Maybe chart-topping rock stars aren’t abandoning their guitars to play the conch (pronounced “konk”) shell. But that doesn’t matter — because the “pucker pros” performing on fluted, pink-lined shells were treated like rock stars at Key West’s 61st annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest.

Key West Conch Shell Blowing Contest winner

Brian Cardis, a pediatric cardiologist from Macon, Georgia, plays Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” during the 61st annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest — while wearing the kind of sparkly sunglasses that the superstar is famous for. (Photo by Mary Martin, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Locally nicknamed the “conch honk,” the quirky challenge was held March 9 in the lovely gardens of the Oldest House Museum. As it’s done for six decades, the fun-filled event saluted the Florida Keys’ seafaring heritage and centuries-old use of the “conch horn” for signaling and communication.

It’s not easy to be a consistently good conch shell blower, and many people can only produce blasts or feeble squawks. But that certainly wasn’t the case for Peter Drake and Brian Cardis, who tied for first place in the competitive men’s division — after both demonstrated their “pucker power” by playing distinctive song excerpts on their trusty shells.

Of course, they’ve both had a good bit of practice.

Brian, a pediatric cardiologist from Macon, Georgia, played part of Elton John’s hit “Crocodile Rock,” alternating between large and miniature shells while wearing glittery glasses like those favored by England’s musical superstar.

“I tried to pick a song that was fun and a crowd pleaser, and one that would fall in line with the limited amount of notes that you can play on a conch shell,” explained Brian, who also won the men’s division in 2023.

Peter, a mental health counselor from North Stonington, Connecticut, chose the traditional tune “Amazing Grace” — a tune he said he often played at sunset on his sailboat.

Conch Shell Blowing Contest Key West

Contestant Peter Drake (right) plays “Amazing Grace” as emcee Steve Miller holds the microphone.

He first entered the contest as a teen about 50 years ago, and offered some tips for aspiring “conch honkers.”

“I would give the advice of start slowly, learn that bass note that the conch shell has within it, and just play it nice and clear — as clear as they can,” Peter said.

He obviously knows what he’s talking about, since his rendition of “Amazing Grace” was sincere, clear and flawless.

The tradition of blowing the conch shell in the Keys began hundreds of years ago. In the 1800s, when the local economy was largely based on salvaging shipwreck cargoes, sailors attracted attention by blowing piercing blasts on the shell.

Brian and Peter weren’t the only notable entrants in the 2024 contest. Some four dozen kids and adults competed, including two heart-meltingly cute little girls with long hair and determined expressions. One woman, Christiane “Sunny” Neubauer, came all the way from Germany.

Key West Conch Shell Blowing Contest entrant

Germany’s Christiane “Sunny” Neubauer puckers up to participate in the women’s division of the popular contest. (Photo by Mary Martin, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Contest judges evaluated the participating men, women, kids and groups on the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they made (and some sounds were so novel that they were downright embarrassing).

Other “conch honkers,” however, gave remarkable performances — like Florida Keys duo Joseph Cosme and Eddie Strunk, who took top honors in the group division after playing a lively improvisational duet. And Key West’s Clinton Curry served up a brilliant excerpt from composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” — a complicated melody on ANY instrument.

As well as an offbeat musical instrument, the conch shell is an enduring symbol of the Florida Keys. The slightly tough meat of the hardy mollusk is the prime ingredient in conch chowder, conch fritters and other traditional dishes. Native residents proudly proclaim their own tough, hardy nature by calling themselves “conchs” and their home the Conch Republic.

The “conch honk” was presented by Key West’s Old Island Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of the island. Clearly, the contest plays a major role in carrying out the foundation’s mission — much to the delight of the “rock stars” who gathered to toot their own horns this year at the Oldest House.