Southside Johnny emerged from New Jersey to take the music world by storm in the 1970s. He talked to CHRIS BROOM about how he’s still looking forward, not back.
Yesterday was July 4, Independence Day, one of the biggest holidays in the American calendar.
Only a couple of days ago, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were tearing it up on stage at their annual pre-holiday show at the legendary Stone Pony club in their home town of Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Yesterday they headed over to Europe for a string of shows and festivals and are right back into the fray today at the Cornbury Music Festival in Oxfordshire before hitting Portsmouth Guildhall on Tuesday.
As Johnny, or John Lyon, to give him his real name, says: ‘We did the fourth of July 10 years ago, and it was one of those things Stone Pony thought they would try because they had an outdoor stage and they wanted to see how it worked out.
‘Right in the middle of the show they had the fireworks, so we stopped for those, and then we played again afterwards.
‘After that we moved it to July 3, because people said “please don’t play during the fireworks,” and it’s stuck. So this year, we play the third, spend the night in the airport, fly over and then I guess we’ve got one day before the next show.
‘I’ve been flying backwards and forwards to Europe a lot lately and I don’t seem to get jetlagged,’ he laughs: ‘Maybe I’ve become immune after all these years.’
Johnny and the Jukes’ debut album I Don’t Want to Go Home was released in 1976 after several years of playing in the bars and clubs of Asbury alongside his friends, including Bruce Springsteen (pictured right) and guitarist Steve Van Zandt.
The album’s title track has become the band’s signature song, and helped establish the Jersey Shore sound – a potent blend of rock‘n’roll and raw soul music.
‘My parents liked a lot of black artists,’ says Johnny, ‘like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, but they also had a lot of jump blues like Big Joe Turner, T-bone Walker, Winonie Harris, and straight blues, like Johnny Williams.
‘And that’s the kind of music I listened to growing up and it always sounded as if everyone was having a good time and it kind of infected my brother and I. It’s music that’s not an intellectual exercise – it’s not a bummer, it’s not a downer – and that’s what I’m attracted to.
Johnny soon found a scene where the members bonded over a love of early Motown and Stax records.
‘The good part of being in Asbury Park and along Jersey Shore was that there were lots of clubs to play in.
‘Luckily for us we had the Upstage Club and we could all kind of gravitate there.
‘And that’s what we’d do, me and Bruce, Steve, Gary Tallent, Vini Lopez, and we’d be there until 5am, hanging out and everybody playing each other’s records and learning all these songs from all these different style artists – English bands, American bands, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, blues.
‘We were just open to so many types music.
‘There was never any real competition. Guys would come in and jam at the Upstage Club. I was the singer, Stevey was the guitar player, Vini or Big Bad Bobby were the drummers, Gary was the bass player, and we would be called on if a singer or guitar player came in, we would play the stuff he wanted to play. It made you learn a lot of things, but we all had our own bands as well. We were making like 20 bucks a piece a night. It was all very much a pool of musicians who would help each other.’
Springsteen was the first to break out, and when he did, record labels came knocking.
‘When Bruce’s third album, Born to Run, took off it meant that people would actually come down to Asbury Park to look for acts,’ he recalls.
‘We were lucky that a guy named Steve Popovich from Epic came down and saw us.
‘He was smart, he brought down these secretaries from CBS and Epic Records and asked them what they thought. They really liked us, and I think a couple of them picked up guys in the band – that helped too!’
And it was also an intense rivalry with neighbouring New York that helped inspire them to succeed.
‘They used to look down on New Jersey and make fun of it, I think it gave all of us a real edge, a drive.
‘It’s why you’ve got Bruce’s Greetings from Asbury Park, Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, and of course the Asbury Jukes.
‘It’s very much a badge of pride to be from New Jersey and it’s because we came from a blue collar kind of upbringing we weren’t taken seriously. But I think we’ve proved ourselves.’
Unusually for a band in the 21st century, this current trans-Atlantic tour isn’t tied to a new album, but as Johnny says: ‘That’s how we earn our living. We play all the time whether we’ve got a new album or not – we’re constantly on the road and try to play as much as we can.
‘Now when we get onstage, there’s this kind of great gratitude that you’ve made music for your entire adult life. We all just enjoy that we’re all still standing and still making music. We’ve been very lucky.’
When reminded that the band is approaching its 40th anniversary the 65-year-old replies: ‘I don’t keep track – it’s something like that.
‘I don’t have anything planned, I guess we should. I don’t think in those terms – the future is in front of me, and the past is behind me.’
Johnny says he’s already planning for two new Jukes albums, plus one with his acoustic band the Poor Fools.
He gives a wry laugh: ‘I say that, but seeing as I’m the president of the record label, I’m not putting any pressure on my artists.’