The famous sound of a Syracuse diner

By Rebecca Schmid

Diners have inspired many a great American songwriter. Whether off freeways or close to the edge of cosmopolitan streets, a friendly face and a greasy menu may be as essential as pencil and paper.

Syracuse native Martin Sexton made Doc’s Little Gem Diner his second home – so much so that the singer-songwriter references the former Spencer Street eatery in his song, “Diner.”

Grab yourself a cheeseburger at the Little Gem Diner off the old 6-9er …

“(Sexton) lived in the area and would come by all the time,” Laura Good, whose father owned Doc’s until it closed on March 31, said. “Martin would sit at end of counter drinking coffee, eating gravy fries and writing music all night.”

The 10th of 12 children in a working-class Irish family, Sexton picked up an acoustic guitar for the first time when he was 14. After jamming with local rock bands, he left his Central New York turf to play in the streets of Boston. It wasn’t until 2007 that he had his big break with “Diner.” The song shot to number one on the iTunes chart after airing earlier that year on the TV sitcom Scrubs.

Sexton’s musical style is an individual blend of soul, gospel, country, rock and blues. “Diner” has a folksy, improvisational feel that makes you want to hit the road for the next greasy spoon.

You might have seen one out in Minnesota/Or maybe by the sea in Sarasota/But they were made back in Worcester Mass/Of aluminum and Bakelite and glass.

Syracuse songwriter Thomas Baron suggests a diner offers a comforting familiarity because you can find one no matter where you go.

“Whether it’s Buffalo, Sheboygan or San Antoine, Portland, Rockland or Saddle Ridge, you feel like you’ve been there before,” Baron said. “And you’ll be there again.”

Pop-folk singer Suzanne Vega found the inspiration in a diner on 112th and Broadway in New York City. As a student at Barnard College in 1981, she spent hours drinking coffee at a place called Tom’s Restaurant. Music fans would come to know the joint as “Tom’s Diner.”

I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner/I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee.

“(Vega) would sit in the corner with a big window right behind her,” Panagiotis “Pete” Papaharalambous, a Tom’s Restaurant manager who has worked there for 36 years, said. “She always stayed in same spot. If anyone tried to sit there, they wouldn’t have finished sitting down.”

Papaharalambous formed a close bond with the singer before “Tom’s Diner” would become an international hit. Nearly a decade after the song’s original release, the British DJ act DNA would remix Vega’s folk-driven version into a Top 10 dance hit.

“It’s a very beautiful thing to serve people like that,” Papaharalambous said.

In an essay for The New York Times, Vega explained that the idea for the song “Tom’s Diner” came to her spontaneously.

“The melody hit me as I was walking down Broadway, fast,” Vega said. “I wanted something jaunty. I remember liking the near rhymes of ‘diner’ and ‘corner,’ ‘sitting’ and ‘waiting’.”

Vega added that she changed Tom’s “restaurant” to “diner” because it sounded better that way.

Syracuse University music history professor Theo Cateforis said that a diner has a different connotation than a restaurant. He suggested that diners emit a sense of rebellion where an individual – possibly even a songwriter — can take refuge.

“The diner has more bohemian allure, in some respects it is closer to a daytime bar,” Cateforis said. “It is the only place where hard-core drifters and loners will congregate.”

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One Response to “The famous sound of a Syracuse diner”

  1. Fou-Fou says:

    Please don’t neglect to mention the brilliant song by Henry Jankiewicz of Syracuse, renowned songwriter/singer/fiddler extraordinaire.This song was performed for years & recorded by the infamous Cranberry Lake Jug Band.”All Night Diner” is a song that captures the very essence of our Central New York diner experience.

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