The rock band Zebra is an anomaly. Over the last 47 years, this power trio has retained all its original members — Randy Jackson (vocals/guitar), Felix Hanemann (bass/keyboards/vocals) and Guy Gelso (drums/vocals) — and despite only releasing four studio albums, this melodic hard rock band still has a dedicated fan base on Long Island and across the country. In fact, Zebra’s Nov. 19 show at The Paramount in Huntington sold out within four days and they had to add another on Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 23, to satisfy ticket demand.
“Zebra fans don’t just love Zebra, we adore them,” says Robert Baum, 52, who grew up in Bay Shore and first saw the band in his hometown at the legendary rock club Sundance when he was 17. “I’m just so grateful they are still together.”
Back in the day Cathy Mongiello, 60, of Oakdale used to watch Zebra play cover songs down the road at Chaucer’s Ale House every Tuesday night. As the band grew she followed them to various venues.
“I became obsessed,” she says. “I’ve rarely missed a Zebra show in 40 years.”
WHEN/WHERE 7:30 p.m., Nov. 19 (sold out, check for last minute availability) and 23, The Paramount, 370 New York Avenue, Huntington
INFO 631-673-7300, paramountny.com
While Zebra’s career took off from the Long Island club scene, the band originally hails from New Orleans.
Jackson and Hanemann met while playing in the band Shepherd’s Bush, which performed early-‘60s pop-style music. Eventually they hooked up with Gelso and keyboard player Tim Thorson to form Maelstrom. Once Thorson dropped out of the group, they took on the name Zebra in 1975.
“We were looking for a singer, but no one seemed to work out. Meanwhile Randy was developing his falsetto singing Led Zeppelin covers,” says Hanemann, 69, who currently lives in Nassau County. “Eventually we gave up looking around for somebody because Randy was pulling it off pretty well.”
In New Orleans, Zebra became local legends but the exposure wasn’t strong enough to draw the attention of record companies. The band knew in order to get signed they had to make a move.
“We needed to go somewhere else to get noticed,” says Jackson, 67, who currently lives in Suffolk County. “When The Good Rats came to play at Earth Day in New Orleans in 1976, they told us about the happening club scene on Long Island.”
The band moved into an apartment in Levittown and landed their first LI gig opening for Rat Race Choir on New Year’s Eve 1976 at the 1890’s in Baldwin. They continued this pattern by opening for local club acts with big followings like Twisted Sister, Leslie West of Mountain and Essence.
“It was complete culture shock for us,” recalls Hanemann. “We weren’t used to the New York winters. All we had were T-shirts, sneakers and an overcoat. Plus, everybody was so aggressive. It was hard to deal with at first but we got used to it.”
Quickly Zebra became headliners at clubs like Tuey’s in Setauket, the Mad Hatter in Stony Brook, Speaks in Island Park, Cheers in Deer Park and Hammerheads in Levittown. Sometimes the band was booked five-to-six nights a week.
“If you were lucky you’d land a certain day at a certain club and people would get to know you,” says Hanemann. “That’s the way you developed a following.”
In the late ’70s, Zebra played every Tuesday at Speaks, Thursdays at Hammerheads and Sundays at the Mad Hatter.
“Zebra stood out from all the other bands because they were pure talent,” says Marlene Cutler, 62, who grew up in Saint James and regularly saw the band at the Mad Hatter. “They presented polished and proficient original music with a strong stage presence. Plus, their songs really stayed with you.”
Evan Wald, 61, who was raised in Island Park, says, “They gave us the kind of music you’d normally have to go to Nassau Coliseum or Madison Square Garden to see right in our own backyard.”
At these shows the band would mix in their original songs among covers to get some honest feedback.
“We’d never announce which songs were original, we’d just play them,” says Jackson.
Hanemann adds, “We played our originals often so people would get used to them and like them. It was a good strategy.”
By late 1981, Zebra did the unthinkable. Before even landing a record deal, the band scored airplay on WBAB (102.3 FM) after then-program director Bob Buchmann caught the band live.
“I asked Randy for a tape of the originals. The moment I got the master tapes we put them on the air immediately,” says Buchmann, now current director of music programming at SiriusXM. “Very quickly it became our most requested music.”
