Sixteen years ago, Mike DelGuidice was a 30-year-old musician living with his young children in a trailer on Long Island and scraping by on gigs at bars, weddings and the occasional funeral. He wrote his own songs, but always got his biggest reaction from crowds when he covered 1970s heavyweights like James Taylor, Elton John and, especially, his idol Billy Joel. Soon, he was struck with an idea. "I had heard about this Dave Matthews tribute band on Long Island that was drawing huge crowds," DelGuidice remembers. "I had been doing Billy Joel since high school. I was like, 'Maybe I should do a tribute band.'"
DelGuidice's connection to Joel went beyond loving his music. He and Joel have near-identical singing voices and similar looks. Both grew up in working-class Long Island families and learned piano at young ages. Both also broke their noses playing sports (boxing for Joel, baseball for DelGuidice), experienced major financial hardship, went bald and saw marriages collapse (DelGuidice married a Christina, Joel a Christie). "I guess," says DelGuidice, "that we come from parallel universes."
DelGuidice launched Big Shot, his Billy Joel tribute band, and they took off like he never could have imagined. After years of work, the band was regularly drawing thousands of people a night. Then things got even more surreal. In 2010, Joel took an indefinite leave of absence from the road to have hip-replacement surgery. Seeing an opportunity, DelGuidice phoned Joel's touring drummer, Chuck Burgi, and guitarist Tommy Byrnes to see if they'd join Big Shot. "It was a bingo," he says. "It added authenticity. We became real tight. We'd even do corporate gigs where it would be me and Billy's whole band."
A well-received mini-set at the 12/12/12 Superstorm Sandy benefit at Madison Square Garden convinced Billy Joel that he was fit to return to the road, and in early 2013 he called his band to the Paramount Theater in Huntington, Long Island, to rehearse for a European tour. Joel didn't attend the early sessions, so the band asked DelGuidice to sub in behind the piano. Word got around that Billy was going to show on the fourth day, and when DelGuidice was driving out there Byrnes called him up to ask if he had a passport. "I was like, 'That's a good question to ask!'" he says. "I thought they needed someone to sit in for soundchecks in Europe."
It turned out Joel had a bigger spot in his mind for DelGuidice. After learning that he knew the songs on guitar and watching him play with the band for an hour, he asked to have a chat with him. "Other people came over and he said, 'I gotta chat with Mike alone,'" says DelGuidice. "My stomach was in knots. He said, 'I know you and your band are working a lot, but I would love for you to come out on the road with us in Europe.' My exact words were, 'Are you fucking kidding me?'"
Every detail of the encounter is burned into DelGuidice's brain. "We were right behind the curtain at the Paramount by the stairs going down to the dressing rooms, which is now a real sacred spot for me" he says. "I got really emotional and said, 'I just want to thank you. Your music has pretty much fed my family, inadvertently, for my whole life.' Then he said, 'No, thank you! You've been keeping my catalogue alive on the Island.' It took two seconds to agree on the money because no matter what he offered, I was going to take it."
After just a few shows in Europe, Joel summoned DelGuidice to his dressing room. "My heart was pounding with every step I took down the stairs," he says. "I walk in and he's playing with his clothes on the rack. He said, 'Hey Mike, how you doing?' I say, 'Good, good, good.' Then it got quiet again. He goes, 'Yeah, so you know, I was gonna end up telling you anyway, but you probably need to know, but yeah … I'd definitely like to keep you around.' I said, 'I have one thing I have to ask since its very important. It took me 15 years to build up my business on Long Island. I'm not sure how long this is gonna last with me and you, so is it OK if I still do my Big Shot shows in between and keep my business?' He went, 'Absolutely.' There was no hesitation. He was so nice about it."
DelGuidice's extra vocals have since become a key part of Joel's live shows. "I think his intention was to go back to the sounds of the records where a lot of the vocals were doubled," he says. "When we sing together it's pure bliss." In the early days, DelGuidice was most prominent when assisting with the high notes on songs like "Uptown Girl" and "Zanzibar," but he now duets with Joel on "Until the Night" and even has a solo spotlight moment to sing the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma" as a lead-in to "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant."
Financially, all of his has been very good for DelGuidice. "I make also make good money with Big Shot, so it was almost an even wash at first," he says. "But it's good money. He's known for that in the industry. He takes care of everybody, very generous. And I'm never going to ask for more money. I mean, what kind of moron would I be to ever ask for a raise? No fuckin' way am I ever doing that. But he's given me a raise a couple of times without me saying anything, and they were really generous. He's doing nothing but right by me."
He's also traveling in a way he never could have imagined just a few years ago. "Everything is first class," he says. "It was the first time I'd ever flown first class or been on a private jet. Being able to lay down on a plane is just unheard for me. It makes everything so much more comfortable. When we get to a hotel, I see my name on the TV: 'Welcome, Mr. DelGuidice.' I was like, 'Well, this isn't the Holiday Inn.' There's heated bathroom floors, TVs in the bathtub. …"
DelGuidice has never stopped gigging with Big Shot, and it's not uncommon for him to play a soccer stadium one night and a tiny club the next. In June, DelGuidice and Big Shot were playing the Paramount Theater in Huntington – the exact spot where he landed his dream gig in 2013 – when Joel decided to come check out the show and shock the crowd by guesting on a few songs. "It was so ironic," he says. "The dressing room says 'Mike DelGuidice' and it was the same room he had when I first joined the band. I felt like such an idiot and said, 'Take the sign off the door. Sit in here. I'm gonna go sit in the other room.'"
After watching the show from the balcony with his wife Alexis Roderick, Joel came onstage and played "With a Little Help From From My Friends" and "Honky Tonk Women" before treating the place to "You May Be Right." It was the dream of anyone that ever bought a ticket to see a tribute act. "It was a blast," says DelGuidice. "A three-song blast."
During all of this time, DelGuidice has never stopped writing his own music. He recently played a set in Billy's backyard at a 4th of a July Party, and last August he warmed up the crowd at Nassau Coliseum. Comedian Kevin James came out that night to play "Miami 2017." Months later, James texted DelGuidice to see if he had a song they could use as the theme to his new CBS show Kevin Can Wait. DelGuidice sent over "Ordinary Guy," a tune he wrote for a 2011 reality show about tribute bands that never made it to air. "Fifteen minutes later I got a text back saying, 'Love it, absolutely love it. Everyone loves it,'" says DelGuidice. It became the show's official theme. "I'm freaking out," he says. "Just beyond elated. It's because this is actually me."
Right now, he's finishing up a place of meatballs at the Italian restaurant Lugo, which is directly across the street from Madison Square Garden. A week earlier, Joel was forced to postpone his monthly gig at the arena to have sinus surgery. That means for the first time in over three years, DelGuidice will go a month without playing the most famous arena in the world. "It'll make November that much more exciting when we do two of them to make it up," he says, exiting the restaurant into the shadow of the massive arena. He looks up and smiles. "That's where I wanted to play my entire life," he says. "See you next month!"