“It felt wonderful,” Bernie Soto said excitedly, though still weakly, from his hospital room at Park Avenue Extended Care on National Boulevard last week. “It felt great.”
A percussionist and founder member of Primo, a legendary Long Beach band, Soto was back behind his congas and bongos in July, less than a year after he suffered a massive brain aneurysm and collapsed on the boardwalk while he played his instruments.
Soto joined Steve Adelson and other Long Beach musicians during a gig at Grillfire in July. His left arm remains incapacitated after the aneurysm paralyzed the left side of his body, but he was nevertheless back doing what he loves most.
“He smiled and was so happy to be involved again,” Adelson said of Soto performing at the restaurant on West Park Avenue. “He wouldn't stop even when we took a break. Bernie was like a kid with a new toy he'd always wanted.”
Now Soto is readying himself to join his band when they play their annual concert at Neptune Boulevard beach as part of the City of Long Beach’s free concert series at 8 p.m. on Sept. 1 [Editor's update: The city said the concert has been postponed due to post-hurricane clean up]. This, after Soto joined Adelson, who plays Chapman Stick, Alex Fox, another jazz musician, Fox’s son and members of Los Playeros, a local Latin band, at their concert on Riverside Boulevard beach Aug. 1.
“When we [played] the boardwalk with Alex, the experience was heightened, with the large crowd and the fact that Bernie and Alex use to tour together all over the world,” said Adelson, who organizes the city’s annual jazz festival each September. “A great reunion of the soul.”
After Soto was hospitalized and a doctor delivered a grim diagnosis last August, Primo turned their summer concert gig into a fundraiser for him. This was followed by original and early members of Primo —including bassist Schuyler Deale and guitarist Dean Brown, both Long Beach natives — gathered to play together again after a 15 year hiatus, dazzling crowds with their blend of jazz, rock and Latin tunes at the Long Beach Library and a local restaurant during last year’s jazz festival. Another benefit involved Los Playeros performing at St. Mary's of the Isle Church hall last October.
“I never knew people loved me so much for doing something that just comes from the heart—to play music for the community,” Soto said about the local support.
Last week, he described his recovery as “very torturous,” and said his deepest fear was that he would be unable to play music again.
“It’s weird that you have to learn something that you use to be able to do so easily,” Soto said about his return to playing percussion.
Adelson said he fully understood Soto’s elation to play again, even with just one functional arm.
“Something that was so vital in your life, something in your blood, in your DNA, had been taken away for a length of time, and now you get a chance to taste it again,” Adelson said. “It was extremely gratifying and exciting to see Bernie experience this.”
Soto was born in Puerto Rico in 1953 and the following year he and his family moved to Long Beach. During the early 1970s, he and his cousin, Ray, formed Primo and jammed with Deale at the now defunct Spanish Brotherhood Youth Center, where they learned Latin standards along with a flute player, fellow city resident Tim Andrews.
Later, with the addition of Brown, Primo developed into a well-known jazz-rock-Latin fusion band that played at local bars during the 1980s and '90s. When other band members started to depart to play with bigger acts, including Billy Joel, Michael Bolton, David Sanborn and the Tonight Show, Soto kept Primo intact with new members, becoming an annual act at the city's summer concerts while he toured occasionally with different bands, including Godsmack, and flew often to Miami to perform with Latin entertainers.
"Bernie has played around the world, but the reason he never went out and made it big is because he's a homebody," said Margarita Harmon, his sister, at a benefit last year. "He likes to play around here. He loves to perform for Long Beach."