The song, “Who’s Behind the Door?” was drawing more requests than any songs from Led Zeppelin or the Beatles at WBAB. The station even put the track on its “Homegrown” album of local favorites. Buchmann informed Jason Flom of Atlantic Records about the heat surrounding Zebra and he signed them.
“We were almost resigned to the fact that we weren’t getting signed,” says Hanemann. “At the time, we didn’t care because we were making a living playing gigs. But, this was like a dream come true.”
The band’s 1983 self-titled debut, produced by Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, John Lennon), went gold and became the fastest-selling debut album in Atlantic Records’ history. Singles “Tell Me What You Want” and “Who’s Behind the Door?” garnered heavy rotation on MTV and the band toured the country for nine months opening for national acts like Loverboy, ZZ Top, Cheap Trick and Journey.
“The album brings you back to the days of Sundance in Bay Shore, Malibu in Lido Beach and Chevy’s in West Islip,” says Sue Esposito, 54, of Huntington. “It made me a fan and totally drew me in. I’ve heard it a billion times. But, I just don’t get tired of it.”
Longtime fan John Hildenbrand, 55, of Selden says, “It’s one of those rare albums where I like every song. There aren’t many albums like that. I used to put the cassette in my car tape deck and listen to the whole thing.”
The album, which features original songs the band made famous in the LI clubs, set the stage for Zebra’s career.
“It was tremendous. We were really proud of the record,” says Jackson. “The experience made me feel how quick things can change.”
When Zebra plays The Paramount the band will perform the debut album in its entirety and in sequence for the first time.
“We want to make it as much like the record as we can,” says Jackson. “This is kicking off the album’s upcoming 40th anniversary celebration. People love that record and it’s done really well by us.”
Through the years Zebra released three more studio albums: “No Tellin’ Lies” (1984), “3.V” (1986) and “Zebra IV” (2003). The band reached a certain level of success, but the music scene changed around them. Through it all, Jackson, Hanemann and Gelso have remained together.
“We’ve never had any ego trips in this band,” says Gelso, 71. “We are very honest with each other and we are all friends. I’d take a bullet for either one of them. They are my brothers.”
Hanemann adds, “There’s two elements to our longevity — the first is persistence and the second is a strong work ethic.”
In addition to Zebra’s internal bond, that dedication extends to its fans.
“There was never a separation or distance between Zebra and their fans,” says Johnny Srsich, 55, of Centereach, who used to catch the band at My Father’s Place in Roslyn. “Zebra treats their fans more like their friends. Maybe that’s a Long Island thing.”
Rock photographer Mike Halupa, 55, of Lindenhurst adds, “They always mingle in the crowd and chitchat with the fans. You’ll often see Randy or Felix out and about on Long Island too. They will talk to you as if you’ve known them your whole life.”
In 2012, Zebra was inducted into the Long Island Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame solidifying the band’s contribution to the LI music scene.
“The greatest part was they made an exception for us because you needed to be born on Long Island to get in,” says Jackson. “We were flattered to be inducted with the classic entertainers that are in the hall. I guess we made an impression here.”
ZEBRA FANS WANT MORE
With only four studio albums in 47 years, the rabid Zebra fanbase has one simple request for their heroes — new music.
“They need to put out another record,” demands John Zatwarnicki, 54, who grew up in Levittown and booked the band to play at Hofstra University in 1986. “I’m tired of waiting. C’mon guys, give us one more!”
Bob Paletta, 61, of Lindenhurst says, “Why they haven’t put out a single of the song ‘Directions’ boggles my mind … it’s been requested over and over so why not give the fans what they want?”
However, lead singer/guitarist Randy Jackson promises that the band is planning on recording soon.
“We are going to do it as long as we are still alive,” says Jackson.
Bassist/keyboardist Felix Hanemann adds, “There’s definitely some irons in the fire.”
Drummer Guy Gelso explained the reason behind the delay.
“Some bands pump out albums every year. Randy likes to keep the level very high,” says Gelso. “But we are ready to run some new songs. It’s about time.” — DAVID J. CRIBLEZ