It's been way too long since I did a music diary, and as the Northeast still faces, post-Sandy, an immense cleanup job in front of them, I thought I'd write about some Jersey boys that never quite hit the Big Time, but who put out some great music nonetheless. Proteges, in a sense, of Bruce Springsteen, and from the same time and place, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were a big band that had a rabidly loyal following in New Jersey. While Bruce may have put Asbury Park on the pop culture map, it was "Southside" Johnny Lyon who really exemplified the Jersey Sound. They played some great R&B/rock with soul. Perhaps the fact that their music fell somewhere in between several musical genres, radio stations had a hard time pigeon holing them, so they never got the airplay that Bruce did, nor did they make quite the national splash.
But make no mistake, they put out some great, fun music. Many have referred to them as "The World's Greatest Bar Band." With apologies to George Thorogood & the Destroyers, I won't disagree with that accolade.
The brand of Jersey Shore rock and soul that Southside Johnny epitomized was heavily influenced by the Rhythm & Blues music of the Sixties, but it wasn't the Motown songs that inspired him. His musical inspiration came from Memphis' Stax Records, and the prominent horn section and pulsing beat that their house band lent to most of the artists that recorded for them. If you are a fan of Southside, you'll imediately recognize that influence in this Stax hit from Eddie Floyd..."Knock on Wood"
As an aside, I would note that Steve Cropper, guitarist for Stax house band the Mar-Keys, later went on to produce Tower of Power, which I always thought of as a West Coast version, in some ways, of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, or vice versa.
Johnny Lyon was born in 1948 in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, which is located just south of Asbury Park. In fact, the two beach towns share the same boardwalk. So Lyon is literally both a son of the Asbury Park music scene, as well as a father of its sound. The seminal club in Asbury Park which provided a venue for the emerging Jersey Sound was the Stone Pony, which opened in 1974. Their first house band was a group named The Blackberry Booze Band. Catchy, huh?
The Blackberry Booze Band was formed the same year by singer/harmonica player Johnny Lyon and guitarist Steve Van Zandt. They soon added a horn section to the band, and renamed themselves Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. "Miami Steve" soon left the Jukes to join Springsteen's newly reshuffled E Street Band, but he stayed on to manage, produce, write for and play with The Asbury Jukes. In many ways, it is hard to distinguish The Boss' band from Johnny Lyon's band...they are more like two sides of the same coin.
Just listen to this song from the Boss, and compare it to any one of the seminal tunes from Southside Johnny. Clearly, they drank from the same well, which explains why Bruce wrote so many songs for Johnny Lyon.
I have seen Bruce in concert 5 times. I've seen Southside Johnny 3 times. If I had to describe the essential thing that distinguishes the two, it would be hard to put into words. But it would come down to this...Bruce inspires you, but Johnny makes you feel just so damned good. They obviously share many of the same musical touchstones, but a Southside Johnny concert leaves you feeling so damned uplifted, so joy filled, that you feel like you've reached up and touched the sky, and you simply don't want to go home.
Bruce, I think, wrote songs for Southside that he loved, but knew that he didn't really have the right band to perform. But you can easily imagine The Boss playing these songs after hours, just jamming with like minded musicians. Here's another Springsteen tune that was written for Southside. Bruce had a great sax player, but Johnny had a whole brass section, and a much more souldful voice.
The Jersey music scene in the mid Seventies was very...what's the term? Incestuous? Probably not the best term...but it was definitely a cross pollination of musicians. They jammed together...they played in each other's bands, and in the case of Bruce they wrote songs for each other. They shared a musical base.
Southside Johnny never hit it Big for any number of reasons. Bad business decisions, the face of the music industry, marketing and pop culture. Their first three albums are classics, and pretty much critically acclaimed. After that...poof. They always, from the start, as good as they were, seemed a bit retro. The music world had moved on from both Motown and Stax, and the R&B music scene was rapidly evolving into something that none of us anticipated.
Southside Johnny's first three albums are classics, the first released in 1976, the last released in 1978. His music bridges a gap between Black R&B and White Rock & Roll. But it did so at a time when White musical taste and Black musical tastes were diverging in an incredible way. Bruce Springsteen's music was more artistically singular...Southside Johnny's was more derivative of previous musical genres.
That's not to say that one was better than the other. Just how they were received at the time.
While Southside Johnny was singing his heart out in clubs, paying homage to Stax artists and singing a brand of R&B that was rapidly growing less popular with Blacks, White music consumers were purchasing albums by Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Boston, Queen and Heart.
The Jersey Soul that Lyon is so good at was losing the demographic war. It came on the scene at just the right moment...and quickly lost ground to other musical winds that were sweeping across the country by 1979...The Talking Heads, the B 52s, The Police, Public Image.
The Jukes never enjoyed the popular or critical acclaim that they did after their first three albums...tjhey drifted from one record company to another. Over the years, while the group still soldiers on, there have been some 100 members of the band that have come and gone...yet Johnny still performs. And his bands are still tight. If you've ever loved Southside Johnny in the past, I would not hesitate to see him if he's playing in a town near you. You won't be disappointed. He still makes you "not want to go home."
I saved my favorite Southside song for last, and it, too, was written by Bruce Springsteen. But I doubt Bruce could do his own song more justice than Johnny Lyon and his Jukes did. Nobody really could.
Perhaps the secong most famous New Jersey musician that most people are familiar with is Jon Bon Jovi. After Sandy, I've heard a few reports about New Jersy sons comin' home to help their state. The Boss has gotten some press, and so has Bon Jovi.
I was never a big Bon Jovi fan...but he has never been bashful about admitting who most inspired him musically. It was Southside Johnny Lyon and Band. In his own words, Southside Johnny "is the reason I became a singer." I have known many a Bon Jovi fan, from the mid 80's, who probably never heard of Southside Johnny.
But that is neither here nor there.
I'll leave you with this song, my friends...1978, live from the famed Cleveland Agora (does it still exist? I saw many a concert there. Sadly not this one, with the Boss and Southside)
I hope New Jersey rises from Hurricane Sandy, and I send this musical valentine to all of you New Jersey Kossacks.