Tommy Byrnes laughs when asked about the secret to his success.
“I’m incredibly lucky?” asks Byrnes, the longtime guitarist in Billy Joel’s band who will receive the first LI Hired Gun award from the Long Island Music Hall of Fame on Thursday, Nov. 8 along with jazz trumpeter Glenn Drewes. “There’s really no way to explain it.”
Others may disagree with that, though, including The Stray Cats, Joan Jett, Taylor Dayne, who all worked with Byrnes, and, of course, Joel, who still works with him and will induct him into the Hall of Fame.
The Oceanside native does have a theory, though, about how he has managed to make a living playing music almost continuously since he was at Chaminade High School in MIneola.
“I’ve been playing in bands since I was 15 years old, and at that point I was making more money than my dad,” Byrnes says.
“My dad kept asking, ‘What else are you gonna do?’ And I thought, ‘I think this is going swimmingly.’ But I understood what he was talking about. The way I look at it, though, is if you have nothing to fall back on, you have to make it work. If you think, ‘If this doesn’t work out, I can cut somebody else’s grass,’ you’re probably going to be cutting someone else’s grass. And did I mention that I’ve been incredibly lucky?”
Byrnes, 57, says there are so many amazing moments in his career, especially in his 29 years in Joel’s band, that he can’t really pick a high point. “They’re all high points – every time I wake up,” says Byrnes, who, in addition to being Joel’s musical director also served as the musical consultant on the Broadway musical “Movin’ Out.” “Billy has given me so many opportunities. . . There has been so much [expletive] that has made me weak in the knees wondering if I could pull it off.”
Maybe the biggest of those moments was playing guitar with Paul McCartney, who joined Billy Joel and his band in 2008 to perform at The Last Play at Shea, the final concert at Shea Stadium before it was torn down. “Steve Cohen, Billy’s creative director and lighting director forever, told me after the show, ‘I thought you were actually going to rise off the stage while you were playing,’ ” Byrnes recalls. “It was unbelievable.”
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That’s a long way from learning how to play mandolin from his dad, who was a surveyor by trade, and learning to love music from his mom singing around the house and hearing the songs of her favorites, Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck.
The youngest of four children, Byrnes fell in love with the music his two brothers and sister brought into the house. “My brother Eddie is eight years older than me, and he brought home albums from Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower and Johnny Winter,” Byrnes says. “I learned a lot from my sister Kathy’s 45s – Herman’s Hermits, The Beatles – she liked the boy bands. And my brother John always had friends over, and they would bring their albums, and for me that was the end of the conversation. I loved learning Beatles songs and Johnny Winter and Alvin Lee. . . I remember slowing down the records just to hear what they were playing. Those were the greatest days of my life.”
Byrnes says that he is proud of the honor from the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. “It came from guys who do what I do,” he says. “It’s a huge deal.”
He is thrilled to still be a musician, and nothing makes him happier than helping other musicians. “Every once in a while, I get to actually hire somebody. It’s the best feeling ever to help give someone a start. I got to hire 20 musicians to do ‘Movin’ Out.’ Everybody’s going to eat for four years. Nothing feels better than that.”