Summer on the North Fork means trips to the beach, wine tasting, farmers markets and fresh strawberries.
But if you’re a fan of great local music, summer may also be synonymous with dancing the night away to East End rock and roll legends Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks at local bars and restaurants.
For more than 28 years, the band has spread its blend of rockabilly and classic rock and roll across the North and South forks. Along the way, they’ve developed a reputation as not just some of the most popular local musicians, but among the most talented and celebrated.
“From a professional level, he and his band are just some of the best musicians around, not just the East End and Long Island but beyond,” said Bonnie Grice, WPPB broadcaster and host of “Bonnie in the Morning.” “[Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks] are like the East End’s Johnny Cash.”
The band’s boundless energy has grown not only its own fan base, but the profile of music on the East End as a whole.
For their success in bringing rock and roll to the masses, their role as ambassadors and champions of the local music scene, their selfless dedication to area causes and for simply making people get up and dance, Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks are northforker’s 2016 People of the Year.
Casey, a Malverne native, grew up dreaming of being either a center fielder for the New York Yankees or a rock and roll star. After working odd jobs and cheap gigs in Manhattan, he moved to the East End to work as a handyman for writer John Irving at his Sag Harbor estate.
It was there, in 1988, that Casey formed the band, which at the time consisted of his brother and a few friends. After playing gigs for fun on the South Fork and conquering that area, Casey moved to the North Fork, where the band’s popularity continued to grow.
Today, the group is down to a few core members: Chris Ripley on drums, Paul Scher on saxophone and Tony Palumbo (not the politician) on bass. Other bandmates play when they’re available. The band’s intentionally misspelled name is a play on both the beach heritage of the Hamptons and the image of the “lone” cowboy hero.
It’s easy to spot Western influences at Lone Sharks gigs, where Casey bounds across the stage, doing half-splits and jamming on his guitar while wearing his signature cowboy hat.
The band’s music has been heard across the country on hit TV shows like “Sons of Anarchy” and “Justified” and in movies like the Robert De Niro and John Travolta 2013 action thriller “Killing Season.”
“They blew my mind,” Howard Thompson, a former talent scout for record labels and music director at WPKN radio in Bridgeport, Conn., said in a 2015 Suffolk Times interview. “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.”
Even so, the group has resisted making the jump to national success.
“I’m sure he had opportunities, whether to move to a different coast, or explore other bigger venues,” Grice said. “I just love that he’s dedicated himself to being here.”
The band doesn’t even have a record label. Instead, Casey does the marketing himself, relying on word of mouth and the catchiness of his group’s tunes to attract fans.
For Casey and his bandmates, the music comes first.
“The gigs and the showbiz and the business aspect of it is just the paperwork,” he said in a 2015 interview. “The real thing is playing music.”
And boy, do they play. In the course of a year, the band performs dozens of times at venues across the East End and the rest of Long Island.
“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, which in 2015 awarded Casey the Long Island Sound award for his contribution to the local music scene.
Not even an injury to Casey’s wrist from a bicycle accident could slow down the band this year. He still sang at a few gigs and, after a brief recovery period, got back on the guitar.
Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks also sets aside time each year to perform at benefit concerts. In December alone, they played two benefits. One was a fundraiser for a beloved local drummer who was injured in a car crash and couldn’t perform; the other was the annual Toys for Tots drive at Billy’s By the Bay in Greenport, one of the Lone Sharks’ regular haunts. Dozens of toys were donated to local families this year by the Mattituck Lions and Cutchogue East Elementary School.
Grice said many bands on the East End stick together in times of need. But Casey and his group are always the first ones to offer their services to others.
“They’re doing what they can to help one another,” she said. “He’s just a role model, not just as a musician. I think we should be worshipping him.”