been married 17 years.
"She is the love of my life, my inspiration," Garcia says.
Garcia's son, Sortero, is in the music business - a deejay, the profession that seems to be putting live musicians out of business.
"He plays discos," Garcia says. "It's fascinating to talk to him. I catch him in Montreal, London, everywhere. I say, 'What are you doing?' and he says, 'They send me all over the world and pay my way. I get $1,500 to $2,000 a night, and they put me up in the finest hotels.' I say, 'You're kidding me. It takes me two weeks to make that, and I have to pay my way.'
"And he says, 'Dad, maybe you should get out of the business.' "