The Ballad Of Gregg Sansone

By Tom Waters
February 1st, 2007

Gregg Sansone If you've participated in (or just enjoyed) the Buffalo music scene for the last six years, Gregg Sansone is a pervasive, melodic, keyboard-driven entity.  The two-time Buffalo Music Award Winning Solo Artist Of The Year plays out at clubs, bars and other venues over 300 nights a year (when he's in peak physical condition), and his cover shows run the gamut of Steve Winwood to Elton John to Stevie Wonder.  Dabbling in rock, jazz, blues and classical standards, Sansone has become a local icon and a national underground phenomenon.   I saw Gregg play (or channel, to be more accurate) Elton John covers at Route 66 in downtown Buffalo four years ago, and I've been a Sansonite ever since.  His two and three hour shows are lousy with fans, electric in their intensity and craftsmanship, and brilliant to witness.  I had the opportunity to sit down with Greg at my apartment in Lancaster while he was recovering from major back surgery (he had a disc removed). 

TW:You haven't had a drink since you were 15.  Why is that, and do you find it surreal to play out at clubs and bars for the majority of the year in the company of people who are soused out of their minds? 

GS: No.  Alcoholism runs in my family.  I've got a huge family.  Eight boys and one girl.  Some people put down meat and become vegetarians.  I had the hindsight as a fifteen year old to say 'You know, I'm addictive as hell.  I have a real addictive personality.  I'm just not going to do this.  Otherwise, I think it could be a problem, and it just stuck through college and everything else.  Like anything, I stuck with it and it developed and it's been years and years.  I have a blast (at the shows).  People come up to me and say 'Man, you were hammered because you were dancing on the bars!' and I say, 'No, but awesome, thanks man.'

TW: How does your strongly held belief in Buddhism inform your singing and songwriting? 

GS: Songwriting and instrumental writing are different.  They're along a spiritual line, but my performances are an extension of what I believe in anyway about myself.  Buddhism isn't a religion as much as it is a philosophy.  They didn't invent being honest and they didn't invent being good people, they just do it well.  So you can apply it to any faith that you have and for me, it just helps me to not want to kill everybody.  Or when someone is drunk and they fall into my keyboards and everything, now I don't want to drag them into the parking lot.  Before (Buddhism) I did. 

TW: Do you think the era of disposable pop/porn performers like Britney Spears and Ricky Martin is nearing its end, or is it more of a popular music cycle? 

GS: I think human nature is human nature, and within music, I'm no expert on anything.  I'm just an Italian from Buffalo.  Before them when Madonna got really popular, they produced people like Jody Watley, and-

TW: Rick Astley. 

GS: People like that, that's exactly right, but specifically female singers to sound like her (Madonna).  Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, so it does go in cycles.  I think the American people, we're a disposable society.  There's a huge portion of the population that buys into that, and they just go into whatever's popular.  But there's this undercurrent of people like us that-

TW: Observe?

GS: Observe and evaluate and say, 'This is good, this doesn't work for me, that's kinda bullshit.  I know that you love Elton John for instance, as do I.  People like Elton John, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and even Madonna, and I'm not a Madonna fan, but she's stood the test of time.  They're not a flash in the pan, and for good reason.  If we didn't have those people, it would be a sad, sad world with the boy bands, although Justin Timberlake has broken from that and has really made a name for himself.  I mean, I don't think he's going anywhere.

TW: And Mark Wahlberg-

GS: Mark Wahlberg is kinda cool in the movies, though!  When he was Marky Mark it was a different story. 

TW: Your best one night stand story after a show:

GS: Um, my best one night stand story after a show-because I have one night stand stories during a show. 

TW: That sounds like the better story. 

GS: I just want you (the reader) to know that I'm a good guy-now.  But I was in Missouri, it was some years ago, I was performing outside of Kansas City and there was a girl that I knew and on her break, she came up to me and was talking with me and we just continued the conversation in the bathroom.  I'm a gentleman and that's as much as I can say at this point.  It's something, because when I was younger and I was in my '20s, it was really flattering and kind of ego gratifying.  I didn't get into music for that.  That's just the way it goes.  You get attention and now it's a little different.  It's just different now.  It's more about self respect and that's how I am.  I kind of go home alone at this point. 

