2008-01-23 / Front Page

Jersey Syndicate hopes to follow initial success

First year gives band, audiences good feelings as group gets rolling
BY AMY ROSEN Staff Writer

Mike Sasso has always believed that you should never burn bridges because the people you deal with may be able to help you in the future. That has proved to be a good strategy for Sasso and his band mates in The Jersey Syndicate, who had the rare opportunity to open for Twisted Sister in the band's very first performance in front of an audience on Dec. 23, 2006. That's not bad for a first gig.

Lead singer Stevie Samay is fronting a band for the first time. Lead singer Stevie Samay is fronting a band for the first time. Sasso has been a drummer in bands since his high school days in the late 1980s at Middletown High School North, when he and his buddies formed Mischief and later in Without Love from 1992-99. The bands enjoyed success in the Asbury Park music scene and at venues in Monmouth County. Sasso's friendly manner and professional attitude toward his music earned the respect of others in the industry. He kept in touch with many of the contacts he made at that time, a time when he was "Learning to Live," which happens to be the title of one of The Jersey Syndicate's popular original tunes.

Eventually those bands broke up when the members went their separate ways as they grew older. Sasso eventually settled in Manalapan where he has lived for the past eight years with his wife, Donna, his stepdaughter, Arianna, 14, who attends Manalapan High School, and his son, J.T., 7, a student atMilford Brook School. During the day Sasso works for Justan Electric in Paterson.

While building his career as an electrician, Sasso put his music on the back burner for about three years, but found he missed it. He made several attempts at music projects over the years, including a Bon Jovi tribute band, but none of them met with his standards for success. When attempting to form the tribute band, Sasso came in contact with Stevie Samay of Metuchen, who would later become the lead vocalist and a guitar player in his present band.

Sasso's reputation and contacts opened the door for his newest project, The Jersey Syndicate, to get the break they needed. After that start it was up to the talent of the band members to keep the fan base growing and they came through.

"To me, developing a fan base is one of the primary keys to success," Samay said. "After all, it's the passionate fans that feed the band's fire. You need them and they need you."

"Everybody loves to watch Stevie perform," Sasso said. "She's an attractive 24- year-old girl who sings great. This is her first time fronting a band and it means so much to her when she sees people enjoying her show. She came to me recently and told me that a young boy in the audience told her he was such a big fan of hers that he made his father take him to our last three shows. She was just as excited to meet the boy as he was to meet her."

"It's really fulfilling to know that you can put a smile on a child's face and inspire them with music," Samay said. "To see the same kid come to you after three shows is an amazing feeling. You feel like someone they can look up to.

Sasso said, "From the feedback I've gotten from the people who have seen our shows, people seem to like the upbeat tempo of our songs, but they also say they relate to the ballads and love songs like our song, 'I Don't Want to Hurt Anymore.' And Stevie does a great job of switching from one sound to the other."

In addition to Sasso and Samay, singer and guitarist Gizzy O'Toole of Philadelphia is another original member of the band. All three collaborate on writing songs for The Jersey Syndicate. The band's newest members are Sal Italiano of Staten Island, N.Y., on bass and Rich Gurtler of Freehold on keyboards. Sasso and Samay share a love for the music of Bon Jovi and the band's influence is apparent in the music they write. The Jersey Sydicate's sound has been compared to that of many bands that were popular in the 1980s.

All of the band members have other commitments in their lives, yet they still manage to rehearse on a weekly basis and arrange to perform about twice a month.

Gurtler has resided in Freehold with his wife, Angela, and daughter Marissa, 11, a student at the Eisenhower Middle School, for 10 years. He works for Benchmark Kitchen Designs in Lakewood and in addition to The Jersey Syndicate, he performs on weekends in the Joe Baracata Band, a cover band.

Samay just received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Kean University and is hoping to find employment as an illustrator or graphic designer.

O'Toole is a guitar tech for Ibanez guitars.

Italiano, a full-time musician, also plays in an Iron Maiden tribute band. In addition, he co-wrote a musical called "Stairway to Hell" with Twisted Sister drummer A.J. Pero.

Over the past year The Jersey Syndicate has shared the stage with many other popular 1980s bands, including Winger and Warrant at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, and Quiet Riot, Slaughter and Skid Row at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville.

The band also took part in a sold-out concert called "New Jersey Rag Doll" at the Starland Ballroom to help pay for funeral arrangements for one of the band's friends, Monica Massaro, who was murdered in North Jersey in November.

According to Sasso, the highlight of The Jersey Syndicate's career so far was when the band was the only East Coast band (with the exception of Skid Row and Twisted Sister) invited to take the stage at the Rocklahoma concert in July 2007. Rocklahoma is a major outdoor event in Oklahoma that lasted an entire weekend and drew a crowd of 70,000 people. Other bands that performed at that event included Quiet Riot, Poison and Ratt. After The Jersey Syndicate performed in its scheduled time slot on Thursday, the response was so positive that the band was invited to perform again on Friday and they were invited back to perform at the concert again the next summer.

Sasso said the band members were very impressed with the kindness of the people in Oklahoma who treated them like rock stars and even opened their homes to give them a free place to stay while they were visiting.

As the saying goes, "One good turn deserves another," and on their way home from the concert, the band members witnessed an accident and came to the aid of a tractor-trailer driver by removing him from his vehicle and waiting with him until help arrived.

Sasso said the band members believe in helping others, so at all of their previous concerts they asked the members of the headlining bands to autograph a guitar that they plan to donate to a rock and roll auction to be hosted by WPLJ-FM to help raise funds for Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y.

Sasso and Samay have been invited to judge an upcoming battle of the bands event to be held at Jackson Memorial High School, Jackson, on Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m. They are planning to invite the winning band to open for them when they headline a future show.

"I'm at the point in my life where I would like to do something cool for someone else," Sasso said. "Too many people in show business are selfish. We'd like to make it big someday, but even if we don't, we just enjoy entertaining others and we hope it helps people. We even made our Web site entertaining with music and fun games."

The Jersey Syndicate is scheduled to open forWinger at the Stone Pony on Feb. 22. For more details on the band and shows, visit www.thejerseysyndicate.com or www.myspace.com/thejerseysyndicate.

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