GREAT NECK, NY – Hockey fans and fans of the underdogs of all sports and other walks of life might well recall the improbable true tale of a singer, her song and a then pathetic hockey team which after adopting the melody as their call to arms went on to win a championship.
The singer was the late Laura Branigan, the American pop vocalist, songwriter and actress whose award -winning disco style songs played seemingly non-stop over the radio from the early 1980’s into the early 2000’s, and who tragically died in her sleep of a brain aneurysm on August 26, 2004, at the age of 52.
The song was titled “Gloria”, Branigan’s 1982 signature tune, which stayed on the top of the pop charts for 36 weeks and secured her nomination for a coveted Grammy Award.
The hockey team was the 2019 St. Louis Blues. The Blues, which had the worst record in the NHL in early January, 2019, had their fortunes change starting late that month. The night before a road game against the Philadelphia Flyers, a few of the Blues’ players stopped off at a popular Philadelphia pub called “The Jack’s NYB”. While listening to the DJ, a guy named Matt Cella, playing “Gloria” over and over again- sometimes five shots in a row- the players decided to make the tune the then sorry team’s “victory song”. It soon worked.
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The Blues defeated the Flyers the next night, and from there went on a very unlikely, very long winning streak, which culminated on June 12, 2019, in Boston’s TD Garden, when the once pathetic team defeated the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the championship finals to win the Stanley Cup.
That miraculous come from behind saga and the singer and the song that inspired it has been a favorite topic of conversation for sports writers, hockey fans and so many others from so many other walks of life, beginning almost the moment after the St. Louis Blues captured that Stanley Cup and continuing to this day. However, there is an eerie and astounding part of the story which has remained almost totally unknown- at least until now.
And for learning about it, and possibly making you stay up at night thinking about it, you can thank (or blame) an actor and musician named Tommy Bayiokos, Branigan’s former boyfriend and a drummer in her band. As Bayiokos, 55, explained to me during a recent phone conversation,
“There was an amazing and mostly unreported poetic irony attached to the last time in her life that Laura sang the song “Gloria” and, also attached to the city in which she last performed it, and to a hockey team that used the tune as its inspiration’’.
“The city was Boston”, Bayiokos continued, “and the date was July 16, 2004. Laura and I had flown from New York to Boston to perform at an annual Italian Street Festival. I will never forget that night. The crowd stretched out for several long blocks, and they danced and sang along as Laura belted out her great tune, as well as several others of her past hits. But little did I know that it would be the last time that Laura, who died just weeks later, would sing “Gloria” ever again.”
However, it would not be the last time that a large Boston crowd -albeit this one mostly less joyous- would hear that great tune again. “Fast forward 15 years from the Italian Festival in Boston to the Seventh Game of the NHL Finals in TD Garden, just a couple of miles away,” recalled Bayiokos.
“Hundreds of Blue’s fans flew from St. Louis to the game, and from face- off at the centerline to the final buzzer they sang “Gloria” to inspire their underdog team. And inspire them they did”, Bayiokos added, “The St. Louis Blues went on to a 4-1 victory, in front of a stunned and unhappy arena of Boston Bruins’ fans, who, you can bet, were not fans of the song “Gloria”.
Bayiokos, though, decided that there was a more fitting place than TD Garden for him to watch the game that night, even though his heart was somewhat torn.
“I was very tempted to join the “Gloria’’ fans in Boston, because, that’s the city where Laura sang the song for the last time. And that was just where the championship game would be played. I could not get that strange coincidence out of my mind”, Bayiokos recalled.
“However”, he continued, “the owners of Jacks had graciously invited me to watch the game on tv. It wasn’t an easy choice. But I finally decided that the most appropriate place to watch the game was at Jacks, because that is where the magic tale of “Gloria” and the Blues was born”.
It was a decision he never regretted. Describing that night, Bayiokos stated,
“The moment I walked into Jacks, I met Matt Cella as he was prepping for his DJ gig for the big night…. I found him to be a true gentleman, and I thanked him immensely for starting this magic and told him Laura would be proud.”
