Southside Johnny Lyons (the moniker derives from the South Side of Chicago, from whence cometh lots of blues, Johnny’s inspiration and love) began singing around Asbury Park, New Jersey, “at home, at parties, on the street drinking cheap wine”.
Instead of the religious constraints common in the small town, Lyon’s atheist parents offered him an inspiring musical background with a large collection of pre rock & roll R&B – Count Basie, Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson and Joe Turner.
The ’60s were spent not only digging the sounds at home but rooting the bargain bins for the classic singles of ’50s doo woppers. In school he excelled at English and almost became a teacher.
After a stint in a legendary New Jersey blues band he met Miami Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen in 1967 at the After Hours, a no-alcohol-served musos club in New Jersey. Springsteen was onstage playing a BB King-style blues.
Earning enough with the Post Office to rent an apartment with Van Zandt and a few others, he played, drank and held card schools long into the night.
By the time Lyons had amassed the original Dukes and was ready to record, he’d not only emerged as a full blooded soul singer but, together with Miami Steve, had forged a complete musical vision – at once a tribute to and extension of the traditions of city soul and R&B inventiveness of past decades; masterful arrangements, impassioned performances and great original songs from Springsteen and Van Zandt.
“We’d spend two hours doing the songs and two hours listening to the group tell stories, I was like a kid in a candy store. Just talking to these guys was great, I wasn’t bothered whether the engineers got the tapes rolling. The Drifters’ great bass singer came in with a brown paper bag and set it down. I asked if they wanted anything to drink, but it was just coffee, tea and a few beers. I thought, gee, these guys aren’t like I expected. Everything goes fine, the bass singer’s real cool. When he goes to leave he knocks over the bag and two empty gin bottles fall out. He’d consumed two bottles in four hours and I hadn’t even noticed.”
Southside’s vinyl decline coincided with the departure of Miami Steve, who went to join Springsteen and a change in emphasis in the urban black music which had always been his prime influence.
“I’d always hung out with the hoods, the tough guys; I had a lot of black friends because they liked better music. The collegiate kids liked The Beach Boys but I couldn’t really relate to driving a T-Bird down the strip; I never had one and never knew anyone who did.
A lot of the Jukes’ mystique was adolescent, both in the hanging-out camaraderie that they exploited – their liner notes, filled with nicknames and private references, were like a high school newspaper – and in the songs themselves.
In She Got Me Where She Wants Me, Johnny did a spoken introduction explaining to the guys why he’s not palling around with them as often as he did; First Night is virtually a testament not only to new-found love but to the men-in-groups close harmony of the school corridor and street corner.
Southside Johnny (John Lyon)
‘Miami’ Steve Van Zandt