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Frankly, he's a romantic

TIERRA VERDE — It felt like an unprecedented meeting of music legends.

The playful mischief of Jimmy Buffett met the old-school baritone of Frank Sinatra on Thursday evening, getting diners' toes tapping at Billy's Stonecrab, Seafood and Steak in Tierra Verde.

It happens every week.

"If you close your eyes, you'd think it was really them," said Dolores Gee, watching the band play at the crowded restaurant.

They are When Buffett Meets Sinatra, manned by celebrity doppelgangers J.C. Unger (Jimmy) and Dale Williams (Frankie).

Unger, 57, sports a red bandana and matching Hawaiian shirt as he belts out hits from the island-music bard.

Williams, 69, woos the crowd with Sinatra's class as he winks at ladies walking to the bar.

But somewhat counterintuitively, Unger will be the one taking a free vacation to Las Vegas this fall after winning a Sinatra contest with People magazine.

In May, People began a contest in honor of the release of a Sinatra greatest hits album. It challenged male readers to write, in 50 words or fewer, how lucky they are to have their wives or girlfriends, in a play off the Sinatra hit Luck Be a Lady.

Unger's wife of eight months, Mary Beth, reads the magazine regularly and told him he should enter.

"I said 'Oh, yeah. Yeah, nobody wins those things,' " Unger said.

But he started scribbling on a legal pad anyway and e-mailed his submission. He found out this month that he is the winner.

"Isn't it ironic?" he said.

It was Sinatra that brought the two together in the first place.

J.C. met Mary Beth, 50, about three years ago as she watched one of the band's performances at Philthy Phil's Waterfront Bar and Grill in St. Pete Beach.

The two chatted between sets that night, and Mary Beth hasn't missed a performance since.

Unger proposed by hiring an airplane to trail a banner reading "Mary Beth, I love you, will you marry me? J.C." as it circled Treasure Island.

"She said 'Oh, my God. Oh, my God' for two hours," he said.

Now she mouths the words to his songs as she sits at the bar across from the stage.

Unger whips out a fiddle and begins a vigorous solo as Mary Beth tells the restaurant's regulars about his contest victory.

"He's a very talented man," she said. "He's so humble. He doesn't know how talented he is."

But it wasn't long ago that Unger was struggling to make a living.

He and Williams had known each other for 20 years when they lived in the same town in Michigan. After a few decades of performing solo, both were having trouble paying the bills.

In April 2003, they saved up enough to live on for three weeks and moved to Florida.

They played for free almost every night of the week and were able to secure six months' paid work at Philthy Phil's.

In the years since, they've built a following.

"We call them the boys," said Karen Thompson as she sat with her friend Colleen Wells at Billy's. "We ask each other 'Where are the boys playing?' "

Andrew Dunn can be reached at (727) 893-8150 or adunn@sptimes.com.

>>fast facts

J.C. Unger's winning entry:

"Mary Beth was a living doll. Satin skin, come-hither eyes and lips all men wanted; when she danced, her swaying hips hypnotized. She loved me, loved my music and made all things joyful again in my life. Best of all, she wanted to be my wife. Lucky, lucky me."

Frankly, he's a romantic 07/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 10, 2008 9:22pm]

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