It’s tough to sum up Southside Johnny in one word. “Enigmatic” doesn’t cut it, but there’s precious little information readily available about him. Almost every Wikipedia article about him, his band, or his albums either lacks much substance or are hilariously under sourced yet unchallenged.
But the best entry point to this virtuoso isn’t his personal life, the story of his dry spell during the ’80s, or the fact that he’s never really gotten his due — naturally, it’s his music.
Southside Johnny didn’t just help create the Jersey-Shore sound — he is the Jersey-Shore sound. His music is a blend of blue-eyed soul, R&B, big band, and a touch of doo-wop.
His first few albums are things of beauty, and his influence can be found in every major New Jersey band since the 1980s, including the radically different, yet somehow identical, Bon Jovi — the eponymous frontman of which would contribute years later to his Better Days album.
Thanks to the fine folks at Real Gone Music, Southside’s early work has been released on a handy compilation, The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings. No matter who you are or what your musical taste, it’s 100% worth your time. The Fever features Southside Johnny’s first three albums alongside a never-before-released live album titled Jukes Live at the Bottom Line. It was originally only shipped to radio stations for promotional purposes, but now we all have access to it.
The Venn diagram of Southside fans and Bruce Springsteen fans is a smaller circle in a larger circle. Southside honed his craft with other towering figures of the Jersey Shore, including Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt. Indeed, most of the songs on this album, and many of the best songs in Southside’s repertoire, have either Springsteen or Van Zandt’s fingerprints on them. That’s not to say Southside isn’t accomplished in his own right — his sound is distinct from his Stone Pony pals — but you’re going to have a hard time finding better songwriters than the Boss and Little Steven. Many members of the Jukes double as members of the E Street Band, including La Bamba, Mark Pender, and Max Weinberg.
Odds are you’ve heard songs by Southside on film soundtracks but never thought too much about them. He’s contributed songs to the Home Alone, Karate Kid II, and Mighty Ducks soundtracks, along with performing the theme to Dave’s World. He also appeared on an episode of The Sopranos for a duet with Nancy Sinatra. Perhaps no soundtrack contribution sums up his luck in the industry more than the fact that he contributed two songs to the Captain America soundtrack. Not the one with Chris Evans, mind you — the one from 1990 with Matt Salinger. The Bad One. Ouch.
These albums predate all that and represent the creative peak of both Southside and his patented sound. The first album, I Don’t Want to Go Home, features two of Southside’s signature songs, the titular track and “The Fever.” The latter was intended to be a Springsteen tune but was given to Johnny, and it’s become a staple at all of his live shows.
The album also features duets with Little Steven (“Broken Down Piece of Man”) and Ronnie Spector (“You Mean So Much to Me”). For my money, “You Mean So Much to Me” is one of the best things Spector’s ever done; she gets to show her vocal prowess over dense, Springsteen-penned lyrics that prove she’s so much more than pop.
This Time It’s for Real is a collaboration-heavy album that includes some heavy hitters performing background music: the Coasters, the Five Satins, and the Drifters. As such, the album is the closest the Jukes have come to pure R&B and doo wop. It’s easily the least well-known of the three remastered studio albums here, but it’s an absolute gem. It has much more polish and emotion than its predecessor and arguably reaches higher high points. To sum up the album, the Coasters sing backup on a song about “Popeye the Sailor,” and it works perfectly.
Probably the best-known album of the compilation, Hearts Of Stone is the Asbury Jukes fully realized. Southside Johnny’s soulful, emotional voice is on full display here, not just singing simple R&B but showing emotion like some kind of unholy hybrid of Springsteen and Ray Charles.
There are no collaborations and not much by way of covers. Just a fully realized album with strong horns, strong lyrics, and strong singing. “Hearts of Stone” is still a staple at his concerts, and this is the true, original version of “Talk to Me,” a song often incorrectly ascribed to Springsteen, who wrote it but certainly didn’t record the original or even, dare I say, the best version.
The sound quality and remastering on this compilation are impeccable. I’m sure the master tapes were kept in good condition, but everything sounds so crisp and clear that I’m starting to wonder if Real Gone has some sort of Delorean that brings them back to when the tapes were first recorded so they can extract the best version possible. I’m particularly impressed by the remastering of the live album; audio quality for live albums is a notoriously tricky beast, especially for a man like Southside Johnny who often came with a smaller budget, but it sounds clearer than live albums recorded in the past decade.
Southside Johnny still has a pretty strong following in the Asbury Park music scene. The Jukes perform an annual concert every Fourth of July at the Stone Pony Summer Stage. I encourage anyone reading this to take a trip to Asbury Park and ask around — local business owners often have stories about him.
One vendor I spoke to said that she went to see a concert of Southside performing Heart of Stone, but he had a sore throat that day, so Bruce Springsteen came in unannounced and performed the entire album in his place. Anyone doing work to make sure his fanbase spreads outside central and southern New Jersey is doing the Lord’s work.
If you’re a Southside Johnny fan and already own these albums, the remastering is solid and the inclusion of the live album is an incentive to invest in this set. If you’re new to Southside Johnny, this is the perfect place to start.
Get your copy of Southside Johnny’s The Fever: The Remastered Epic Recordings from Real Gone Music’s shop.
(Cover photo via southsidejohnny.com)