Interview: Southside Johnny on singing Billie Holiday songs, New Year’s Eve, Tom Petty and more

Southside Johnny will perform at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Year’s Eve.

Let’s take a moment and reflect on how busy — and adventurous — Southside Johnny Lyon has been as a recording artist over the last decade.

There was Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits (recorded with LaBamba’s Big Band) in 2008, the rocking Pills and Ammo in 2010; and the soul workout Soultime! in 2015. Plus live albums devoted to the songs of Steven Van Vandt (2012’s Men Without Women) and Bruce Springsteen (this year’s Live From E Street), and 2013’s Song From the Barn, recorded with his rootsy side band, The Poor Fools.

Southside, 69, is capping all this with perhaps his most adventurous project yet: Detour Ahead: The Songs of Billie Holiday, already released on vinyl and due out in CD form soon.

Meanwhile, of course, he and the Asbury Jukes maintain a busy touring schedule. Their next New Jersey concert will be their traditional New Year’s Eve show at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank (for information, visit countbasietheatre.org.)

I talked to Southside recently, by phone. (The same day, I did a phone interview with Jukes saxophonist and Detour Ahead producer John Isley; for that interview, click here).

Q: How many of the Detour Ahead songs, if any, are you doing at concerts?

A: We have only done one, and only once. It’s a completely different style, even though they are horns in it, and some of my guys, obviously, some Jukes (are on the album). But it’s a different style, and we really haven’t settled down and learned any of that. We’re hoping to do a show in New York with some of the Billie Holiday stuff, and some of the revamped Tom Waits, Grapefruit Moon things. Kind of a mix of the two of them. And just put a little more jazz and a little more orchestrated … you know, not rock ‘n’ roll so much as just real straightahead jazz music.

Q: I saw the Grapefruit Moon show you did in New York (in 2008), and that was wonderful.

A: I hated it (laughs).

Q: Really?

A: I didn’t feel prepared. The band sounded great, but I thought I was terrible. But that’s what you do to yourself. You lose faith, and then you realize you’re standing in front of all these people, and you don’t feel like you’re delivering. It’s tough to go through. But you go through it, you live through it. I’m sure Bruce has had a couple of shows on Broadway where he thought, “Ah, I didn’t do that right.” It’s just the pressure you put on yourself, to be great. Then you just lose faith, and the whole thing seems to be a mistake.

Q: Have you seen “Springsteen on Broadway,” by the way?

A: No. I don’t have an extra $800. (laughs)

Q: So will you work some of the Billie Holiday songs into the Jukes shows, eventually, or not?

A: I haven’t thought about that, to tell you the truth. I’m just trying to get through the year. In January, I usually try and think, “What am I going to try to do this year?” Hopefully, we’ll be working on a new album, and that kind of stuff. It really hasn’t occurred to me to use any of the Billie Holiday stuff. But I have no reason not to. I would have to pick and choose things that would be appropriate for the Jukes, and the Jukes audience.

Q: So for the next album, any thoughts on what that will be like? Do you have any material ready, or anything like that?

A: Well now, I’m gonna say this, and you’re gonna print it, and people are gonna go, “Oh, you didn’t do that.” Because, you know, things change. But I was thinking that we would do a followup to the Soultime! album, since it seemed so organic to us, and writing it was quick, and really enjoyable. We (Southside and co-writer/co-producer/keyboardist Jeff Kazee) brought it to the band, and they got it right away, and they brought a lot to it, and it just seemed like that was what we were supposed to be doing, at that time. I’d like to revisit that, and maybe take it a little further, (use) some different grooves, and things like that.

Q: Well, I’ll let people know that’s the tentative plan.

A: Yeah, the tentative plan! (laughs) If it comes out, you know, as a countrypolitan album with strings … just, things happen.

The cover of Southside Johnny’s upcoming album, “Detour Ahead: The Songs of Billie Holiday.”

Q: Now, for Detour Ahead, I know, John Isley did a lot of the work as far as arranging, getting the band together, and doing all that kind of stuff. Was that enjoyable for you, to just come in and sing, and not be in the driver’s seat?

A: Yes, very much so. John was the great engine of the album. He did all of the work, arranging … we picked songs together, but he produced, and he produced my vocals, too, which … usually I have somebody there that can give me feedback as to whether I’m going in the right direction. But I really trusted John completely. And he did a great job. He was a true workaholic (laughs). And we worked together beautifully in the studio. When it was just he and I, and I was doing vocals, and we were listening, we had no arguments, or anything like that. I think we were both on the same page. So I would love to revisit that, too, and we have some ideas about some things in the future. But nothing concrete yet.

Q: Of course, Grapefruit Moon, and even the Springsteen songs you did, those are very different kinds of artists. These are songs that were sung by a woman and, in some cases, seem to have a female perspective. Was that a challenge, in some ways, to do songs that are really associated with a woman?

