He looks larger than life on stage in a T-shirt, cowboy hat and tight jeans, rocking out on his Fender Stratocaster while '80s icon Eddie Money belts out hits like Two Tickets to Paradise. But when the weekend show is over, Tommy Girvin will fly home to a tour bus that has carpeted floors, boxes of tiny tambourines and pictures of crooked quarter notes scrawled by tiny fingers.
"Children are just magical," said Girvin, 55, who transforms into alter ego Mr. Tommy, a mild-mannered music teacher and kids' entertainer in a white polo and khakis who enjoys a fan base that is barely out of diapers.
With his signature feathered top hat, Mr. Tommy has become a fixture at area shopping malls, churches, hospitals and family friendly events. His mobile musical bus can often be seen parked under the garage at the Shops at Wiregrass, where he puts on monthly kiddie concerts and sing-a-longs at the Wiregrass Ranchers Kids' Club. More recently, he began teaching small groups of kids on his renovated school bus, where he introduces them to different types of music, demonstrates instruments and leads them in musical games.
"Parents love him, the kids love him, and he does a phenomenal job on that bus," said Bimal Bhojani, owner of a Kids R Kids preschool in Wesley Chapel.
Shannon Mack can attest to that. Her 5-year-old son, Blake, was part of a kindergarten program Mr. Tommy offered at Discovery Point in Wesley Chapel.
"He could tell me verbatim everything they learned," said Mack, who watched as Girvin and Blake broke out into a song taught by Mr. Tommy:
Hit the road, Jack. And don't you come back no more, no more, no more, no more. Hit the road, Jack. And don't you come back no more.
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Musical talent is in Tommy Girvin's DNA. Born in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, he grew up watching his mother, Gwen, tour with the Supremes and sing in clubs. He and his brother, Timmy, and sister, Terri, performed together at carnivals and pizza parlors after moving to California when Tommy was 7. The group was on the road so much the family hired a tutor.
"We sort of popped out of the womb in three-part harmony," Girvin joked. After a few years, "we got burned out and into sports."
Girvin continued his music and joined a band called Smile, which performed on the Sunset Strip around the same time as Van Halen. One day while recording at a studio, he met Money's band and was hired.
Girvin has worked as lead guitarist for more than 27 years and can be seen in the videos that were a hallmark of 1980s MTV. A divorce brought him to Florida about seven years ago.
"I wasn't really famous," he said. "I was one of the guys who still had to go home and mow the lawn. I think that helped protect me from excess-ism," he said, referring to Money's well-publicized struggles with alcohol and drugs.
Eventually, home exerted a greater grip as Girvin became a father. He would make up ditties on the spot as he tucked his son and daughter into bed.
Those times gave birth to songs that would later entertain hundreds of children.
"My daughter, Talia, wrote the melody for Goodnight, Goodnight," he said of the title song on his 2009 CD. His son Tommy J.'s musings about robotic reindeer inspired the song Robot Reindeer on a Christmas CD released the same year. Both children lend their voices to his latest CD, If I Was A Fish, released last year.
Talia, now 14, attends the performing arts magnet at Blake High School in Tampa. Tommy J. 13, plays drums in the John Long Middle School band.
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Girvin's children's program evolved out of charity work. He played at hospitals and homeless shelters. That led to paid gigs. His most publicized performances have been at the Shops at Wiregrass near his home.
"He is a masterful children's entertainer that engages the children and gets them involved with sing-a-long songs that he brings to life," said Greg Lenners, the mall's general manager. Concerts led to shows at preschools. While visiting one he grabbed a brochure from the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando and read up on what skills young children should learn. He incorporated those into his music.
That impressed coalition president Jim Farrelly, who began booking Mr. Tommy for events.
"Mr. Tommy is a wonderful way for our pre-schoolers to become acquainted with music in a fun way," Farrelly said.
A conversation two years ago with preschool owner Bhojani about his weariness of traveling with Money's band sparked the music-on-wheels program.
"I said 'why don't you get a music bus,'" Bhojani recalled. "Because you're kind of like the Eric Clapton of this. Kids get to see a real musician instead of someone just trying to generate dollars."
Six weeks later, Girvin bought an old Bluebird bus and spent about $60,000 transforming it into a musical lab. For a monthly fee of $45, kids get four weekly visits on the bus.
Lessons last about a half-hour and cover a different theme every two weeks. At a recent session on reggae, kids banged tambourines and swayed with egg shakers. Faces lit up as Mr. Tommy let each one hold a guitar pick and strum a few chords while he sang Bob Marley's Three Little Birds.
"It's all new to them," he said.
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His daily schedule is packed with visits to preschools. Evenings, he disinfects the bus, processes payments and emails photos to parents.
"These parents care about what their kids are doing," he said. If he misses a week, he hears about it.
Most Wednesdays are set aside for charity work at hospitals, shelters and nonprofit agencies.
Girvin still plays some Eddie Money shows, but he's grooming a younger guitarist to take over. He gets enough adoration from his newest fans, who squeal with delight when they see him at the grocery store.
He looks forward to being more known for Hey Kids, Let's Hop! than Think I'm In Love.
"It's fun," he said of his rocker days. "You get to fly first class. Big deal."
Contact Lisa Buie at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604. Follow @Lisa_Buie.