The day Richard Tisch was born was the day his parents, Evelyn and Ted Tisch, found out that he was going to have a different life than they anticipated. The couple's baby boy was born with over 100 bone fractures and was soon diagnosed with Osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease). According to their website (oif.org), the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation describes the disease (O.I.) as "a genetic bone disorder characterized by fragile bones that break easily. The term literally means 'bone that is imperfectly made from the beginning of life.' Evelyn and Ted were also told that their son would probably not live to see his first birthday. With no history of the disease in the family, Evelyn was taken aback by this unexpected facet in what was to be a joyous moment in her life. "We just had no idea what was going to happen", she recalls. "We had no clue whatsoever. As soon as he was born there were obstacles right away. It was so sad to even [try to] look into the future and we were just going day by day for the first year".
Despite the odds, Evelyn and Ted's little boy did make it past that first year. As he got older, they took Richard, "Rick" to doctors for tests to find out more about his condition but stopped when Rick expressed to his mom that he "didn't want to do it anymore". His dislike of the "annoying" visits to the hospital and feeling like a "lab rat" made him more interested in living the life he was given and less interested in what was trying to hold him back. Rick chose to focus on what he was capable of and remembers that, "getting hurt every now and then sucked" but he was determined to persevere. Other aspects of the incurable disease include regular sized internal organs with an expected top body height of two or three feet. In addition, with the brittleness of the bones in his legs, Rick was bound to a wheelchair, never being able to walk on his own. As he matured, Rick would never let his chair keep him from going all the places he wanted to go.
When it was time to enroll Rick into school, administrators tried to place him in a special institution for children with disabilities; however, his Mom refused to let that happen. She fought for Rick to go to a mainstream school but had to go outside the township in which they lived to achieve this goal. The conventional schools weren't wheelchair accessible and didn't have a lot of the advanced equipment to accommodate Rick, like they do today, but he didn't need to be placed in an alternative educational program as there was nothing wrong with him, mentally (he was administered mainstream IQ tests on which he scored at high levels). Rick always knew he was different but he was well liked. His classmates all knew him and no one questioned him about his condition.
The fight to be accepted extended to extracurricular activities as well. Rick's Mom started her own Cub Scout pack for Rick because no other leaders would take him on. "Everyone was afraid", she said. Despite this struggle, many area organizations stepped up to help the Tisch family with fundraisers and events. Places like the Elks Club and Bell Telephone Pioneers were a huge help; the family doesn't know what they would have done without them.
Other family members also were in full support of the family. Rick's Mom was thankful for her mother who "seemed to be unafraid from day one and always tried to help when she could despite working fulltime. She would stay at our house for a night to give us a break. My stepdad, with the help of Childer's Special Hospital in Mountainside, made Richard his cool, red, 'Tischmobile' with a fitted tray. This was a way Rick could get around in his home and out in the yard, without a wheelchair, for several years.
As he developed, learned, and grew, it became clear that there was one very important person who didn't see Rick as having any kind of disability… and that was Rick himself. His Mom saw this, too. "He always considered himself just like anybody else so there was no thinking 'I can't do it because I'm in this wheelchair'. Whatever it was that had to be done, he tried. He just never thought of himself that way. He was Richard, that's all I can say, we just look at him as Richard". Rick's older sister, Danielle, recalls having had a normal sibling relationship. "I can remember times when we had lots of fun and times when he was a pain in the ass little brother". His stature was something that was part of our everyday life. I don't remember looking back and thinking we couldn't do something. A lot of things that other people see always strike me as things that we were so used to that we didn't really notice. We had ramps on the house and my Dad had always done a great job to make things that would accommodate him". For the whole family, the situation became their "norm" and they didn't see a difference in their family unit from any other. "There were things we couldn't do", his Mom remembers, "and he understood. There were some rides [at the shore] he couldn't go on [but his] sister went on [the rides meant for smaller children] with him even though she was bigger. She was a little mother and did a lot of things for him".
Life for Rick was not without challenges, though. His Mom and Dad were there to support him in the times when he "didn't understand why things were going the way they were going. Just like any other parent, when you have a problem with a child, you sit down and talk it through. The hardest thing was when he got hurt and had a body cast on and couldn't do things himself. He wanted to do everything for himself [and] that frustrated him". They are so proud of Rick and his Mom is constantly inspired, "I still can't get over how he does what he does. I give him a lot of credit", she says. His Dad even chuckled as he remembered Rick's demeanor growing up, "He was a little smarty pants. If he didn't feel like [doing something] he would get out of it and use [his stature] to his advantage". They were very adamant about treating Danielle and Rick as equals, giving Rick no special treatment when it came to disciplining, "He's just Richard and that's it. There were no arguments, no anything, you just went on, you did [things] because [they] had to be done".
