Rant ‘N’ Roll: Southside Johnny Brings Rare Event To Asbury Park

They used to call them Sock Hops: a bunch of dancing teenagers and a guy with a record player brought together by the American Junior Red Cross in 1944 to raise money for the war effort. By 1948, it was a full-blown trend with no altruistic sub-text. In the ‘50s, the artists themselves would show up and mouth the lyrics to their hit as their record played. On Friday, February 26, and Saturday, February 27, at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, national treasure Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes will perform but that’s not the news. The news is that Southside will bring his storied collection of old 45 rpm singles to personally spin before each set.

Let the teenagers dance.

For you see, John Lyon, 67, in better voice than ever, is something of an archeologist. He’s a digger of gold. He excavates precious artifacts from the dustbin of time in an effort to resurrect their glory…and oh what glory they be! Being the staunch musicologist that he is—after all, this is a man whose eclecticism has resulted in not only 2008’s Sinatra-styled Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits and 2013’s Americana-Extraordinaire Songs From The Barn, but a string of appearances on projects too cool and too numerous to run down here—Southside has been, over the course of his career, like an actor only picking certain projects of total worth.

Oh, and did I mention that his 32nd and current album Soultime! (Leroy Records) is the best album he’s ever recorded? Yeah, and that includes the mighty I Don’t Want To Go Home debut (1976), This Time It’s For Real (1977) and Hearts Of Stone (1978).

I had to ask The Man himself about this so-called two-night “Soultime! Dance Party.” As usual, he was busy as a bee but bounced right back to me.

“One of the reasons I collect old 45 records is that you never know when you might find a great song you’ve never heard or heard of. One such song is `Weak Spot’ by Ruby Johnson on the Volt label from 1966. It was a small hit down south, but unknown to me. I found a beat-up copy some 30 years ago, and have wanted to do the tune ever since. Never got around to it. Until now. Hope I do it justice at the Pony.”

Ruby Johnson was a Black Jew from North Carolina who went into the studio at 24 and had a few local hits that came to the attention of a radio disk jockey, Al Bell, who went to work for Stax/Volt in Memphis and signed her. It was there she got to work with songwriter legends-in-the-making Isaac Hayes and David Porter with Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn leading the band. None of her records ever sold, and she would quit the music business in 1974 to first become a civil servant and then Director of Foster Grandparents, a Federal program to help handicapped children still in place. As Southside says, it took him 30 years to discover “Weak Spot,” the flip-side of failed single “I’ll Run Your Hurt Away.” By that time, 1996, the only singing she was doing was in her local temple in Lanham, Maryland. She would die three years later at the age of 63.

“I have a whole drawer full of songs I’ve heard,” continues Southside, “whose titles I’ve written on bits of napkin and hotel stationary that I want to cover. Keeps me juiced-up about making records. Sometimes I’ll just start singing one onstage and the band will fall in behind me. It makes for interesting moments. Ya gotta keep it fresh.”