That was just the beginning of the great night for everyone involved.
“There were hundreds of Blues fans who had come to watch the game at Jacks”, remembered Bayiokos, “from cities right there in Philadelphia to St. Louis and even beyond, all driven by what became known to millions as the “Gloria wave”.
“And they all went crazy with joy,” he continued, “as Cella blasted “Gloria” over and over again throughout the game, and the crowd grew even crazier and more joyous right after the game ended, and the St. Louis Blues players were awarded the Stanley Cup…. You could have the heard the sounds of celebration ringing from the delirious fans at Jacks from Philadelphia to St. Louis”.
This story, unfortunately you might believe, does not end there. Rather, it soon took a sharp political turn: among the people seemingly influenced and impressed by the “Gloria wave” was President Trump. Creating a heated on-going controversy, throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump’s campaign team regularly played “Gloria” at political rallies. This angered legions of anti-Trump Branigan fans as well as several performers and leaders in the music industry, including Branigan’s legacy manager Kathy Golik, who became the chief spokesperson for those opposed to Trump’s using the song as the thematic tune for his campaign.
Even further angering Golik and such music icons as the Rolling Stones, Rihanna and Phil Collins, on January 6th, 2021, the Trump team played the song to presumably inspire the hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters who had come to Washington, D.C. from states across America to protest the election results- a protest that ended in hundreds of Trump supporters storming and temporarily taking control of the U.S. Capital Building.
In addition, further antagonizing Golik and her Trump-hating cohorts, the former president’s political team played “Gloria” to overflowing crowds at a recent political rally in Georgia.
Still, Bayiokos, the man who arguably knew Branigan best, told me that he could not offer an intelligent guess on whose side she would have supported, were she alive today.
“Only Laura can speak for Laura”, stated Bayiokos. “I do know, though, that she had traditional American values, loved her country and was in fact a registered Republican. “However”, he elaborated, “I could never even guess as to whether or not she would have approved of Trump using the song she was most proud of to energize his followers in his presidential and post-presidential political rallies”.
Bayiokos, though, was far less reticent as he described his relationship with the late singer.
“I started playing drums in Laura’s band in 2001. We quickly became close friends and musical collaborators”, he stated. “In early 2004, that friendship evolved into wonderful romance and a very deep love. We spoke about a future together… When she passed I was devastated and found it very hard to move on”.
“What kept me going”, he added, “was constantly reciting in my mind the words she often spoke to me, which were, ‘Never be afraid to follow your dreams, never be afraid of the hard work required to make those dreams come true and, it turned out prophetically, never let any adversity or set back get in your way’. Those words inspired me and whatever small success I have achieved over the years since her passing I attribute to hearing Laura speak them”.
According, however, to his bio info available over several social media platforms Bayiokos’ professional achievements following Branigan’s death 17 years ago have been far more than a mere “small success”. Continuing his work as a drummer, Bayiokos has performed at shows featuring a long-list of ionic singers from the 60’s and 70’s, ranging from Frankie Avalon, to Richie Ramone to Vince Martel and the Vanilla Fudge.
In addition, partially transitioning from musician to actor, Bayiokos has won critical acclaim for his numerous off Broadway performances, including portraying a modern day Mussolino in the show “Eleonora Duse Dies in Pittsburgh,’’ and has also been lauded for his work in cinema, including his starring role as a stern but compassionate police officer in the film the “Pigeon”, which won the award for best screenplay in this years Manhattan Film Festival. Currently, (and this I learned directly from Bayiokos) he is getting ready to play the role of a major character in an upcoming tv pilot series.
Again crediting Branigan for his success, Bayiokos reflected.
“I will always believe that whatever success I have achieved since her passing, I owe to Laura. To me, she was the most inspiring person in the world”.
I believe the St. Louis Blues players and their fans, and possibly, as well as DJ Matt Cella and the hundreds of patrons who came to a Philadelphia bar called The Jacks NYB to watch a championship hockey game would agree with that description of Laura Branigan.