It’s Saturday night at Molly Malone’s in Bayshore, Long Island, and band leader Tommy Mulvihill is taking requests.
Somebody shouts, “Margaritaville…”
"Don't know that one."
“Brown Eyed Girl?”
"Never heard it..."
Mulvihill, 66, likes to tease. His trio knows those songs, of course, and about two thousand more. He, keyboardist PJ Cardinal and drummer Casey Carney are one of the last of a dying breed – the working bar band. And after twenty-one years together, they are one of the best in New York.
“We get a lot of people who come down especially for the band”, says Pete Higgins, owner of Molly’s. “In fact, when people look on our website, if Tommy isn't on the website, they don't come down. That's what a big draw Tommy is.”
At a time when live bands are an endangered species, the Mulvihill Band enjoys a permanent residency at Molly Malone’s, playing a mix of rock, pop, soul, R&B, swing, standards, Irish, country and even disco. The group pulls from a reservoir of songs stretching from the 1940’s through today’s Top 40.
“People just start shouting out song titles and we probably nail 90 percent of them. We’ve never had a set list – ever. Every night is different. It’s great. I love it,” says Carney, 50.
Requests run the gamut- anything from Louie Armstrong to Daft Punk to Charlie Daniels.
“I don't care what music anybody likes, the minute Tommy whips out the fiddle and plays “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, young and old are going to dance to it, you know?” Higgins says.
“When it comes to bar bands, they are the perfect storm,” says Queens native Eileen Greene, who first saw Mulvihill play in Bayside in the late Eighties. “They have such a big sound for three people. Their musicianship, their harmonies are amazing. People stop talking to listen to the band.”
The band will play anything you want to hear, provided Mulvihill thinks the song is worth playing, and if the band can play it - or at least come close.
“In all the times I have seen them over the years, in Manhattan, Queens, Nassau & Suffolk, I have never heard a request that they couldn't play”, says Sean Murphy, founder of the entertainment website, Murphguide.com.
“We can do so many requests because Tommy knows so many songs - and Casey and I are good fakers”, quips Cardinal, 50. “Tommy’s repertoire is encyclopedic. It's mind-boggling how many lyrics he has in his head. I've been with him for twenty-six years and he'll pull out a song that I've never done with him. And he'll remember the words.”
Mulvihill has forgotten more songs than most players will ever know.He’s been performing professionally in one group or another for nearly half a century, ever since he heard a certain band from England for the first time.
"When it comes to bar bands, they are the perfect storm.""It was New Year’s Day, 1964. I was doing a book report, next thing I know, I hear “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the radio, and I was like ‘What the hell was that?’ Just blew me away. It was different from all the other stuff that was on there. And I said, ‘That's the reason I was meant to play.’”
Tommy, then 16 and living in Queens, formed a group called the Del-Sonics with some high school friends, forsaking the school band for rock and roll.
"Most of the guys were in the orchestra. I wasn't. Didn't want to be. Our first paying gig was a school dance in June, 1964 at St. Rita’s in Astoria. We got 50 bucks for the four of us. We only made $12.50 apiece. We promptly went to White Castle and spend it all on hamburgers.”
You could say Mulvihill is still playing for hamburgers - his meals are on the house at Molly’s, where he’s been a fixture since the bar-restaurant opened seventeen years ago. Overlooking Long Island’s Great South Bay, the newly-renovated Molly’s is sprawling and spacious, yet somehow cozy: linen napkin service with a neighborhood pub feel.
Bartender Jim Lonergan says the Mulvihill band has been a huge factor in Molly’s recovery after Hurricane Sandy.
“The storm totally destroyed us. The water was three and a half feet high inside. All the electrical, the floor, the walls – nearly the whole building had to be gutted. Floor to ceiling – every single thing was replaced and overhauled. It was a huge blow. It was like the apocalypse, you know?
“Tommy, PJ and Casey have a loyal following of people,” says Lonergan.
“As soon as the message got out that yes, we will be reopening and Tommy and the boys will be playing here once again, it gave everybody hope and was a real uplifting thing for many people. They were just counting the days till the band was back in action at Molly’s.”
