Southside Johnny Lyon: Foot Soldier of the Jersey Music Mafia

Jul 29, 2012 | 2070 Views | 5 Comments

When tickets went on sale this past spring for the Rod Stewart/Stevie Nicks July 28 “Heart and Soul” show at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, I took pause. I’ve adored Rod since his earliest days in the music biz, when he sang his heart out with Brit bands like Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men, The Jeff Beck Group and The Faces. But as much as I love Rod The Former Mod, was I really willing to fork over $150 to sit half a mile from the stage of a 19,000-seat arena to hear him sing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” from his sad disco days, or croon old standards with faded gypsy queen Stevie Nicks? No, I decided to spend my concert cash to see another vocally endowed white boy who also performed here last night: “Southside” Johnny Lyon.

Johnny brought his 7-piece Asbury Jukes band to the 1,370-seat Palace Theater, a beautifully restored, 86-year-old venue located on the main drag of Greensburg, PA, a once-vibrant county-seat town located 30 miles from downtown Pittsburgh. Southside Johnny has been performing since the mid-1970s and is considered a pioneer of the famous Jersey Shore sound that emerged when Bruce Springsteen put Asbury Park on the musical map 40 years ago.

I’ve long considered Johnny Lyon to be the finest white rock-soul singer in America. He’s an entertaining performer – a no-gimmicks, rumpled jeans-and-tee-shirt guy with curmudgeonly charm. He playfully insults his bandmates and sometimes forgets what city he’s in. You get the feeling he just rolled out of bed and gargled with Jack Daniels. He twitches and sways like Joe Cocker and laughs at his own jokes. He dangles his mic over the audience and invites fans to join him on stage, then rolls his eyes and mocks their performance. The crowd goes wild.

Various Jukes musicians have come and gone through the years – over 100 in all – but the band is always tight. A red-hot brass section gives the group a distinct Stax-influenced R&B sound. When I watch Johnny horse around with his Jukes on stage, I feel like I’m watching a very early Springsteen show: it’s just a bunch of guys who live and breathe rock and R&B, playing their hearts out for you. Johnny’s signature closing song, “Having A Party,” is exactly what it’s all about.

With so much talent, why did Southside Johnny fail to achieve the commercial success of his Jersey shore brothers Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt? They all cut their teeth at the same time, in the same place. Hell, Johnny can belt out a tune better than any of them. His best material, most of which was written and produced by Little Steven, is, in my humble opinion, more soul-stirring than anything fellow Jerseyite Jon Bon Jovi has turned out. In fact, Jon cites Mr. Lyon as his main source of inspiration: “When I grew up, I wanted to be a Juke,” he once said. “I still want to be a Juke.”

Johnny and his various Jukes have released more than a dozen studio albums and numerous live recordings. In 1982 Rolling Stone voted their “Hearts of Stone” among the top 100 LPs of the 1970s and 1980s. Johnny served as a technical advisor on the 1983 film “Eddie and the Cruisers” and appeared with the Jukes in the 1987 movie “Adventures in Babysitting.” He has one of the most loyal cult followings in rock. My BFF Jane McCreery (to whom this blog is dedicated) is a major fan. She, together with Maggie Powell and Debbie May, organized a well-attended 3-day JukeStock festival in Tinton Falls, NJ, in 2001. Johnny is big in Europe, too, especially in Germany, where Jane and I  once had the pleasure of meeting the head of his fan club, Klaus Bottger (pictured here). Hannover-based Maggie has also worked hard to keep the Jukes torch burning in Europe for many years.

Johnny’s had his moments of glory, but he’ll never be a rock icon. Blame it on record label problems, shifting personnel or poor management. Whatever the case, I get the feeling that Mr. Southside really doesn’t care too much about stardom. He’s a non-conformist and a true craftsman. And that’s why I like him so much. Like me, he plugs away at what he loves best – spreading the gospel of rock-n-roll – with scant regard for fame or fortune. One of Johnny’s most beloved songs is “I Don’t Want To Go Home.” That’s exactly how I feel at the end of every Jukes concert. Thanks, SSJ, for all the good times!

Here’s Johnny, havin’ a party and baring his chest with Bruce and Stevie in 1978!

By Dana Spiardi, July 29, 2012

Responses

  1. Dave says:

    July 30th, 2012 at 5:51 am (#)

    A little rough on those Rod and Stevie comments. Wait till you see my pictures and hear my review!

  2. Dana Spiardi says:

    July 30th, 2012 at 5:57 am (#)

    Oh, I love Rod. And I forgive him for his foray into disco. If only today’s youth could be aware of what a fabulous rock singer he used to be! Maybe the best, in fact. As for Stevie….well, that’s another story. I read some mediocre reviews of their shows from other cities. Most of them said that Stevie shouldn’t have been on that stage with Rod. I hope you had fun at the show. Can’t wait to see your pics!

  3. Jukestock Jane says:

    July 31st, 2012 at 3:15 am (#)

    I’m so jealous the Jukes did a show in the beautiful Palace Theater and I wasn’t there. It hardly seems possible. You did a great job capturing the moment for us, Dana. I don’t know if John gargles with Jack Daniels, but I have it on good authority (or would that be Hood authority?) that he washes his Bayer Aspirin down with it. (I can’t imagine why that man would EVER have a headache … 100 Jukes?!?)

    I miss my boys and I miss you, too, Dana. And shout-out to anyone from Jukes Nation who happens to be reading this — especially Klaus and Maggie (that photo was taken on one of the most favorite days of my life, Klaus). I’m still in my desert exile trying to learn patience and Zen mind with a brain long-ago fried by rock ‘n roll and too much Jersey Shore sun. So far it ain’t takin’ effect … but maybe I’ve Been Workin’ Too Hard.

    Aside to all you Jukes fans reading Dana’s great Hip Quotient blog on Facebook: do me a personal favor and “like it” or whatever they call those brownie points you folks dish out. She needs some incentive to keep up her encyclopedic work. Not enough people possess Dana’s amazing knowledge about the history of contemporary music and she should be encouraged to keep sharing it. I mean, seriously, who else could write about Ringo Starr, Woody Guthrie, Jesus Christ Superstar, Bobbie Gentry, and Southside Johnny all on one blog?

  4. Jukestock - Maggie says:

    May 17th, 2015 at 12:42 pm (#)

    Jukestock – Jane… please get in touch… it’s been a long time…!

  5. “Southside” Johnny Lyon: The Persevering Foot Soldier of the Jersey Music Mafia | THE JUKES NETWORK says:

    October 13th, 2012 at 6:03 pm (#)

    […] Dana Spiardi – First published on hipquotient.com – 2012/07/29/ – All Rights […]

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