The banquet room of the Holiday Inn on Route 35 in Hazlet is dim and stuffy. Utility tables form a cramped labyrinth where mostly middle-aged men sift through dusty boxes of vintage 45s and LPs in search of musical treasure.
In a back corner, a lank-haired figure in a black leather jacket huddles at a booth with a few of his buddies. He blends in so well that you’d never guess he’s a minor music legend and a key figure in the development of the Jersey Shore sound. John Lyon, aka Southside Johnny, decides to stretch his legs and amble out to the lobby. The aisle is narrow, requiring people to press against the tables if someone needs to squeeze by. One shopper, too engrossed in the cover of an Ike & Tina Turner album to notice anything else, fails to step aside.
“Record collectors,” Lyon snorts. “They have no social graces.”
He would know. Lyon has been collecting vinyl rarities since the early 1960s. “You couldn’t just go to the store and get reissues at that time,” he says. “The only way you could hear the B-side of a Muddy Waters 45 from 1954 was to find the actual record. Today these records are ferociously expensive, so it’s a good thing we bought a lot of them back then.” By “we” he means himself and his high school buddy Garry Tallent, bassist of Bruce Springsteen’s famed E Street Band. While Tallent indulged his obsession with rockabilly sides, Lyon concentrated on buying blues and doo-wop.
“After we grew up a little bit,” says Lyon, the two musicians merged their hoards and now own more than 5,000 discs between them. The treasures range from early rock ‘n‘ roll by Eddie Cochran, who died at 21 in 1960, to chugging Howlin’ Wolf blues, to obscure soul singers of the ’70s. Out-of-print rarities fetch as much as $2,500 a pop at record fairs like the one in Hazlet.
Lyon’s love of black music was never just a hobby. It was a passion that dramatically influenced his life, and he picked it up as a boy in Ocean Grove. “My parents would come home from work and put on stuff like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington,” he recalls. “That kind of music really had something happening.”
As a teenager, Lyon began singing at house parties, imitating hit-making soul men such as Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Soon he began writing his own tunes, combining R&B tradition with visceral rock ’n’ roll. Adding his own everyman-style lyrics, he came up with what is now known as the Jersey Shore sound. “Girls liked that kind of music,” Lyon says with a smile. “And we liked girls.”
The Shore scene, made famous by Springsteen in the early ’70s, revolved around a close-knit, recombinant clique who turned those tumultuous times into great music.
“I’ve been surrounded by good people ever since high school,” Lyon says, then shakes his head. “Well, okay, not everybody I hung out with in high school was good for me. But the point is, the musicians I’ve been around have taken me further musically than I would’ve gone by myself.”
As influences and inspirations, Lyon cites Steven Van Zandt (who produced Lyon’s first three records), guitarist Bobby Bandeira (who occasionally tours with Bon Jovi), and Springsteen himself. Though Springsteen’s star rose much higher than Lyon’s, the two maintained professional ties and mutual respect, sharing material and sometimes performing together. E Streeter Van Zandt as well as Patti Scialfa, Springsteen’s wife, also played with Lyon’s band, the Asbury Jukes.
Says longtime Jukes trombonist Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg, “I’ve played in the horn section in shows with Johnny, Bruce, and Jon Bon Jovi. They give the Rat Pack a run for their money.”
Music for its own sake has sustained Lyon over a career that has sometimes been short on commercial success. “Johnny loves to perform,” says Rosenberg, who also plays with drummer Max Weinberg’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien house band. “It’s in his blood, sweat, and soul.”
The Jukes began in the mid-1970s as the house band at Asbury Park’s legendary Stone Pony nightclub. The group epitomized energetic, horn-driven rock, and quickly drew a loyal cult of fans.
“The Jukes are a rare phenomenon built on taking no prisoners,” says Rosenberg. “When Little Steven Van Zandt was managing us in the early days, we worked nine months a year, playing three or four times in L.A., ’Frisco, Chicago, Cleveland. That’s how we built this huge fan base.”
The Jukes bill themselves, not without reason, as “the world’s greatest bar band.” Lyon hasn’t lost his relish for the road. While manning his booth at the record fair in Hazlet, he worked his cell phone to iron out last-minute details of the band’s flight to Amsterdam that night to kick off a European tour.
It was that ultimate road warrior, James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” who kindled Lyon’s dream of a life in showbiz. “I saw him play at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park when I was about fourteen,” Lyon recalls. “It really changed my life. I thought, What a great way to make a living!”
Memories of that moment flooded Lyon’s mind when he took the same stage just after the 1976 release of his debut album, I Don’t Want to Go Home. “It sounds odd for me to say, but I got all emotional about it,” he says. “This was where I had seen one of my childhood heroes play, and there I was, playing to a sold-out crowd. That was such a thrill, to realize that I was a full-time musician, that it wasn’t just a hobby, it’s who I am. I still get a kick out of that.”
In 1978, the Jukes released Hearts of Stone, an artistic triumph that is considered the band’s defining album. Commercially, the album didn’t live up to the expectations of Epic Records, which proceeded to drop the Jukes. A rash of subsequent deals with other labels proved unsatisfying. “I got really fed up with record-company crap,” Lyon says. “These A&R guys would hand me songs [to perform], and they would just be so wrong. They want to sell records, but they want you to be something you don’t want to be in order to do that.”
For much of the ’90s Lyon simply gave up recording and focused on touring. “I’ve always made my money on the road,” he says. As recording technology became more accessible and the Internet empowered musicians to circumvent the record companies, Lyon launched his own label, Leroy Records, in 2001.
“It’s been a godsend for me,” he says, “because I don’t want to be part of the music business. I want to run my own life.” As president of his own company, Lyon is free to record any kind of music he chooses. Recently he made an entire album of vintage Tom Waits songs arranged for a horn-packed big band, including members of the Jukes.
“I got this idea ten years ago because I really like Tom’s lyrics and music,” says Lyon. “But as he got weirder, the melodies would sometimes get lost.”
Enlisting Rosenberg to arrange the horn parts, Lyon labored for two years to complete the album, which will be released later this year. “It took a long time,” Rosenberg admits, “but it was really a labor of love.”
The as-yet-untitled disc is the only one of Lyon’s 27 albums that he’s ever been completely happy with. “I always hear the flaws,” he says, “but LaBamba did a great job. He really has an eclectic taste for horns, and everything came out how I wanted it, or better.”
The musical audacity that propelled Lyon to early recognition is fully evident on the new release, even though it is fleshed out for a big band. “It’s a great thrill because I still think of myself as this rock ‘n‘ roll guy, even though I’m almost 60 years old,” Lyon says. “I listen to this record and I think I’m getting away with something, because this orchestra stuff is for guys like Tony Bennett.”
Reflecting on his early years, Lyon says that “Steven, Bruce, and I always compared notes.” Entreaties from elders to do something practical fell on ears deaf to everything but music. “We all heard the same thing for years about going to college, having something to fall back on,” Lyon says. He laughs and does an impression of his younger self: “I’ll get a real job next week, Ma!”
Lyon has few regrets, certainly not about pursuing the dream that James Brown ignited back at Convention Hall. After almost 40 years as a professional performer, he feels he’s led a privileged life.
“There have been good years and bad years,” he says. “But I still think of myself as this kid from Ocean Grove who gets to go around the world and make music. I think that’s a pretty good deal.”Click here to leave a comment