The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down in so many ways, including a complete shutdown of the live music industry.
From a local standpoint, that meant the doors to Madison Square Garden were locked and Long Island’s own Billy Joel would be forced to suspend his monthly residency at The World’s Most Famous Arena.
What is a musician to do when you can’t play music?
For Joel’s long-time saxophonist Mark Rivera, it was an opportunity to reflect on his magnificent career by putting pen to paper on his book “For Billy Joel’s long-time saxophonist Mark Rivera, it was an opportunity to reflect on his magnificent career by putting pen to paper on his book “Sideman: In Pursuit of the Next Gig.”
“The book was a labor of love through the pandemic,” said the Brooklyn-born Rivera. “You tell a musician he can’t play music for what was first thought to be six months, then a year and it turned out to be two years and we were crazed after six weeks. The reality that the whole industry had shut down was more than anybody had prepared for.”
Over the course of the pandemic, there were many people who had their work life affected whether it was reduced hours or losing their jobs completely. For Rivera, and so many others in any industry, work may have stopped but the bills continued to come in.
Writing the book gave him a chance to document the ups and downs of his career.
“The whole process was cathartic and I was reflecting on the good and the bad of the whole situation,” said the 69-year-old Rivera. “It was very powerful.”
Joel took care of the band and the crew paying them throughout the pandemic but now that things are back to normal, or whatever one may feel that the new normal is, Rivera is back doing what he does best and that’s music. But while most people know him as being the longest-running member of Joel’s band, Rivera has performed with so many other musical greats and that is well-documented in the book.
In addition to playing sax for Joel, Rivera’s resume also includes being the Musical Director for Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band. His career also includes sharing the stage with musical legends like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Foreigner and Peter Gabriel.
Before he hit it big, Rivera had to find a way to make ends meet because playing music wasn’t enough to pay the bills.
“I got a series six (license) to sell mutual funds,” said Rivera. “I was good at it but I didn’t have any passion for it. I was doing some landscaping with my neighbor.”
Rivera continued to work hard performing at small clubs and never taking his foot off the gas in looking for that big break. That work ethic, as he chronicles in the book, is something that he still has today even though he already has two of the greatest gigs that a musician could ask for.
Rivera’s impressive resume
In addition to playing sax for Joel, Rivera’s resume also includes being the musical director for Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band. His career also includes sharing the stage with musical legends like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Simon & Garfunkel, Foreigner and Peter Gabriel.
Before he hit it big, Rivera worked hard performing at small clubs and never taking his foot off the gas in looking for that big break. That work ethic, as he chronicles in the book, is something that he still has today even though he already has two of the greatest gigs that a musician could ask for.
It’s clear that he doesn’t forget where he came from and what made him successful. Rivera’s philosophy just doesn’t apply to music, it could apply to anyone looking to start a career in any industry.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that I was as honest as showed as much vulnerability,” said Rivera. “I’ve had a great career and I’ve done a lot and I’m still doing a lot. You always work hard because out of any situation, the next gig could be presenting itself. How do you get from point A to point B? You just do your best. Don’t ever phone it in because if you don’t bring your A-game and somebody was there and you missed an opportunity, shame on you because it’s just as easy to do your best.”
Teaming up with Billy Joel
Rivera joined Joel’s band in 1982 for The Nylon Curtain tour after a year-and-a-half run of being with Foreigner. That tour included the iconic Billy Joel Live From Long Island HBO concert that was filmed on Dec. 29, 1982, at Nassau Coliseum and the cover of the book features a photo from that concert with Rivera playing the saxophone while lying on his back on Joel’s piano.
How Rivera landed the gig in Billy’s band is a perfect example of work ethic and being in the right place at the right time.
Rivera played with Joel’s guitar player David Brown at a Long Island club called My Father’s Place in Roslyn. The 180-seat venue, which used to be a bowling alley, was a great spot to catch newcomers on the rise, from 1971 to 1987, according to the Roslyn Landmark Society.
One night, Joel’s base player Doug Stegmeyer came to see a show. He was impressed with the sax work by Rivera.
At that time, Joel was parting ways with his sax player Richie Cannata and Stegmeyer suggested that Rivera should audition for the job.
“I had to learn ‘Only The Good Die Young,’ ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me’ and ‘Just The Way You Are,’ recalled Rivera as he prepared for the audition.
Rivera did the first two songs and then came “Just The Way You Are.” As he was nearing the end of the sax solo portion of the song, Joel stopped the band from playing.
“I’m like, ‘Oh crap, did I screw it up?’” wondered Rivera. “Billy walks up to me and gives me a kiss on the cheek and says as long as you want to be in my band, you’ll always have a place. Forty years later, I still have a place at the table.”
And with that, Rivera was hired and more than four decades later, he’s still in the band. But as he quickly found out, it was and still is more than just a band.
“The moment that I joined that band, I was in a family,” said Rivera. “Billy appreciated me. He allows the people in his band to shine. It’s been like that forever.”
There was, however, a small bump in the road in 2004 when Joel decided to make some changes to the band firing Rivera and longtime drummer Liberty DeVitto. Joel, who was about to get married, had decided that he wanted to bring Cannata back.
Instead of holding a grudge, Rivera opted to take the high road.
“My wife, my sons and I signed a card saying we wish you a lifetime of happiness,” said Rivera. “I had already been let go. I was fired but my mother said nothing good can come out of bad words.”
Six months later, Joel had a change of heart.
Guitarist Tommy Byrnes called Rivera and asked him if he could co-exist with Cannata and he said yes.
“Billy decided that he wanted me to be in the band as well so it worked out,” said Rivera.
