With a voice compared to Joe Cocker and a smoothness on par with Michael McDonald, Tim Hockenberry could play and sing just about anywhere.
But instead of Vegas, instead of Nashville, and instead of his old haunts around San Francisco, you’ll find the soulful talents of Tim Hockenberry, the former America’s Got Talent star, tucked inside a chophouse down South in Charleston, South Carolina, where he routinely orders the salmon over mouth-watering steak.
Forfeiting filet mignon for fish is one of the few examples of restraint in Hockenberry’s life. Otherwise, the man seizes opportunities to indulge, whether it be simple delights or something more sinful. He also hates being told what to do.
In fact, “I don’t like to do anything,” says Hockenberry, 54. “I like a comfortable chair, a Scrabble board.”
But don’t mistake him as lazy. Hockenberry is someone who savors, taking particular pleasure and pride in his music. In March he released his first, and self-titled, album of original music from Poignant Records in San Francisco. The album, praised as “sweet and serene” by Elmore Magazine, follows a long career playing the Bay Area’s top venues, as well as two late-in-life, and extremely diverse, experiences touring the country over the last decade, first with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, then with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart.
“First time I ever got on a [tour] bus I was 47,” says Hockenberry, who perhaps predictably, did not enjoy the cramped, grueling road trips that are the traveling musician’s norm.
Despite the many miles Hockenberry covered, these journeys did not exhaust the singer’s irreverence. Hockenberry gleefully characterizes the heavy holiday tunes of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as “Christmas music that Nazis fuck to.”
He also owns up to awkwardness concerning his signature performance of the orchestra’s song “Believe.”
“I’m a devout atheist so it was a little weird for me,” says Hockenberry. “I’m pretty much screaming for five minutes, begging for God’s mercy.”
But God smiled at Hockenberry in 2012 when, at the suggestion of his then-nine-year-old daughter, Lola, the singer auditioned successfully for America’s Got Talent. Subsequently performing on national television, Hockenberry bowled over celebrity judges Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne, and Howard Stern, with Stern praising Hockenberry as a “breath of fresh air” and a “phenomenal talent.”
Initially, however, Hockenberry resisted his daughter’s idea for him to audition.
“I’m old,” he told her. “Tom Waits wouldn’t do that.”
“No, “ Lola countered, “this is the one show that takes old people.”
While Hockenberry’s performance of Cocker’s “You are So Beautiful” and other cover songs carried him to the semifinals, he and his fellow competitors were ultimately bested by a group of canine performers and their trainers who danced, hopped and rolled across the stage in tuxedos and formal wear.
Sympathy was in short supply after the defeat. As his ex-wife Marianne told him: “It’s kind of appropriate you were beaten by dogs, given your history.”
Hockenberry laughs when recalling her zinger, praising Marianne as a “badass” who’s provided wonderfully for their two sons and daughter.
“I was married for 17 years but I wasn’t a fanatic about it,” says Hockenberry. “Good father, terrible husband. But she and I are best friends.”
He also lauds his ex-wife’s skills as a provider, once addressing a greeting card to his children as the “best kids (mom’s) money could buy.”
“She got all the money, but she made all the money,” he says of the couple’s 2010 divorce.
During a June afternoon at Halls Chophouse in Charleston, while waiting to assume his station behind the piano, Hockenberry was full of such one-liners. The high-end steakhouse on King Street is one of Charleston’s most popular eateries, consistently packed each day from happy hour until closing at 2 in the morning. The wood-paneled restaurant offered a comfortable respite from Charleston’s sweltering summer heat, and Hockenberry charmingly dished about the things that have consumed him in life, namely women, music and alcohol.
When you work as a lounge singer, those passions overlap on a nightly basis, and Hockenberry explains that compromise is sometimes required to score both cash and chicks.
“My main instrument is trombone,” he says. “I play piano and sing to get laid and paid.”
He insists his flexibility with instruments does not extend to his standards for women.
“I always fuck up,” he says playfully, a nod to both his failings in life and his ability to social climb. “My theory is if you come down to the breakfast table and you’re the smartest one there, you’ve really screwed up.”
As women have come and gone in his life, so has alcohol. During an interview four years ago on America’s Got Talent Hockenberry, who appeared on the show with his then-girlfriend and newborn daughter, Sonya, said he had recovered from a drinking problem.
“I knew I was an alcoholic pretty early, ya know, around 17 or 18 years old I realized I couldn’t control my drinking. It wasn’t until I asked somebody for help, ya know, that I was able to get out of that,” said Hockenberry. “Hopefully I’ve taken my last drink.”
Now he says his televised claim of sobriety was “all a bunch of bullshit.”
He estimates he’s been sober for 20 of the last 30 years of his life, but that he always returns to drinking “as a dog returns to its vomit.”
Yet he’ll likely cease drinking again, he insists, and his abstinence will last for seven years.
“It’s usually about vanity and my body and how it looks after two years of drinking,” he says of his decision-making, crediting exercise as the world’s best drug.
It’s a drug he takes regularly in Charleston, spending free time golfing, whether with clubs or discs. He’s found the heat and humidity to be oppressive, but otherwise he says he enjoys the city, discovering the Holy City to be unexpectedly hip.
He was invited east from San Francisco by Bill Hall, owner of Hall Management Group, which owns and operates six restaurants in South Carolina, including the Charleston chophouse. Despite listening to Hockenberry for 20 years, Hall says the musician still sounds fresh.
“He’s a true professional,” says Hall. “He lights up the room.”
The patrons of Halls Chophouse agree, including Charleston resident, and Halls regular, Durland Barnes.
“When he first touches the keyboard, the whole room relaxes,” says Barnes. “You can just feel it. It’s like a sea change.”
Philip Claypool, a fellow musician and friend to Hockenberry who also moved east to Charleston from San Francisco, was just as complimentary.
“Very kind and gracious guy- a musician’s musician,” said Claypool.
That evening in June, with Hockenberry at the piano keys and the bar hopping, Hockenberry soothingly sang covers of Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton and Tears for Fears, though you had to listen closely to grasp why the songs sounded familiar.
“Tim is the king of sexy mid tempo,” says Claypool. “He never mimics. He interprets it and turns it into his own thing.”
Despite all the acclaim, Hockenberry expresses uneasiness about his craft.
“It just seems like an odd way to make a living,” he said. “To bring an emotional cloud to the room and you make money doing that.”
Yet people like his emotional cloud, and feel privileged to hear the throaty tenor of his voice.
“His song is like no one else’s I’ve ever hear. It’s cool, it’s funky, it’s original. It gets people excited and keeps them in the building,” says Devin Marquardt, manager of Halls Chophouse. “He makes an impression on every person who hears him.”