Lisa Zanghi & LeaAnne Creswell have been part of our musical culture for five decades
By Fran Thompson
Lisa Zanghi was already part of the Pleasure Island music scene when LeaAnne Creswell showed up one night and immediately became a permanent possible-probable at the Flora-Bama back in 1983.
Zanghi, a Mobile native, was playing professionally before she even graduated from McGill-Toolan High.
Already a regular at Mobile music haunts like Trinity’s and Bojangles, her first Pleasure Island gig was at the late Kenny Stabler’s Endzone Lounge back in 1979.
The two women didn’t take the stage together until local restauranteur Eddie Spence recruited both to play at the Gulf Shores Steamer 20 years ago.
Zanghi said at the time Spence was pairing her with different musicians, including Wes Loper and Elaine Petty, every weekend.
It would not be until 2015, when a mutual friend asked if they would play at Franco’s (now closed) in Orange Beach that the women again played together.
“It was a long time ago, and it didn’t really click like it did when we got together at Franco’s,’’ Zanghi said. “I had just moved back from Nashville. I had been on the road with Doug Stone for six years playing his stuff, and I was playing my own songs around Nashville. So I was not up to date with cover songs like I was before I moved.
“I was in the process of learning new material and re-working my old stuff so I really didn’t know a lot of her tunes and she didn’t know my tunes,’’ she added .
When the women reconvened on stage, they felt immediate chemistry.
“When we got back together at Franco’s, we immediately hit it off,’’ Creswell said. “We were playing songs off the cuff and making it work. People loved it.’’’
Both entertainers brought their own fans as well as new fans who had not heard either of them play previously to their residency at the O.B. Italian restaurant.
“If you are on stage doing things the right way, it’s hard for the people in the audience not to have a good time,’’ Zanghi said.
“We ended up having a huge snowbird following,’’ Creswell added. “Thursday night at Franco’s was their venture out.’’
It was literally at the request of fans that they decided to record a CD.
Lisa and LeaAnne Volume 1 is a combination of their own favorite covers and suggestions from fans.
They recorded in a converted shed, Sheshed Studio, that Zanghi and fellow musician Jeff Bunk built behind her Mobile home.
Zanghi’s home studio is more suited for making demos. But it was perfect for the live show sound they wanted. Thus, there was no reason to bring in other musicians.
“If you have good stuff going into the recording device, it’s hard to make a bad CD,’’ Zanghi said. “It sounds like we sound live. And that’s what we wanted.’’
Zanghi said the silver lining to last March’s covid quarantine was that it allowed them the time to record the CD.
It includes one of Zanghi’s own songs, Crystal Clear. She also put down her own arrangement of Carol King’s Natural Woman.
Creswell said one of the cuts, Kenny Chesney’s “Way Down There,’’ is a signature tune with a good back story.
When Chesney was at the Flora-Bama Beach playing for 40K of his best friends back in August of 2014, Creswell befriended his sound tech and invited him to come upstairs to hear her play in the ‘Bama main room with John Joiner and Darrell Roberts.
“He brought a couple of people with him and when I played that song, he looked back at me and said, ‘That’s just what I want to hear, another damn Kenny Chesney song.’
“But afterwards he said he never heard Kenny do it that way. It turned out to be a song most of the people say is their favorite song when they come hear me. It’s about going to the beach and getting away from things.’’
Creswell said she had never heard another song on the album, “Missing Mississippi,” even though it was written by fellow Flora-Bama player Mark Sherrill, until she heard Zanghi sing it.
“I really liked the song and thought it was already great the way Lisa did it. She said, ‘Why don’t you sing it.’ So, I called Mark and asked if he minded if we cut it. He said he would be honored. So, I put down the vocal track.’’
Zanghi said that song, which she also recorded in Nashville in the 1990s, is another crowd favorite.
“That was the last song we recorded and it might be my favorite,’’ Zanghi said. “But I like a lot of them. There are too many for me to pick just one.’’
In 1982, Zanghi moved to Gulf Shores, playing gigs at local clubs such as McGoo’s, Captain Harry’s (with Brett Gambino), The Pink Pony and Top of the Port (with Steve Varnes).
