The Sonny and Cher of GSO keep dinner crowds happy

by Brian Clarey

In the deceptively large dining room of Café Pasta, nestled amid the quaint storefronts of the State Street shopping district, the walls are cast mellow yellow and hard black, with ultra-soft lighting to alleviate the edges and angles.

At the front of the house a sturdy, muscled man works amid a stack of instruments and a snatch of light from an overhead source gleams off his shaved brown pate.

Turner Battle, the latter half of Greensboro dinner-music stalwarts Buff-n-T, fingers the keys ‘— chords on the upper keyboards with his left and leads with his right on the lower machine. His musical partner, Buffy O’Neil, wraps up a conversation with a customer at the bar and eases behind the microphone next to T.

She’s a long and graceful blonde with a breezy, lilting voice that jibes perfectly with their first number, a gentle jazz love song with synthesized strings and drums in the background. At the break T launches into a tinkling, arpeggiatic solo while Buffy slaps a dual bongo with the discipline of the guy who played drums for AC/DC.

‘“We’ve got a birthday tonight,’” Buff intones, gesturing to the man from the bar, now seated with a woman at a table near the stage. He squirms in his seat.

The next number unfolds, another soft jazz offering, and the birthday boy watches for a moment before returning to his conversation at the table.

The music washes over the room, gentle as saline, barely disturbing the clinks and murmurs that make up the sounds of dinner.

‘“We like the sultry stuff,’” Buff explains. ‘“Dinner music. We wanna keep them happy.’”

The two came together in August 1991 to form a couple act in the same genre as the Captain and Tennille and Sonny and Cher’… or maybe a bit more like the Carpenters.

‘“We’re like brother and sister,’” says Buff, who recently celebrated a one-year wedding anniversary with her husband.

‘“Oh yeah, we dated,’” T jokes in a comic, booming voice. ‘“Multiple times.’”

In their 14-year career as Buff-n-T they’ve put out four CDs and appeared on several compilations; they’ve played hundreds of weddings, festivals, dining rooms, private parties and corporate events, but Wednesday night at Café Pasta is their longest-standing gig. They’ve been doing it for 12 years, opening up the canon of adult contemporary, smooth jazz and even country.

‘“’Crazy,”” says Buff. ‘“That’s one that’s so classic’… I think we’ve played it at every gig we’ve done.’”

‘“But when we wanna get hype,’” T interjects, ‘“we’ll play some 50 Cent.’”

He’s kidding.

Turner traces his piano roots back to when he was a kid and took piano lessons at the behest of his parents. He gained more than a passing familiarity with classical music and then filled out his musical palette with things he heard on the radio.

‘“Jazz, country, oldies,’” he says, ‘“when I was coming up they played everything on the radio. And all on the same station.’”

The first set ventures from jazz into the realms of country, big band, torch song and calypso, including a slick, crescendoed version of ‘“Summertime.’” But most of their repertoire consists of songs about love ‘— falling in it, the way it makes you feel, the thought of losing it and how sad life is without it.

‘“We’re kinda square people,’” Buffy says unashamedly.

Square or not, both work full time in the entertainment business. Turner Battle pursues multiple side projects, including a successful career penning tunes for jingles and corporate productions ‘— his client list includes Volvo, Wachovia and RJR Nabisco ‘— and collaborations with various jazz artists. Buffy O’Neil gets a lot of voice work singing jingles and reading scripts. It’s her voice on the Van Scoy Diamonds radio spot that’s currently airing locally.

‘“It’s great work,’” she says. ‘“You don’t need to do your hair or your makeup’… you could look like absolute poop on a stick.’”

Of course, that’s not the case this evening as the early- dinner crowd turns their tables over to the late-supper folk.

T opens the second set with an impromptu organ version of the ‘“Brady Bunch’” theme as Buff once again slips to her station behind the mic stand.

‘“Well, folks,’” she says gently, ‘“looks like we have two birthdays tonight.’”

‘“Yes we sho does,’” T booms in his comic voice, and then launches into the song, the one they play about as often as they do that wonderful chestnut by Patsy Cline.

‘“Happy birthday to you,’” Buff coos. ‘“Happy birthday to you.’”

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