“I’ve always wanted to be a Juke . . . and I still do .” (Jon Bon Jovi)
“There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to do,” Johnny confesses, “and that is to sing.” And he has been doing just that for over a third of a century.
In a business where success is defined as getting a second single; and longevity measured in nano-seconds; just surviving for thirty plus years is a rare accomplishment. But Johnny and the Jukes have not just survived…they have flourished. Twenty-eight albums; thousands of live performances around the globe; a legion of dedicated and enthusiastic fans; dozens of classic songs; a record - Hearts of Stone - that Rolling Stone called one of the “top 100 albums of the ‘7’s and ‘80s”, and the latest studio record, Into the Harbour, that many are saying is “even better”, and “the best yet”.
To Johnny, it’s just what he does. “I grew up on music. We listened to Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner. My parents loved music, the louder the better.” Born and raised on the Jersey Shore, Southside’s fascination for the club scene started early. “My father played in bands for years, and my mother actually went into labor with me at some seedy New Jersey club. I guess some things were just meant to be.” Singing and playing in a number of blues and R&B bands at what is now the legendary Upstage Club, often joined by pals Bruce Springsteen, “Miami Steve” Van Zandt, and Garry Tallent, Johnny worked at making “meant to be” into “is”. It wasn’t easy. “We played for years on the shore, but it wasn’t until Bruce hit with “Born to Run” that these A&R guys would drive to Asbury Park to see what was happening.”
Southside (a nickname picked up because of his bent toward the blues sounds of the Southside of Chicago) and his band, eventually called the Asbury Jukes, worked on their growing reputation as a dynamic live band through the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “We built a big band, a home for lots of musicians, horns and all: sure we called it Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, but it was really just a bunch of guys getting crazy on stage.” Then, in 1975, they signed with CBS/Epic Records and released the critically acclaimed I Don’t Want to Go Home - and a legend was begun. What followed was three decades of recording and touring and solidifying a place in rock ‘n’ roll history . . . a period of ups and downs, dozens of great songs, and storied live performances.
In 1992, following the release of Better Days, and it’s unexpected lackluster reception, Johnny, never a fan of the “big record business”, soured on the rat race altogether, and took a hiatus from the studio; though he continued to work the road. “I went through some really bad times and never wanted to record again”, he recalls. He spent eight years working on the massive record collection he shares with E Street bassist, and childhood buddy, Garry Tallent, ruminating on life and his music, and just plain moping . . . until, in 1999, the light finally came back on.
The release of Messin’ With the Blues, in 2000 on his own Leroy Records label, was a return to making music for the sheer joy of it. A collection of old and new true-blues songs that Johnny had long coveted but couldn’t record in the pop-single driven, major label environment, Messin’ With the Blues was the catharsis Johnny needed to get the band back in the studio and himself back in the groove. “You can be free do what you want, as you want . . . we weren’t trying to be perfect . . . we just wanted to play . . . we were professional about it, while having a lot of fun.”
Recharged and energized now, with a new, balls-to-the-wall, honest-to-goodness Jukes record, the first in a decade, Going to Jukesville , in 2002, and an introspective, soulful Into the Harbour in 2005, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes are brassing their way into the new millennium the same way they always rocked the old; no holds barred, good time rock and roll.
“I’ll stack my group against any group out there. We enjoy playing, and the audience enjoys having a good time. Music is a shared emotion. We distill it down to that.”
When you distill Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, you come down to great music and good times. It’s been thus for thirty-plus years . . . and counting.