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Southside Johnny talks Bruce Springsteen, Ronnie Spector, 'Live in Cleveland '77'

Singer tells stories of Springsteen-penned "The Fever," touring with "terrific" late Ronettes frontwoman, more.
Cover photo and all album package photos by Anastasia Pantsios

Cover photo and all album package photos by Anastasia Pantsios

Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes Live in Cleveland ’77 has been released on Cleveland International Records and includes guest Ronnie Spector.

Southside Johnny Lyon arrived on the national charts in 1976 as the leader of Asbury Park, New Jersey’s Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes, part of the same local scene that produced his friends Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. Both groups have also included guitarist Steven Van Zandt at different times over the years. 

Goldmine interviewed Southside Johnny about a new historic live collection on Cleveland International Records, his history with that label’s founder, Steve Popovich, his early days with Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen, and working with Ronnie Spector. Now this live recording of Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes with Steven Van Zandt and Ronnie Spector, which includes a classic Bruce Springsteen composition and flip side, has finally arrived.

  

GOLDMINE: Congratulations on Live in Cleveland '77 at The Agora, out now on CD and on vinyl later this year. This recording sounds so clear, full of sound, and just great.

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I am glad to hear you say that. You never know with a live recording, especially one that old. I guess they have done a great job of engineering it.

GM: I am originally from Cleveland, so I remember our $1.01 WMMS 101.7 FM Monday nights at The Agora where they packed the place with talent like you and your band.

SJ: That is a great station and was a great concert in Cleveland. One of my favorite touring times was that era in Cleveland. 

GM: Musically, it was great growing up there in that era. If you couldn’t make an Agora show, you could catch a recording of it on WMMS. Let’s start with a song that DJ Kid Leo would play on WMMS and was also on my Downtown Cleveland college jukebox, “I Don’t Want to Go Home.” On the new live album, you mention our mutual friend, the late Steve Popovich Sr. before you start this song, “Whenever I get out here to Cleveland, home of Steve Popovich.” Steve lived near me on the east side of town, by Peaches Records & Tapes where I worked, and he would visit me on Saturday nights. He was a wonderful music mentor to so many of us.

SJ: Yes, Steve was the man! When Bruce Springsteen hit big with Born to Run it became part of the ritual for the record companies to come to Asbury Park, New Jersey to look for more bands, possibly similar to Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. There were a couple of guys who came and dismissed us, but Steve came, he brought the secretaries from CBS, the home of the Columbia and Epic record labels. They loved him and they loved our sound. We passed the test and he thought they could sign us, so he was instrumental in getting our first record contract. Then he snuck the demo we made with some high school kids from Asbury Park playing horns, since we didn’t have a permanent horn section back then, and gave it to Kid Leo, who began playing it on WMMS before we made the record. It wasn’t polished but that started a relationship with Kid Leo, and it all worked out great.

GM: That was Steve. I remember him having demo cassettes in his pants pocket and artist photos in his jacket pocket. I am thrilled that his son Steve Popovich Jr. is keeping up that family tradition and passion. Kid Leo would love to play songs before their release. He used to play “Born to Run” at 6 p.m. each Friday for almost a year before its official release, so Cleveland was very ready for Bruce’s album by the time it came out. Let’s also talk about another Steve, Steven Van Zandt, your producer, arranger, manager and guitarist, who wrote “I Don’t Want to Go Home.”

SJ: Correct. I remember Steven and I were driving into Asbury Park along a lake, listening to WNEW which was the big FM rock station in New York and the DJ was playing a Drifters song, which we were pleasantly surprised to hear on that rock and roll station, then they played something else, and then played “I Don’t Want to Go Home.” Steven nearly drove into the lake. We didn’t expect them to play our song. They played the heck out of it and started us on our way.

GM: Ah, the power of radio back in the days before music videos and the internet. Not only did Kid Leo play “I Don’t Want to Go Home” but he also played the flip side of that debut single, “The Fever,” written by Bruce Springsteen. My friends and I would also play the flip side on our Downtown Cleveland college jukebox. As you know, downtown is on the northside of town on Lake Erie, so my friend Rob nicknamed our buddy John as Northside Johnny. We loved listening to your music in our college cafeteria, so it is good to hear both sides of this single back-to-back on the new live album.

