For the 20-year anniversary of The Black Honkeys Band, leader Phil Esposito wanted to do something special, so he set up a 12-day, June tour of the eastern U.S.. Nine musicians, a soundman, a roadie and a merch guy would not be traveling in the group’s 15-passenger van. That simply would not do. They were gonna roll in style—on a tour bus. Some nights they’d sleep on it, some nights in a hotel.
“I wanted us to experience the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle as if we were a band in the 1970s funded by a record company—except for the drug abuse,” Esposito told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, laughing.
Esposito was interviewed during the week of April 21-28. This story is part of a series about how musicians are coping with life during the COVID-19 pandemic— from a creative, financial and emotional standpoint. The subjects are those who make their living as full-time musicians, not as a sideline. If you fit into this category and would like to share your story, email: [email protected]
For several months leading up to the tour, Esposito set aside dollars generated by his high-earning ensemble. He wanted the tour to be completely funded beforehand, not reliant on money made from gigs.
Then the pandemic scotched the plan. Tour canceled. Esposito could’ve kept the road reserves stashed for a later trek. But after thinking it over he instituted “The Black Honkeys stimulus program,” which distributes money to each band member weekly.
“It’s not what they’d be making if we were gigging, and it doesn’t pay the bills, but it’s enough cash that it matters,” Esposito said. “All the members have been genuinely appreciative.”
Esposito said he’s gone through about half of the tour fund and is “willing to drain it if that’s necessary.”
It’s a good gig, being in The Black Honkeys Band. The multi-racial outfit (with one female member) plays 12 to 15 one-nighters a month and is certainly among the best paid acts in the Bay area. It’s a tight, R&B-oriented unit known for bringing the party, mixing a lot of danceable cover songs with danceable originals. And Esposito, 57, who sings and plays some guitar, is the undisputed ringleader.
The group doesn’t do three-set nights, but rather one 90-minute show. The musicians do not set up their own gear. Catering and adult refreshments are part of their rider. These amenities sit well with the players, all of them well into adulthood.
The Black Honkeys are in high demand at live-music clubs like Gators, The Ringside and the Wild Rover Brewing Company. They’re a favorite of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county tourism bureau, which has booked them locally, around the U.S. and in Iceland. The ensemble also plays high-dollar corporate gigs—big company parties, fundraisers and the like.
“We’re not the most polished,” Esposito said. “[Corporate] people who hire us tend to have seen us live. They know we’re a little more dangerous, that we won’t be over in the corner playing Bruno Mars songs.”
Each band member is paid well, and Esposito compensates based on seniority. The last departure—a mutual decision, he said—was nearly nine years ago. It’s easy to understand why the players and singers stick around. And it’s not just because of the dough and the on-stage fun. It’s very important to Esposito that he foster intra-group camaraderie, as well as welcome musical contributions—including original tunes—from everyone.
However, there’s never a question of who’s boss.
“I tell them that, ‘While I respect and want to hear your opinion, that doesn’t mean I’m going to use it in my decision,’” he said.
Esposito is not just the leader and frontman of The Black Honkeys Band. He’s the CEO and sole principal of SPR/TBH LLC, a Florida Limited Liability Company founded in 2010. That’s The Black Honkeys’ official corporate name. This soul-singing, shit-talking, crowd-surfing life of the party, who goes by Brother Phil, is one badass businessman. He books the Honkeys himself, without the help of an agent, and insists on 50% deposits, which is all but unheard of in the local music scene.
During several long, animated phone calls over the course of a week, Esposito consistently displayed his business and promotional acumen, as well as his love of music and performing. He made it clear that, while The Black Honkeys may be a party band, he does not want his aggregation to become stale.
“We’re known as a really entertaining, reliable band that’s a good draw, that’ll play music that people know and dance to,” he said. “But we’re also a really creative bunch, and we’re adding original songs all the time.”
This artistic ambition was on full display last summer when The Black Honkeys traveled to New Orleans to record a new song called “Pumpin’”—a lively, Latin-funk number—with Crescent City legend Cyril Neville. The band also shot a video using various city landmarks as locations, as well as spots in Ybor City. In January, it played a concert at the Capitol Theater featuring Neville as a special guest.
The Black Honkeys’ last gig was on March 15 at Gators on Treasure Island.
“There was a tension in the air,” Esposito recalled. “Everyone was laughing and elbow-bumping, but it wasn’t very funny.”
A St. Patty’s Day show was booked for two days later at O’Keefe’s Tavern in Clearwater. After consulting bandmates and a bit of waffling, Esposito decided to cancel. The group has remained dormant since. Some job offers have come in, but Esposito said he does not plan to resume performing until June 1 at the earliest. He’s been making the best of the break, doing a lot of projects around his Clearwater home (like the shed pictured below).
“Honestly, it’s been a breath of fresh air, almost like a forced vacation,” he said. “When you think about it, on a busy month we’re playing, on average, every other night. It’s exhausting, although you don’t realize it while it’s going on.
“One thing I really don’t miss is the phone hustle. It’s ironic how people call to hire us and then, once they hear my conditions and the price, I have to convince them to hire us. I’ve developed a knack for explaining what we offer so that it feels like a good deal,” he said. “It’s a nine- or 10-piece with full production. And nobody balks at what they pay after we do our job.”
While Esposito didn’t express any pressing urge to get back on stage, he did allow that “it’s weird. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’m in a band right now.”
