In the liner notes to his new album, Soultime!, Southside Johnny explains how he came up with the album’s musical theme: “I was pushing my cart around Stop & Shop, minding my business, when I got to the liquors and wines. Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ started playing and I noticed how people were reacting to the music, bopping their heads. I thought, ‘It’s time to make people feel good again.’ ”
Soultime! is, indeed, one of the most enjoyable albums of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ long career, with 11 new songs (co-written, mainly, with Asbury Jukes keyboardist and backing vocalist Jeff Kazee) and an unapologetically retro soul sound throughout.
It’s not exactly a stretch: Soul has been an important element of the Jukes’ sound since Day One. But never before have they focused on it so single-mindedly.
I talked to Southside — now living in his original hometown, Ocean Grove — about the new album, his childhood exposure to soul music, his Poor Fools acoustic side project and other topics.
Q: I love the story in the liner notes about you being in a Stop & Shop, and having this revelation that you needed to make an album like this.
A: It’s a true story. It was about a year and a half ago. There’s a Stop & Shop in Neptune City, and there’s a liquor store next to it, Max’s. And I go and shop and I buy wine for dinner, you know, that kind of thing. And (‘Superfly’) comes on, with those great horns, and all these people are boppin’ their heads, like that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
Q: And you had this vision, that this was the kind of album you needed to make.
A: It’s true. It really just came whooshing at me. It was a real epiphany, that all of my anger, all of the other things that I try to deal with … really what my function is, at least now, for this record … is to give people something to bop their heads to, to forget their troubles, have some fun, enjoy life. Music, to me, has always been the great enjoyment of my life. It’s one thing to write about negative topics, and you do have to do that at times, and you do have to confront your own downs, and angers. But when you have a band like mine, there’s no reason not to go out onstage and just have a great time. And that’s what we try to do.
There is a little bit of anger on the record, and a little bit of downness, but that’s traditional with R&B music, that you sing about the things … it’s like blues that way … you sing about the things that bug you, but you try to make them more cathartic than anything else.
Q: So how, as a kid growing up in Ocean Grove, did you become aware of soul music? Was it through the radio? Or through records?
A: All the Methodists used to listen to it all the time! (laughs) We used to reserve a date at the Ocean Grove Auditorium. No, my parents loved black music. They loved Louis Armstrong, and Wynonie Harris, and T-Bone Walker, all sorts of great stuff. Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing, and Duke Ellington. And that’s the kind of music we grew up with. So my brother Tom and I, who shared a room, when we listened to the radio, we listened to the black stations: WNJR, from Newark, and Jocko Henderson, in the later days. And that’s the kind of music we were drawn to. That was the natural music for us, because that’s what we heard, growing up.
Q: Were your parents musicians?
A: My father played bass, and attempted play the trumpet. But mostly he played the upright bass. And he would get gigs, and go out. He actually performed with Jack Nicholson’s sister (June Nicholson, known professionally as June Nilson), who turned out to be (Jack’s) mother, I think.
Q: And then of course when you started playing in Asbury Park, soul music was just part of the mix: soul and blues and rock and everything.
A: Yeah, we had the great backlog of material that all musicians in the ’60s had, which was Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley and all sorts of early rock songs that were … I don’t want to say they were simplistic, but you could play them, and make a reasonable facsimile of it. And people would dance. And then soul music. We would do Sam & Dave and Marvin Gaye songs, too, just because people would dance to them, and they were great songs.
Q: I imagine when you took this idea to the guys in the band, they all immediately got it, since they come from a similar place as you, musically.
A: Yeah, absolutely. They were like, “Yeah!” For all of the recording, it took four days. And that’s with goofing around and trying other things. And they just naturally gave the horns the chance to arrange, and they came up with these incredible arrangements. Glenn Alexander came up with some incredible guitar parts. Of course John Conte, to him, this is bass heaven: The groove, and the freedom to fool with the groove. He’s just great at this stuff.
It really was a quick process, because we were all in our wheelhouse. All of the R&B from that time is something we’ve all played, and listened to, and danced to, and enjoyed. I just comes seeping out of your pores, really.
Q: I saw the Poor Fools for the first time a few weeks ago in Fort Lee. I thought it was going to be a little more acoustic and folky, but it had a lot of rockabilly and Chuck Berry songs, and stuff like that. Has the Poor Fools evolved over time, to have a little bit more of a rock edge to it? Or was it always like that?
A: No, it started out a little more acoustic. When we play at more intimate places, the smaller places, it tends to be more acoustic. But when you’re outside, it seems like that atmosphere brings out a little more of the rock ‘n’ roll in you, because it just feels like people want to have a more rock, fun time. And of course G.E. Smith being there, you have two guitars, and once the two guitars start playing, it gets a little louder.
It doesn’t really matter to me. Every night is kind of an organic thing: It happens. That’s one of the joys of being a musician. You can’t tell where the night is going, so you either have confidence in what you’re doing, and you let it carry you along, or you get completely paranoid, and make a setlist that becomes rigid. I’ve never done that, and I’m not going to start doing it now.
Q: Does G.E. Smith play with you a lot, or was that a rare thing?
A: He’s there sometimes; sometimes, not. We have people come and go. Soozie (Tyrell) was with us for a while, but then she disappeared with Bruce (Springsteen) for two years. And Tommy Byrnes was with us, but then Billy Joel decided to go out, so he was lost. And John Putnam stepped in, and he’s great. He plays pedal steel, and acoustic and electric (guitar), and drums. It’s that’s kind of free-for-all that we really enjoy. That’s one of the reasons we started it, is that everybody got to play other instruments.
Q: And everyone drums, except for you!
A: I do, occasionally. It’s usually kind of cringe-worthy, but we make it through. I have to have more than two glasses of wine if I’m going to play drums. (laughs)
Q: Early this year you did those two shows at the Stone Pony (one devoted to rarities, the other to Springsteen covers). I imagine you’re thinking now about whether you want to do something like that again early next year?
A: I’m hoping that every February — I’m hoping earlier in February this time, but I think that was the only availabilities they had, was late February — but in winter, everybody needs a break, we need a break, and so we try to find new things to do, and make the two shows at the Pony in February a break from winter.
We learned, like, 40 songs for those two shows, and the band came through. And they had to learn the songs from the new album. So the Jukes in the last eight months have learned over 60, 70 songs. That’s the kind of commitment you get from musicians when you treat them with respect, and let them play what they want to play.
Q: Did Bruce ever hear these versions of his songs? Did you ever get any feedback from him?
A: No. I didn’t hear anything from him. I wasn’t completely thrilled with my performance in part of it, because I got a little over-the-top, from nerves. The band played great, and the choice of songs was good, too. But I thought I was oversinging a lot of stuff. I was going to put out a record of it, as a treat for the fans. But I have to think about that. I’m probably not going to do that.
Q: Well, maybe if you do it again, and you like your vocals a little better, you could.
A: Yeah, that’s what we’re thinking. We’re thinking we’ll do it somewhere where the pressure isn’t really on. Doing that stuff in Asbury Park is …. I mean, you’re not competing, but you’re doing stuff from one of the great performers of rock ‘n’ roll, in his hometown. Even though I was calm and cool up until the time I got onstage, once the music started I started to go into overdrive, and that’s never good for a singer.
Below is a live version of one of the “Soultime!” songs, “Spinning,” recorded at the Stone Pony Summer Stage on July 3:
Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes will perform at the Mindful Fitness Festival & Concert in Highlands on Sept. 12; at the Newton Theatre in Newton on Nov. 6; and at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on New Year’s Eve.