Another aspect that made Rick stand out in the crowd was his incredible aptitude for absorbing all things music. From the moment Rick got his first keyboard from his grandmother for Christmas at about 4-5 years old, a Casio his mother still has, he began playing Christmas carols. He branched out to playing the stand up piano in his preschool and would "tinker" and play songs for all the kids. "We knew he was talented. It was something that made him happy," his Mom said. Danielle adds "My parents really tried to give [Rick] every opportunity to do the same things that the other kids were doing ...to really facilitate his music to help him focus on that if he couldn't really do what the other kids were...". Rick joined drama club, chorus, and plays throughout his time at grade school.
It was clear that there was something special about Rick and although people would "stop and stare"...they would now do so for a different reason. Music "let him get out there and express himself" his Dad adds, in a way nothing else could.
There is no shortage of music around the Tisch home. His Dad recalls "[we] always had music playing - radio or record player. He absorbed that music [so] when he got the keyboard he knew what he was doing". Rick began solo performances at the age of 11 at retirement homes and would entertain the residents at their luncheons playing songs from the 30s and 40s or whatever they requested to hear. "We were his roadies!" his mom laughed as she recalled being her son's chauffeur and equipment transporter. One of the greatest moments of Rick's childhood was a performance at a talent exposition at the Garden State Art Center in New Jersey. Rick was one of over 5,000 people who applied and one of the 600 chosen to audition. Of the hopefuls, only 30 were allowed to perform on stage. Rick's selection was a rendition of Bette Midler's Wind Beneath My Wings and his performance was not to be forgotten. "He came out with peace signs", his Dad remembers, "People were cracking up. He never had any stage fright. That's Richard, he's a showman [and there was] not a dry eye in the house. That was one of the big highlights of him growing up. It was amazing". "People were very drawn to him", Danielle adds, "I don't know if that was because of his differences. He's always had a very magnetic personality. He was always doing things where he got attention...he was very talented".
Later, Rick would work at a local music store and, at one point, he asked to borrow an alto sax as a substitute for a few hours of wages. Two weeks later, Rick was proficiently playing songs on the instrument. The store owner was flabbergasted, exclaiming, "nobody plays a sax in two weeks like that". It was clear that there was something special about Rick and although people would "stop and stare"...they would now do so for a different reason. Music "let him get out there and express himself" his Dad adds, in a way nothing else could.
Rick was self taught till the age of ten but he credits Mike Arnone, a music store owner in Wall Township, New Jersey's Peddler's Village, for showing him how chords worked and as being the first person to "teach" him music. Rick played outside of Mr. Arnone's store and got tips from passersby which brought him to the realization that he could make money from his craft.
Playing outside a local mall in 1996, Rick caught the eye of John Kern. John decided early on that he was not interested in joining a band with Rick because of the extra help he knew he would need in transporting equipment and gear. Shortly after, a friend of John's asked him to join him and a few fellow musicians to jam and, oddly enough, when John arrived, there was Rick. To John, Rick's level of talent was undeniable, "He's beyond good on keyboard. [His] talent is up there with the greats in music. The amount of ability he has is amazing". Together, John and Rick formed a band in which Rick was not originally at the helm. Rick was happy playing keyboard and didn't envision himself as the heart of the operation. Changes in personnel one night, in the middle of a show, led Rick to take on lead vocals. From there, John started seeing massive potential with endless possibilities with the band's image and performance. At first, John noticed people staring at Rick and wondering what is wrong with him. He felt that adding costumes and props would be something that would change the direction of people's attention from Rick's stature to his talent and turn the band's performance into more of a "show". Rick was hesitant to pursue John's seemingly bizarre ideas at first but was on board after seeing reactions from the crowd. Soon after, motorized children's vehicles were added...the first of which was a Power Wheels Barbie Jeep that John converted in a "pimp my ride" type style. Additional vehicles were later added for special occasions like parties and holidays. The cars have opened up the door for a lot more people to see Rick in action. Due to his size, if there are more than 60-100 attendees at a show, the patrons have issues seeing Rick over the crowd. The vehicles are a way for Rick to interact with the fans and are equipped with elements like sound effects, lights, and instrumentation. On board, a keyboard and microphone are powered with a motorcycle battery and inverter. Each vehicle takes 90 hours of time to convert and create. Props, chorography, storylines, and comedic sketches are the icing on the "circus atmosphere" cake. With this new image and the show's "go big or go home" attitude that breaks the "bands are boring" mold, Rick took on the stage name, by which he is now known, "Shorty Long" and then "Shorty Long and The Jersey Horns" was born. The change to the new format for the band was night and day. People started going nuts for the band, and Shorty.
"Everybody has some kind of physical pain or maybe something else going on but I never let it stop me. You can sit home and be in pain or you can go out and do something with your life and be in the same pain...but at least you're doing something."
