Although remembered by far too few today, back in the day these longtime New Jersey favorites brewed a formidably sweaty brand of r&b-based rock ‘n’ roll. Heavy on the horns and possessing one of the most soulful blue eyed belters around in Southside Johnny Lyon, the band was mentored by Bruce Springsteen and (especially) Miami Steve Van Zant (a.k.a. Steven Van Zant, a.k.a. Little Steven, a.k.a. Silvio Dante from the TV show The Sopranos), who between them wrote half the songs (the best ones) on this somewhat inconsistent but highly promising debut album. Certainly Van Zant’s title track is an all-time r&b classic, with a truly great lyric, vocal, and (string enhanced) melody. In fact, it sounds like a song Sam Cooke should’ve written, while Springsteen’s “The Fever” is a stellar doo-wop flavored sing along that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Greetings From Asbury Park. Other hooky highlights include Van Zant’s “Sweeter Than Honey” and Bruce’s “You Mean So Much To Me,” which features a fine cameo from legendary lead Ronette Ronnie Spector. Elsewhere, Lee Dorsey guests on “How Come You Treat Me So Bad?,” which has a slinky sax/horn-led melody, while covers from the likes of Steve Cropper (“Broke Down Piece Of Man”) and Ray Charles (“I Choose To Sing The Blues”) get by on their earnest energy. Still, though the group were obviously excited to be recording their first album, by and large this underrated band has always been only as good as their material, which here rarely falls to filler status but more often than not fails to be especially memorable, either. As such, I tend to view this album as a solid first step with a couple of superb highlights that hinted at the even better things to follow.
This Time It's For Real (Epic ’77) Rating: B+
Did these guys have connections or what? Not only did Van Zant and (again, to a lesser extent) Springsteen write most of these songs, but the band also enlisted vocal group Hall Of Famers The Coasters, The Five Satins, and The Drifters, though it is Johnny and his 9-member Jukes who still shine brightest. That said, the band's influences (or should I say Van Zant's influences?) are on ample display throughout, as "First Night" (featuring The Five Satins) is a fantastic doo-wop number with a street corner innocence that harks back to the freewheelin' '50s, and "She Got Me Where She Wants Me" is obviously influenced by The Impressions. The deep baritone on this song's chorus is exactly the kind of deft touch that gives this album a character that the last album didn't quite have, and the more consistent overall songwriting helps as well, even if the highlights here aren't quite as high. There are still a few generic entries too many, but the hard charging title track, the wise, dramatic string-heavy ballad "Without Love" (memorable lyric: "don't you know that a rich man might be poor if money is all he has"), and the Drifters collaboration ("Little Girl So Fine") work very well (The Coasters track, "Check Mr. Popeye," is a lighthearted lesser effort, though it's fun enough due to its humorous nature). Though it doesn't top the original, this album also has a strong sequel song ("I 'Aint Got The Fever No More") and a successfully symphonic Phil Spector-ish attempt ("Love On The Wrong Side Of Town"), albeit with more horns, as the album as a whole trumps its predecessor by virtue of having more original songs and much more variety. Perhaps Van Zant should look up a synonym for "baby," and I'm pretty sure that "When You Dance" was simply a leftover, but the overall quality of the album, both songwriting and performance wise, is impressive. Often overlooked sandwiched between an eyebrow raising debut and their near-classic next effort, This Time It's For Real should've made a bigger splash than it did and it deserves to be better known than it is.
Hearts Of Stone (Epic ’78) Rating: A
Again greatly benefiting from the guidance of both Bruce and Van Zant, who between them this time wrote all of this album’s songs, Hearts Of Stone is the band's best studio album. Bruce pens two of the album’s finest songs, including the catchy “Talk To Me” and the title track, a slow ballad that all but oozes soul. Let’s face it, soul is something you either have or you don’t (Van Morrison does, Michael Bolton doesn’t), and these guys have soul to spare, led by Johnny’s gruff everyman vocal delivery. Van Zant’s sad “This Time Baby’s Gone For Good” (love that resigned “so long” there at the end) and enraptured “Next To You,” featuring some soaring lead guitar work, could also melt even hearts of stone, while "Got To Be A Better Way Home," “I Played The Fool,” and “Take It Inside” are strong up-tempo tracks, each in varying ways, with the latter intense effort featuring more good guitar playing from Billy Rush. Bruce, Steve, and Johnny all chipped in to write “Trapped Again,” whose desperation is boosted by Johnny's (and Bruce/Steven's, I believe) impassioned vocals and stellar instrumental support by the always reliable Jukes (with E. Streeter Max Weinberg sitting in on drums, as he does throughout the album). A neglected late ‘70s should be considered a classic (gushingly called “the greatest soul record to ever come out of New Jersey” by critic Jimmy Guterman) by a too often overlooked unit, this would be the group’s last album helmed by Van Zant until 1992’s Better Days comeback. Also of note is the fact that the first 8 of this album’s 9 songs appear, in chronological order no less, on Epic's 1992 compilation The Best Of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes compilation, though it would've been nice had room also been made for "Light Don't Shine," which closes the curtain here on a fittingly, winningly low-key note.
