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Stranger things: The rock ‘n’ roll saga of Greg Billings

Bill DeYoung

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Greg Billings arrived in St. Petersburg in 1979. Photo provided.

For a moment in time – one brief, shining, freeze-frame of a moment – it looked like Stranger was going to be the next Florida rock band to break big.

It was 1982, and Epic Records, riding high on platinum success with Jacksonville’s Molly Hatchet, was throwing its considerable muscle behind Stranger’s first album. It was produced in Los Angeles by the same guy who’d crafted million-sellers for Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon  – and Molly Hatchet. The world was Stranger’s oyster.

Greg Billings, the lead singer and tireless, charismatic frontman for Stranger, thinks about that moment a lot these days. Billings is 62, slim, trim and in good health, and still singing with as much power as he did in his 20s (the long curly hair, however, is gone forever).

The Stranger saga is fraught with “what might have beens” like the Epic Records launch.

The record (Stranger) came out and … nothing. Didn’t sell, didn’t produce a hit single, didn’t get Billings and his bandmates on MTV. The world yawned and looked away.

In retrospect, Billings believes famed producer Tom Werman rushed them – a bunch of Florida rubes who knew zilch about making records – in and out of Epic’s L.A. studio. At that point, they would have agreed to anything, just to get noticed. “This thing was fast, it was thin, it was just f—king awful,” Billings says.

“I thought ‘I don’t think we sound like that,’ but we were proud of what we did. We went out on tour, and we were great live, but the feedback was that the record was not a very good representation of the band.” Epic dropped them; it took a while for the band to untangle itself from the red tape of bad management.

But they survived, and they flourished. Based out of Tampa Bay, Stranger had a good 15-year run as one of the top club acts in Florida and Georgia before calling it quits in 1996.

They self-produced a couple of albums, selling them on vinyl and cassette out of their tour bus after shows. “But,” Billings says, “we could never capture what Stranger did live.”

What they did was taut, powerful rock ‘n’ roll, riff-laden and full of hooks, the kind of tough stuff Sammy Hagar sang with Montrose, and David Lee Roth with Van Halen. Or Bon Scott with AC/DC. Heavy rock that wasn’t heavy metal. Crunchy, good-time singalongs like “Jackie’s So Bad,” “Swamp Woman” and “Get On Up.” They were also selling a lifestyle and an attitude.

The band’s secret weapon was blonde guitarist Ronnie Garvin, a “chick magnet” (to use the parlance of the times) and a real shredder; Ronnie’s strutting stage presence and incendiary solos were as key to the band’s draw as Billings’ vocals and gymnastics.

John Price played drums, and the bassist was Tom “King” Cardenas, who still performs with his old friend today in the Greg Billings Band.

There’s been a lot of water under this bridge.

Stranger, 1982: From left Tom “King” Cardenas, John Price, Greg Billings and Ronnie Garvin. Photo: Epic Records.

Billings was 22 years old in 1979, down from his North Carolina hometown with a band called Merlin, playing Foghat, Rush and UFO covers in a Madeira Beach bar. “The band split up when we were in Florida, and so I came here and never left,” he remembers.

At Skip’s House of Rock and Roll, he was impressed with Romeo, a bay area band. “I’d watched them all week, and they did a 20-minute Montrose medley. All stuff from the first Montrose record, and I had that 8-track. I’d stand in front of the mirror and pose and sing those Sammy Hagar tunes. So I had ‘em all down.”

When Romeo’s bassist and guitarist, Tom Cardenas and Ronnie Garvin, asked Billings to fill in while their singer took a break, he said yes – if I can do the Montrose medley. “I’d watched them do it three times, so I knew it.” And he killed it. Everyone felt the chemistry in the room.

They asked Billings to join then, but he declined, explaining that he had another band project in the works. He was living in Madeira with his girlfriend and taking things slow.

“The beach life was too crazy for me,” Billings laughs. “The Quaaludes days, and 151 rum. We’d get paid on Friday and stay drunk till Monday. We’d either go back to the job on Monday or quit the job, take that week off and then look for a job later in the week. Because back then, you’d just look in the paper for a job. Show up, the guy would hire you, and you’d work a week.”

Over time, however, his new band failed to materialize, the money ran out, and Billings and his girlfriend returned, broke, to Winston-Salem. “And the day she dumped me, I went home and was getting ready to go sob in my bedroom. My mom goes ‘Some guy named Tom King from Romeo called, and wants you to call him.’ I’d given him my number on a napkin, and he’d kept it.”

Within a few days, he was back in Florida and singing with Romeo. “I got there on Monday, and we played that night,” Billings marvels “And we were together 15 years after that.”

Romeo at that time had very few originals – and at Billings’ insistence, they began to write. “And we wrote some shit songs,” he laughs. “They were really bad. But a lot of people remember them, even the shitty ones. But we wrote a couple good ones, and we drew enough women to get a record deal.” The name was changed to Stranger before the ill-fated Epic album was finished.

