The Hassles with Billy Joel – I Hear Voices 1967
By Martin Lenkowsky
Long before Billy Joel became known to the world as the Piano Man, Margate resident Richard McKenna knew him as his fellow bandmate when they played music together in the 60s.
The band was called the Hassles, a Long Island, N.Y. rock-n-roll band playing what McKenna calls blue-eyed soul. Formed in 1964 with McKenna playing lead guitar, Joel joined the band in 1967 as their keyboardist, and the band released two full-length albums and a few singles for United Artists.
At first, they called themselves The Takers but later changed their name to the Hassles, a word often used to describe anything causing a problem.
McKenna, now 77, lives at Coral Plaza Assisted Living Facility and looks very much like a rock star. He’s a lanky 6-foot-1 sporting charcoal jeans, black sneakers, and two tee shirts under a green and blue flannel shirt he needs to stay warm. And, of course, his shades.
He had one of his three guitars with him throughout the interview, effortlessly strumming the chords on various tunes ranging from classic rock to jazz. In addition to the guitar, McKenna also plays piano and drums and plays his guitar every day.
The Hassles – Every Step I Take – 1968
Although their band never performed at the iconic, generation-defining Woodstock festival in 1969, McKenna was fortunate enough to have made it to the huge musical event and has some memorable moments to share. He got to sit backstage and hang out with the two most revered goddesses of rock at the time: Janis Joplin and Grace Slick.
“Janis shared her cup of Southern Comfort with me,” he said. Along with her distinctive, powerhouse, gruff voice, Joplin was well known for her fondness for the flavored whiskey liqueur from New Orleans.
Music remains a guiding force in McKenna’s life, and he often entertains his fellow residents. He was scheduled to play that afternoon for Alzheimer’s patients at the facility.
He knows his talents will be well received and appreciated. “People with Alzheimer’s, they might not know their name, but they love music,” he said.
A few of his fellow residents came right over when they heard him playing his guitar, accompanied by a synthesizer. As soon as he spotted resident Sally Garghill, like clockwork, he began playing her special song: Eric Clapton’s Lay Down Sally.
Also stopping by to hear the music was resident Mark Finkel, who said, “he does everything from folk to rock-n-roll to blues. He’s very creative and eclectic. And he’s a fellow Long Islander.” Finkel used to own a boutique shop and sold records in New York’s Greenwich Village.
McKenna grew up in Syosset, N.Y., and later lived in Huntington and Rocky Point on Long Island. He left the snow and cold and moved to Florida in 1991. The Hassles broke up in 1972, but he never stopped playing music.
Working for the United States Postal Service for 30 years, 21 years in New York, and nine years in the Sunshine State, McKenna comes from a family of police officers. “I knew I’d either work for the police department or the post office.” He also worked as a security guard at Walmart in Florida for nine years.
Music, however, remained a huge part of his life. “We had a band down here called the Beach Dogs,” he said. The band used to gig at venues like Elks and Moose club lodges and the tiki bar at the casino in Coconut Creek. “Until Covid came and killed it,” he added.
As for his relationship with Joel, he said they’d often sit down and work on musical arrangements together. McKenna points out that unlike another famed piano player, Elton John, who writes the music while his associate Bernie Taupin is the lyricist, Joel does it all; he writes both his own music and lyrics.
According to McKenna, Joel later moved to California and was gigging at a local piano bar when record producer and executive Clive Davis discovered his talents. He signed with Columbia Records, and his career took off from there.
McKenna has played at many music venues throughout his musical career, and the Hassles opened for famous Motown artists like James Brown and the Four Tops.
“James Brown was a really nice guy,” he said. “He was short and used to be a featherweight boxer. That’s where he got a lot of his moves.”
McKenna hasn’t been in touch with Joel in quite a while. The last time they spoke was three years ago when he saw Joel perform at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood. McKenna had a backstage pass and talked and reminisced with his former band’s keyboardist.
As for the future, McKenna is hopeful he’ll have another reunion with the Piano Man in October when the surviving members of the Hassles are scheduled to be inducted into the prestigious Long Island Music Hall of Fame.
- Martin Lenkowsky moved to Coral Springs from NYC in 1982. He has a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College. He has been both writer and editor for a number of South Florida publications since 1983. He considers features writing his specialty.
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