Hours after his Tuesday night show in Bay Shore wrapped up, Gene Casey pulled into his driveway at his one-acre Southold property, weary from the road.
He’d driven for more than an hour after the latest performance of his ubiquitous band, Gene Casey & the Lone Sharks. Now, after a quick run to the store for a bottle of white wine, he was ready for home.
Casey climbed his porch steps as the speaker system inside the house blared out rhythm and blues tunes. He had set it up so the music was playing through the open windows before he left. Even when he isn’t working, the music is all around him.
Casey was in the midst of a five-day run of shows stretching from Shelter Island to Lindenhurst. Tuesday was night four. He’ll take a break in two days, then start another multi-night tour.
The summer schedule is hectic, with some long nights of driving through the dark Pine Barrens as the only car on the road. But better that than the doldrums of February, when the shows dry up and Casey is lucky to book one venue a week.
It’s easy for him to get into a groove this time of year. He knows how to regulate his voice and give just enough at each performance to keep audiences jumping and dancing to his rock and roll and country stylings without burning himself out in the process.
“It’s a continuous gig,” he noted. “It never stops.”
It’s a skill he’s learned after more than 25 years as one of the East End’s best-known and most celebrated musicians.
“I’d put Gene Casey against any national act you can name. He’s that good,” said Howard Thompson, a former talent scout for record labels and music director at WPKN radio in Bridgeport, Conn. “I think Long Island really should know that they have someone very special in their midst.”
If they don’t know that already, they will soon enough.
At a concert in Port Jefferson next Wednesday, Casey — a 27-year veteran of the East End music scene — will be honored by the Long Island Music Hall of Fame with the Long Island Sound Award, an honor for local acts that have made a important contribution to the region’s musical heritage.
“He’s definitely one of those bands that’s created the musical fabric of Long Island,” said Jim Faith, vice chair of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
With the honor, Casey will join the likes of the Good Rats, Doug Seeger, Blue Oyster Cult, Eddie Money, Twisted Sister and Foghat.
Faith said Gene Casey & the Lone Sharks are a mainstay of Long Island’s rising original music scene. While tribute bands have their place, he said acts like Casey’s are ways for locals to “hear a great band with great songs.”
He said going to a Lone Sharks concert is like “what happened when people went out and heard Billy [Joel] for the first time.”
Norm Prusslin, a co-founder of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, is a champion of Casey’s group and helped convince the board to honor him.
“I think Gene was a perfect candidate,” he said. “He’s a perfect ambassador as a Long Islander, as a person making music on Long Island.”
Prusslin said it’s Casey’s ability to jump from R&B to rock and roll to country to twang that makes him so unique.
“He’s always stuck to his guns,” Prusslin said. “He continues to be someone who plays music as it was originally meant to be played — with his own spin on it.”
Casey grew up in a “Beatles” household in Malverne in the 1960s dreaming of two careers: being either the star center fielder for the New York Yankees or a guitarist in a rock-and-roll band. His life is bookmarked by the release dates of the Beatles’ movies and albums; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out when he was 7, he recalls.
He and his brother Vincent — who he says is his hero – would practice the two-part harmonies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It was Vincent who taught Casey his first few basic chords.
All it took was a high school talent show to cement Casey’s love of performing. Forget the bright lights of Yankee Stadium; on stage is where he wanted to be.
Casey spent years living in Manhattan and working odd jobs while playing $70-a-night shows in bars and clubs.
That money didn’t go far when split with three bandmates, and Casey fled New York in 1988 to work as a handyman at writer John Irving’s estate on the East End.
“I knew what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know how to do it,” he said. “I still don’t know how to do it. I just want to play music and write songs, wherever it takes me or doesn’t take me.”
He settled in Sag Harbor and threw together a band with his brother and a few friends to play gigs for fun.
The name “Lone Sharks” came from what he thought was a clever play on words: The “Lone” symbolizes the cowboy hero, like the Lone Ranger, while the “Shark” is a hint at the Hamptons’ beach heritage.
To this day, people still misspell it as “the Loan Sharks” — to Casey’s dismay.
“Had I known it was going to be the name that followed me around my whole career I would have picked a different one!” he joked.
And as for his signature white cowboy hat, which he now wears at nearly every performance?
“Receding hairline,” Casey jokes, pulling off the hat to reveal a tuft of gray hair.
The band’s popularity spread across the South Fork and by the ’90s Casey was playing at Irving’s parties. Since then, the group’s popularity has slowly spread, especially after Casey moved to the North Fork in 2003.
There are a few consistent members of Casey’s band: Chris Ripley on drums, saxophonist Paul Scher and Tony Palumbo (not the politician) on the bass. The rest of his bandmates cycle in and out as they’re available, he said.
Inspiration for Casey’s songs comes at strange times: when he’s raking the leaves; when he’s painting the walls.
When a tune jumps into his head, he scrambles for a pad and a tape recorder. When he’s driving and can’t find his recorder, Casey will call his answering machine at home and leave a 10-minute message of him singing.
“There’s a part of the brain — like the subconscious — that definitely gets released when you’re thinking about something else,” he said.
Gene Casey & the Lone Sharks have released several CDs on their own. They book about 150 shows a year. The band’s music has been sold to TV shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified” and was featured in the 2012 thriller “The Tall Man” and the 2013 Robert De Niro flick “The Killing Season.”
The band doesn’t have a record label. Casey does the marketing himself, relying on word of mouth to spread his music.
“When you’re at this level of show business, when you’re doing it all yourself, the only way you really get the word out is by showing up,” he said. “On a certain level, it’s a success, even though it’s not rock stardom.”
The business of music, he says, is a necessary evil.
“This is going to sound corny, but music is a spiritual journey,” he said. “The gigs and the showbiz and the business aspect of it is just the paperwork. The real thing is playing music.”
Casey’s passion shows in his music, said Thompson, a longtime friend. A London native, Thompson moved to the North Fork via New York and recalled first hearing the Lone Sharks at a small, now defunct venue on Main Street in Greenport.
“They blew my mind,” he said. “I couldn’t believe a band as good as the Lone Sharks were playing out here on a regular basis … Here was an act that really knew how to bring the spirit of rock and roll back.”
Thompson said few can transition so seamlessly between musical styles and do it so well. Fewer still can make a living doing it.
“He’s making a living as a musician on the North Fork. There’s not many other people, if any, who are,” he said. “In another world or in another time, if he had lived in Nashville, he would have been on many records.”
Casey said he’s “thrilled” to be receiving the Long Island Sound Award.
“It’s nice to be acknowledged,” he said, adding that it makes up for the days when the gigs don’t go so well and the long drives at night drag on.
But if he could, he’d let the accolade fly under the radar. Sure, Casey has been telling people about his award, but not because he wants to brag. He’s inviting people to come because that’s what he thinks bands have to do when they win awards.
“It’s kind of embarrassing in a way,” he said, laughing. “I’m there to entertain people and they’re giving me an award.”
It’s an award that’s long overdue, Thompson said.
“It’s sometimes very easy to take for granted someone who you can see every week,” he said.