Southside Johnny Brings It Every Night
Jersey Sound Pioneer Just Won't Stop Rockin'

By Lee Valentine Smith

Jon Bon Jovi says he's the reason he sings. Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band are some of his oldest friends and collaborators. His live shows are legendary for soulful rock and roll workouts. At a youthful 70 years young, John Lyon, aka "Southside Johnny" is one of the pioneers of the R&B-tinged Jersey Sound and he has no plans to retire anytime soon.

He most recent album Soultime finds the raspy-voiced performer in fine form and he's bringing songs from it and the latest edition of The Asbury Jukes for a rare trip down south.

INsite recently spoke with the dry-humored singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist from his home in - where else - New Jersey.

We featured your old friend Little Steven last year when he was in town for a show. I know you guys go way back.

Oh yeah, way back. We knew each other as teenagers. I think we met when we were 17 or 18 years old. He played at the local club I was hanging out at. I think I was there with [high school pals and eventual E-Street Band members] Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez. They said, 'That's Steve from The Shadows.' I'd heard of the band but I'd never met him. He was from way up north of me, which was like ten miles away.

Back then, that was a whole separate scene.

Yeah, you got booked in the local clubs. There were a lot of bands that got booked in the local clubs in a five-mile radius. Luckily for me, that was Asbury Park, the boardwalk and Belmar, so there were a lot of clubs. He was from Middletown and Bruce was from Freehold, so we all had our little territories. It wasn't until the Upstage Club opened that we all got to meet each other, become friends and collaborate and all that.

So the whole Jersey Sound was born in the club scene of the territories.

Absolutely. We were lucky back then in that they opened what they called Hullabaloo clubs, because there was a TV show called that. They had people like The Yardbirds and The Animals, bands we really admired. We had a small local following and reputation which meant we could get maybe three or four hundred people out to the shows. That was considered successful back then.

They'd put you on the same bill as the touring acts?

(Laughs) No, we would pretend to be them! No, really we covered a lot of their material. We did open for The Vagrants and Leslie West was in that band before he was in Mountain. And we played with a band called The Seven Of Us, which later became NRBQ. We were all young guys trying to make it. I don't know if they even had records, they just got on the road and made it happen.

Then as now the live show was the proving ground.

That's the way it was. Back then, in the late '60s, if you just made a single, you might get on the radio. Nobody got to make an album back then unless you were a huge star. If you sold 200 copies of your single, you made your money back. People would come to see a band but if you weren't any good, they didn't invite you back.

You had to bring the goods every night.

You had to! I don't care how sick you are, or how pissed off you are, you had to be up there and be entertaining and energetic and just believe in what you were doing. Or you didn't get any more shows.

That's a great training ground for any band.

Exactly, and you had to fight hard for any recognition you got. You'd try to get a DJ to play the single to get some attention. A lot of it was just sheer force of will. That's what got us over, just not quitting and just kicking ass. You had to do it to survive.

How old were you when you started playing live? 17 or so?

Yeah. I started singing when I was 15 or 16, just at parties. When I was 17 I joined a band and had to learn to play bass. I was already playing the harmonica. Then yeah, when I was around 17, I started playing for 5 and 10 dollars a night. Then if we wanted to play some of the clubs in New York, you had to pay to play. We didn't want to do that, so we didn't. That's just immoral to do that to kids. There's plenty of other clubs in the world. We loved rock'n'roll and wanted to play it and we played it fiercely and furiously.

Was that your career goal at the time?

Yeah, some of the guys had great ambitions. I just wanted to get up there and play and be a part of whole tradition of bands. It felt good and girls would come and talk to you! It was just magic.

There's something empowering and attractive about getting up on a stage, even a really small one.

Yeah, if you're a guy that nobody talked to in school and all of a sudden girls from school see you on stage? It's like, 'Well yeah I like this! I'll take the ten dollars I'll make tonight and take them to the movies!'

Fast forward to the early to mid '70s and signing with a label was a big deal. Columbia got Bruce and you went with Epic.

Yeah, but I always made my money on the road. I never made money from the record companies anyway.

Now you have your own label, Leroy Records.

Yeah and now I finally get the money if we sell them on the road or over the internet. And if we sell a download song for a dollar a piece, certainly you'll get more than a dollar's worth of enjoyment from it and I can make a buck.

What do you think of the whole 'the internet is running the music industry argument?'

Well if people hear some of our music for free and they like it, maybe they'll come see us when we come to their town. That's all I really want.

Your live show is legendary. People need to see it.

Yes, it'll save their lives! It'll cure their bunions or something.

Soultime comes pretty close to the live sound, but it's not of the moment. How many albums have you made total at this point?

You know, I don't know. The past is not something I dwell in too much. I don't really keep track of all the things I've done. I don't keep track of all the songs I've written or even how much money is coming in or going out. Just this past week, we were working on songs for our next album and maybe some stuff for another one as well, in another style. You just want to keep moving forward. Then, when you've had enough, one day you just say, 'no more!' But I haven't gotten to that point yet.

No reason to retire when it's still fun, right?

All I want to do is go and make music. To me, it's such a great gift to realize that I've spent my entire adult life making a living making music. It's something that most people who want to do it, they don't get a chance to do it. I don't have to have to have a day job that's just amazing to me.

That's rare, even these days.

Yeah! I know people who are a lot better than I am at doin' this stuff and they still have day jobs. I got lucky early on. Once the commitment hits and you realize that you have to do it every night and make it work, that's your hard work. The hard part is just to be 'on' every night. The rest of it is just riding in a bus, drinking beer and watching "Blazing Saddles."

Sounds like a great life to me.

But I think maybe on the 30th day on the road, you'd get a little tired of it. It's like, 'Where are we? What day is it?'

It's no secret that you're 70 years old. But you're still a madman on stage.

I think the worst thing that ever happened to me was a couple of years ago I thought, 'I'll be 70 soon. Maybe I should retire.' Once that little worm gets in your brain and you have a bad night or you're tired or angry about something, it's like, 'Ok, that's it, I'm done!' And you know what? I regret having ever even thought about it. I know I don't want to quit. What am I gonna do if I did? Sit around and mope? I think I'd rather play some music.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes play Tuesday, February 26 at City Winery. For more information, please visit citywinery.com/atlanta.

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