She also played in Luxury Liner, the Gulf State Park Resort house band (with Chris Gamble on guitar, Sid Snyder on drums, Greg Crabtree on base and Tony Ray Jones on guitar).
“I was making good money and living the highlife in Gulf Shores,’’ Zanghi said.
Still, the lure of Nashville and a chance to put her own songs in front of a larger audience was attractive. So, she put together local showcase shows at Gulf State Park and Cadillac Jack’s that ended with a publisher-manager contract.
She also signed a production deal with the late Larry Butler, a Pensacola native who won a grammy for producing Kenny Rodgers’ The Gambler and a second for writing “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.’’
Though two different record contracts fell through while she was there, Zanghi has no regrets about her 12 years in Music City. Besides getting to play music with world class musicians, she learned about music business politics.
“I loved Nashville. It was a great place to live and play music,’’ she said. “There was no real money to be made playing, but I got to play with really great musicians putting out some good music.’’
She recorded two albums of original music (Brighter Days and A Woman Does Too) while in Nashville, and she has continued to record original music (A Different Side of Me & and Smiling In The Dark) after coming home to the Gulf Coast.
Creswell has been performing live since she got up on stage at five years old to sing a Christmas carol acappella. Her mother, who played guitar and sang on the radio back in her hometown of Money, Mississippi, bought her a guitar for Christmas when she was in 2nd grade and immediately taught her A, D & G chords so she could play “Down In The Valley’’ on Christmas morning.
She would join the chorus at Pensacola Tate High School, where she learned the technical side of voice. And at 14, she began practicing on stage at The Townhouse Lounge in downtown Pensacola. Its owner would years later become a big part of her life.
Although she is fluent in piano, Creswell said she still uses mainly a guitar to strom the chords that will keep her singing on key.
“I always just wanted to play guitar well enough to get me by so I could sing,’’ she said.
The bar owner that used to let Creswell practice on his stage was Joe Gilchrist, who later bought the Flora-Bama and founded the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival.
“Joe would let me come in and practice, but only on Sundays when he and his wife Fran were the only ones there,’’ Creswell said. “That definitely helped me develop a stage presence.’’
Creswell’s musical journey included two years playing in Memphis, a year on the road playing the Sheraton Hotel circuit and nine years playing jazzy music with trios in Dallas.
Her home bases when she returned home were Seville Quarter in Pensacola and Carmichael’s in Fort Walton.
In 1983, a friend brought her to the Flora-Bama, where she re-connected with Gilchrist (and Pat McClellan, who was once a bartender at Seville).
After much urging, she sat in with Kenny Lambert, singing “Me & My Bobby McGee.’’ The packed house approved with gusto, and she has been playing there ever since.
Besides sharing the stage with scores of Nashville’s finest songwriters at the Flora-Bama, Creswell was able to record an album of songs by her mentor, Hank Cochran, over a two week period at his brand new studio in 2008. The album includes Creswell’s classic take on “Diamonds & Rust.”
“I don’t want to play from 9 ‘til 2 in the morning anymore,’’ Creswell said. “I paid my dues in that area. I am quite happy with playing 2 to 6 (on Fridays) at the Flora-Bama.’’
Creswell said she and Zanghi are looking for another residency and she is trying to recruit Zanghi to become a regular part of her Friday afternoon Flora-Bama slot (Zanghi will be with her on Jan. 22).
Zanghi, who plays twice a week at Ms. Nancy’s Lobby Bar at Perdido Beach Resort, also sees future Lisa and LeaAnne collaborations. And she is currently recording a CD of original songs to play on the songwriters circuit.
“I still love to play live. But when I am out playing four or five times a week, I don’t get a chance to stay and home and play whatever comes to mind,’’ she said, “and if it’s not working, I can just stop. You can’t do that in front of people.’’
Neither Zanghi or Creswell have plans to retire. “I’m still having fun with it. Why would I want to stop?’’ Creswell asked rhetorically.
Between them, they’ve been using their musical gifts to brighten people’s lives for 80 plus years. And they are playing better than ever.
Of course, they will play on.