HERE'S THE long and short of Shorty Long & the Jersey Horns: While high-energy, horn-driven "party bands" are common on the regional bar and casino lounge circuits, it's doubtful there's another one quite like this. That's because it's unlikely there are any others whose keyboard player does his thing while seated in a wheelchair.
The 10-year-old North Jersey combo that performs Jan. 21 at Eden Lounge inside Harrah's Resort Atlantic City was co-founded by 34-year-old Ricky Tisch (a/k/a "Shorty Long"), who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, an incurable condition also known as "brittle bone disease." It causes extremely weak bones that are prone to fracture. Those who have it also tend to be extremely short.
"It has something to do with the collagen in my bones not forming right," he said of the protein that is the main component of connective tissue. "I don't know much about it myself, but I know it's crazy, and I'm really short." It is also the reason he discovered music at a very young age.
"My grandmother bought me a keyboard when I was like 4," he recalled during a between-set break at a gig at Finnegan's Wake in Northern Liberties. "I've been sittin' in my room ever since, practicin' and playin'. When the other kids were outside playin' ball and all that stuff, I was just inside playin' music, and makin' people smile."
As he grew older, he expanded his audience. He was doing performances for senior citizens when, in 2002, he was introduced to bass player and group co-founder John Kern.
"He was playin' the old-folks home kinds of places when I first met him," offered Kern, whose kinetic energy onstage provides a visual foil to Tisch's mostly stationary presence.
"I was like, 'I don't know, I wanna be in one of these hot-lookin' model bands' - because I used to look good," he said with a laugh. "The next thing you know, I wound up with him. It sounded real good, and we've had a blast ever since."
Initially, Kern admitted, he feared that working with Tisch would mean he'd have to lug all of his partner's gear to their jobs. But he soon realized Tisch's condition could actually be a bonus. "One of the things we started to do is to get him different props," he said.
For instance, at the Finnegan's Wake show, Tisch boarded a kid-sized fire truck that he rode during the band's version of the Ohio Players' funk workout, "Fire."
"I think the act came from Jack Daniels and John Kern's head," ragged Tisch. "John Kern is the madman behind the show part of it. I just show up and say, 'What do I do today?' "
In case you're curious about Kern's answers, know that Tisch has performed as "anything crazy you can think of. I've come out dressed like the pope. On Easter I've come out dressed as a Peep. On Christmas, I come out with a bunch of reindeer and 'ho-ho-hos' bringing us in - anything you can think of. We try to make it a circus."
Added Kern: "We want it to be more than a band. Like when you would watch some kind of crazy variety show. We wanna be that. We wanna make you go slack-jawed when you see us, and you leave goin' 'I wanna see that again!' "
This infusion of good, old-fashioned show business has, as much as anything, been a key to whatever success the band has known to date, success that has allowed the unit to expand from its original configuration. Currently there are eight performers, including a singer, drummer, percussionist, guitarist and three horn players, among them Frank "Crispy Bacon" Benjamin, an original member of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. For some gigs, they add a ninth musician.
"We started out as a five-piece band," Tisch explained. "We started fillin' up the clubs, and every time we got a raise, we're like, 'Let's hire more people. Let's hire this guy.' Then we got a horn section. It's blown up, and now it's like an out-of-control monster."
This throwback to the old-school Las Vegas lounge "show bands" of the 1950s and '60s has also resonated with those new to the group who expect to see and hear the same old, same old at a bar on a Saturday night.
One such convert is Marc Lees, who celebrated his 25th birthday at the Finnegan's Wake show.
"When they came out with their show, that was awesome," said Lees. "No other band comes out with a show like that. When I saw the [band's logo], I was like, why does it have a wheelchair? Then [Tisch] came out and it shocked me. It's awesome, just awesome."
Lees' buddy, Kyle Fisher, 23, agreed with his assessment of the group. "They know how to get the crowd rollin'," he said. "They did a phenomenal job. Phenomenal. I hope they come back."
Onstage, Shorty Long & the Jersey Horns offer an eclectic mix of pop, rock and R&B primarily from the 1960s and '70s. Their master set list includes "ABC" by the Jackson 5, "Get Up, Stand Up" by reggae titan Bob Marley, Grand Funk Railroad's "We're an American Band" and "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes. The repertoire reflects Tisch's broad musical palate.
"At a very young age my mother probably raised me next to the AM radio, listening to Barry Manilow," he noted. "But soon, I got into Pink Floyd and all kinds of disco. [I listen to] pretty much all genres of music you can think of. I like it all."
Any performance by the band also features original songs, some of which will wind up on a CD the band is producing.
Despite the originals, Tisch and his teammates are focused on being the kings of the lucrative "party band" mountain. (Established acts like Mr. Greenjeans and Don't Call Me Francis are reputed to gross seven figures a year.) To that end, they'll soon get a huge boost as Atlantic County, N.J.-based distributor Harrison Beverage and Bud Light co-sponsors a billboard to be located at the confluence of heavily traveled routes 38 and 70 in Pennsauken, N.J. The sign will proclaim the outfit as "The World's No. 1 Party Band."
As for Tisch, he reluctantly bears the mantle of role model for others with disabilities.
"I never thought I was [a role model] until a lot of people came up to me and said that I was inspirational to them. My message to other handicapped people is: 'Get off your a-- and go f-----' do something, man.
"What am I gonna do, sit home and feel sorry for myself?"
Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, 777 Harrah's Blvd., 8 p.m.-midnight Jan. 21, free, 609-441-5000, shortylongrocks.com.