After that major label disappointment, the four band members returned to Florida, and soon became the darlings of the rock ‘n’ roll club circuit. In those days, you’d land in a city – Winter Haven or Daytona or Bradenton or Valdosta – and play for five nights at the ABC Lounge, or Crown Liquors, at Jerry’s Rockin’ Disco, Fern Park Station or the 701 South. There was always another club in another town.

In 1984, in Gainesville, Tom Petty – home visiting friends and family – jumped onstage and played a couple of songs with Stranger. It was the only time in his life the rock legend ever did anything like that.


To say that Stranger amassed a large and loyal following – particularly among women – is like suggesting the Beatles wrote a couple of catchy tunes. Stranger worked hard to become the biggest fish in a not-so-little pond.

They never got rich, and they never got traditionally “famous.” But they were doing what they loved. “When we traveled a lot together, we had fun together, but we were f—kin’ wild,” Billings recalls. “I can’t believe we lived through all that. Good thing we had a drummer that didn’t drink; he drove after gigs. Tom always drove to the gigs. There’s no way I’m driving.”

They added a fifth member, keyboard player Randy Holt, who lasted for a few years. By 1996, Stranger was back to the original foursome, playing the club circuit over and over again. But music, and the music business, was changing. It was the arrival of the Seattle grunge scene, Billings says, that caused him to begin thinking that Stranger – or at least their 1980s business model – was an anachronism.

“I saw the writing on the wall for the last couple of years we were together,” he says. “The crowds were getting smaller. We weren’t getting along. If it was a week between gigs, we wouldn’t talk and we wouldn’t rehearse.

“I tried to tell them. I said we need to change, guys, we’re doing things wrong. Bands didn’t have trucks any more. Bands didn’t have their own p.a. Bands didn’t have four guys in the road crew any more. You carried your own gear, you showed up for gigs, you set it up and you played.”

Ronnie Garvin

It all came to a head on Feb. 1, 1996. “I said ‘Look around! Things aren’t going good!’ But they didn’t want to hear it. I started screaming and yelling one night, and they said ‘If you don’t like it, f–kin’ quit.’ It was one of those things. I said ‘OK, I will.’ It was a dick move on my part.

“And right in the middle of our last show – I was drinking, I was fired up – I said ‘I changed my mind, if you guys want we’ll try to work this out.’ Not knowing they’d already hired somebody else.”

Replaced in his own band. “I’ll be honest, it hurt a little bit,” Billings says. “I drove home thinking about it, and my wife said ‘It’s probably for the best. Let’s move on, Greg.’”

And move on he did. He was tending bar at a club on US 19 called Gasoline Alley while the “new” Stranger was onstage. “I didn’t care. I just wanted to make some money.”

Without Billings, however, Stranger lost its audience. The band finished for good three months after he left.

By then, Billings had joined another outfit, Damn the Torpedoes, which would eventually morph into the Greg Billings Band of today.

But there were darker times ahead.

Ronnie Garvin had been showing signs of serious depression, Billings remembers, during the last years of Stranger. He’d said some bizarre and disconcerting things. “I think he thought drinking made him numb. We all drank at night, but we didn’t drink during the day. As soon as we started playing, we started having drinks. But man, you start drinking during the day, by nighttime you can’t play.

“In the early days, Ronnie could drink and play all night, but when he started drinking during the day and tried to play all night, it was not good.”

Reportedly, Garvin’s ex-wife was threatening to leave Florida, and take their two children. And then, Stranger – a 15-year commitment – was simply gone.

“I was in Damn the Torpedoes when he came to a gig,” Billings says. “I told him, I said ‘Ronnie, we could have been doing this together.’ The place was packed. A beach crowd, little small joint, just packed. We were playing covers, we were playing Stranger tunes, we were having a blast.

“I think he was with Tom. They’d been fishing that night and they stopped in. And Ronnie didn’t look good. He mentioned that he was going to go to Nashville or something. I didn’t mean to make him feel bad, I just said ‘If we’d only known what we were doing, we could be doing this together. You could have been in this band.’ But obviously, he couldn’t be in it now. I said ‘I’ve got brothers I’m playing with now.’ And that’s the last time I saw him.”

A week later – on Oct. 7, 1996 – Garvin killed himself with a 10-gauge shotgun, at his Safety Harbor apartment.

“I knew it was coming,” Billings says softly. “When I got the call, I was not surprised. I was sad. I was hurt. But I wasn’t surprised.”

Drummer John Price died of cancer in 2013.

The Greg Billings Band plays plenty of Stranger’s songs, for those who want to remember, who want to stand in the dark and experience that glorious, dizzy, uninhibited rock ‘n’ roll thing one more time. The band also plays rhythm ‘n’ blues covers and a guitar case full of tunes that Billings just loves for one reason or another.