Philip Gregory Esposito was born in Manhattan, New York, the son of an Italian father and Puerto Rican mother. Their courtship was “a real problem,” he said, “a real West Side Story type thing.”
The family moved to Clearwater when Phil was six. His mother, Phyllis, who passed away in October, was married five times, twice to musicians. His birth father, Ronnie Esposito, sang in a doo-wop band called The Selectones. One stepfather, Sonny Peckerol, was a member of The Winstons, a soul band that had a poignant Top 10 hit in 1969 titled “Color Him Father.”
Young Phil was a budding comic book artist. He studied graphic arts at St. Petersburg Junior College. But at age 23, the music bug bit him. Esposito spent 10 years in the popular Bay area band Freaks Rule, which he describes as “the Red Hot Chili Peppers of Clearwater, Florida.” He then founded The Black Honkeys as a four-piece, with guitarist Joe Sanders, a rotating cast of drummers, and bassist Wil “The Thrill” Harris, who’s still in the band. Less than a year after forming, Steven C Tanner assumed drum duties, and has kept them ever since. The Black Honkeys played their first show on New Year’s Eve 2000-’01 in their leader’s hometown of Clearwater—at the now-defunct Club More.
“When we first started, we wanted to be like the Stones,” Esposito said. “We added some Motown, Black Crowes. Over time, it became white artists capturing the black sound. I honestly thought we would break up fairly quickly. I never dreamed we’d last this long.”
From the early days, Esposito was keenly aware of the band’s image. For instance, before the group was fully established and could afford a crew, he’d go to a venue in the morning, haul in the gear and set up the stage—by himself if he had to—then come back the next day to break it all down. “I never wanted the crowd to see anyone in the band carrying their own amp,” he said.
I asked Esposito if he ever got backlash because of the band name.
“Hell, yeah,” he said with a laugh. “In the first five years, maybe longer, we had to call ourselves The Soul Power Revue for gigs at Disney, Busch Gardens and places like that. But longevity seems to have taken the edge off the name. If anyone got upset, it was a crazy old white person. Black people were never offended by it. We are, after all, a culturally diverse band.”
The band’s lineup grew, as did its reputation. The crowds got increasingly bigger, and wilder. Over time, The Black Honkeys became a self-sustaining, relentlessly gigging, money-making machine. Esposito runs the Honkeys’ business, but when it comes to the music, “that’s where I’m not in charge,” he said. “I don’t consider myself a gifted singer. I’m not discounting my talent as a performer, but, musically, I’m in the first grade and everyone else is in college.”
The ensemble did just fine taking a collaborative approach to adding new cover songs and developing original material. But at a certain point, Esposito looked and saw a band on auto-pilot.
“We got a little lax in terms of rehearsing,” he said.
That changed three years ago when renowned percussionist Gumbi Ortiz signed on. He was winding down a 30-year touring career with guitar wizard Al Di Meola. Coming from Di Meola’s structured, highly-drilled approach to tour preparation, Ortiz was able to effectively take on the role of unofficial music director.
“They’re a bunch of really good musicians,” Ortiz, who lives in St. Pete, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “But they’re not virtuosos like you get with someone in Al’s band. I worked with each of the sections separately to really instill the ensemble mentality, and tighten it up. Most bands don’t really play that well together. This one does.”
Esposito considers it a badge of honor that a musician with the reputation of Gumbi Ortiz would join his outfit. The respect and affection is mutual.
“The rest of the band is an extension of Phil,” Ortiz said. “No one’s a jerk, because Phil’s not a jerk. He’s real considerate. The main thing is that he allows people to trust him.”
Ortiz experienced something entirely new as a member of the Black Honkeys Band—something that, at first, he was reluctant to do.
“You know what this motherfucker Phil does one night?” Ortiz said. “He tells me, ‘Tonight, your crowd-surfing.’ I said, ‘No, I am not.’ But he kept at it. He’s a persuasive guy. So, yeah, I crowd-surfed. Shit was crazy, man.”
Ortiz is still rather amazed by the “stimulus” money that Esposito doles out to his bandmates: “He coulda kept it for the tour. That’s the genius and heart of this motherfucker.”
Shortly after The Black Honkeys shut down in March, Esposito sought a low-interest loan through the Payroll Protection Program. His request for $25,000 was denied because the band members are independent contractors. He also applied for federal Unemployment Insurance Relief through the state of Florida. The members have formed a loose network that passes around information about where they can apply for funds, loans, and grants.
To illustrate how much Esposito walks on the sunny side of the street, he believes that Florida’s rat farm of an unemployment program is ultimately going to figure out a way to get money in the hands of those who deserve it.
“They’re never going to make it easy for you,” he said. “But I really believe the money will come.”
Esposito, who lives with his wife and teenage son, does not have any imminent financial worries. But the overall uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has made him squirmy.
“It’s not really like I get depressed,” he said. “We don’t know how long this is going to go for, and that’s what gets to me. I’m grateful and happy to be with my wife and son here at my house. I just don’t like the not-knowing. I’m a guy who likes to plan, who likes to know what’s going on.”
Part of Esposito’s plan is to revive the eastern U.S. tour swing. He figures that once The Black Honkeys Band start gigging again, he can replenish the coffers and hopefully make it out on the road by the spring or summer of next year.
Yes, they’ll be rollin’ in a tour bus.
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