At straight-up 3 p.m., the appointed hour, a man on the other end of the line announces himself: "Heyyyyy, it's Southside!"
And so begins a spirited 40-minute conversation with one of rock 'n' roll's most undervalued artists, Southside Johnny Lyon, who has fronted a horn-heavy R&B band called the Asbury Jukes for more than three decades. After his first troika of LPs, released in the latter '70s on Columbia, fell short of commercial expectations — especially in light of the concurrent rise of his Jersey shore compadre Bruce Springsteen — Southside and company focused mostly on touring. They don't do the road-dog slog of the old days, when 250 dates a year was the norm, but the Jukes still cover plenty of turf. And they try their level best not to let performing get stale. "I've never wanted to just go out and play the songs," Southside says. "I need to find that nugget in the middle of the night, where the audience clicks and is really there, and we're all in that night, in that moment."
With an eight-piece backing band (including four horns), Southside, 60, shouts and wails and dances and sweats and jokes his way through sets that put a premium on spontaneity — sometimes taken to extremes. "I was drivin' to a gig one time and I heard 'Walk Away Renee' on the radio, the Four Tops version," Southside recalls. "So on stage that night I just started singing it. [Guitarist] Bobby [Bandiera] started playing it and we did it as a duet. A couple nights later, the drums and bass came in — they'd gone over it a little bit — and we added it to the set; ended up putting it on a record. When it works, it really works — but it doesn't always work."
Southside Johnny is a gifted singer, with a natural soul moan, an extra gear that brings out the grit, and a knack for calibrating his voice to fit the song, be it a jazzy ballad, a Stax-styled stomper like "Talk to Me" or Sam Cooke's good-times anthem "Having a Party."
For those other than his devoted cult of fans, Southside is perhaps best known as the guy who got left in Springsteen's dust. And just in case you're wondering, he harbors no resentment. "That kind of success is not for me," Southside says resolutely. "Mainly, I wouldn't like the attention off-stage. I'm friends with Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce, and I couldn't deal with that level of celebrity. I like to go shopping, wander around. Those guys can't do that."
Later, Southside adds a comment about Springsteen: "Without him, I wouldn't have the career I have."
Johnny Lyon grew up in a house that reverberated with blues, R&B and jazz by the likes of T-Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing and Billie Holiday. He "hated school," so his mother would let him stay home and clean house, where he'd sing along with his parents' record collection. "I learned a million songs that way," Southside says. "I had this real facility to remember songs. I started hanging around with bands and they let me come up and sing, but it wasn't until well into my teens that I ever considered doing it for a living."
About a half-mile from Johnny's home in Ocean Grove on the Jersey Shore was a teen spot called the Upstage Club that stayed open until 5 a.m. It turned out to be the creative nexus for what became known as the Jersey Sound. "It was the mecca for every musician," Southside says. "We all brought different elements in. I was a blues and R&B guy. Steven Van Zandt loved reggae, Stax/Volt and garage-band stuff. We all brought records around and influenced each other. And we did a lot of jamming in that club.
"After a while, there was a bunch of other clubs we'd wheedle our way into, but we didn't do Top 40 stuff. Steven and I rented an apartment in an Asbury Park slum area and it's where everyone hung out. We'd play records, and have these monster Monopoly games. Bruce would bring in cookies his mother baked and sell them for $200 of Monopoly money. I remember I brought in a Django Reinhardt album and the guitar players were blown away."
Southside — he got the nickname because he was a big fan of the blues from the south side of Chicago — knew he wanted to front a horn band, and the hardest part turned out to be finding horn players. "Everyone played guitar, bass or drums," he says.
Because of the Jersey Shore's proximity to New York City, the Asbury Jukes have been able to pull horn men from the jazz scene. Lots of 'em have come and gone. "Notoriously, horn players will suddenly come up to me and say, 'I wanna go play jazz,'" Southside says, and adds with a laugh. "Six months later it's, 'Can I have my job back?'"
There's an Asbury Jukes fiend in England who keeps a family tree of the band — by his count, 120 musicians have come through the ranks over the years.
Regardless of who's onstage — guitarist Bandiera's been around for 20 years — Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes' aim remains the same. "Our audience knows what they're getting, and it's pretty much a free-for-all, but it'll be an entertaining free-for-all," Southside says. "I see some of these bands with 20 hit records up there going through the motions. I can't do it. It's gotta be different every night."