It seemed like a simple suggestion at the time. Mike Santoro's wife suggested that, since he could play and sing Billy Joel's tunes, he should start a Billy Joel tribute act to play locally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"There was really nothing going on as far as the tribute scene goes," says Santoro. "She suggested that I put the word out and start the band, and little by little things started. I started to meet people, network, and one thing led to another, and next thing you know I'm surrounded by a bunch of musicians that were into the idea."
That idea was The Stranger, a tribute act that plays Billy Joel covers along with the songs of a few other well known acts. They are named after the album that made Joel a star.
Neither Joel or his music were anything new to Santoro, not by a long shot. He hails from the same Long Island town, Levittown, that the famous musician did, a fact that was a point of pride for the community.
"He was a local hero to us kids," he says. "I've been a fan since I was about seven years old."
Once the word was out and The Stranger had officially begun (that was back in 2009) the band began garnering a following around Charlotte. Eventually they began to attract the attention of media giant Live Nation, signed with a management agency and increased the area they play, traveling as far away as California for shows.
The Stranger's success enabled Santoro and company to improve band's musicianship by widening the talent pool they were able to draw from.
"When we started, I would say we were a B-plus band, "says Santoro. "And then we became an A-plus band just because the musicianship improved."
The band currently has six members. Santoro plays piano and is the lead vocalist. Chris Revels plays bass guitar, Daniel Rodriguez Jr. is the drummer, Gabriel Bellow plays keyboards, saxophones and percussion and provides backing vocals. Steven Daley is their musical director and also provides backing vocals and plays saxophone, keys and flute. Evan Bloom plays lead guitar, violin and keyboards and sings backing vocals. All of the players are big Billy Joel fans.
"Being a fan and starting a tribute, it has to be one and the same," says Santoro. "You need to be dedicated to do this thing right. You need to be so immersed in the music, where you're not just someone that can name a dozen tunes from him but be really able to pick everything apart and put it back together again ... So the guys that I hooked up with in the band have the same mind set, where they're really not just fans but I guess you'd call superfans."
For those who haven't seen Billy Joel live, he's a dynamic performer who is known to throw the audience an occasional curveball, and those are elements The Stranger try to emulate: the dynamism and the unpredictability. Their ultimate goal is to have audiences leave the show feeling like they had seen an actual Billy Joel show.
"As a performer he's always been the kind of guy where you don't know what to expect. He's unpredictable. It's nuts what he can do with a piano," he says. "The piano is such a grounded, massive instrument. It stays on the stage, you know, but he can still play that thing like Hendrix played the guitar - run around and light it on fire. He could really engage an audience with a big piano and then come off the piano and go to like a Hammond B3 organ or a synthesizer or just get on a mic... and that's kind of what we try to do too as a band."
For a band that started out on almost a lark, The Stranger have amassed a significant following and played Billy Joel's hits to thousands of people. Given the success that has gone beyond their expectation, it seems that they're either tapping into some sort of unmet demand, or that they're just really good at what they do. Perhaps both. For as popular a performer as Joel has been for decades, the number of tribute acts dedicated to his music is relatively few.
The Stranger give the audiences exactly what they're looking for in a Billy Joel tribute act. They play the hits along with selected b-sides to make the fans happy. They throw in a few covers from other artists here and there, and they vary their set list, to mix it up, keep people engaged, and keep it interesting. For Santoro, all of the success that they have met with so far is an unexpected blessing.
"I've like exceeded my expectations with this thing. We started off with my wife just kind of suggesting I do it," he says. "I never imagined I'd be flying out to California playing in front of 9,000 people or playing Allentown, Pennsylvania in front of a steel mill. At that point, you're looking around and you're pinching yourself. If I stopped tomorrow, I'd be happy."
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