TW: You are now your own one night stand. 

GS: It kinda reminds me of the first time I had sex, though, because it was quiet and dark and I was alone.  So there's nothing wrong with that. 

TW: (makes rim shot sound)  What has your recent back surgery taught you about your limitations and looking to friends for help?

GS:  That's brutal, that is, because I was a University Administrator for a number of years and I was against micromanagement.  And since I've done music full time, anyone that knows me knows that I am anal retentive and obsessive compulsive about my shows and about even winding up cords and things.  After the back surgery, for months, there hasn't been anything that I can do, and that showed me a lot about myself.  It showed me that people, the outpouring, I've had emails from fans asking 'Is there anything I can do?  Do you want me to come to shows, I'll help you.' or people coming up to me at shows and wanting to help, so it showed me that the people who enjoy my music are awesome, but that sometimes I'm an ass, because I just have to let go and say 'wait a minute', because I would help someone if they were in that situation.  I just never thought I would be in that situation.  It's showed me that I have to let go a little bit and I can still direct and say 'Can this go here or there?', but that's a great question, because I really didn't think that having back surgery would have this much of an effect even emotionally on me.  

TW: Did the birth of your son cause you to slow down a bit and take stock of your life, inspire you to make a more lasting impression on the world, or both?

GS: For the things that were important, it forced me to assess who I was.  It forces you to.  Before I was a father, I was in the world of seeing people with other children and it didn't apply to me.  After I had my boy, I had to, the alternative was deplorable.  I had to apply myself.  It didn't affect my music as that's always come from a place that sometimes I don't even understand.  It affected my music in a way that I took a more holistic approach to my own life and mortality, so to speak.  I didn't really slow down.  I'm still Gregg, but it definitely made me even more successful in the academic arena without a doubt.  If I was ever kind of not a slacker but irresponsible, I got more responsible.  And now my son thinks I rule.  He told me 'My friends think you're the greatest dad.', because now I'm like rock and roll dad, that type of thing.  He's pretty proud of that.  That's amazing to me.  He started playing three instruments and I didn't force him, but when he was playing bass to 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' and it was the exact bass line, and my nephew was doing the guitar part to it, the riff, I almost welled up because these were songs that I grew up with and now its gone full circle, now my kid and my nephew are jamming to it and it sounds exactly like the record, they weren't screwing up, and then I'm playing with 'em, that's pretty damn cool. 

TW: He can see that it's a way to bond with you.

GS: Absolutely, without a doubt.  Talking about music and playing music together is something that I had never anticipated.  That's amazing to me. 

TW: Do you see yourselves opening for the Bacon brothers in about five years?

GS: I really don't know, unless Kevin Bacon is gonna bring his kid up.  It would have to be Sansone & Sons instead of the Sansone Brothers, because I have seven brothers and they're miscreants.  We'd rip the joint down. 

TW: How did your outspoken alter ego (Uncle Hal) come about?  Was there any tie at all to David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust?

