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Playing from the heart



The Easy People Band

The Easy People Band has been playing country music, specifically that of hometown recording star Gary Stewart, for more than 30 years on the Treasure Coast. ANTHONY INSWASTY PHOTO

Longtime musicians determined to keep Stewart’s musical memory alive for fans

BY PATTIE DURHAM

When The Vibrations, a band that had made a name for itself playing at teen dances in the early 1970s, was searching for a new name a few years down the road, it only had to look to the lyrics of Easy People written by Fort Pierce singer Gary Stewart and songwriting partner Billy Eldridge.

According to lead singer and bass player Felix Moss, the lines, “We’re just easy people, rednecks all the way,” really spoke to him and band members, guitarist Jimmy Smith and drummer Gary Abercrombie. So, The Vibrations became The Easy People Band.

The band members, who were middle school students when they started playing together, began playing at clubs and lounges including Big Daddy’s (on South U.S. 1 near the Kmart Plaza), the Merry-Go-Round (now the U-Haul building on South U.S. 1), the Rialto Restaurant and lounge on Orange Avenue, A.J.’s in Stuart, The Lamp Post and Long Branch Saloon in Vero Beach.

Too young to drive, Smith’s mother used to drive the boys around to play until they were old enough to drive themselves.

“Mama Irene took us everywhere,” Moss said. “We couldn’t have done this without her. When we were The Vibrations, she made us three-piece white suits to wear.”

STARTED VERY YOUNG
“When we played at those clubs back then, we were way too young to be in those places. They used to make us sit in their offices during our breaks,” Moss said, with a laugh.

“We (The Vibrations) played with The Statler Brothers at the jai-alai fronton,” he added. “That was cool. I was about 15 then and not old enough to be in the fronton.”

As they grew in age and musical talent, Stewart would sometimes ask them to play with him when he was in town. When he was on the road, Moss would sing covers of songs the popular hometown honky-tonk hero had recorded. They still play many Stewart songs at their gigs.

“When we weren’t with Gary, we played his songs,” Moss explained. “When we were with Gary we played whatever he did.”

“You never knew what Gary would play,” quipped Tommy Schwartz, who started playing keyboards with Easy People after the departure in 1987-88 of Robert Michael Green, a DJ at country music station WFTP-AM.

Schwartz, who had returned home after a stint in the Air Force in the mid-’70s and was playing music in the Palm Beaches, joined the band after a performance with some of its members.

“Gary Stewart and I were doing a job at the Swiss Chalet in Stuart and needed some musicians to fill in,” he said. “We asked Gary (Abercrombie) to play drums and also Jimmy (Smith) to play lead guitar. I told Felix we weren’t trying to steal all of his band members. Then Felix said to me, ‘Why don’t you do keyboards and let me play bass. Then you can join our band.’ ”

HAD DAYTIME JOBS, TOO
The members always had a full-time day job to pay the bills, except for Smith, Moss said, adding that the guitarist made his way playing with other bands when Easy People wasn’t booked. As they grew older, the friends got married, settled down and started families. The guys in the band are all grandfathers now.

“I remember when Gary Stewart played at my wedding reception 27 years ago,” Moss said. “I don’t know of many people who can say that.”

“He said he was going to play I Love You Truly,” Schwartz said, adding that the song was Stewart’s first cover, but that he must have changed his mind as he didn’t sing that song.

The band, Moss said, stayed pretty much the same until Abercrombie left the group to start a citrus trucking business. Howard Folcarelli, who had been the drummer with Stewart’s first backup band, known as Train Robbery and later as Honky Tonk Liberation Army (a tribute to Patty Hearst), was the drummer for Easy People until 1994. The group had a few different drummers over the years until the members met Joe Falco, who became a permanent member in 1997.

“Gary had a good backup band with them (Train Robbery),” Moss said. “I learned a lot about playing bass from watching Darrell Dawson, who played with that group. He was an excellent bass player.”

OPENED FOR COUNTRY STARS
As the older guys moved on, the younger guys moved in and began playing with Stewart when he was home from the road, Texas or Nashville. They also began opening for country music stars who were playing concerts in Fort Pierce.

“We opened for Lee Ann Womack, Charlie Daniels, Earl Thomas Conley, Jimmy “Crash” Craddock and Alabama,” Moss said as the names of the country acts rolled off his tongue.

“We opened for Alabama at the St. Lucie County Civic Center,” he said. “Afterward, we were playing at The Rialto. (When they finished) they came to The Rialto and played with us. This was when they were first starting out. After they became famous and came to Fort Pierce again, they didn’t come to play with us.”

“We also played a big New Year’s Eve Dance at the National Guard Armory (on Delaware Avenue),” Schwartz added. “That was a big event.”

“We did a number of gigs with Gary over at Brighton (the Seminole Indian Reservation west of Okeechobee),” Moss said.

“The Indians loved Gary Stewart,” Schwartz said. “Even out in Texas, when he was out there, the Indians would come to hear him play. We played with him a month before he died.”

Following Stewart’s death, the band was determined not to have his music die with him. Covering Stewart’s songs has kept a piece of him alive for his following, a large group of longtime Fort Pierce residents. The fans still get a chance to hear Stewart’s music when the Easy People are performing and, if you listen and observe, many of those in the audience know the lyrics to all of his hits. Easy People Band still plays in the area, but not as often as the members did in their youth. Their full-time day jobs have supported their families over the years, but they have kept the music alive out of sheer love for their country roots and their love for Stewart.


REWARDING CAREERS Reflecting on his years in the local music business, Moss said, “It has brought me a lot of happiness and I have met so many friends. They all say hello to me when I walk down the street. Once, when I was in Gatlinburg, I went to a comedy club with my wife, Kathy, and heard someone yell, ‘Felix!’ It was a guy from Stuart who I had met while playing down there.”

“This past year, we have played about twice a month,” Moss said. “When we play downtown, we draw a big crowd. We have played at Cobb’s Landing and recently at Sailfish Brewery.”

Schwartz said, on reminiscing about their decades of work in the country music industry, “The lifetime friends I have made are what has brought me the most satisfaction from playing and being involved in the music business. I played many years in the Palm Beach area in the ’70s and early ’80s. I have many musician friends there as well as non-musician friends.

“Had I not played music, I would be living in a totally different world, mainly because I met my wife of 35 years playing in Palm Beach, along with the great brotherhood we have with the rest of the members of our band now. If we all stopped playing music today, we would remain brothers and our families would still be like one great big one.”

“We do this (play in downtown Fort Pierce) every couple of months,” Schwartz added. “We want people to want to come out and see us.”

The Easy People Band plays the Gary Stewart Tribute every Memorial Day Weekend. The tribute, which seems to have found a home at Little Jim Bridge Fish Camp on North Hutchinson Island, draws hundreds of fans. “Gary’s birthday was May 28,” Schwartz said.

You will probably have an opportunity to see them play before the tribute, drawing a crowd at some place downtown and playing their honky-tonk tunes.