Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have been rockin’ the Jersey Shore music scene since the mid-‘70s. Although band members have come and gone, their horn-backed brand of soul-stirring rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and R & B is still going strong. There is a huge following of diehard Jukes fans that thrives on the energetic, feel-good party atmosphere that comes out at all of their shows.
Front man/vocalist “Southside” Johnny Lyon is often referred to as the Godfather of the New Jersey Sound. Jon Bon Jovi has said that Southside was his greatest influence and his reason for singing.
Lyon and “Little” Steven Van Zandt co-founded Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The two became fast friends with Bruce Springsteen and the three of them take turns playing in each other’s bands even today. Springsteen wrote a number of Southside Johnny’s best loved songs for him, including “Talk to Me” and “The Fever.” Van Zandt’s composition, “I Don’t Want To Go Home” is Southside’s signature song.
The Jukes released a live 2011 CD Men Without Women: Live 7-2-11, which was recorded at the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park. It featured covers of Van Zandt’s original 1982 album of the same name that he released with his Disciples of Soul. During the performance recording, Little Steven makes a “surprise” guest appearance. Lyon came up with the idea for the band’s first new studio CD of all original material in five years, SOULTIME! (2015), while shopping in a giant superstore. Read on for more about that story.
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes features Southside Johnny Lyon on lead vocals and harmonica, Jeff Kazee on keyboards and vocals, Glenn Alexander on guitar, bassist John Conte, Chris Anderson on trumpet, John Isley on saxophone, Neal Pawley on trombone, and drummer Tom Seguso. The band is currently touring throughout the U.S. and overseas.
Southside recently called me from Port Arthur, Texas.
Jane Spietz: When you were a child, your parents exposed you early on to blues and jazz, and took you to many concerts. You have said that you thought all parents had that approach. What influence did those early experiences have on you musically?
John Lyon: It was great to be in a house full of music. I’d come home to the sounds of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie. My parents liked listening to black music. They were fans of Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris – all of the blues shouters. I thought all parents did that. My parents were a little strange! (Laughs) It also made us kids aware that there were other cultures. What I took away from it is that it is fun to make music, and not a desperate attempt to make a statement or get a point across.
JS: As a teenager, did you foresee that you would someday have a career in music?
JL: At the time, I didn’t believe that. Then I met Garry Tallent in high school when we were 15 years old. Garry said that he was going to be a musician. He later became Bruce Springsteen’s bass player. After Garry said that, I became acquainted with Steve Van Zandt, Bruce and some other guys who felt the same way. I got the idea that if they were going to try get into music, I was going to give it a try too.
JS: How did you first meet up with Bruce Springsteen?
JL: Every day I used to walk over to a club called the Upstage Club in Asbury Park where I lived. Because there was no alcohol served, they were open until 5 AM. So I would stay all night long. Musicians from all over would come here. It was one big jam session, and we’d play blues. A long-haired guy with a gold Les Paul was playing there one day. He was singing a hilarious song about how when he went to Catholic school the nuns taught him the blues. He was amazing. Playing great guitar. I was thinking, ‘who IS this guy?’ Later on I walked up to Bruce to tell him how great I thought it was. We ended up becoming good friends. So Bruce, Steven, the other guys and I worked on learning different types of music and how to play well together. It was like our college. It was a great time. When I was singing onstage, I could actually get girls to look at me! (Laughs) We were paid $15 each.
JS: I was interested to learn about the special Monopoly games that you, Steven and Bruce used to play. You even had a ‘riot card’ to represent the1970 Asbury Park race riots and a ‘Chief McCarthy’ go-to-jail-twice card for the Middletown, N.J. police chief who was responsible for the breakup of some of Bruce’s shows back then.
JL: Yeah, we played many games of cutthroat Monopoly. Bruce used to win regularly cuz he would sell us his mom’s homemade cookies for Monopoly money! (Laughs)
JS: You all have been members of each other’s bands throughout the years. How do you feel you have influenced each other musically?
JL: Bruce, Steven, and I have learned from each other’s records and from performing together. We’re always there for each other and have a great time.
JS: Jon Bon Jovi said you were his greatest influence from early on, and that you’re his reason for singing.
JL: I don’t want the blame for that! (Laughs) Seriously, Jon’s too kind. He’s been a good friend for a long time. He worked with me on my side project, The Poor Fools. We did an acoustic album, Songs From the Barn (2013). Jon always lends me his studio if he’s not using it. He’s spent time on the road with us. Jon’s a great guy.
JS: How do you manage to maintain your high energy performances year after year?
JL: I always feel at home on stage. It’s natural for me. When the music starts, it’s like turning on a switch. And the best part is when the audience is really getting into it and havin’ fun. It just carries you along and knocks you across the room!
JS: Your first new CD of all original material in five years, SOULTIME!, was released in September 2015. I read that the idea for SOULTIME! came to you as you were shopping in a giant superstore.
JL: That’s right. I was in the wine and liquor section. Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” came over the store speakers. I looked around and I noticed that some of the people around me were really boppin’ to the music. That’s when I decided that it was time to come up with some new music to let people have fun and feel good again.
JS: Describe the music of SOULTIME!
JL: The idea behind SOULTIME! was to write songs that let people take their minds off their worries and bring joy to them. It represents a return to the great days of soul. It’ll make you want to get up and dance.
JS: We are thrilled to have Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes back in Milwaukee at Turner Hall on March 6.
JL: Get ready for a fun, wild night. We’re gonna have a party!