GS: No, that's kind of a parallel universe, though.  I have a radio show called 'The Pissed Off World Of Uncle Hal'.  It's an online radio show called a pod cast.  Uncle Hal was a nickname when I was a kid, 'cause I created a spoof on soap operas on a tape recorder and it was hysterical and slapstick, and all my brothers and even my parents laughed, and the star of the show was a guy named Uncle Hal and he was a total ass.  He'd beat people, puke and slam peoples' heads into desks, so they started calling me Uncle Hal.  Everyone in my family, they all call me Hal or Uncy, it's just a nickname.  So when pod casting, that genre of expression came about, I jumped on it and said 'Wow, I can do what I want.  There's no f.c.c. regulations or anything.'  And I wanted an arena to pretty much rant about what pisses me off in the country, or laugh my ass off and make other people laugh and interview people.  I've interviewed authors as well as musicians and I'll ask people questions.  I went to the mall and asked people who's more important at Christmas time: Jesus Christ or Santa Claus?  And you'd be amazed at the responses I got.  So 'The Pissed Off World Of Uncle Hal', no one knows that its Gregg Sansone.  Now they'll know, but the people that listen online around the world as far as Wales and Iran , they'll call the hotline or send me an email and say 'Uncle Hal, this is what pisses me off' or 'I think you should look at this 'cause this is really funny.'  and I just had a person that called me today and said that Ed Kennedy got money from Hugo Chavez from Venezuela and got oil and he's (Ed) giving it out at a forty percent discount to the poor in New York City and that's amazing.  Citgo gets their oil from Venezuela and things, but as we know, the president hates George Bush.  So a bunch of people were jumping on that saying 'How dare you, how could you get oil from Hugo Chavez when he said terrible things about our president.' And he (Ed) said 'General Motors sold 3,000 cars to Venezuela last year.  Should we take our cars back?  Citgo gets their oil from Venezuela , should we not go to Citgo?'  The President of Venezuela said something about President Bush-

TW: It's not black and white-

GS: It's not black and white.  Giving poor people petroleum and stuff to heat their house at a forty percent discount, don't you think that that's more important than whether or not people are fighting?  So that's something that I would put on my show.  

TW: What has traveling to a number of countries taught you about the geography of music and its peoples?

GS: It's taught me that it is universal and that people could fight, they could hate each other, they could love each other, they could do one thing, but then all of a sudden, music comes on, and that's amazing.  I've been in Italy before where I was playing a Prince tune in Florence one time-

TW: Which tune?

GS: I believe 'Purple Rain', because someone asked for it.  So when I was doing it, I looked in the audience and there were people from Sweden , Spain , Italy , Canada , Israel , and they were all enjoying the music.  It wasn't my song, but it's a universal language.  I've been in Thailand before and they're all happy.  And they sing corny songs from the '70s like Carpenters, 'I'm On Top Of The World', or something like that, 'Close To You'.  And yet when I was a kid, I heard 'Close To You' and thought that was nice or whatever the story was (laughing).  But the point of the story was that that's Western music and I've even been to Eastern Bloc countries in Asia and the Middle East and I find that, no matter what, music is still the undercurrent, it just taps into our souls.  Don't you think?

TW: I agree.  I agree completely. 

GS: And a number of these people that were in the audience couldn't even speak English, but they were swaying and going back and forth, so again, it just speaks to them, you don't have to speak Russian, I don't have to speak Farcie, but I can sing 'Tiny Dancer', and they think its cool as hell. 

TW: It reminds me of the speech that Beethoven gives in Immortal Beloved about how music isn't meant to make you march and it isn't meant to make you do this, that and the other thing, it's supposed to transport you directly into the composer's soul. 

GS: I-I wish I said that, because that's an absolutely amazing statement.  More so than the fine arts.  The fine arts is kind of like that too, because you can look at a painting, and not speak the artist's language, but you can look at it and jump into that artist's world, but it's going to be your own interpretation of whatever you think that painting is.  But with music, I agree, there's nothing more impressive to me or emotional than when a good musician gives birth to something that didn't exist before and all of a sudden you're involved in that. 

TW: Like for instance William Hung.

GS: (laughs) His interpretations of certain songs are pretty amazing to me, man. 

TW: Have you ever been burned by superficial 'Show Business Friends'?

GS: Yes, I sure have, but that's the business we're in.  If I complain to you about any aspect of the music business, then I'm kind of an ass, you know what I mean?  This is the life I chose for myself.  When its fourteen below zero in February and I'm unloading equipment at four o'clock in the morning and the wind's blowing and it is really, really cold and there were only twenty people in the bar that night, do I complain?  Do I complain to you or do I complain to my loved ones?  I really don't have room to complain.  That's the life I chose.  I play music and people pay me money for it and that's amazing to me.  This is a roundabout way of answering the question but, yeah, I've been burned by club owners many times, but there've been great club owners.  It's a pretty egotistical business.  I'm not the type of person where you'll see sometimes theater people and something, they're always performing.  When they're off stage they're still performing.  I don't.  You've seen me before.  When I'm done, I sit down, I don't talk to people, I'm quiet.  I don't even have music in my car when I'm done.  I don't wanna be 'on' all the time.  Give that time to other people.  So the people that were backstabbing, I've never been that way and I view them as kind of sad.  If you want any examples, there's tons. 