Many of those regulars have been coming to see Mulvihill for years; some, for decades. They’ve followed his musical migration from the Bronx to Queens and ultimately Long Island. Tommy knows their names, their children’s names, their birthdays, and their anniversaries; in more than a few cases, he played their weddings. Most of all, he remembers what they want to hear.
“I feel a connection with these guys,” says Mike Breen, who first saw Mulvihill play on Bell Boulevard in Bayside. “They're authentic. They're real. Tommy wouldn't do what he was doing if he didn't like it. He'll be the first one to say, it's what he does. It’s who he is.”
Most musicians dream of fame and fortune. For Tommy it was always about the songs – even as a teen playing school dances with the Del-Sonics. "I was not the writer. It was enough for me to just play the music. That's all I wanted to do. Learn all the parts, teach everyone else the parts, get on there and just do it. It wasn't paying a lot of money.”
Mulvihill committed to the life of a professional musician - for better or for worse - at age seventeen in 1965.
“My cousin’s husband had an Irish show band. Show bands were six, seven or eight piece bands that play dance halls and ballrooms in Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx.
“The week I was graduating from high school, he asked me to join his band. The very first day, we played a wedding in the Bronx that afternoon, then played Philadelphia that night. So I was a road warrior from the start. I came out of the day with 80 dollars in my pocket and I said to myself, ‘This is not bad at all’.
“The only reason I was in the band at all was because I knew the rock stuff, and they needed a guy to sing a few rock songs. I'd be the only American guy there. That's how heavy it was Irish. And most of the people went to these dances to see who came out from Ireland that week. Did a cousin come out? Did a friend come out? That's how they all met each other again."
Mulvihill grew up immersed in Irish music, born and raised in the Bronx till his family moved to Queens when he was fifteen. He learned the fiddle at six, guitar at seven.
“My father played the accordion concertina - the button style accordion, not the piano accordion. And he learned from his father, who came from County Clare. On weekends they played house parties together. That was in the Thirties and Forties. After World War II, when my dad got out of the Army, he was playing more dance halls, that type of thing. The work was plentiful.”
Work was plentiful for Mulvihill too throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, playing with various Irish show bands in the New York City area. Eventually he joined the Boston Burglars, who owned and played at the Dublin Pub in New Hyde Park, Long Island, just over the Queens border.
“I had three years with them and I must say I had a blast. We played the greatest music - all kinds of stuff, but really, we were very well rehearsed. All the time. It was a great band to play in.
"It was after that... I was turning thirty and I was like, ‘I'm playing for sixteen year-olds here.’ I said, ‘I’d better do something’. I had heard Paddy Noonan was looking for someone, so I called him up, and he asked me to join him. But then I went from playing to sixteen year-olds to sixty year-olds in one night!"
The famed Irish accordion player needed a lead vocalist as well as a guitar player. Suddenly Mulvihill was a front man.
"I became the singer. I was the only singer. And I wasn't used to that. I was used to singing five or six songs a night. That was a big adjustment. Paddy was into touring, big time. Everywhere. We were in the van constantly. All around the U.S. All the time."
It was on the road with Paddy Noonan, where Mulvihill came in to his own as a front man. Many band leaders, by nature, are “people” people, eager and happy to please a crowd; Higgins smirks at applying that description to Tommy.
“That’s not really his style. He’s more of a joker. He can be sarcastic, you know? ”, he says with a laugh.
“He's no-nonsense. He's old school,” says Breen, who can still recall his first interaction with Mulvihill.
“50 years of playing and singing…A milestone for the journeyman entertainer, but not a last call.”
“What struck me, and what kept me coming back, was, I remember asking for a song and he said, ‘I hate that song. I'm not going to play that.’ I was like, ‘Awesome!’ I thought that was great. I thought it was honest. (laughs) I said to myself, ‘Here's a man I can do business with.’ There are tons of songs he does like. But if he doesn't like one, he'll tell you.”
Echoes Breen’s younger brother, Kerry: “He doesn't suffer fools.”
“Tommy hides a soft heart behind a sometimes gruff exterior”, says Amelia Doyle, a Molly’s regular.
