For Soultime!, Jersey legends Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes were motivated by classic R&B
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY LYON is part of Jersey Shore’s Holy Trinity, along with Bruce Springsteen and Steve (“Little Steven”) Van Zandt.
Starting in the early 1970s, the three friends started playing in New Jersey-based bands, either with each other or staying in close touch. And as each has grown older and found significant international success as roots-loving Rock & Roll musicians, they haven’t slowed down.
Lyon this year is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes’ first album by touring behind the band’s excellent most recent one, last year’s Soultime!.
Since the mid-’70s, Lyon has recorded nearly 20 studio albums, and his discography also includes a couple dozen live and compilation releases.
Springsteen and Van Zandt, of course, have also kept busy. All are in their mid-60s and none seems to want to slow down.
“I think it’s because of the time we came up,” Lyon said in a recent phone interview from a studio where he was rehearsing in advance of the tour. “Back then, people didn’t actually think you could make a career of music without having a day job and all that stuff. The fact we still do it is because you still have that feeling inside of you that you have to prove yourself and stick it to the people who didn’t believe in you.”
Of course, his perseverance is about far more than simply disproving early detractors.“With time and success, you really start to enjoy it,” he adds. “You can start to believe in yourself to the point you can relax and enjoy the fact you are a musician.”
There’s also a Jersey pride angle to working. When he was growing up and a young musician, New Jersey was a place people ridiculed.
“I think that gave us an extra push (too),” Lyon says. “We wanted to show people that they’re wrong.”
Wrong, indeed. Asbury Park — home of The Stone Pony club that is ground zero for the Jersey Shore music scene — has become an American pilgrimage site for Rock fans.
Though not adverse to songs featuring driving guitars and hard rockin’, Lyon is a fine Soul singer, with a voice that is by turns raspy and smooth, and reflects his love for Sam Cooke, Motown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Sam & Dave, The Isley Brothers and others. The Jukes feature swinging, hard-charging horn arrangements that have a very sophisticated big-band dimension, while Lyon sometimes rolls a blast of bluesy harmonica into the overall soundscape.
His last studio album with the Jukes, 2010’s Pills and Ammo, featured tougher-edged and, Lyon says, angrier original material. In retrospect, he sees it as more political than usual for him, likely the result of the recession.
By comparison, Soultime! was set in motion when Lyon was shopping in a Jersey grocery’s wine department and a song being played in the store caught his attention.
“I was there looking at some wine and on comes ‘Superfly,’ with that great bass and the horns,” he recalls. “Everyone was bopping. And I thought that’s what I should be doing — making music people can just listen to and enjoy, rather than a statement, which is kind of what Pills and Ammo was. It was really an epiphany.
“My job is to go out and give people something they can forgot their troubles to, not remind them,” he continues. “There are great political artists, like Bruce and Steven, who have made great statements about the state of man in America and the world. But I’m just a guy who goes out there, lets the horns play and sings, ‘Baby, baby, baby.’ ”
Working with his longtime keyboardist and songwriting/production/arranging collaborator Jeff Kazee, Lyon found Soultime! coming together quickly. At first, the idea was to include a few covers of obscure but beloved Soul gems — like Ruby Johnson’s “Weak Spot” and Jackie Moore’s “Precious, Precious” — as “signposts” for the album’s direction.
“But when we started writing, it just all came out,” Lyon says. “We wrote 11 songs and I said, ‘That’s it; that’s all I want.’ It took two weeks to write everything. We were really enjoying it. I think it was just organic. We started singing and started writing, and the styles came up. We weren’t copying; we were being influenced. This time, my Soul influences came rushing out. And once the band heard it, they got it right away.”
You can easily spot the influences, and Soultime!’s liner notes helpfully point some out.
“Looking for a Good Time” is indebted to Curtis Mayfield’s solo records of the ’70s like “Move On Up.” In the grittier and atmospheric “Reality,” Lyon — whose voice is strong and expressive throughout — gives a nod to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street,” as well as Mayfield’s album-inspiring “Superfly.”
The urgency of Motown hits by The Four Tops and The Temptations comes through on “Don’t Waste My Time” and “All I Can Do.” And in the gently melancholy ballad “The Heart Always Knows,” Lyon reveals his love for Ben E. King.
There can be a solemn side to all this, since many of the influences on Soultime! are no longer with us. If you dwell on that — and it’s hard not to for fans of a certain age (Lyon’s age) — it gives the album a bittersweet dimension.
But Lyon rejects that.
“I think their legacy is what’s important,” he says of the musicians that influenced Soultime!. “What’s left is the great music they gave. I don’t get nostalgic about that kind of stuff. I think you get your chance, and if you make your mark, then you’ve had a great life.”
It’s a perspective that fits into Lyon’s positive attitude about performing and recording — an attitude shared by the two other members of the Jersey Shore Trinity.
“You make the most of your chance and you don’t really look back,” Lyon says. “You look forward to what you will be doing next. If you’re a musician or a singer, you just make music until you keel over. When you’re writing or playing and it really works, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. Why would you want to give that up as long as you can do it?”
SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY & THE ASBURY JUKES play Saturday at Covington’s Madison Theater. Tickets/more info: madisontheateronline.com.