Dec 03, 2018 12:00AM
● By Brian Saucedo
By Cate Reynolds • Photography by Daniel Gonzalez
For more than four decades, Southside Johnny Lyon has kept audiences grooving with his rock- and R&B-inspired sound. It all began at The Upstage Club in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a place that attracted crowds of aspiring musicians during the 1960s. It’s where Southside’s longtime friend Bruce Springsteen began forming his legendary E Street Band, and where Southside and Steven Van Zandt put together The Asbury Jukes.
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes have released over 30 albums, most recently their 2015 album SOULTIME!, which was the band’s first new studio album of all original material in five years. Southside and the Jukes’ soulful sound and high-energy performances have earned them a large and loyal fan base. Considered the “Grandfather of the New Jersey sound,” 69-year-old Lyon has inspired generations of musicians, including his good friend Jon Bon Jovi, who credits Southside as being his reason for singing.
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes return to Rams Head on Stage on Sunday, December 16 at 8 p.m. We recently talked to Lyon about the upcoming show, his early days in music, and his love for performing.
Can you tell me how the band originally came together?
In the late ‘60s, there were a million bands in the Asbury Park area. It was just a real hotbed of people learning to play instruments and starting bands and playing all the traditional rock and roll. And then we all started to expand a little bit more and get more adventurous and start to play our own songs and try to find our own sound.
There was a club called The Upstage Club, which was the real fermenting vat for most of us. We got to play whatever we wanted, and you could jam there all night long, until five in the morning. We just started to take it very seriously as teenagers. I guess I must have been in 10 bands over about three or four years.
Finally, I settled into a band. It was just a four-piece band. Bass, guitar, drums, and me, harmonica and singer. I ended up shaping the band into The Asbury Jukes, and Steven Van Zandt came along, and he helped me with that. I had figured out what I wanted to do and Steven wanted to be part of that. As much as he wanted to make his own music, he still wanted to be part of the R&B thing. We had a good partnership. And then we started playing the Stone Pony, and that became our home away from home. People came to see us and then, eventually, a record company came and signed us.
What would you say it is about the soul and R&B sound that resonates with you? What attracts you to that sound?
I grew up listening to that kind of music. My parents loved R&B. They loved jazz, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie with Jimmy Rushing singing and all that. But they also loved the ‘50s R&B. Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. The stuff that leads to rock and roll was the stuff that they listened to. And my older brother and I listened to this Chicago blues station on the radio a lot. It just seemed like there was a lot of excitement in the air around that music. And I guess that’s the kind of music that stays with you when you want to have fun. It isn’t pop music where it’s just all smiles and giggles. It’s driving beats and lots of energy, and it’s fun.
A few years back you released SOULTIME! Can you tell me a bit about this album and the inspiration behind it?
One day, I was shopping for wine and other things, and they were playing music on the radio. And they played “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield. The group started, everybody started moving around, moving their heads, and it just was so infectious. I thought, ‘You know, that’s what I should be doing. I should be making music that people can just bop to and dance and move them and that.’
Because I’d made a couple of angry albums after the economic crash of 2008, some of the anger that I felt about people getting screwed over came out, and I thought maybe it was time to give people some time off from their worries. That’s what we do on stage. We try to take people away from their everyday troubles, and give them a good time for a couple of hours. So, I figured that this album would be that kind of music.
You’re a longtime friend of Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi, and you’ve performed with both artists numerous times. What’s it like when you guys have the chance to perform together on stage?
Being on stage with Bruce and Jon is like old home week. We all love to play, and there is a certain joy about being with old friends. I think we all are aware of how fortunate we are and how hard we’ve worked to get to where we are. It doesn’t really matter what song we’re doing; the excitement and the crowd’s reaction carries us to great heights.
You recently released “Live From E Street” vinyl 12-inch EP, which features versions of four Bruce Springsteen tracks. Can you tell me about that project?
Every February, we try to do something at the Stone Pony to kind of break up the winter and reassure people that good times can still be had in the depths of the New Jersey winter. I had run out of ideas, and I said, ‘The hell with it, let’s play some Bruce songs.’ So, we did it and everybody had a great time. Of course, I was sweating bullets trying to get all those lyrics together. But I did the best that I could. And then I picked four songs [from that show] and released them.
Aside from the Springsteen stuff, you perform a lot of other amazing covers. What makes you decide you want to cover a certain song or artist?
I usually hear something on the radio or I play it from my record collection, or I just remember a song and go, ‘Oh, that’s a great song. Let me try that.’ And sometimes you just go on stage and start singing it, hoping somebody knows some old chord changes. It just depends on what
moves you at the moment. I have a band that can pick up all the signals that I send out. It gives you the freedom to explore songs and music that you may not normally do in a set. If I didn’t give myself the opportunity to do that, I wouldn’t still be playing. I can’t do the same thing night after night. I don’t know anybody who can.
What do you love most about what you do? What keeps you on the road performing?
Well, it’s the audience. It’s the interaction with the audience and the band. When we do a rehearsal, which is rare for us, I can kind of get lost in the song. I’m just listening to the band and figuring out what I want to change. When I get on stage, I don’t worry about any of that. I just let loose. There’s great freedom to be able to let yourself emotionally go in front of people and have them respond.
What are you looking forward to most about returning to Annapolis? What can people expect at your show?
Rams Head is one of our favorite places to play because it’s a lot more intimate. And yet, the people that come want it to be raucous and loud and fun. The audience at Rams Head is always ready to go crazy. It just brings it out of us.
One time, we did a show there without a drummer. My road manager got a phone call from our drummer, whose wife had gone into labor prematurely. He couldn’t come down. So, I said, ‘Well, what do we do, cancel?’ And I thought, ‘No, it’s Rams Head.’ Let’s go out and say, ‘You can have your money back when we’re finished. But let’s have fun.’ And we did and people had a great time. It’s just one of those clubs where you really know [the audience] is on your side and you can try different things.