He survived the rise and fall of disco. Then his life started over in St. Petersburg.

Billy Stewart’s a familiar face on Central Avenue, tacking up concert posters downtown. But few know his colorful life story.
Published June 26
Updated June 26

ST. PETERSBURG — Billy Stewart walked into the chocolate shop with an arm full of concert fliers and a roll of clear tape.

“Hello,” he said to the shopkeep. “Could I put up one of these Daddy Kool posters?”

She said yes, and Stewart got to work, thumbing off swatches of tape and tacking the posters up in the window. Sister Sledge’s We Are Family was playing on the radio overhead. Funny thing: Stewart used to play with those guys.

“Oh, yeah, a lot of times,” he said. “Up there at Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum. We played with them a good six, seven times at different venues. They were really good friends, and very sweet.”

Madison Square Garden? Nassau Coliseum? The skinny guy tacking up concert posters across downtown St. Petersburg? That guy played those venues?

That was a lifetime ago, back when disco ruled the planet and Stewart ran with a much faster crowd. He’s been in St. Petersburg for a few years now, living a quieter life on the fringiest filaments of the concert industry.

But at 67, he’s writing music from his one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise for seniors on fixed incomes, talking about starting a new band. Maybe someday getting back on a poster of his own.

“It’s been a few years,” he said. “But I’m getting itchy about going out again.”

• • •

The band was called Calhoon, and if you know them, you must be a disco fanatic. Not that they weren’t big in their own little corners of the world: They were the hot party band in Long Island, then co-ran and were the house band for an even hotter nightclub in Broward County called Rum Bottoms.

Stewart sang and played the keyboards. He’d been determined to play music since watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan at age 12, did just enough in high school to graduate and has been living a musician’s life ever since.

The band started out playing British Invasion and Southern rock, but a manager persuaded them to incorporate a little more soul, a little more funk, a little more pop. It was the early ’70s, and the timing was right for a new look and sound. They dressed in platform shoes and matching suits “like a white Temptations,” swimming with a wave that hadn’t yet begun to crest.

“It was the disco scene, although it was still three years away,” he said. “Through the gay clubs, they were playing records nobody ever heard of and still never heard of. Never got to the radio. But they were charting in the clubs. Really great records, and nobody knows them.”

The manager moved the band to Florida, where they shared condos and played every night at a 20,000-square-foot dance palace, a former German restaurant next to a dog track outside Hollywood. Artists like Gloria Gaynor and Patti LaBelle started coming in, and Calhoon built up a following.

“The early Prince, if you saw him perform, that was our band,” said guitarist Tony Aliperti, still a close friend of Stewart’s. “We were a little bit ahead of our time. Basically, what eventually morphed into what Prince did, we were doing back then.”

The single that broke Calhoon was a generic but effective boogie number titled (Do You Wanna) Dance Dance Dance. It was more than a regional hit, breaking into the lower half of Billboard’s R&B chart. And it attracted the attention of producer Phil Spector, who came in to see the band and left impressed enough to sign them to his new Warner Brothers imprint, Warner-Spector. Calhoon was officially on the same label as Cher and Dion, touring with the likes of Isaac Hayes, B.B. King and the Temptations.

But an album with Spector never materialized. They played and toured too much, and discovered their manager was in league with shady partners, siphoning money from both the club and Calhoon. An album of music they recorded back then never saw the light of day.

“If you look at him as a manager, he was a great manager,” Stewart said. “Dirty, corrupt, whatever — the business is like that anyway. But he really took us from here to there in two years.” That said, “he knew that we were kids, we didn’t have any experience in this. We had contracts with him. He basically put everything in the name of Calhoon, so that all the money would go to him first.”

“Our story is not necessarily unusual,” Aliperti said. “It’s probably more common than not. What’s sad for us is we actually knocked on heaven’s door, and almost got in. But we did have a very nice run anyway. We lived the life of a rock star for almost a decade, and we were treated as such.”

