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Southside Johnny Lyon of classic rock fame grew up on the Jersey Shore Club scene with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt, and a full gamut of R&B performers that the mid 60’s offered. In full collaborative mode, they learned from each other and made their bones before Springsteen hit it big in 1975. But coming from a home where blues musicians like Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters and Big Joe Turner were always playing, he never really considered a career in music until he made the most of stealing his brother’s instrument of choice.
“Playing around with his harmonica and getting into the clubs as a teenager, Jimmy Fox of the Starfires said to me, you’re going to sing with me. Once I got up there, I loved it, and they haven’t been able to get me down since,” said the Jersey legend.
Thus, he gives due credit to his father. “It was my dad who convinced me to leave the post office. He worked there 40 years and always wanted to be a musician. He told me just do it. So I realized I couldn’t work all night and then show up for work at 6AM,” says Lyon.
Fortunately, the opportunities in those days were aplenty, and he didn’t miss the call. “The clubs had bands like the Aztecs, the Jaywalkers and all kinds of Blues. So to me it was like a siren that said, ‘I got to get in there,’ he remembers.
Bruce, Stevie and Friends make their Bones
However it was Upstage that got everyone’s eyes and ears flashing. “All the young musicians used to go there and play after hours. Springsteen, Stevie and a bunch of us used to share an apartment. We hung out, listened to music and played monopoly,” says Johnny.
Still, it’s hard to believe that Monopoly was the extent of the escapades. “We used to play poker too, but only with suckers because we needed rent money,” he jokes.
No infighting were also the terms when it came to music. “There was never competition. There still isn’t. We were just lucky to have a place to play, grow and learn from each other,” says Johnny.
As such, the Jukes got their start at the Stone Pony and enlisted Stevie Van Zandt in 1971. “We were able to hang onto him and got three albums out of him before he joined Springsteen, says Johnny.
Their break came when Van Zandt made friends with an engineer in an old recording studio in NYC. “We used to sneak in late at night and ended up with a contract with Epic," says Johnny.
The day they heard “I Don’t Want to go Home,” on WNEW in 1976 was the moment the Jukes knew they made it. “I went on the road for the next 20 years,” he says.
Having now reached 64, and then some, he reminisces how he’d joke with Paul McCartney on who would die first. “He didn’t I did,” Lyons deadpans.
No Problem taking back seat in Rockstar social club
But he doesn’t attribute his demise to taking full advantage of being a rock star, while exhibiting the appropriate level of shame. “I’ve always been monogamous with my girlfriends so I’m pretty much a disgrace to my fellow lead singers,” he jokes.
Nonetheless, Johnny’s happy to defer on the job requirements. “People are always following you around, and you always have to look great. That’s why I’m not one because it’s a wearing occupation,” he reveals.
So he’s happy to leave the classic rock stardom to Springsteen. “When he took off, we loved it. He was one of us, and in continuing to play with us and giving us great songs, he was instrumental in my career," he says.
This left the Jukes plenty of wiggle room to eventually ditch Epic. When we first signed, we had a couple of cool guys in our corner who believed in us. But after people moved on, since we weren’t selling a million records, everyone thought we were crazy. I didn’t want to work for people like that, and when I started my own record company, I could do what I wanted,” says Johnny.
All told, Southside Johnny finds all he needs in his music. “No kids, no pets, no friends,” he slyly concludes.