Written by Barry Kaufman I Photography by Ritterbeck Photography
As legendary frontman of The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger has been many things during the group’s decades of rock-and-roll dominance. To one generation he was a sex symbol. To another, the elder statesman of rock. To another, he’s the keeper of moves worthy of a Maroon 5 song.
The point is, it’s an evolution.
The same could be said for Rick Saba, Hilton Head Island’s answer to Mick Jagger. As frontman of White Liquor, he has spent decades thrilling crowds with his chameleon-like embrace of Mick’s famous stage presence. Wiggling around on stage, seducing the crowd and vamping his way through one of the greatest catalogues a cover band could ask for, he’s far more than just an impersonator. He’s injecting his own energy, his own spark, into one of the greatest shows in rock.
Or at least he’s doing all of that as long as he can be done at a reasonable hour.
“We can’t do late nights anymore,” he said. “Between work and kids, the show has to be done by 10, and we have to be home before midnight.”
Interviewed just a week before the 71st anniversary of the first Rolling Stones concert, Saba is now able to look at his own rock ‘n’ roll history with similar nostalgia.
“We were a lot crazier back in the day. I used to be jumping off tables; now I’m looking at a table and thinking, ‘I don’t know, that looks pretty high,’” he said with a laugh. Those were days when White Liquor were the new kids on the block of an established island scene that featured names like the Simpson Brothers and David Wingo.
While cementing their own legacy in music, the members of White Liquor were spending their days as average working men.
Saba, for his part, would spend his days in real estate and coach lacrosse at the Island Rec Center.
His lacrosse background is legit. Saba is tied for second among career goal scorers (109) at Vermont-based St. Michael’s College and is fourth all-time at the school in points (150). He was inducted into the college’s athletic hall of fame in 2011.
His star rose in real estate with the same trajectory as his rock-star status, becoming one of the more recognizable faces in a very crowded industry over 23 years. He won the HHAAOR Realtor of the Year Award in 2009 and was president of the Hilton Head Area Association of Realtors in 2005.
His latest venture, COAST Brokered by eXp Realty, saw him partnering with fellow real estate icon Tristan O’Grady in a sleek south-end location that blurs the line between real estate office and chic hangout spot.
“There were some gigs we couldn’t do because I was caught up getting the office set up,” he said. “Now that we’re good to go, we can start playing more.”
Of course, these days they’re not playing the kinds of gigs the did back in the day, like Moneypenny’s infamous “California New Year” party which didn’t even start until 3 a.m. A far cry from just a few years ago when the boys played at the then-recently-opened Boardroom, and went into what Saba calls “panic mode” when they found out they weren’t going on until 11:30 p.m.
“We all still love it, is the thing,” said Saba. “People ask when we’re going to stop, but we’re all just buds. And it’s still fun. We’ve gotten to a point where you work all day, then you show up to the show and all this stress just goes away. It’s just incredible.”
As he’s aged to embrace his own elder statesmen role, Saba relishes the chance to still hang with bandmates he’s known for decades, even as the lineup has rotated.
“We don’t even practice anymore. Well, maybe every so often,” said Saba. “We’ve gotten tighter just because we play together so much.”
Lead guitar and vocalist John Wilkins jumps in and out but is a regular fixture, while Ritchie D., Kieran O’Grady, Ben Russ and Ken Kendrick are standbys. (Russ has shifted over to keyboards to give White Liquor some of that Chuck Leavell energy).
But of course there will always be one hole in the lineup that no one can ever fill. Already in his 70s when White Liquor first started tearing up the late-night scene, Joe Gianferrara was a rock star right up until the end. He passed into legend in 2017.
“We miss Joe G.,” said Saba. “For a while, that’s why I did it. It was just a chance to hang out with him. People still ask about him. Complete legend.”
One benefit of raising a family while establishing a legacy as a local rock legend is that Saba has been able to start raising his own fill-in players when there’s a hole in the lineup.
“My son Brady is 16, and he’s a really good guitar player,” said Saba. “He might jump up on some gigs soon.”
There are a million ways to keep yourself young, but if both Rick and Mick are any indication, there’s no fountain of youth like a microphone, a stage, and some of the greatest rock songs ever written.