Cuckoo’s Nest celebrates 45 years of Charlie Sutton and his piano
The story of how a feisty Irishman from just outside New York City came to open a Mexican restaurant in a 200-year-old cattle barn just a stone’s throw from the shoreline in Old Saybrook is one for another time.
This is not that story.
Rather, this is the story of how that same Irishman came to hire a Harvard-educated Peace Corps volunteer to play the piano in that same restaurant and, 45 years later, the two came together to celebrate.
Fitzpatrick and Charlie Sutton spent some time one hot day late last month - 45 years to the day that Sutton first sat down at the piano at the Cuckoo’s Nest - recalling how their friendship and business partnership came to be.
The story goes that Fitzpatrick, who sold the beloved restaurant nine years ago, and his wife were scoping out venues for a potential restaurant and came into Czesu’s Backside Saloon, where they came across Sutton playing.
A few months later, on New Year’s Eve 1976, not long after Fitzpatrick opened the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sutton and an Ethiopian friend he was hosting over the holidays wanted to try some spicy food. They found their way to the Cuckoo’s Nest, which has since become a shoreline institution.
Sutton had a gig at the old 95 House previously that night and had his guitar with him when he walked in.
Fitzpatrick’s wife recognized him from Czesu’s Backside Saloon a few months earlier.
“And she said, ‘We still want you to play,’” Sutton remembered.
“I had been waiting around all that fall and you never called,” Sutton joked to Fitzpatrick
Forty-five years later, Sutton was back at the piano playing in front of a full dining room, as he has done every Sunday night for 45 years at the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Those are a lot of memories I haven’t thought about in a long time,” said the 80-year-old Sutton.
The original contract between the two men was on display on Sutton’s piano on Sunday night, with a $30 salary.
“Two weeks notice by either party, and so far I haven’t received anything,” Sutton joked.
Sutton grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where his father was a college professor at The Ohio State University, but he spent most of his time in the summer in Old Saybrook. After matriculating at Harvard, where he studied English, Sutton joined the Peace Corps and spent five years in Ethiopia, teaching English and learning Ethiopian music.
He spent some time as a member of a 15-piece Ethiopian orchestra that toured the U.S., playing the mesenko, a single-stringed bowed lute, and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on March 4, 1969.
Upon returning to Connecticut, Sutton spent his professional career as a working musician, playing seven nights a week all along the shoreline and other venues in the state, but the Cuckoo’s Nest, just down the road, has always been his ‘home away from home.’
“I’m always happy to play here,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know people here and I’ve always enjoyed playing here and they evidently wanted to keep me or I wouldn’t be here.”
People of all ages approached Sutton as he was setting up on this night to share a moment, look at photos and reminisce.
“My daughter loves you,” one well-wisher said.
“Oh good, I love her too,” replied Sutton.
Then, just as the clock struck 5 p.m., the working musician sat down and began to play.
“To 45 more,” said Fitzpatrick.