Saturday, May 18, 2019

‘It was just perfect’: Southside Johnny on his glory days with Springsteen and Miami Steve in Asbury Park

By Dan DeLuca
May 9, 2019

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When New Jersey’s Asbury Park music scene rose up in the 1970s, there were three bright lights on its rock-and-soul triangle.

Bruce Springsteen was the breakout star. Steve Van Zandt was the songwriter-producer and Springsteen sidekick and consigliere who would go on to The Sopranos and Underground Garage satellite radio notoriety. And Southside Johnny Lyon was the blues and R&B vocalist and bandleader who could outsing both of them.

Starting with I Don’t Want to Go Home in 1976, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes released three classic Van Zandt-produced albums that epitomized the Jersey Shore sound. He’s carried on as a hardworking road warrior for decades since, recording with an ever-evolving Jukes lineup, most recently on the 2015 return to form, Soultime!

Lyon is a key figure in Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock ‘N Roll, director Tom Jones‘ documentary about the rise, fall, and revival of the central Jersey boardwalk town showing in theaters May 22 and 29.

This week, the 70-year-old singer spoke on the phone from his hometown of Ocean Grove, N.J. He’ll be in Philadelphia with the Jukes at SugarHouse Casino on Saturday

The Jukes were house band at the Stone Pony in the 1970s. But there’s a lot in the Asbury Park movie about the Upstage Club, the after-hours venue that opened in 1968. Why was that place important?

That was our college. It was open from 8 till 5 o’clock in the morning. There was no alcohol, so teenagers could get in. It was two floors above a Thom McAn shoe store.

That’s where I met Bruce and Steve. I already knew Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez. … If they needed a singer — and this was in the guitar-hero era, two verses and then 20 minutes of a guitar solo — I became the singer. So I had to learn all these songs. It was a great education for all of us.

How’d you become a singer?

My parents loved music. Real music … Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives, the Hot Sevens. T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner. This was not the kind of music that other people listened to, but I didn’t know that. I thought this is what people do.

They come home from work, have a couple of beers, and put on [Wynonie Harris’] “Don’t Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes at Me.”

Ocean Grove was a very quiet place. Mostly retired people. Sundays there were no cars allowed on the street. I would hear songs like Louis Armstrong “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and it felt like there was life somewhere. We were young and we wanted adventure and there was this music that promised that.

I detested school. My mother worked, and would say it was OK to stay home as long as I cleaned the house. So I would vacuum and make the beds and play their records and sing along with them.

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Southside Johnny with Little Steven in Amsterdam (

Shore towns can be cultural wastelands. Why was Asbury different?

The Beatles and the Stones and the Animals — those kind of successful garage bands — it gave us the impetus to try it. To dream a dream of making music. And then there were girls that would look at us, for once.

We never made any money. We were all scuffling. You somehow scrounged your way through and if you weren’t starving to death you got to play on Friday and Saturday night.

Was it a legitimately special place and time?

I think we knew it at the time. I’m not a nostalgist. I don’t look back that much, but when I do I think: How lucky can anybody be?

Bruce, we all thought was really going to be something, though we didn’t expect him to get as huge as he got. But he started to have success after his third album, and we all got the chance to put our foot in the door too. And we were tenacious about it. I wasn’t going back to working at the post office.

So it was a confluence of things. The Upstage Club. The fact that young people were starting to make their own music and there was audience for that. And we were lucky to find each other.

With the African American community on the west side of town, there was a strong black music influence on the scene.

That’s right. I remember going over to the Orchid Lounge and listening to B.B. King play his guitar through the cracked window. And Garry wound up playing with Little Melvin & the Invaders. That was an all-black band that had Clarence Clemons, and there’s this little skinny white kid Garry Tallent playing bass.

There was a place called Piner’s Lounge and Steven and I would go there and Bruce would come and we’d watch Garry play. We weren’t old enough to drink, but because we knew Garry we could get in. We’d eat fried chicken and listen to the band.

You had the great good fortune of Bruce and Steve writing songs like “Hearts of Stone” and “The Fever” and “This Time It’s for Real” for you.

They were’t really written for me. “I Don’t Want to Go Home” might have been. That was really a Drifters thing. I lived with Steven and two other guys, and we would listen to each other’s records. It was such a great time. ... We reinforced our belief in ourselves. We swapped musical educations. We honed our crafts. It was just perfect.

How many people have been in the Jukes?

Right now, it’s over 130.

That’s crazy.

That’s the nature of this kind of long-lived horn band. I had to replace the horn section when they went out with Diana Ross. One of my sax players went with David Bowie. ... I was always of the mind-set of if you get a better offer for more money, take it.

How do you take care of your voice?

I’ve been very lucky. I have a real iron throat. When people ask me for advice, I say, “Get some rest, drink lots of water, don’t party all night, and certainly don’t do cocaine.”

You learned that through experience? Including the cocaine?

Very much so. I wasn’t a big cocaine person, though. I did it once and went on stage and my voice dried out. It’s the stupidest drug. ... I remember a hair band opening for us, and I looked in the dressing room and there was a big mirror with all this cocaine. That’s got to be $1,000 worth of cocaine and you’re only making $500 a night? Economics is not your strong suit.

Who named you Southside?

That’s in dispute. Bruce Springsteen had visited his parents in California. When he came back to N.J., he was broke and needed to put together a band. That was Dr. Zoom & the Sonic Boom. We had a Monopoly game on stage. We had cheerleaders. Baton twirlers. It was crazy. And every musician had to have a nickname. Steve was Miami Steve, and I became Southside Johnny because of my love of Chicago blues.

Not because you were from Ocean Grove, south of Asbury Park?

The great blues mecca of Ocean Grove, New Jersey? No.

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