As an avid Bruce Springsteen fan, the only place I was running to on Thursday, November 19th was the Hard Rock Cafe Tampa to see The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band that has been rockin Springsteen fans across the country for the past 35 years. Hailing from New Jersey, The B-Street Band was the first band in the world to perform a unique tribute to a live performer. Since their first performance in 1980, they have played over 5,500 shows including performances at the inaugurations for both President Obama in 2009 and NJ Governor Chris Christie in 2010. They especially enjoy playing at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa and wowed the crowd with three sets of Springsteen! How did they get started and what's the secret to their success? Join me as I chat with Willie Forte, founding keyboardist and vocalist of The B-Street Band.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Willie Forte always had a passion for music. His love of the Beatles inspired him to play in his high school band and then hit the club circuit with his band Blood Rock when he was still a teen. He also played football with childhood friend Joe Maddon, former Major League Baseball manager for the Tampa Bay Rays and present manager of the Chicago Cubs.
Forte's life changed forever in 1973 when the two friends went for an afternoon cruise in Maddon's Dodge Dart. Madden popped in an eight-track cassette and said "you have to listen to this guy, he's going to be huge, your band has to start playing this music", recalls Forte. The song was "The E Street Shuffle" from Springsteen's second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Forte was instantly hooked.
After graduation, Forte relocated to the music mecca of New Jersey and spent the next few years playing and touring with several classic rock 'n' roll bands. He started incorporating a few Springsteen songs into his sets but, at the time, Springsteen was still rather unknown. Springsteen's first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and his second were both well received but achieved little commercial success. It wasn't until the release of Born to Run in 1975 that Springsteen became a household name.
As Springsteen continued to shoot to the top of the charts, Forte received more and more requests to play his songs. This gave him an idea. "As a cover band, unless we did original music or something else there were a million cover bands like us so I thought to myself, why don't we just play Springsteen music?" says Forte. At the time, tribute bands like this didn't exist. "There was “Beatlemania” on Broadway, there were bad Elvis acts, and there was one Doors band named Crystal Ship but Jim Morrison was no longer alive. Venues thought it was a terrible idea and no-one would hire us" says Forte.
Frustrated, Forte decided to take things into his own hands. "I went to a guy in my hometown who owned coal mines and asked him to loan me some money to promote one show. If it bombed, I'd be out $10,000" says Forte. Forte's gamble paid off and the show, “Backstreets, a Tribute to the Boss”, was a smashing success! Whether he knew it or not, Forte also started the concept of a tribute band, becoming the first of over 160,000 tribute bands playing around the world today.
This year, the band celebrates it's 35th anniversary, continuing the honor of being the longest running tribute band in the world. They have played for countless celebrities, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity and have even performed with several members of the E-Street Band including “Miami Steve” Van Zandt and the late great Clarence Clemons. Based in New Jersey, the band continues to tour relentlessly, performing over 200 shows per year.
The B-Street Band plays the Hard Rock Cafe Tampa at least once a year and, after attending their show, it's easy to see why, in the current days of "one hit wonders" they've lasted so long. Lighting up the stage with Springsteen classics including "Rosalita", "Because the Night", "Waiting on a Sunny Day", "Blinded by the Light", "I'm on Fire" and crowd favorite "Dancing in the Dark", I could have been at a Bruce Springsteen show. Lead singer Glenn Stuart has an uncanny resemblance to The Boss and it's clear accompanying band members Steve Baronial on Vocals and Lead Guitar, Steve Pozzelanti 'Poz' on Drums, Steve Myers ‘The Phantom’ on Sax and Vocals and Steve ‘The Count’ Lopresto on Bass Guitar are extremely talented musicians.
So what's the secret to their success? According to Forte, "We all appreciate what we do, we're very respective of the Springsteen name and we're lucky to have so many people who enjoy us. Some drive hours and come to see us 30 times in one summer while others have met at our shows, gotten married, had kids and now their kids come and see us. When you get that kind of loyalty and feedback from people, it's overwhelming. That makes you want to go out and do a good job."
Many thanks to the The B-Street Band for one heck of a great night of music! Next time The B-Street Band swings through Florida, make sure to catch them at the Hard Rock Cafe Tampa.
For more information about The B-Street Band, click here.