TW: What kind of tattoo do you have and where is it?

GS: I've got a number of them.  I have a Polynesian tattoo that goes across my shoulders that was just kind of spiritual.  I designed something that was from an Aboriginee pattern.  You know, I'm not some big spiritual back packer, I'll tell you right now.  I'm not a tree hugger or anything like that, but I'm not some neo con either.  I just like tattoos, it's a cool expression.  Although I'm Italian, I have a Celtic band that I got from the book of Celt that goes around my bicep that is really interesting to me.   On my back I have this Polynesian tribal pattern that girls apparently think is sexy and I didn't get it for that, I just thought it was frigging cool. 

TW: Did you know Bjork's got a Celtic Cross on her arm because she likes to go on walkabout before concerts and it's supposed to be some sort of talisman that will guide her home.  

GS: Well see, that's amazing to me and again, mine doesn't go that deep.  Although the woman that did the tattoo on my back is one of the top twenty artists in the country, she did Howard Stern and all these other people.  She spoke with me for about two and a half hours before she even touched me just to get a feel for what I wanted and wanted to know me.  So if it wasn't real spiritual for me, it was for her.  And it turned out to be something really cool because it does represent who I am.  For Bjork to use that as a sort of compass to find out where she is, I think that's really cool. 

TW: I have a compass for Bjork, but it's not a tattoo. 

GS: Awesome.

TW: Do you find yourself listening to modern music or taking comfort in old favorites as you get older and what bands and solo artists do you keep in your 'top five'?

GS:  Well it's no secret that I love The Beatles.  When I heard The Beatles when I was a kid, kind of like David Crosby and Graham Nash and those guys-When David Crosby saw 'A Hard Day's Night', that was kind of like a how-to movie to be in a rock band.  So he traded in his banjo and folk guitar and they started The Byrds.  For me, I can go on and on about The Beatles.  Many people don't like them, that's fine.

TW: Who's your favorite?

GS: John and Paul; John for the spiritual reasons, Paul because he wrote great pop tunes.  I loved 'em all, even Ringo with his 'Octopus's Garden', but as far as contemporary pop musicians, I like Dave Matthews because his band is really jazzy, David Gray I like a lot, there's a guy named Freedie Johnston that I like that is very cool, a guy named Greg Standridge out of Oklahoma who is just a phenomenal guitarist, but do I listen to old or new?  I listen to both, but I listen to a lot of jazz and classical, to tell you the truth.  I love jazz. 

-Digital recorder hits it's maximum length some time during Gregg's response.

TW: Son of a bitch. 

TW: How much corruption and cronyism is there in the Buffalo bar and club scene?

GS: You know, I was gone from Buffalo for about fifteen years and when I came back-Buffalo's been very good to me as far as the people and things.  It's no question that I'm friends with people like Ed Honeck (Night Life Magazine's publisher) and I have two agents, Frank Sansone and Frank Pucateri, who have done a number of things for me that I've never asked.  Ed Honeck has done more for my career and never asked for any money in return and I mean that, I'm not kidding.  But there are others, it was very difficult when I came back to Buffalo to bust into this scene because my last name is very similar to another artist that used to perform around here, Tom Sartori.  And Tom's a friend of mine, but when I first came back, I'm Gregg Sansone, Tom Sartori, he was a solo artist then, he's got a band now, but he was a solo artist then, I'm a solo artist, we're both Italian standing up there with a guitar.  So people a lot of times thought I was him and thought he was me, I guess.

TW: (joking) You Italians all look alike.

