Singer songwriter Gene Casey of Southold is having a very good month.
“Guitar in the Rain,” his new album of original songs has just been released and on March 25 he will headline a concert at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“I feel blessed,” says the affable Casey. “I really do. I feel lucky.”
While luck may have played some small part, it is more likely that hard work, tenacity and pure talent are the keys to Casey’s success in a field where singers come and go, sometimes despite their talent and dedication.
Casey is a rarity, a man who’s figured out a way to make a living doing what he loves to do and succeeding for nearly three decades. But he’s paid his dues, playing at bars and venues all over Long Island and frequently finding himself driving home in the small hours of the night, exhausted.
But you won’t hear any complaints from Casey. “If people are into the music and the band, I’ll play anywhere,” he says. “I love what I do.”
Casey was born in Queens and raised in Malverne, a village less than an hour away by railroad from New York City. He had a traditional small-town childhood and remembers music being a big part of his life growing up.
“My mother was a Sinatra fan and my father was a Bing Crosby guy,” he recalls. “They also liked Broadway show music and the Irish singer John McCormick.”
But his fondest musical memories are of the family gathered around the piano at Christmastime, he says.
“Everyone sang. It was unbridled, enthusiastic spontaneous singing. Any kind of problem was swept away. I chose to play music because the thing that made me happiest was singing. I really never considered anything else. I knew I needed to play music.”
Casey credits his older brother Vincent for introducing him to the Beatles, a group that would influence his musical personality for years to come.
“I wasn’t like the other kids in the neighborhood,” says Casey. “I was obsessed with the Beatles and even at the age of seven I was aware of something different, something special when I heard the Sgt. Pepper album.”
“And I secretly liked the Monkees,” he says, “though Vincent told me not to. So don’t tell anyone.”
Photo: Katharine Schroeder
As a child Casey started out playing the drums. “My brother would be the guitar player and I’d be the drummer and that would be our band,” he says. But after his brother took a few guitar lessons and taught him some chords Casey was hooked. He soon began to discover early rock and roll, blues and Fifties music — he mentions Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Elvis, the Beach Boys. He played in garage bands and talent shows throughout high school, always being involved in some kind of group.
“I forced my friends to play,” he says with a laugh. “I felt alienated from a lot of kids my age who were listening to Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. I was stuck in the Fifties and Sixties.”
Casey began composing early on; learning guitar and writing songs happened concurrently. Since he and Vincent didn’t know many songs, they made up their own. And of course they wanted to do what the Beatles were doing, writing their own lyrics and melodies.
After high school, Casey attended Old Westbury College where he studied Journalism, History, Art and American Studies. After graduation he realized that he didn’t want to be a journalist or a historian. He just wanted to play music.
He moved to Manhattan and set about trying to make a living as a musician, but it was difficult. The pay was poor and the music scene was more punk rock than Americana. He ended up taking a job as a groundskeeper at the Sagaponack home of writer John Irving. That’s when he discovered the East End’s lively music scene and in 1988 decided to form a band with a few friends and his brother Vincent.
Photo: Katharine Schroeder
Soon the Lone Sharks – the name is a nod to the Lone Ranger and the Hamptons beaches – found themselves quite busy, playing big events and playing a lot.
“That’s when I realized I should take this more seriously,” says Casey. “I started to play some of my own music within that context and the band developed. We got more serious and we got better.”
Over the next four or five years, Casey and his band built up a following, playing both classics and originals. After discovering several other bands named “The Lone Sharks” and with the increasing emphasis on Casey’s original music the band was renamed “Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks.” They continued to develop and grow more serious, with members coming and going. The band’s most recent core consists of Casey on guitar, Paul Scher on saxophone, Tony Palumbo on bass and Chris Ripley on drums.
In 2003, Casey moved to the North Fork, a place where he felt more at home, but continued playing venues on the South Fork and throughout Long Island. He has built up a strong and devoted following, with fans traveling long distances to see him. He began producing and financing his own CDs – his newest is his seventh – all the while writing new songs and playing gigs. His music has been used in the television series ‘Justified’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and the movies ‘The Killing Season’ and ‘Being Charlie,’ among others.
All in all, things have gone pretty well for Gene Casey and he’s a happy man.
“I’m doing OK,” he says. “I work hard but I’m doing more and more and doing it better. Whatever opportunities are left for me at this age I’m trying to grab. I never had dreams of being a superstar; I’m not an aggressive self-obsessed pop-star type. I’m enjoying what I do and I feel blessed.”
Occasionally there is a hiccup, and a big one occurred last spring when Casey took a tumble from his bicycle, fracturing two bones in his left hand, a devastating injury for a guitar player.
“I figured I’d be in a cast for six weeks and two weeks after that I’d be roaring and reading to go. But the calluses were gone so it was really painful to play. Now they’re pretty much back but they put a screw in my hand that will stay there. I have a little arthritic thing going on and I still do physical therapy. I think I’m about 85 percent back.”
And speaking of injuries, how does Casey get away with doing his signature splits onstage?
“I don’t, really,” he says laughing. “I never had good technique with that one; it’s just pure adrenaline, just a big ham showing off. I feel it the next day.”
So Gene Casey continues to evolve, being a little more selective these days and mostly playing at places he enjoys. He doesn’t take gigs just for the money, he says. “I’m trying to cut back and just make it quality.”
He is playing more and more of his original music and making it a priority to focus on his own songs. In the past he’s played other people’s songs and just a few of his own. He’s moving toward switching that ratio and playing mostly his own compositions.
“Ultimately it’s more valuable if the material is any good. I’d rather be known for that than as the guy who does a good Johnny Cash.”
His fans and fellow musicians seem to feel that his material is much more than good; he was given the Long Island Sound Award by the Long Island Music Hall of Fame last year, he and the band were voted People of the Year by the Times-Review Newsgroup for 2016 and the Lone Sharks were inducted into the Dan’s Papers ‘Best of the Best’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Not bad for a kid from Malverne who started off “playing guitar” on a mop handle.
Casey will spend the next few weeks getting ready for the March 25 concert; he will be joined onstage by Lone Shark regulars Paul Scher, Tony Palumbo and Chris Ripley along with guest artists Stan Mitchell, Tricia Scotti and Andy Burton, among others.
He is also expecting to take delivery on the “Guitar in the Rain” CDs soon, although the album is available for purchase as a download right now.
He’s a busy guy, but he’s not complaining.
“To me the American Dream is doing something that you love,” he says. “And I love what I’m doing.”
The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. Concert tickets are available at their website.