The nudge for this post came from watching the first of three planned segments of a homemade documentary about The Jukes that I highly recommend for any fan of this much-loved Jersey band. The slightly unpolished, but ever-engaging video traced Southside and the band’s beginnings through the end of their three-album run on Epic Records in 1979.
Having lived in the Garden State during these years, my initial skepticism about the band developed into total admiration and a life-long love of those first three records. During these years, I caught several live shows down the shore, at The Bottom Line in New York and elsewhere. But, my first venture into Jukedom was in a rather odd setting.
During my college days at Seton Hall, campus concerts were a big thing. (A blog piece on the demise of college concerts is forthcoming.) Our school ran the full gamut holding theater-level shows in the gym, club-shows in the student lounge, and on occasion at the bottom of the scale, playing for half-interested folks in the student pub.
With the late 1975 release of Born to Run, the musical world was for the time being all about Bruce Springsteen. In fact, in December of that year, just before Christmas break, he and the E Street Band played an amazing sold out show in our gym. And yes, we heard “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the night before the famous live version was recorded at another area college.
My intro to the Jukes came from a friend with whom I bonded over the Boss: “Miami Steve Van Zandt’s (E-Street guitarist) band is going to be playing the pub.” Clueless about Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, we of course went for Springsteen sake not knowing what to expect. Without the internet, there was little research one could do other than to ask around. We knew some of the Asbury Park music scene history from some rock mag writings, but certainly not enough to prepare ourselves for what we’d be walking into.
Negligent on recording details such as the date, songs played, etc., I would mark the Jukes’ pub performance as being late 1975 or early 1976; well before the summer of 1976 release of their debut record. I doubt there was a cover charge other than having to flash your student ID to get in. It wasn’t crowded and outside of a handful of us Brucefiles, there were mostly people there to drink cheap beer and forget about studying.
Without a stage, the band played in a corner of the room while we sat at one of the scattered tables. There was no one we recognized in the band, and our mild expectation to maybe see Miami Steve did not come to pass. Likewise, my musical horizons were narrow at the time and the soul and R&B covers they were playing sounded so foreign, that they would have camouflaged any original tunes that may have been in the set.
Despite my new and intense Springsteen leanings, I was still in my country rock phase and the sight and sound of this band were foreign to me. I also left with a negative attitude about the “coolness” of their look (e.g. wide-brimmed hat and ear ring of keyboard player Kevin Kavanaugh). In some diary notes I later made about the band, I described their image as being “overdone with the hats and ‘rings and just being too cool.” I guess at this time I was more used to and comfortable seeing a performer in a plaid flannel shirt and overalls.
Outside of recalling a franticly energetic Johnny on vocals and harmonica, I’m wasn’t then aware of anyone else in the band. Back in the day I had a 35mm camera that I barely could work. Also, at this time, photos had to be developed and were expensive. So, here’s the one shot that I did take that night during which Johnny was unfortunately leaning forward hiding his face.
Pictured below, left to right are Billy Rush on guitar, Frank Benjamin on tambourine (he also played trumpet) Popeye on the drums, Carlo Novi on tenor sax, and Al Berger on the bass in addition to Southside and Kevin.
History-wise, I wish I could remember more. However, I’m glad that I went and started to follow this band that I came to better know and love over the years.