GS: Yeah, I mean, it's hard to separate the grease.  Even if you put water on it.  So and then I found that many people were making the comparisons when I would go into a club.  Kevin McCarthy, Tom Sartori, myself, even a new kid who's really great, Grant Michaels, a number of people, there are certain songs that we all play because they're party bar songs.  You know a lot of people play 'Brown Eyed Girl', 'Margueritaville', 'Laid' by James, you know, things like that.  I wanted to break off and do things more keyboard driven.  You've heard me do 'Root Beer Rag' by Billy Joel, or Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder; there's not a lot of people that do that.  There's not a lot of people that do 'Superstition' or 'I Wish' or-

TW: Sir Duke?

GS: Absolutely I do 'Sir Duke'.  Steely Dan like 'Hey 19' and 'My Old School' and all that stuff, but that depends on where I'm playing.  As far as the corruption goes, I think that's everywhere, isn't it?  Like in Buffalo, I've spoken to people who have tried to get jobs and things like that who were overqualified for that position in the academic or health industry and things like that and it's not what you know, it's who you know.  I've seen it before where jobs have gone to the owner's nephew regardless of the fact that the guy couldn't do the job. 

TW: (being cheeky) One could almost say that you've been 'in the hunt'.

GS: What does that even mean, in the hunt?

TW: I think it means that you've been chasing the crown in the Buffalo music scene for a number of years now. 

GS:  I disagree with that.  Let me explain.  When I came back to Buffalo, I was a musician.  I've been a musician since I was six years old.  I started taking piano lessons and guitar lessons respectively when I was five and six.  When other kids were playing baseball outside and things like that I was at the piano cursing my father for making me do that.  One day I woke up and people were loving that I was playing music and I thank my father every day.  So when I came back to Buffalo I was a musician.  I started playing and I heard that there were awards and things but there was no way I was gonna-You being an author, I suppose some local awards lurk in your head, but that's not why I played.  I certainly didn't say I'm gonna do this, or I'm gonna perform this way or that way in order to achieve some type of prize. Being in the hung, that kind of makes it sound like I was really going after-last year, I got Solo Artist Of The Year from the Buffalo Music Awards and I was appreciative because a bunch of musicians voted for me.  I was very, very happy, and the first thing I did was thank my mother and father.  They weren't even there, but I thanked them.  I won again this year, and I was surprised because there were so many people in that category that were deserving of it.  Kevin McCarthy is one of my best friends in the business and he does a helluva job.  This isn't patronizing or fake humility, it's the truth.  But to say I've been in the hunt-did I want to win?  Sure.  I wanted to.

TW: It wasn't the main objective, though.

GS: I'd gone to the Buffalo Music Awards every year for the past five years and I was nominated all those years.  So like anybody, I supposed that it would be nice to win.  The politicking or campaigning I would see a lot.  I guess the way I feel about it, because this year it was open to the public and that was kind of strange to me, because you know, you could in effect get some kid in a college to go into a computer lab and get the whole lacrosse team and baseball team or his frat to vote a thousand times and they don't even know me, and that's not something I would do.  So hypothetically, that could happen.  If I have to ask, like last year someone said are you gonna musicians, because all the musicians are allowed to vote.  If I have to ask people to vote for me, other musicians, then they probably weren't going to vote for me anyway.  It should be kind of-

TW: Genuine.

GS: Yeah, whether they know me or not.  That's not a tough question for me because I don't feel like I was in the hunt.  Although I was nominated five times, you can't help it, it's human nature.  I don't think anyone would not wanna win.  If you're nominated for a writing award and you say 'Well I'm not going to be able to get that because the marketing of this guys book was grander than yours or he had a great radio promotion', that's still not gonna stop you from inside going 'God it'd be nice if I won.'  I wouldn't want you to think that I was that kind of person that was clamoring after-like, 'Oh, he's REALLY gotta win!'.  'Cause the next day, although it's nice, my friends were saying 'Congratulations Gregg', the next day, I'm still gonna go into a bar or at a private party and I'm going to play music and have a blast doing it and that wouldn't change if I didn't win. 

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