He and Tish have been married for 22 years. He has more friends, many of them from the old days, than he can count.

Scars, sure. Regrets? Not a one.

“It would be stupid for me to say I wouldn’t do anything different,” Billings says. “Because I think if we’d taken ourselves a little more seriously … but then, that’s why people liked us. If we’d done that, we might not have been as popular as we were.”

Photo: Bridget Burke

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Avatar

    karl Smith

    April 15, 2019at9:25 am

    Thanks for sharing this answers a lot of questions that I had about the stranger band I’m from the Orlando area and I’ve been listening and watching since 1982 and now we see the Greg Billings band regularly
    Keep it up

  2. Avatar

    Pete Kuhn

    April 15, 2019at5:47 pm

    Great article! I was a deejay in Gainesville during this time and became really good friends with the guys. Ronnie was my boy, RIP. fella. Greg and Tom are top notch guys. Stranger was the best live, party band ever!

  3. Avatar

    La Kelsey

    April 16, 2019at7:42 am

    Great article. My friends & I enjoyed seeing Stranger regularly back in the 80’s. I was and still am, devastated over Ronnie’s suicide. I sure plan on seeing Greg in his new band when I get back to Fla!

    • Avatar

      Dave Arazmo

      March 4, 2020at6:53 pm

      Stranger was the band all the other local original Tampa area bands looked up to and wanted to play with. They always had the crowd They helped bands like Bleeding Hearts and Arazmo by giving them opening slots for many shows. Greg and Tom are both great fellas and friends.

  4. Avatar

    Sima Damijan

    April 17, 2019at5:11 am

    We would come out and see you guys out at beach nuts in the 90’s and would have such a great time. We still come out and see the G.B.B. and it’s like I’m back in my twenties. We love you Greg keep on playing and we’ll keep on coming out.
    Thanks for all the great times! Looking forward to many more.

  5. Avatar

    Betsy Kilvington

    June 10, 2019at1:42 am

    I was a bartender at the American Room in the early 80’s.
    I was one of the girls that brought the band bottles of Jack Daniel’s on stage.
    Oh all the toasts to Rocco. Those were some of the most fun times of my life I will never forget.
    I’m thrilled to hear the band still rocks out.
    Very sad to hear about Ronnie.
    Keep on rocking and I’ll starting listening again!
    Rock on dude!

  6. Avatar

    Agnes Hine

    November 16, 2019at11:41 am

    Never knew the Stranger band but first time I heard Gregg Billings Band at the Tradewinds I was hooked. So much energy makes you feel good. I travel up from Ft Myers to see them whenever I can new band Abraham Billings rocks. Great at what they do I try to go to every gig and now I know the history. Thank you for sharing Always enjoy your performance 👍

  7. Avatar

    Robert French

    November 17, 2019at4:20 pm

    I saw Stranger Many times in Florida. I am very Critical when it comes to watching live bands and if I don’t like them I don’t stay but with Stranger I not only stayed I came back Over and Over again. Stranger was a blast to watch live and were always a Pro act. They were a tight well put together band with an extremely good guitarist in Ronnie (miss him ) and a fan base that was fun to be around. They should all be Proud of what they did GREAT BAND !!!!!

  8. Avatar

    Kenny Schupp

    March 28, 2020at11:17 pm

    Stranger always ROCKED it !!
    Greg is a Stand Up Guy and One of the
    Best Frontmen in the Business.
    Been a Longtime Fan and Friend.
    Loved to hear Greg back then and look forward to hear him Sing and Entertain today … Tom you Rock too.
    Fan Forever- Kenny S.

  9. Avatar

    Robert Nelson

    August 7, 2021at10:08 pm

    This article answers so many questions. I tended bar at Shakkers in Columbus,Ga.in the late 80s and early 90s. Stranger was the hands down most popular circuit band in the Southeast.Always had a blast when they came to town. The last time I saw them was 1996. I was shocked that Greg was no longer with them. There was maybe 15 people in the club.It was,to say the least,very sad. Then I heard about Ronnie. The end of Stranger was the end to that marvelous Rock&Roll era. Times like that will never come again. Rock on Greg and Tom. Wish you both the best.

  10. Avatar

    Robert Henry

    March 26, 2022at10:43 am

    I was raised in Daytona beach area and used to see Stranger at the other place in Ormond. I have been to 100 or more concert in my time but my favorite was always Stranger Band. I’d pay a few dollar cover charge and see the tightest band ever while nursing a drink with hot chicks all around. Those were the funnest girls to take home. They loved great rock and roll. So we always hit it off whenever I’d score at the coolest concert of my lifetime. God I wish I was in my early 20’s. I grew my hair long after the military and waited for stranger to come into town. I’d watch the Van Halen of Florida and go home with a Lita Ford/ Samantha Fox groupie type. Those were the days my friends I thought they’d never end!!!!

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