Billy Vera croons his 1987 blockbuster "At This Moment" once a month. Grammy-award winning Pancho Sanchez pounds the congas every few weeks. Emil Richards, who used to back Frank Sinatra on xylophone, taps the mallets on a regular basis while smooth jazz operator Dave Koz has been known to jump on stage with his saxophone for impromptu jam sessions.
Given the steady stream of talent, it's no wonder Upstairs at has in five years evolved into the San Fernando Valley's go-to venue for dinner and a show.
Expanding musical offerings beyond Vitello's long-running "Opera Night" ranked high on the to-do list for Sherman Oaks realtor Matt Epstein after he bought Tujunga Village's landmark Italian restaurant in 2005.
"We had this banquet room for bar mitzvahs and weddings that was really more of a big box storage area so we decided to convert the room into a supper club," he explains. "I hired a couple of guys to design the stage. They paid close attention to the acoustics."
The sonic engineering paid off. "Musicians absolutely love the room because you don't have to blow out the customers with over amplification," notes Epstein. "It's a nice comfortable sound level, like sitting in your living room."
The freshly-renovated space attracted Studio City impresario Michael Sterling, who in 2006 introduced Sunday night cabaret shows featuring veteran Broadway talents like Rachel York (City of Angels), David Engel (the original La Cage Au Folles), Amick Byram (Les Miserables) and Studio City singer Ilene Graff (Grease).
A protégé of Rosemary Clooney, Sterling now also produces "LA’s Next Great Stage Star" talent show. 19-year old Judy Mora, winner of the 2011 competition, headlines a June 5 concert at Sterling's Upstairs.
On the jazz front, Vitello's music program shifted into high gear two years ago when singer/Realtor April Williams started booking A-list session players into the club. Her roots in the southern California music scene reach deep and far.
Williams says, "My father played trumpet on the Johnny Carson show for 25 years and my husband Donald is a session percussionist. Music has always been all around me."
The jazz musicians who play Vitello's may not be household names but their better known collaborators serve as ample bona fides. For example, bassists Reggie Hamilton, who plays Vitello's May 28 with the John Novello Trio, has backed talents ranging from Christina Aguilera and John Mellencamp to Bette Midler, Anita Baker and Maria Carey. Williams says, "These guys are the nuts and bolts of Los Angeles' music scene."
Vitello's regular Pancho Sanchez speaks for many of his peers when he describes the mix of jazz, salsa, Latin, soul and blues music performed at the club.
"We put it all together in a pot, boil it together and come out with a big stew," he says. "This isn't some marketing strategy to sell records. These are the sounds I grew up with. When I play this music, I'm not telling a lie. I'm telling my story. This is the real thing."
A month of Vitello's . . .
Week 4: Vitello's Preps for Big Changes