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From a Tribute Band to the Real Thing: How Mike DelGuidice Became Billy Joel's Right Hand Piano Man
It’s a Monday night at New York’s Madison Square Garden and Billy Joel is on stage for his record 44th consecutive show. As the legendary singer-songwriter rips through hits, from the rambling history lesson of a show opener “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to the multiple-songs-within-a-song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” his band slickly keeps up with every beat and note. Even when Joel gives the audience a choice (do they want to hear “Just the Way You Are” or “Vienna,” with the crowd cheering for the latter), the band cooly kicks in to support. Throughout it all, there’s an important, yet seemingly inconspicuous presence on stage along with Joel: Mike DelGuidice, a member of Joel's band from the very beginning of his Garden run, is on backup piano and guitar duty.
“Whenever we’re playing The Garden, we’ll usually get there in the late afternoon,” says DelGuidice, speaking from his home on Long Island of the band’s routine as his family buzzes around him. “They’ll put us up at a hotel and take a car to the venue. When we get there, we’ll go backstage, maybe eat a little something and do soundcheck from 5 to 6pm. Sometimes I’ll start soundcheck before Billy gets there; I’ll be singing and all of the sudden we’ll walk up behind me and we’ll switch spots on the piano. Then we’ll have a couple hours to kill before the show and a lot of things can happen. Maybe some meetings, celebrate someone’s birthday, entertain some guests. It’s a steady routine until showtime."
Exactly how DelGuidice became a part of Joel’s Garden routine and joined one of the most impressive concert runs in music history is the stuff of rock and roll legend. It has its origins, where else, but on Joel’s home turf of Long Island, where DelGuidice also grew up and attended Miller Place High School. “My father always listened to Billy and Elton John, so it was a natural progression to learn their songs. I’d always be jamming in the music room.” DelGuidice's passion for Joel, as well as his physical resemblance right down to their shiny bald domes, soon manifested itself into the aspiring musician launching a tribute band dedicated to the singer dubbed Big Shot, named of course after the singer’s 1978 hit single. Regionally successful, DelGuidice supported his family with Big Shot, playing covers of songs from Joel’s vast, decades-spanning catalog.
“His music is… I can’t describe it,” says DelGuidice of why he was so enamored with the singer, who shot to fame in 1973 after releasing the now-classic “Piano Man,” itself a reflection of the grind of a performing musician. “The lyrics are captivating, they put you in a place. You feel like you’re there. He’s also just different; he’s not out there with your typical chord progressions. This guy writes these chord changes… When you learn his songs you have to learn his songs.”
But despite his love of the music, the decades fronting Big Shot slowly wore on DelGuidice and his bandmates. “I was starting to lose my energy for things with the band,” he says of constant hustle of touring and caring for his family. “I was getting cold with it and some of the guys in the band were getting discontent with touring. That’s how it gets sometimes.”
In 2010, just as he was losing his patience, DelGuidice heard Joel was sidelined from his own touring schedule upon undergoing hip replacement surgery. Astutely realizing Joel’s actual band would be subsequently out of work as a result, DelGuidice managed to recruit Joel’s actual drummer and guitarist Chuck Burgi and Tommy Byrnes to join the ranks of Big Shot, adding a dash of authenticity to the tribute act. Before long DelGuidice was playing gigs with Joel’s entire group of musicians and soon enough, word got back to the man itself who decided to meet DelGiudice in person on Long Island in October 2013. “We were rehearsing for a gig at the Paramount Theater in Huntington,” he says. “I heard some rumors he was going to show up which, for me, was really unnerving.”
Upon wrapping up for the day, Joel suddenly appeared to ask DelGuidice a question. “A couple people walked over to hear what was going on and he said, ‘No, no, I just want to talk to Mike alone,’” remembers DelGuidice. “I was like shitting my pants. He started off by being really kind, saying he knows that I’m busy with my band and that I had my guys I had to take care of. He was like, ‘I was wondering if you wanted to come out on the road with us?’ I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ We exchanged words like me being grateful to being able to feed my family for so many years playing his music and him thanking me for keeping the catalog alive on the Island. And that was it.”
From there, DelGuidice went on the road with Joel for a run of dates in Europe before becoming an official part of the band for his debut gig for the historic Madison Square Garden residency. “It was a lot at first, but it’s a well-oiled machine,” he says. “It’s was pretty easy to slide onto the conveyor belt that’s running so smoothly. And I think that’s a testament to how he runs his organization. He’s beloved, so it’s a big family.”
As a result of his gigs with both Joel and Big Shot, DelGuidice enjoys the unique experience of playing a range of venues. “The beauty of it all is that I’m still doing the smaller venues,” he says. “If I wanted to do something for some fame thing, I’d probably do less of them but I just love the intimacy of it, and I don’t ever want to lose that. It’s almost easier to handle those shows than those small little private rooms with 30 people sitting a table staring at you up close. That’s more nerve-wracking for me than a big show. When you’re playing a stadium, you’re a drop in the bucket.”
As yet another gig at the Garden gig wraps up, DelGuidice heads back to his hotel with his bandmates to reflect on his 44th night on stage at the World’s Most Famous Arena. “I look back on the timeline of everything and I see it being orchestrated,” he says. “All of the years of preparation of playing in front of big audiences with the tribute group and getting prepared for this. I didn’t feel that as it was happening, though. I was just going through it and learning as I go. I look back and... Wow, it’s just God. Nobody else could orchestrate something like this. It’s gotta be something divine or something not of this world. I could have never dreamed it up. It’s crazy.”