As disco died, so did Calhoon. Stewart moved back to New York in 1980 and hung around the rock scene, writing his own music and playing with others. Engaging and unassuming, he made fast friends everywhere. He’s got stories about playing with Kurtis Blow, meeting Freddie Mercury at an after-party, attending Sean Lennon’s ninth birthday.

One day he met a man named James Wendel in a food hall at Bloomingdale’s. They would be together 30 years, first in New York, then back in Florida, where Stewart performed and booked music for a line of casino cruises out of Melbourne, and Wendel managed a check-cashing company.

But Wendel had a problem: prescription painkillers. During his Calhoon days, Stewart preferred pot to hard drugs like cocaine. But Wendel developed, and couldn’t shake, an addiction to opiates, hitting up pill mills up and down the Space Coast. He went to rehab “a bunch of times,” but it never stuck.

One morning in April 2012, Stewart woke up to find his partner dead in their condo. It was a shock, but also not a shock.

“He either took a little too much, or he took it on purpose,” Stewart said. “It was coming. He used to say to me a lot, ‘I’m tired. I want to go.’ ”

Stewart was racked by the mix of grief, guilt and relief that comes with addiction deaths. Their condo was full of bad memories, and there wasn’t enough to do in Melbourne anyway. When the casino cruise line shut down in 2014, Stewart needed a change.

“Just by some stroke of luck, somebody said, ‘What about St. Pete?’ I had no idea what it was about,” he said.

He rented an apartment with cats Ryan and Bella and set out to meet the neighbors.

• • •

One of his first and most frequent stops was Daddy Kool Records, then located on the 600 block of Central Avenue. He’d pop in and pick up a handful of budget CDs, and offer to help out with any odd jobs they might have.

Manager Manny Matalon asked if he’d be willing to sweep outside the store. That worked out, so he started giving Stewart fliers and posters to hang at light posts, bus stops and shop windows around downtown. The store pays him $2 for each poster he hangs up.

“He’d walk from the apartment with his broom, sweep the sidewalk, then come back later in the day and pick up fliers while he bought records,” Matalon said. “Basically, I’d pay him to sweep the sidewalk, and he’d just turn around and give it to me for records.”

Before long, Stewart was sweeping the sidewalk up and down Central. That led to other relationships.

“He saw that I had printed out 100 fliers, and he was like, ‘Hey, let me go run those all around the block,’ ” said Joshua Kittinger, co-owner of Maple Street Biscuit Company. “It feels like he’s a team member at this point. He’s been working with us and been on our side, from times when we were really, really slow, to us building the business to where we’re at now.”

At Maple Street, Stewart became almost like a “father figure” to the young staff, Kittinger said. He never asked for a job, though Kittinger usually insists on comping his orders.

“Billy just has a huge heart,” Kittinger said. “He’s been through a lot in his life, but obviously doesn’t let it affect how he carries himself, which is the most positive person in the room at any given time, even on his worst days. He’s just trying to be infectiously enthusiastic and help other people grow.”

Stewart often checks to see what old Calhoon 45s are selling for online. Some of the international ones can get pricey. But if they’re not too much, he’ll buy one to add to his collection, or to give friends, to show them what his life used to be.

Not that he’s dissatisfied with where he is today. In St. Petersburg, Stewart paints and writes music, goes to concerts and thrift shops. He creates abstract paintings in the community room of his retirement tower, which he aims to get into galleries around town. He has asked Studio@620 about staging a night of stories and songs, and has even started jamming a bit with a couple of guys from Maple Street.

“It’s better in every way, because of all these opportunities for music and art and everything,” he said. “You can be busy every day if you want to.”

With Daddy Kool having moved to the Warehouse Arts District, he takes the bus or hitches a ride to pick up his fliers, then returns to hang them in storefronts and bus stops around the city.

On one recent route, he popped into the St. Pete Store and Visitors Center operated by the Chamber of Commerce. He got to talking to a worker behind the counter, who mentioned they were out of fliers from some of the newer restaurants on Central. Stewart said he’d ask around for more.

“I’ll tell Maple Street to come by and bring you some biscuits,” he said with a smile as he headed on his way.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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