SJ: I had seen Bruce perform the song at a college club in Princeton and I thought it was a great song. A few weeks later Steven and I were rehearsing at The Stony Pony club in Asbury Park and Bruce came in, sat down at the piano, and played it. He said, “You should do this song.” I said, “Bruce, you’ve got to be kidding. This is a great song, and you should do it.” He said it didn’t fit on his album, so he gave it to us and that is one of the most generous things I have ever seen, and we still do it every night. It is one of those songs that the audience really wants to hear. With the audience being so enthusiastic about it, it makes it a joy to play. It is dramatic and you would think that you would get tired of it over the years, but you can’t. It is a real singer’s song, and you can take it in different directions. It is a great gift. I am very appreciative of the fact that Bruce was that generous.

Southside Johnny flip side

The Fever (written by Bruce Springsteen)

A side: I Don’t Want to Go Home (written by Steven Van Zandt)

Billboard Top 100 debut: August 7, 1976

Peak position: No. 105

Epic 8-50238

GM: On that night in Cleveland, Ronnie Spector was a guest in the middle of your set sharing Cleveland International Records’ first single, her version of Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood.” She performed it wonderfully, cautiously making sure she got each word correct in this new song for her.

SJ: Of course she did. She was great live and was a terrific singer. She also sang on “You Mean So Much to Me” on our debut album, another Bruce Springsteen composition, which made for a great finale. We all were on the same bus together and she just fit right in. We really loved having her on the bus. She was so much fun and was very easy to talk to. Ronnie was just glad to be working on the road and had a great time working with the band. When she would walk on stage, the crowd would go crazy, which took some of the pressure off of me. Offstage she was very down to earth, funny, sweet and complimentary to the guys. She was someone really good to hang out with and was not a diva in any way.

  

“Ronnie was just glad to be working on the road and had a great time working with the band. When she would walk on stage, the crowd would go crazy, which took some of the pressure off of me. Offstage she was very down to earth, funny, sweet and complimentary to the guys. She was someone really good to hang out with and was not a diva in any way.” – Southside Johnny on being on tour with Ronnie Spector

  

GM: Well, I share my condolences with you. We published two tributes to Ronnie in January and have another pair of tributes planned at the end of the year. The promotional video for the album includes “Say Goodbye to Hollywood” along with “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “The Fever” and the exciting title tune from your second album which was released just a month before the Agora show, “This Time It’s for Real,” the live concert’s opening song. Let’s talk about another song from your second album, “Without Love,” a cover of an Aretha Franklin song I missed, which fell just below the pop Top 40 in the middle of the 1970s. Your version comes through so nicely with your six-person horn section.

SJ: I wasn’t familiar with the song either, but Steven was and said that we should record it and it is a very flexible song. We can do it a little slower, we can do it quiet, or we can do it brassy. It is really a song that a singer can change if desired. I love that freedom on stage to be able to express what you are feeling at that moment.

GM: You call the horns The Miami Horns. How did these nicknames like Southside Johnny and Miami Steve come to be?

SJ: Well, Miami Steve came to be through , Bruce’s foray into his version of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen entourage, briefly in 1971. He had so many of us on stage. We had a Monopoly game on stage. We had cheerleaders. We had a choir called The Zoomettes. We opened for The Allman Brothers Band. Bruce had gone to California to see his folks, came back and he was broke. We were all broke back then. This guy offered Bruce a show, as he was already a known commodity in Monmouth County, New Jersey before he had any records out. The Allman Brothers Band had just released the double live album At Fillmore East and were coming to play and he wanted an opening act. Bruce said that he would put together a band. He got Steven, me, Vini Lopez on drums, Garry Tallent on bass, and then he started adding more people. It turned into this big circus on stage with Duane Allman sitting in the audience looking up and wondering what the hell we were doing. Everybody had to have a nickname. Bruce became Dr. Zoom, Steven, with his colorful shirts, became Miami Steve, and this is when I became Southside Johnny. I love being on stage. Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes are back on the road now in Milwaukee, Chicago, Asbury Park for Independence Day Weekend and more dates on our website. Thank you so much for promoting this live album and our band. 

Southside Johnny track list

Related Links:

southsidejohnny.com

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clevelandinternational.com

Goldmine Fabulous Flip Sides now in its eighth year

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70s vinyl