The first time I came face-to-face with Benny Mardones was in the lobby of the big daily.
Roll the calendar back to 1991, the year I’d made the switch from the sports department to covering music and entertainment.
I’d talked to the rocker on the phone for a big piece to preview his show at the Landmark
Theatre. The story was a gimme. Ninety inches of newspaper copy had rolled from my fingers after phone interviews with Mardones from out in LA, record honchos around the country, friends and fans in Syracuse.
Apparently Mardones saw it.
When I picked up the phone at my desk, the guard in the lobby informed me that Mr. Mardones wanted to speak with me.
Down the stairs I crept, wondering what he thought of the frank tales of quick stardom, abject misery, painful recovery and slippery redemption that had made their way to the front doorsteps of Central New York.
Apparently, Mardones approved. He beamed, standing in that lobby wearing a fur coat.
He pointed toward the curb, and declared that a car awaited.
“Bialczak, we’re going shopping!” the rocker declared.
Didn’t happen. Thanks, but … not in this newspaperman’s world.
“You’re going to the show, right?” he countered.
Indeed. The first of many.
Dozens of times thereafter, our lives intersected.
I watched his concerts and wrote about them in the big daily and then on its website. I talked to him to report news about his career and life. Before I knew it, I had a seat on the Benny Mardones Rollercoaster.
Mardones and his Syracuse band, The Hurricanes, played huge shows at the Landmark. After executive director Frank Malfitano was not retained by the board of the restored downtown Syracuse movie palace, Mardones took his annual Christmas show up the road to the Showroom at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona. He’s that loyal.
They played big shows at outdoor places, like Hooligan’s in Liverpool. In fact, that’s where Benny Mardones and the Hurricanes are hosting the benefit show this Saturday, Aug. 3, where the bar and grounds are now called Sharkey’s Eclectic Sports Lounge.
They played gritty club shows just off the sand, at Pfohl’s Beach House in Sylvan Beach, where Mardones loved to reach up a couple of feet to punch out a tile from the dropped ceiling over the stage.
The oddest place I saw them play was in a bowling alley in Utica. I was off duty that night, standing out front with a beer in hand, singing along with the hundreds of Mardones fans who’d found their way to the joint that didn’t much feel like a performing space. They are that loyal.
The coolest place I saw them play was in a basement in the north suburbs of Syracuse. It was a rehearsal hosted by then-Hurricanes-guitarist Danny Cleland. I brought along my dear daughter, Elisabeth, not yet a teen and quite reluctant to be there with her dad. I wanted her to meet the man who by then was singing messages left on our home answering machine.
Mardones always returned calls. He invited me to interview him at lunches at Angotti’s Family Restaurant on Burnet Avenue, where his party always spilled over the one long table set up for him. He invited me to better get acquainted with his huge Syracuse family at Delmonico’s on Erie Boulevard East, devoted people not related to him by blood but by deeds.
More than a decade ago, Syracuse native Greg Ross was filming a documentary about Mardones’ forever love affair with Central New York. He got me on camera. I called it “the cult of Benny,” as I recall. Mardones liked what I said when he saw it. “Bialczak, you’re going to write my autobiography,” he Yogi Berra-ed to me sometime afterward.
Mardones credits Syracuse with saving his life.
He told them again two winters ago, at a special show at the Palace Theatre on James Street, a night set up for him to not only play his rock anthems and ballads, “Into the Night” and “Heart in My Hand” and the steady parade of songs that woulda, coulda, shoulda made him a national star with the staying power of, let’s say, an Eddie Money. I’d put Mardones’ songs up against “Two Tickets to Paradise” and “Baby Hold On to Me” any day.
Mardones told stories between songs that night, too. Revealing. Funny. Somewhat scary. Complex. Wildly entertaining.
Before that appearance, Mardones agreed to sing and play keyboard in the white room at the big daily, his entry into the Music Notes Performance series that chronicled original Syracuse music.
Mardones wasn’t born here. He grew up in Savage, Md. He doesn’t live here, what with the California dreamin’ he shares with wife Jane. But as his hands shook slightly from his long battle with Parkinson’s disease and his early morning voice cracked a bit on the lyrics, I thought once again: Benny Mardones and Syracuse, locked in a crazy, passionate dance.
See you at Sharkeys. Benny’s got a new song to sing, “I’ve Got You.”
Gates open at 1 p.m. Music starts at 1:30 p.m. with The Todd Hobin Band, Mike McKay Band, Ben Fiore, Snowflake Bentley and The Rigbys leading up to Mardones and the Hurricanes. Tickets are $5, but everybody is welcome to give more. Benny’s Backyard BBQ Bash benefits the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund. There will also be a Chinese auction to raise money.