Reach Up & Touch The Sky: Live (Mercury ‘81) Rating: B+
Though Johnny and the rest of the Jukes will probably always be remembered by most as minor league Bruce Springsteen wannabes, the truth is that these guys never aimed nearly as high. Instead, they knew what they liked and what they were good at and they stuck with it, treading a much narrower territory but never cheating anyone while generating a highly respectable and often quite enjoyable body of r&b-based work. The band always brought forth a sweaty vigor that translated especially well to live performances, so it should come as no surprise that one of the band's best albums is this live showcase, recorded after the band had severed ties with Epic and Van Zant and released two less successful albums (The Jukes and Love Is A Sacrifice) on which the band wrote all of the material themselves, with guitarist Billy Rush being the most prolific writer followed by Lyon and bassist Al Berger. In truth, the songs taken from the last two albums are fairly generic, workmanlike numbers, making me think that I'm not missing all that much by not owning those two albums, and this version of "I Don't Want To Go Home" is disappointing as well. Fortunately, the three Hearts Of Stone songs are (predictably, I suppose) first-rate ("Trapped Again" simply smokes), and the Sam Cooke medley on side two is fantastic, with the highlight being "Having A Party," which even gets some radio airplay to this day and which kept the name Sam Cooke alive when his available catalog was scarce. Really, that sequence of songs alone is reason enough to own this album, but the band also energetically covers Chuck Berry ("Back In The U.S.A.") and includes an elongated run through "The Fever." As a general rule, the songs here are harder rocking, looser, livelier, and longer than the studio originals, and Reach Up & Touch The Sky: Live is a very good live album that sees Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in their element, doing what they do best.
Better Days (Impact ’91) Rating: A-
After another label switch and three more albums (Trash It Up, In The Heat, and At Least We Got Shoes), including an ill-advised collaboration with Nile Rodgers, Johnny released a solo album (Slow Dance) before reconvening with the Jukes. And what do you know, on their first album together in five years this bar band par excellence came roaring back with this surprisingly stellar return. It’s like they never left and then some, as evidenced by superlative songs such as “Coming Back,” “All I Needed Was You,” “It’s Been A Long Time” (a minor hit), “Soul's On Fire,” and “Ride The Night Away.” “Coming Back” is a confident statement of purpose ("I'm coming back, back for what's mine") on which Johnny comes back to claim the right woman and the success that for too long had eluded him, while “All I Needed Was You” echoes the album's overriding theme of regret over missed opportunities ("I wanted everything when all I needed was you babe") bolstered by a sense of renewal for the better days ahead. As such, memorable songs such as the nostalgic “It’s Been A Long Time” (with lead vocals from Southside Johnny, Steven Van Zant, and Bruce Springsteen) and “Ride The Night Away” (love that airy chorus) have an upbeat, feel good vibe, while “Soul's On Fire” is among the band's most memorable, passionate, and epic ballads. Alas, though the album starts almost perfectly it's somewhat let down by being too long (as are several songs), while the song intros dispersed throughout are likewise unnecessary. Despite these flaws, Better Days was still a stirring artistic success, in large part due to the long overdue return of musical director Steven Van Zandt, who wrote and arranged most of the songs while also contributing some searing lead guitar (along with Bobby Bandiera, later a touring guitarist with Bon Jovi who I've also seen put on great live shows at piano bars with his own band) and distinctive backing vocals (plus that aforementioned lead vocal). Johnny’s voice is as rough and soulful as ever, and the band cooks up solid r&b-based grooves, sometimes veering (less successfully) into gutbucket rock n’ roll. It’s a testament to the Jukes’ reputation that superstar luminaries (and fellow New Jerseyans) Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi saw fit to contribute some vocals, while Bruce also wrote “All The Way Home,” a low-key ballad that's better than most of what would end up on Lucky Town or Human Touch.
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