Hoboken’s own singing plumber returns with his first album in more than two decades.
by Jack Silbert
When it comes to plumbing in Hoboken, you could say Gene Turonis is a longtime fixture. But that isn’t his only claim to fame. As Richard Barone of the legendary Bongos wrote in Spin magazine about our city’s 1970s pre-Maxwell’s days, “Other than jukeboxes, an occasional combo, or ‘Gene the Singing Plumber,’ the town had not been a swingin’ pop Mecca since Ol’ Blue Eyes had skipped town.”
I moved to Hoboken in 1994, and though our landlord was a different plumber (Gary), my roommate Joe and I soon became big fans of Mr. Turonis. We’d see him perform at the Arts & Music Festival and in the back room of the pre-renovated Elysian Cafe. We loved the album Royal Flush with his band D. Plumbers. I’ve continued to see Gene play around town regularly since then, including his organizational work with the Wednesday Evening Concert Series at the gazebo in Church Square Park. But in terms of new recordings, I began to wonder if the tank had run dry. Until now, that is, with the release of Gene Turonis’s new album, All the Pretty Girls, on Hoboken’s own Bar/None record label. He joins an impressive roster that has included Yo La Tengo, They Might Be Giants, the Feelies, and the Front Bottoms.
Thankfully, the move to a prominent record label hasn’t altered Turonis’s instantly recognizable sound. All the Pretty Girls is a collection of sweet, simple, down-home songs — 8 originals, 5 covers — flavored with tasteful and joyous instrumentation. On the title-track opener, an accordion played by Charlie Giordano (who has performed with the E Street Band over the past decade) immediately puts us in a Doug Sahm/conjunto mood. Turonis’s co-producer Marc Johnson keeps the mix clean, as you can distinctly hear Tim Tindall’s bass and Gene’s own acoustic guitar. The Turonis wit, delivered in his worn but welcoming vocals, is present right from the get-go, in lines such as “All the pretty girls… feed me a sandwich.”
“Round and Round We Go” was co-written by Turonis and his daughter Emily. (She leads her own band, Emily & the Ideals, and yes, the plumber’s daughter has great pipes.) This song adds a guitar solo from Gene, and the first of his trademark whistling solos. Next, the band ups the party quotient on “I Like It Like That,” a 1961 hit for Chris Kenner.
A mournful fiddle from Adam Krass matches the she-left-me lyrics of “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” originally recorded by George Jones in 1965. The mood improves on the Turonis original “Let’s Make a Deal/Marriage Proposal,” a rollicking number featuring piano by Giordano. “Going Back to Louisiana,” a cover dating back to 1964, has a laid-back jazzy feel.
A definite highlight is the amusing “Been a Fool All My Life,” which Turonis co-wrote with Luke Faust. The multi-instrumentalist Faust was a key member of the Insect Trust, who put out the album Hoboken Saturday Night in 1970. Faust and that band were major influences on young Turonis when he arrived in town. So decades later, it’s heartwarming to hear Gene perform a Faustian arrangement.
Next, Turonis tackles a song associated with another kindred spirit, Willie Nelson, who recorded “I’d Have To Be Crazy” in 1976. “She Belongs to Someone,” a jaunty Turonis original, contains the couplet “She’s wearing her headphones, she’s probably listening to Thriller/And her boyfriend, I’ll bet you he’s a gorilla.” The very pretty “A Breeze Blows Through the Palm Tree” is made all the better by soft organ playing from Marc Johnson.
Another high point is the witty waltz “Diamonds as Big as Potatoes” (which is all Gene’s rival suitor will give you, my dear). Then the album officially ends with “Always Get Lucky,” a No. 1 country hit for George Jones in 1983, co-written by Merle Haggard. The fiddle returns, and the whistling, as Turonis gently leads us into the sunset. But wait, don’t turn off the faucet just yet — Gene D. Plumber has a bonus track for you: “George Jones, George Jones,” just Turonis’s voice and guitar on a charming salute to one of his heroes. I truly hope I don’t have to wait another 20-plus years for the next Gene Turonis album, but if I do, All the Pretty Girls will certainly hold me.
All the Pretty Girls is available at Tunes (225 Washington St.) and via other record retailers and streaming services. The album’s release party will be held Friday, May 11, at 8 p.m. at the Elks Club (1005 Washington St.). Other upcoming Gene D. Plumber gigs include the Fox & Crow in Jersey City Heights on May 26, with Emily & the Ideals; Sinatra Park on June 7, also with Emily & the Ideals; and Church Square Park on August 8.