Eventually, Cannata left the band again and Rivera reclaimed his role as Joel’s primary sax player. To this day, DeVitto never returned.
“I haven’t heard from Liberty since then, unfortunately, and I’ve made attempts,” said Rivera.
A career highlight
One of the most iconic moments of Rivera’s career took place in 2010, but it had nothing to do with Billy Joel.
It was Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday and he was scheduled to perform with his All-Star Band at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Paul McCartney decided that he wanted to surprise his former Beatles compadre and perform “Birthday” that night at the show. So, Joe Walsh calls Rivera and asks him to run the band for that song.
With Ringo expecting to arrive for sound check around 4:30-5 p.m., Rivera, McCartney and the band gathered for a secret rehearsal at around 2 p.m. McCartney tells Rivera that he hadn’t played the song in about eight years so that set the stage for some drama after the first run through.
“I looked over and said, Excuse me, Paul, you didn’t play the base part right,’” said Rivera. “You gotta play the base straight through the verse and he said, ‘Oh right, that’s right thanks, man.’”
Rivera had just corrected the Beatles legends on how he played his own song and he would do it again after the second run because McCartney was a little off during the “we’re going to a party party” line.
“I looked at Paul and I said you came in two measures early and everybody is like, ‘Why don’t you just shut the hell up and we can get out of here,” said Rivera. “He said, ‘Oh you’re right. I’ll tell you what mate…let’s do it one more time and this time I’ll just play base and you sing.’”
So, on the final practice run, it’s lead singer Mark Rivera and Paul McCartney on base. That night at the show, everything clicked.
“It was a great performance, but it came with two corrections,” said Rivera. “ My father…he always said you could be confident, but you can’t be arrogant. You can correct someone, but you don’t do it to put someone down. You do it because this is how it goes. Paul was incredibly gracious and receptive and thanks to that the performance went off without a hitch.”
40 years with Billy Joel
All these years later, Rivera doesn’t take anything for granted.
He has performed with so many great musical legends and he’s spent more than four decades as part of Billy Joel’s band.
It’s a job that he cherishes a great deal, and he has to pinch himself every day.
“Every morning I wake up and think how blessed I am and how grateful I am to have this position in the band,” said Rivera.
The butterflies and the excitement is still there for Rivera before every show from leaving the dressing room to standing on the side of the stage moments before a show to when the music from “The Natural” is played, a signal to the crowd that Joel and his band are about to take the stage.
“Billy finally walks out on stage and when the light hits him and he starts whatever the song might be,” said Rivera. “It’s an eruption. If you don’t get the adrenaline rush on the side of a stage with 20,000 people freaking out, you have to check your pulse. If that doesn’t get you up, I don’t know what will…ever.”
It goes without saying that Joel has a tremendous musical library but there are only so many songs that he can do in one two-hour show. There are iconic songs like “Piano Man”, “Only The Good Die Young” and “Big Shot” that you will hear at every show, but the most loyal of Billy Joel fans will always check to see what the playlists are from every show to see what was played.
There are always songs that you hope to hear at a Billy Joel concert because everybody has their favorites.
What are his five favorite Billy Joel Songs?
“That’s a very tough question,” said Rivera. “No one has ever asked me this.”
Rivera noted that “This Is The Time” is his favorite Joel song citing the powerful lyric “holding you close is like holding the summer sun.”
He also mentioned “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” because of the “brilliant harmonic structure”, “And So It Goes”, “All About Soul” and “Souvenir”, a brilliant song from the “Streetlife Serenade” album.
Everyone can have their favorite Joel song, but there’s no disputing that one of the great moments of every show is when Joel performs “Piano Man”.
Those few minutes perfectly sum up what Joel means to his fans and how special it has been for Rivera to be a part of it.
“He straps on the harmonica and people go nuts,” said Rivera. “Every night, I look around and there’s a prophetic line in the song “because you know it’s been me they’ve been coming to see to forget about life for a while”. It’s the truth. People come to Madison Square Garden from all over the world. It couldn’t be more correct.”
And the run for Rivera with Joel is not ending anytime soon.
The greatest gig
The monthly residency at Madison Square Garden is still going strong with tickets on sale for show 92 on July 24 and show 93 on Aug. 29.
The countdown to 100 is underway.
“The run is unprecedented,” said Rivera. “There is no one and there will never be anyone who could do this run of shows. There’s no one who has the staying power and the ability to get the fans back. It’s mind-boggling. We’re in the ninth year. If we do what I think could happen, we could go into next year…it will be a freaking decade.”
In his book, Mark Rivera chronicles a storied career that is now in its fifth decade. For the better part of two years, Rivera was not able to perform and that gave him the opportunity to write the book and reflect on the road he took to get to where he is today.
He’s loved every minute of it.
“It’s the greatest gig,” said Rivera. “I don’t think you’ll have a conversation with another musician who could be more grateful than I am and more in love with the jobs that I have. The fact that I work with Joel. The fact that I work with Ringo. I don’t work for them. I work with them and they respect the whole band and they respect what this is now more than ever.”
Yes, you go to a Joel concert to see and hear him perform, but you are also there to see and hear Tommy Byrnes rock out on the guitar, to see and hear the versatile Mike DelGuidice belt out “Nessun Dorma,” to see and hear Crystal Taliefero make musical magic, to see and hear the greatness of drummer Chuck Burgi — and for more than 40 years, to see and hear the iconic work of Rivera.
He doesn’t really need to find a new gig, but he continues to have the same mindset and work ethic going back to when he was looking for that next gig.
Top: Mark Rivera performing with Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. (Credit: Peter Schwartz)