“When the father of Steve, another regular, died, Tommy played a song called ‘The Old Man’, about a grown man missing his father. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, including Tommy’s.”
After two years with Paddy Noonan, Mulvihill felt it was time to strike out on his own."I started my own band in '79. From '79 and right through the Eighties, the work was unreal. We were going seven nights a week, 365 days a year. We just never stopped working. Then all of a sudden, the Nineties hit, and it was like, after that first bad Wall Street hit (October ’87), all of a sudden the pubs weren't hiring, cutting the music down to just the weekend, and all of a sudden we went from working seven nights a week to three nights a week, four nights a week, and I said, ‘I got to do something.’"
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Mulvihill, by now a married father of four with a home on Long Island, got a day job.
"I started driving a school bus – 5:45 in the morning, driving a school bus. Not fun! Then I got into the insurance business after that. That's what I've been doing ever since. I'm an insurance agent during the day. It's still good. I'm doing that four days, and music four nights. ‘It's a living’, as they say."
A living not without stories of the strange but true – like the night a woman expired on the dance floor.
“I'll never forget. This is terrible. We were playing at a dance in Woodside in a school auditorium. And it was the night that the ball went through Billy Buckner's legs from Mookie Wilson (6th game of the 1986 World Series, Saturday, 10/25/86). Everybody had these little tiny tv’s and everybody was watching the game. Nobody was dancing. So the priest at the end of the game came up and said, ‘Can you do an extra hour, ‘cause people want to dance now’. I said, ‘Sure’. Then this woman comes up to me and says, ‘Can you play a Peabody?’ So I started playing this Peabody, which is kind of a fast dance - (sings) ‘Five foot two, eyes of blue, but oh what those five feet could do! Has anybody seen my gal?’ This woman - she was a lovely old woman - she's dancing around with her little husband. She
has to be six foot tall. She was a huge woman. We played maybe about a minute or two of it, and next thing I know, she looks over and she waves her hand at me and she says, ‘That's enough.’ She goes down, sits next to her husband, and dies."
The current lineup of the Mulvihill Band is the most continuous without a personnel change: Cardinal joined full time twenty-six years ago; Carney, twenty-one. Like Tommy, they, too, have day jobs.
Cardinal, a graduate of the Columbia College of Music, scores soundtracks for commercials, independent movies and television programs. Carney is an electrician and sought-after session player and producer. He’s also launched his own line of hot sauces.
But like Mulvihill, their main love is playing live. Both Cardinal and Carney also find time to play in the Elton John tribute band Empty Sky.
“Since I was 14 years old, this is the only thing that I've come across that I've wanted to do,” jokes Cardinal. “I don't really feel like I have a choice. It was either do this, or just murder people. Or be miserable.”
The band continues to stretch their musical chops. A recent day off found them rehearsing the latest addition to their repertoire: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, an ambitious song by anyone’s standards, spanning three vocal octaves and four keys over six minutes.
“It is the most difficult piece we’ve every learned,” says Mulvihill.
“Why not? That’s what you get up every day for. At my age, I wake up and say, ‘Thank god I’m still here!’ (laughs) So I figure, let’s do something new.”
And so, on a day off, they rehearse. After nearly 50 years in the business, Mulvihill still cares about getting it right.
“There are still parts that we’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best, but we’re almost there – we’re 99% there. That guitar lead was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, because I don’t play like Brian May.”
A recent performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” brought the band a standing ovation from the crowd at Molly’s.
“They like to challenge themselves and rise to that challenge,” says Greene. “It keeps them enthusiastic about the music.”
Adds Higgins, “The way they're going, if they decide to play for many years, there's many years of work left in them, and certainly here at Molly Malone’s we're delighted to have them.”
In June, 2014, Mulvihill will hit the half century mark as professional musician: 50 years of playing and singing onstage in the New York City area. A milestone for the journeyman entertainer, but not a last call.
“I enjoy it now way more than I ever did. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I certainly want to keep going. I don’t want to stop. And the boys stay with me. And the people still show up. We must be doing something right.”
Contact R. Desmond Higgins: (646) 554-0033 / firstname.lastname@example.org.