The first thing Willie Forte wants people to understand about the predicament his band is in is that they were contracted four years ago — a time when it’s safe to say no one in America expected Donald Trump to be our next president-elect. Forte plays keyboards and sings in the six-piece B Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute band that began in 1980 as Backstreets and has been performing for nearly four decades, at everything from the 2009 Garden State Ball when Barack Obama was first elected president, to Chris Christie’s first inauguration as New Jersey governor a year later. The response in 2009 was so positive that the gala’s chairs (who include Christie himself this year) booked the band on the spot for 2013, and in 2013 they signed on for 2017. Forte is quick to note these details, and to, perhaps unrealistically, emphasize how apolitical his band and even this event is.
“I was given advice not to talk to any press at all,” says Forte, 63, over the phone. “And I talked to everybody.”
“It’s not so much about the election as New Jersey,” he goes on to explain. “New Jersey sponsors the party, the whole thing is based on Jersey, we do some Frankie Valli and Frankie Sinatra, some other tunes that represent New Jersey. The people that run this are wonderful, they have no political agenda. They hold the party to promote the state to people who travel across the country and have never been to New Jersey.”
Forte insists that he doesn’t “follow” politics (“We’re not political, we don’t even think about that”) and his shock at any stigma and controversy surrounding a Trump inaugural ball may be proof.
When asked if he was at all aware of the unanimous decision of A-list pop stars to refuse to play Trump’s official inauguration gala, or whether the surprise hullabaloo has led the band to reconsider, he says, “First of all, I’m contracted. I’m 63 years old, I have three kids under 18 years old. I can’t afford to be in litigation. I’m not in the position that other people are in. I have a history with these people and I was taught to do the right thing. I understand Bruce’s politics, but if you make a deal with somebody, you have to honor it. Put yourself in my position.”
“I know there’s a lot of anti-Trump against this,” he says. “But also, 50 percent of the country voted for him, so what do I do, just jump from a fire back into another fire? I would lose both ways. I could never just break a contract. In hindsight, would it benefit us to not be involved in this? Probably.” (In fact, Trump received only 46 percent of the popular vote, receiving almost 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.)
Forte cited one article yesterday that “put a picture of Trump next to my lead singer, which is so far from the truth it’s ridiculous,” but remains mum on the band’s own political leanings. He emphasizes a few times that he does have “a deep respect for the office of the Presidency, no matter what happens. Because if we start tearing it down, where are we going?”
When asked if the band has ever considered any acts he considered political before, Forte jokes, “Come on, we were set to play the Craigslist killer’s wedding,” before convicted murderer Philip Markoff was sentenced to jail in 2009.
But the hypothetical question of Springsteen himself asking Forte not to play is where he breaks rank with the band’s promised professionalism: “Yeah, I would have to honor his wishes, of course! I would have to take the heat legally, too. There’s consequences to everything you do.”
When pressed if anyone else from the E Street camp could talk them out of it, he cuts me off.
“I know where you’re going with this,” Forte says, “but I would never speculate on things I shouldn’t be speculating on. I don’t even want to think about hypotheticals because that scares me.”
What a time to be alive and scared.
The B Street Band emailed a prepared statement prior to my phone conversation with Forte that you can read in full below:
The B-Street Band owes everything we have accomplished in our nearly 37 years to Mr. Springsteen and the E-street band.
Because of his music, our families, friendships, and all social and business relationships over the last 37 years are indirectly because our relationship to Bruce’s music.
Our Band members mimic the working class guy, with no agent, no Manager, No road crew…..we carry the equipment, production, book the band, make all the arrangements, everything is done ourselves and work nearly 200 gigs a year up and down the coast.
We are most proud of the fact that the band has helped raise millions of dollars for charities by drawing fans of Bruce’s music to events that raise money for Cancer, Parkinson’s disease, money for personal tragedy etc. The Band has been chosen to represent NJ Special Olympics to help raise funds and awareness for more than a decade. The B-Street band would never intentionally disrespect Bruce or his music
In 2009, The B-Street Band was honored to be contracted by the NJ Inaugural ball to perform at their gala celebrating Barack Obama’s election celebration.
The NJ State Society was so impressed, they immediately hired the band for their gala 4 YEARS later 2013. At that time we performed for President Obama’s successful re-election. The Gala again enjoyed our NJ Shore flavored style and signed us a third time 4 YEARS before for the 2017 Gala.
Every four years, the nonpartisan New Jersey State Society of Washington, DC sponsors a bipartisan inaugural gala in January regardless of which party wins the White House. Subject to the availability of tickets, New Jersians and other fans of the Garden State are invited to attend. This event is separate from the official and partisan inaugural ball the next night that does require a written personal invitation. The B-Street band has performed for both political parties dozens of times, starting with DNC events in the 1990’s through last summer as featured band at the DNC Block party Philadelphia on Mon July 25, 2016 as well as the NJ delegates party at the DNC.
Letter to the B-Street Band from Gala 2013: http://www.njss.org/events/detail.php?id=122
Will Forte/Owner/Keyboardist/B-Street Band
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 13, 2017