8 Great Moments in NJ Music History

When the doors swung open for some of Jersey’s most iconic stars.

New Jersey has a knack for breeding iconic singers and musicians. Here are eight pivotal moments in the careers of some of the Garden State’s most famous performers—plus one group of invaders from England and a slightly rotund fellow from Philadelphia.

Count Basie-NJ Music History

Courtesy of Ken Schlager’s collection

February 3, 1938

Bandleader Count Basie triumphantly returns to Red Bank, the city of his birth, for a performance at the River Street School, just one mile from the present-day Count Basie Center for the Arts. His vocalists that evening included future legend Billie Holiday. Basie cut his musical teeth playing drums and piano at dancehalls and clubs on the Jersey Shore, but it was in the jazz hotbed of Kansas City, and later Chicago, that Basie emerged as one of the giants of the Swing Era.

Frank Sinatra-NJ Music History

Courtesy of Ken Schlager’s collection

Spring 1939

Bandleader Harry James discovers 23-year-old vocalist Frank Sinatra at the Rustic Cabin, a roadhouse on Route 9W in Englewood Cliffs, where the Hoboken native was working as a singing waiter. “I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising,” James recalled years later. James signed Sinatra for $75 a week. By June 30, the young crooner joined the famous bandleader and his orchestra for a weeklong engagement at the Hippodrome in Baltimore.

The Shirelles-NJ Music History


Four Passaic High School friends put their harmonizing skills to the test at the school’s talent show, wowing teachers and classmates with their a cappella performance. They called themselves the Poquellos, but by February 1958 they were in a New York recording studio cutting their first tracks under a new name, the Shirelles. By November 1960, the Shirelles reached the top of the U.S. pop charts with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” considered the first number 1 song by an all-girl group.

Bruce Springsteen-NJ Music History

September 4, 1971

A gust of wind blows the door off its hinges as saxophonist Clarence Clemons enters a bar called the Student Prince in Asbury Park to check out a new local attraction, singer/guitarist Bruce Springsteen. Clemons sat in briefly with the band that night and his chemistry with Springsteen was immediately apparent. By fall 1972, “the Big Man joined the band,” as Springsteen would sing in the last verse of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

The Four Seasons-NJ Music History


A North Jersey vocal quartet called the Four Lovers auditions for a gig at the Four Seasons bowling alley and lounge in Union. The boys failed the audition but came away with a new name. The Four Seasons—then comprising Newark-born Frankie Valli, Belleville’s Tommy DeVito, Bergenfield’s Bob Gaudio and Newark’s Nick Massi—went on to huge fame. They would top the U.S. pop charts eight times, starting with their first number 1, “Sherry,” in the late summer of 1962.

Chubby Checker-NJ Music History

Summer 1960

Singer Chubby Checker lands a headline gig at the Rainbow Club, a popular spot at Pacific and Spicer avenues in Wildwood. That summer the 18-year-old vocalist (born Ernest Evans in Philadelphia) kicked off a new dance sensation with his nightly performances of his single, “The Twist.” By the end of the summer, Checker was invited to perform on Dick Clark’s nationally televised “American Bandstand” and “The Twist” had become part of music history.

The Beatles- NJ Music History

August 30, 1964

The Beatles perform before 18,000 screaming fans at Convention Hall in Atlantic City, the 10thshow on their first full-length North American tour. The set was brief—just 12 songs—but then again, the top ticket price was just $4.90. After the show, the Beatles escaped the adoring crowd in a laundry truck and headed to Cape May, where they sheltered for several days at the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel.

whitney houston-NJ Music History


Whitney Houston, age 11, performs the 18th-century hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. It is her solo singing debut. As a teenager, Houston toured the cabaret circuit with her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, occasionally joining her on stage. By age 15, Houston was singing backup with Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls; by 20 she had signed with Arista Records and was on her way to global stardom.

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