For half a century, Neptune native Southside Johnny (née John Lyon) has been writing and performing his signature horn-centric mix of rock ’n’ roll, soul and blues in New Jersey bars and beyond. Front man for the Asbury Jukes, the Shore-based band he founded with Steven Van Zandt in the early ’70s, Southside is—alongside longtime pal and collaborator Bruce Springsteen—considered integral to the revival of the once decrepit Stone Pony and to the vibrant coastal music scene that followed.
Southside, 73, returns to Asbury Park on September 4 (rescheduled from July 2), where he and the Jukes will play the Stone Pony Summer Stage. Calling from his Ocean Grove cottage, Southside recently told us about historic encounters with fellow music icons, quirky pandemic-era performances, and his new concert album, Live In Cleveland ’77, out now on CD.
Steven Van Zandt appears on your new album and wrote the liner notes. You two go way back—do you remember your first meeting?
Yes, it was at the Upstage Club [in Asbury Park]. He was playing a downstairs stage with [future E Street Band members] Garry Tallent and I think Vini Lopez…and I just went, Who is this guy? I don’t need the competition!, because I was one of the singers in the place, and he was just electric. He played guitar and sang—he did a couple of Yardbirds songs and blues—and I just was knocked out. So I made a point of meeting him, and we became very good friends. We were teenagers at the time.
Didn’t you go to high school with Garry?
I went to high school with Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez, and a couple of other musicians. They were all very dedicated to being musicians at 15 and 16. I wasn’t thinking that way. It didn’t dawn on me to become a musician, even though I was singing in bands and everything. It just didn’t seem realistic to make it a career. But once I heard all those people, and then later Bruce and Steven and all the rest, I thought, Well, if they’re gonna do it, I’m gonna do it, too. Why not?
Another of your early musical epiphanies occurred when you saw James Brown perform at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall.
I was 14 or 15, something like that. A friend of ours snuck us in. My jaw was open the entire show; he was just amazing. And all the girls were screaming and running up to the stage, and I thought, Hmm, that doesn’t sound too bad. [Laughs.]…. But I mean, he was so intimidating. He was such a ball of energy onstage; an incredible voice. I saw Ray Charles around the same time…. I started to realize that there was a way to do that—you could become a musician. You’d never be James Brown or Ray Charles or anything like that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be who you are, and make it work that way—which is what happened.
Ronnie Spector, who passed this January, also performed with you in Cleveland. The year prior, when Steven was producing the Jukes’ debut record, she stopped by the studio. On the spot, Springsteen rewrote “You Mean So Much to Me” as a duet for you to sing with her?
Yes, we spent the night rewriting the song. Jimmy Iovine, [who] had worked with John Lennon, …was a big shot at the Record Plant [in Manhattan], and he got a phone call while we were there [from] Ronnie Spector. Both Steven and Bruce jumped up and said, “You gotta get her to come down!”…. It was a gas. It was completely out of the blue, totally unexpected, [which] made it a really special moment when she walked in…. She was so great and so much fun. We just loved having her there.
— Rhino Records (@Rhino_Records) January 12, 2022
You tweeted a nice tribute after Ronnie died, calling her one of the high points of both your teenage years and your touring life. Did ’60s girl groups like the Ronettes influence Southside Johnny’s sound?
I think the vibrato, possibly. But just the confidence that she had—she’d get up there and sing, and she was funny. Those kinds of people—Jackie Wilson [as well]—they all seemed to really love what they were doing…. Their enthusiasm for [singing] and their energy were the things that really captured my attention…. They just were enamored of singing. I was, too.
Your raucous, soul-saturated performances are beloved. You’ve spoken about spending a lot of your time alone in your own head. Do you do any pre-show rituals to enter into that onstage persona?
No. You know, the music takes over. Once it starts playing, you’re lost in it.
You performed Jersey’s first drive-in concert in July 2020.
[Laughs.] Yes, at Monmouth Park, the racetrack. They had 1,000 cars…. Everybody was in their car, and the music came through the radio. People got out a little bit and danced…. It was odd, but it was fun…. We could see all the faces on these big photographs that they had blown up [and taped to their cars]. Our audience has got a great sense of humor—they have to, to like us—and it really comes across a lot of times. They are a delight to play to.
You also held socially distant porch jams in your Jersey Shore neighborhood, hearkening back to a pre-radio era.
We did that the first summer [of the pandemic]. We had guitars and, of course, cocktails. People would come around…we’d sing, they’d sing. It was a way to pass the time when we couldn’t work, and it was fun. My mother used to do the same thing back in the ’30s, when she was a teenage girl. She had a ukulele, and they used to sit on the front porch and sing. I would’ve loved to have seen that.
Your audience comprises a lot of longtime fans, many of them locals. Do you recognize some at this point?
Oh, yeah! I know hundreds of fans. Glenn Alexander, my guitar player, has a charity he contributes to, and he has a pig roast. When we do that, [we] sit with the fans and eat and talk. They’re not strangers, they’re friends.
Any parting thoughts ahead of your Stone Pony show?
Everybody’s welcome to come and have fun. As I always say: You’re more than welcome to enjoy yourself. We love it when you do, ’cause it makes us happy, too.