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.
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.”
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.”