Southside Johnny, better known to his folks and family as John Lyon, never seemed to find the formula that would place him on the A list musical map. In the late ’70s, the deck was certainly stacked in his favor. As a known protégée of Bruce Springsteen, Epic Records was happy to sign him and support him and his Asbury Jukes. Speaking of Springsteen, “The Boss” co-wrote much of the band’s better material, some of which was co-written by Lyon, Springsteen, and band co-founder Miami Steve Van Zandt, who also produced the early Jukes albums. Among the 100 musicians who’ve played with the Jukes in one form or another over the years are Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, Patti Scialfa, and Soozie Tyrell. In 1990, even longtime Jukes fan Jon Bon Jovi joined the group for one tour.
In a sense, the association with Springsteen was a double-edged sword. If you got Springsteen churning up the charts, why would you need another New Jersey band circling around the “Born to Run” orbit? But Johnny’s real problem was that the Jukes were simply out of step with the musical trends of the era. The happy, good-time Stax-flavored blue-eyed soul of Lyon and his brassy big band didn’t fit well alongside the punk of the Sex Pistols, the New Wave of Blondie and Elvis Costelo, nor, at first, the disco avalanche following in the wake of Saturday Night Fever.
All these years later, those contexts are all rock and pop history, and perhaps the new Playlist best of collection might give a new audience an appreciation of what New Jersey’s most famous bar band was all about. Appropriately, the heart of Playlist draws from recordings produced between 1976 and 1980, especially the Jukes first three albums, I Don’t Want To Go Home (1976), This Time It’s for Real (1977), and Hearts of Stone (1978).
From this fertile period, we get songs that demonstrate the Asbury Jukes made no attempt to emulate the E Street Band, no matter who wrote the songs. For example, their Big brass sound, especially trumpets, really swings on Springsteen’s “The Fever” (where Lyon shares lead vocals with Clarence Clemons), “Talk to Me,” and “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” the tune that became Johnny’s signature song. There are those who think Johnny nailed the definitive version of Springsteen’s “hearts of Stone,” a guitar-driven ballad offered near the end of Playlist.
Some of the songs are deeply evocative of the early ’60s, a form Springsteen would revitalize so effectively for Gary U.S. Bonds. For Johnny, Van Zandt penned the kickin’ “This Time It’s for Real.” In the same mold, Johnny becomes a Memphis soul man on Steve Cropper’s “Broke Down Piece of Man” and the live rendition of Sam Cooke’s sing-along, the nearly seven minute “Having a Party.” Other live numbers mixed throughout the program include “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” the live version of the single “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” and the Chicago-esque (the band, that is) “Trapped Again.”
Then came 1979 and the Jukes were no longer with Epic. Due to other commitments, Van Zandt was no longer producer. For Mercury Records, Lyon went seeking new directions which meant flying close to the disco flame and embracing the Adult Contemporary scene. This resulted in The Jukes (1979) and Love is a Sacrifice (1980) where the Jukes were trying a little too hard for radio airplay. For example, the trumpets, piano, and strings of “Without Love” strained to mix the ingredients of commercial pop success. Longtime band member Billy Rush became the new songwriter who gave Southside “I’m So Anxious,” the guitar-driven “All I Want Is Everything, and the funky rocker, “Why Is Love Such a Sacrifice.” Then, Rush too departed and the Jukes had new fish to fry. But that’s a subject for a different anthology.
For most listeners, Playlist isn’t likely to inspire anyone to track down the full albums of the 1970s. This collection really feels like the essential Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes including the best of the Van Zandt era, good enough samples of the Rush records, and, best of all, healthy chunks of Jukes Live at the Bottom Line, the once limited edition promo album recorded in 1976. Because of these tracks and the best of studio numbers, listeners will hopefully want to get out and see Southside Johnny on his 2013 tour. The Asbury Jukes can still entertain, pump up a party, and deliver good ole fashioned sock ‘n soul. Move over Michael Bolton, Southside Johnny was here first.