Fun and games aside, his role as front man is not without its challenges. "People don't realize how hard-core his condition is", John notes. "One guy fell on him during an entrance and broke his arm." He's the one that deals with it [and] we try to make it as easy as possible for him. We often forget he's even in that condition because he's been with us for so long we don't even think about it. He does everything you ask him to do. [Shorty] will do the show no matter what. He's got to be in bed where a doctor says 'you can't move or you'll die' before he will cancel a show." Shorty himself confirmed this, recalling one wedding he played just 12 hours after breaking his collarbone, "Everybody has some kind of physical pain or maybe something else going on but I never let it stop me. You can sit home and be in pain or you can go out and do something with your life and be in the same pain but at least you're doing something. I haven't had a day off in, I don't know, years. I don't think I've ever taken a sick day in 20 years...[in] music you can't take off". This fighting spirit is what continues to inspire Shorty's family and band mates, John adds, "He's never been able to run or catch a baseball or swing a baseball bat or jump or ride a bicycle... But in my mind, it's 'wow, this guy couldn't have odds more against him but whatever he sees and he really wants he finds a way to do it'. That's what blows me away. I hear people complain, and I complain, and he doesn't complain".
The band auditioned for a management company, Shore Bets, in early 2006. The owner of the company, Al Geary, was drawn to the band's carnival / vaudeville feel that "make you laugh and have a good time". On the other hand, he saw the members of the group as serious musicians that "hone their craft and are masters of their instruments". Geary liked the personalities of the guys in the band finding them "really nice and genuine". He wanted to help Shorty in any way he could; and, the band, 9 years later, is still with the company. "Whenever I stop and think about it", Geary notes, " I think about Ricky and what he has to endure every day. Every task is 10 times harder because he's in a wheelchair. People of sound body can't even comprehend [and] what he does is truly amazing". The band often has 8-10 shows a week in the summer months and Rick is constantly hustling and keeping up with the rest of the band from gig to gig.
Even now, 15 years later, fans flock to see the band perform. Some of Shorty's admirers have been loyal since the band's inception. What keeps people coming back are the unique takes the band has on songs along with the mission to "keep you dancing all night long". John adds, "when you come to our show you we want you to smile and laugh and jump around and dance the entire time".
Outside of the band, Shorty works as a music theory teacher and, most importantly, is a husband to wife, Samantha, and father to two-year-old daughter, Lily. After having met at one of his shows, Samantha (who used to have a "6ft tall rule" when it came to men) fell in love with Shorty's outgoing personality, "Nothing stops him from doing anything", she notes. "There's never been anything that gets in his way [and] he's the biggest person I've ever met [with the] biggest personality". Although their offspring had a 50% chance of having O.I., Samantha was confident that Lily, who thinks "Daddy's chair" is a fun accessory, would be fine. Shorty was initially not as sure, "we can't keep a plant alive for more than 2 weeks so I didn't know how this was going to go. [Samantha] is a great mother and wife". As a Dad, Shorty does everything he can to help with Lily and do as much for her as he is able. Too young still to fully understand her father's condition, Shorty's Mom is certain that Lily will "grow up the same way [Shorty's] sister did. You've grown up with him, you're used to him, there's nothing different about him, he is the way he is and that's the way it is". Shorty adds, " [Lily] will learn to love life and have music in her life and I'll encourage anything she wants to do. Whatever she's into we will give her the tools to be whatever she wants to be. Being short doesn't change my goals as a parent."
Shorty's love of life and passion to succeed are what makes him a role model to others and compels him to give back to others despite his own hardships, "In some ways I'm better off than a lot of other people. I think everyone should give something. I can barely pay rent, so we can't donate funds, but what I can do is play with the band." Shorty feels it's his obligation as a person and with the band to do for others, "people see you for years and sometimes people have problems. When something pulls at our hearts we try to help. It's everybody's obligation to do something".
Now in his 30s, Shorty dreams of doing original music and professional recordings in a studio but wouldn't choose to be of average stature if he had the chance, "Nah, what's the point?" he retorts "I like my life. I wouldn't want to be average". Thankfully, Shorty is anything but average and encourages others to strive to reach their goals, "You have to be happy with what you're doing in life. Don't just have a job to get a job. Everybody's got obstacles and it's your job to figure out how to run by them. [Handicaps don't] make a difference; it's just about the person you are." He also has a positive view on his own situation, "I don't judge the value of my life on my ability to get from point A to point B balancing on two legs."
The band plans on performing and entertaining fans for years to come, "as long as Shorty is on the planet we're going to make it happen and continue on", John, who now views Shorty as a brother after the years of working together, says, "The saddest day in the world [will be] when he's not around".
To learn more about Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bone disease) visit: www.oif.org/
Check out Shorty Long and the Jersey Horns at: www.shortylongrocks.com
A special message from Rick:
Every time I get off stage, I am honestly so thankful for the people who helped me get here. Besides my parents, who I am most grateful for, I can still count them on 1 hand. My elementary school music teacher, Mrs. Baley, who let me play the piano every day after music class. The man who showed me my 1st blues scale and how to work an audience at the age of 10, Mike Arnone. Harold Frazee, who taught me what music theory was. Jack Ponti, who showed me how a producer should work, and how meticulous you have to be to create music people actually want to listen to. And Ray Capri for showing me the art of the solo, and what 11s, 13s, and flat 5s are. Collectively these people are responsible for the smile on my face at the end of every gig, and the enjoyment I get to give to thousands of people every week. Thank you all!