A: No. I never really thought that way. For me, Billie Holiday is part of me. I listened to it since I was a baby. My mother and father listened to a lot of Billie Holiday, all through my childhood. She was one of the stalwarts, along with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, and the rest. That’s the stuff that really seeps into you. And I think that all of the doo-wop that I listened to when I was younger, a young teenager, and then you had people like Ben E. King — that softer, romantic, heartbroken stuff, it seems second nature to me. I really have a soft spot in my heart for that. ‘Cause certainly I’ve felt that way myself, many times, and it just seems natural to me.

Let me ask you: Do you miss any sense of urgency, or rock ‘n’ roll? What I’m worried about is the fans buying this album and not hearing a backbeat. It’s a little paranoid for me (laughs). 

Q: I didn’t personally miss it, but I don’t know that I’m really a typical Jukes fan, in that I listen to a fair amount of jazz, and all kinds of stuff, as part of my job. I’m sure there will be some fans who just aren’t going to be interested, but I think a lot of them will like it.

A: Well, it isn’t made for the Jukesheads so much as it’s made for the music. As with every record you make, you think, “Gee, I hope this gets out to a wide audience.” Some does, some doesn’t. You kind of roll with the punches. After all these years, I know not to expect too much.

Southside Johnny collaborated with LaBamba’s Big Band on the 2008 album of Tom Waits songs, “Grapefruit Moon.”

Q: Were you happy with the way Grapefruit Moon was accepted by your fans?

A: Yes, very much so, but I think that was more easily understood than this is going to be, in that, there’s a certainly sensibility with Tom that has a bluesy kind of thing in it.

Q: So, is there anything else you can tell me about next year, about touring, or any other projects?

A: Well I’m supposed to be cutting down on touring (laughs) … but it looks like Scandinavia, and certainly England and Europe, and maybe doing festivals. So we may be in Europe a bit of the year. There’s talk about going to the West Coast, and the South, so, I imagine we’ll just be busy touring, and hopefully there will be times to do some other projects.

One of the things I’ve liked in these last few years is the abundance of different projects: The Men Without Women, the Bruce thing, certainly this Billie Holiday (album), the Poor Fools.

I love the Jukes. Standing onstage with the Jukes, to me, is where I’m the most comfortable, on the planet. It’s easier to me than sleeping — standing onstage with the Jukes — because it’s something I know, and I feel comfortable with it, and I enjoy it. But I also like stretching the boundaries a little bit, and taking a few chances. You feel blessed to be a musician, and you want to take as many opportunities as you can to be a musician, in many different types of music. And I can afford to do that now, so I do.

“I was shocked when he died,” says Southside Johnny of Tom Petty.

Q: Since I interviewed you last, Tom Petty died, so I was wondering … did you know him at all, first of all? Did you ever meet him?

A: Yeah, I met him a number of times, and he was always great.

We did a show one time with Journey, Tom Petty and us, in Binghamton, N.Y., only we didn’t do the show: The promoter had run away with the money, the stage wasn’t complete, it had rained for two days, the whole field was mud. It was one of those complete disasters. So Steve (Perry) from Journey and Tom came over, and somebody had told them that we had to play and leave, because we had to get to Cleveland, or something like that, by a certain time. And they both came over and said, “Look, we have to stay here and play. You go. Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” But we stood around and talked about singing and music, and they’re both really great guys. They were decent human beings, and you don’t always run into that in rock ‘n’ roll!

I was shocked when he died. We did a number of songs… we still do some songs in tribute to him. Jeff sings one (“Refugee”) and I sing the other (“Breakdown”). Just because, you realize how great the songs were, how many of them there were, and how long-lasting they are. They just are great little moments in time that you can sit and drive in your car, and listen to “Free Fallin’,” or whatever, and just get lost in it. And that’s a real gift.

Q: One of the things that really struck me is that, a lot of times when artists die, there will be two or three songs that people do. Kind of the expected ones. But when people are covering Tom Petty songs now, there’s such a broad range. There are like 50 different songs that are being used for tributes, because his songwriting was just so uniformly good, and different songs resonate with different people. 

A: Yeah, he had that capacity, of making you like what he was doing at that time. And then you turn around, 20 years later, and you’re realizing that song is 20 years old and it’s still pleasing to you. That’s the mark of a really true, great songwriter, who can still make you like the song after you’ve heard it a thousand times.

With certain people, you recognize — I went to see the Young Rascals on Broadway, and Tommy James, when we play with him — how many songs these guys have that you know! And you know all the lyrics, too, that are part are you. And Tom Petty’s the same way. There have got to be 30 songs that I know really, really well. You just don’t realize it until you’re confronted with it.

One thought on “Interview: Southside Johnny on singing Billie Holiday songs, New Year’s Eve, Tom Petty and more

  1. Pingback: Southside Johnny follows 'Detour Ahead' to Blue Note Jazz Festival - NJArts.netNJArts.net

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