A Jersey Tradition: Southside Johnny on New Year’s Eve
For decades, New Year’s Eve has meant two things: Dick Clark and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Dick Clark may have passed on his torch, but Southside and his band are still rocking in the new year – and they will be doing it again at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.
“Southside on New Year’s Eve is just about as Jersey as it gets,” said Jon Vena, VP, Marketing & Public Relations at Count Basie Theatre. “This is the 17th time we’ve done this, and the Basie is always excited to see Johnny, the band and their fans as we ring in the new year.”
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were one of the most popular bands in New Jersey in the mid 1970s. They went from being the house band at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park to a national act with the release of “I Don’t Want to Go Home” in 1976. Since then, they have taken their signature blend of rock ’n’ roll with rhythm & blues – always featuring a stellar horn section – around the world.
And from the very beginning, the band has owned New Year’s Eve in the Garden State. They’ve played NYE shows at venues from the old Capitol Theatre in Passaic to the State Theatre in New Brunswick to the Count Basie Theatre, which has been their NYE home for most of the last two decades.
Even though Southside grew up in Ocean Grove near Asbury Park’s legendary Convention Hall, he remembers seeing a few shows at the Count Basie Theatre as well. One show instantly comes to mind.
“You know who I saw there?” laughs Southside Johnny Lyon. “Count Basie!”
Southside’s parents were big fans of jazz music and he grew up hearing artists like Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing in the house. Before the theater was renamed after the great jazz artist from Red Bank, he saw Count Basie himself perform there. He remembers guitarist Freddie Green with him and Count Basie on stage in a wheelchair. He says the acoustics weren’t nearly as good back then as they are in the theater today.
Playing New Year’s Eve has been a tradition for Southside even before The Jukes became a band. In fact, he struggles to remember when he wasn’t on stage to close out a year.
“The one day off I think I’ve had in the last 40 years of New Years is the year Stevie Van Zandt decided to marry Maureen in New York on New Year’s Eve,” recalled Southside. “I had to go to New York City on New Year’s Eve instead of sitting home with my wife by the fireplace, probably asleep by 10:30 p.m. So, I figure I might as well work the night!”
According to Southside, the tradition just sort of happened on its own. New Year’s Eve was always a good night for bands to play and earn a nice paycheck. As the shows took place year after year, venues took notice and began locking the band in. This made it easier on the band and helped the tradition grow.
“It meant I didn’t have to sweat where I was going to be on New Year’s Eve!” continued Southside. “I knew where I was going to be and I knew what I was going to be doing. For a musician, it’s such an iffy business to know whether you were going to be popular or not or be booked anywhere. When – way back in the 70s – we started getting these regular gigs, there’s a certain comfort level that comes with it. Of course, you always want to expand it, to play all over the world, but it’s nice to know that on certain days like 4th of July weekend we’ll be in Asbury Park and New Year’s will be at the Count Basie. It’s just great to have steady dates.”
Many band members plan vacation time around the steady dates. They will play the New Year’s Eve show and then leave on the 1st or 2nd. But on that final night of the year, it’s all business.
They have people watching the clock who will give Southside a nudge when the time starts creeping close to midnight. Even though the band has performed on New Year’s Eve for as long as they have, when the music gets going they get lost in the moment.
The audience is bound to hear fan favorites from classic albums like “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” “This Time It’s For Real” and “Hearts of Stone,” as well as from “Soultime” – the band’s latest release.
One song the audience can definitely expect is the band’s legendary cover of Sam Cooke’s “Havin’ a Party” — that, along with the title track from the Juke’s first album, are almost guaranteed.
Feeding off of the energy of the night, the band always manages to put on one of their best shows of the year, even though Southside says they don’t try to do anything different.
“I’ve done different things in different years, but it turns out what people want the most is just a fun night of the Jukes and all the crazy stuff we do on stage,” he explained. “That’s what they really want. And so it finally dawned on me that all of the thrills and the bells and whistles weren’t important. It makes it easier for us and I think it makes it easier for the audience too. They don’t have to get bogged down into liking some crazy experiment that I want to try. But I’m still learning how to do it – I’ll give it another 20 years!”
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes perform at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on Saturday, December 31. The party kicks off at 9 p.m. and includes special guests Des and The Swagmatics on the bill. Tickets range from $39 to $99. For more information, visit www.countbasietheatre.org.