It may not be quite as momentous as the breakup of the Beatles – although they do play some of their songs –but the decision of The Total Strangers to call it quits is certainly a blow for local music fans.
The band will play its final gig at the Chatham Squire's upcoming 50th anniversary bash, which is fitting, since they reformed back in 1998 to play at the restaurant's 30th anniversary. Prior to that, it had been more than a quarter century since the original band had played together.
“We were really not sure how it would go over,” lead guitar player and singer Everett “Hunk” Eldredge said of the band getting back together 20 years ago. “But I've seen people I hadn't seen in 30 years, people I hadn't seen since high school.”
Pretty much the off-season house band at the Squire, The Total Strangers have now entertained a couple of generations of Chatham folks. Because they often play early, it isn't unusual to see entire families on the dance floor.
“For me it's the families,” said drummer Chris Cannon. “People didn't stop. They brought their kids.”
Eldredge and bassist Steve Hart are the only original members of the four-piece who remain. They formed the band while at Chatham High School in the late 1960s along with drummer Bruce Caswell and bassist John Long. They captured attention with their black Cadillac hearse with a stuffed Pink Panther in the window, which brought them to gigs throughout the Cape. Hart and Eldredge graduated in 1968, and that was the year they played their first gig at the just-opened Chatham Squire.
The original lineup remained together through about 1972; they played local dances and clubs, were regulars at the Mill Hill Club, the High Point and the Brass Rail. Although mostly a cover band, they recorded several original songs as well.
Then band members went to college, got married, raised families. About 20 years ago, Eldredge and Cannon, whose wives worked together, were sitting outside having ice cream when Eldredge asked Cannon if he'd ever thought about playing in a band. Cannon, an architect, had played in a group in Washington, D.C. Along with Hart, also an architect, and Dan Mahoney, a keyboard player they all knew, the new Total Strangers reformed with the idea of playing a single gig at the Squire anniversary.
It went so well that owner Richard Costello hired them to play at the storied Main Street bar a couple of nights a week. Twenty years on they were still playing at The Squire, as well as doing parties, weddings, special events, and even a couple of funerals.
There was never any grand plan, said Eldredge, a builder who lives in Harwich.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It just got better and better.”
“We really didn't set out to be anything,” noted Cannon. “Things just clicked.”
Gathered for an interview last week, the band members banter like brothers, talking about memorable gigs and getting used to Cannon playing drums on a riser across the aisle from the others due to the Squire's odd layout. Hart noted that the addition of Cannon helped move the band to a higher level. “He reads music so we don't have to,” he quipped. All four band members sing, allowing them to create rich four-part harmonies.
They still play a lot of the same music as when the band first formed – Beatles, Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, classic rock from the '50s to the '80s. A half dozen years ago Cannon pushed them to add more contemporary songs to their repertoire – which now includes about 180 songs – such as “Uptown Funk” and “Blurred Lines.”
“Instead of being an oldies band, we were just a band,” remarked Hart. The band doesn't follow a set list; they gauge the crowd, Eldredge said, and draw on their repertoire to best suit the mood.
Why has it continued to work for 20 years? The band has roots here, not just because of their early days, but because the members are integrated into the community, said Eldredge.
“A lot of people can relate to the local stuff,” he said, adding that some fans time their visits to town for when the Strangers are playing. “We're part of it.”
The band members also get along, said Hart. “We actually like each other,” he said, and music is important to them. “We love to play, we love to sing.”
With band members pushing 70, however, health issues are starting to crop up.
“Everything starts to wear a little bit,” Eldredge admitted. Hart has to turn off his hearing aids when the band plays because they cause feedback; he's gotten good at reading lips to figure out which song to play.
“That's where the chemistry comes in,” he said.
While they don't rule out playing together in one form or another, the upcoming Squire anniversary will likely be the last official gig for The Total Strangers' current lineup. They'd been talking about calling it quits for a few years, but, said Eldredge, “getting to the Squire's 50th was major.”
“It's hard letting go,” he added, “but there comes a time. Who would have thought it would have lasted this long?”