A decision to become a singer can be a particularly treacherous career path, especially if one wants to sing jazz. But in Tony Stacey’s case, he has enjoyed a good career in music, singing classic R&B, Motown hits, and soul music. What’s more, the musician — who will be performing with his band during the Ivy Inn’s 50th anniversary bash on Saturday, August 6, in Princeton — has also nurtured a budding acting career and has appeared with small parts in more than 40 movies and cable TV shows since 2005.
Stacey, a.k.a. Papa Delux, was raised in a musical family on Lewisville Road in Lawrence Township. His mother was a classically trained pianist who studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and an uncle played piano with the touring bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, both masterful piano players themselves.
“We learned to appreciate all types of music, from classical to gospel, R&B and soul,” Stacey, 63, says over a recent round of golf at Springdale Golf Club in Princeton, where he says he has been playing golf for eight years.
Stacey has five siblings, but it was his oldest sister, handicapped with cerebral palsy, who first inspired him to sing as they would sit and listen to good AM radio stations out of Trenton and Philadelphia.
“My sister Sandy could always remember the lyrics to the songs on the radio. I was mesmerized by her ability to remember all the songs. I just picked up on that and that led to my love for all types of music, from British Invasion to Motown,” he says.
Although his four other siblings are all musically involved, he says, “I’m the one that seemed to carry it out a little more than they did.”
He began singing at talent shows at Lawrence High School. “I always liked to sing and then one day in high school I was hanging out with some friends and doing a little doo-wop as we always did,” he says. “One thing led to another and I started singing leads to all these songs, so I started getting a little more confidence in myself.”
He did not get serious about it as a career choice until after he got off his tour as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam in 1974. “In Vietnam I started to get a little more creative and comfortable with my voice,” he says.
Once home he settled down in the shore town of Sea Bright. “Little did I know I was living next to Clarence Clemons [late saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band]. One afternoon a friend of mine came down from Princeton to visit and said, ‘You know who that big guy is living next door? That’s the saxophone player for Bruce Springsteen!’ I said, ‘Who’s Bruce Springsteen?’”
Stacey soon got acquainted with Springsteen and his bandmates, but especially Clemons, who ran a club in Red Bank in the early 1980s called Big Man’s West before moving to Florida.
“People weren’t always friendly in those days towards the troops coming back from Vietnam, but I’ve never forgotten how friendly Bruce was towards me, knowing what he did about my background as a Vietnam vet,” he says.
After Sea Bright, Stacey moved to Boston for 18 years, where he sang as a lead vocalist with a procession of bands on weekends — while driving a taxi for 12 years during the week.
“After I got back from Boston in 1992, I moved back home to the Princeton-Lawrenceville area, and I put together the Tony Stacey band. We started calling it Hardplay, so as not to be in the limelight too much. Then it morphed into Papa Delux and Main Street Groove (in 2006),” he says
Stacey says he added instrumentalists because pay for most gigs got better. That includes Princeton-raised saxophonist and commercial real estate executive Tom Stange — the two met as teenagers and have been friends for more than 40 years — and bassist Rob McCoy, a valued accompanist for 17 years.
Other Main Street Groove members include Odell Mickens on keyboards, Mario Greatti on guitar, and Jerome Tyus on drums.
“It’s been a been a very fortunate ride for me to be able to do what I love to do most of the time,” Stacey says. “I go out to a lot of places and people say, ‘There’s Papa Delux.’” Indeed he was greeted warmly at Springdale by a woman who is a fan.
However, Stacey keeps many irons in the fire. In addition to Papa Delux, he plays in clubs around Trenton and Princeton; he is part of Wall Street, a group of soul musicians who perform in clubs and for corporate events around New York City; and he still sings a lot with wedding bands, as the money is often too good to pass up.
He has done some acting, landing small roles in “Law and Order,” “The Sopranos” (the first episode of the last season), and the Beyonce-financed film “Cadillac Records” (modeled on the Chicago-based Chess Records story), and being cast as a principal actor in Princeton filmmaker Brad Mays’ new independent film “Road Rage.”
Asked about original songs, Stacey says he has received good feedback from New York-based composer Gerald Busby, Boston-based musician and producer Theodis Scott, and others in the recording industry, so he plans to come out with his debut album of original music called “Don’t Stop.” He wants to have it ready in time for the food truck and music festival in Mercer County Park on October 15, where the band will headline.
“For many years we’ve made good money doing covers of soul and Motown tunes,” he says, noting he never really thought of himself as a songwriter, but rather, a performer.
Reflecting on his long career, mostly as a lead vocalist, Stacey credits his sister Sandy — who despite a speech impediment — encouraged him to sing along with her to tunes on the radio. “That really was the inspiration,” he says.
Papa DeLux and Main Street Groove, 50th Anniversary of the Ivy Inn, 248 Nassau Street, Princeton. Saturday, August 6. Festivities begin at 2 p.m. with Jam Lab playing from 2 to 5 p.m. and Papa Delux performing from 6 to 9 p.m. Free music, food and drink extra. 609-921-8555 or ivyinnprinceton.com.