Courtesy of John Cafferty

Talking with John Cafferty about the Beaver Brown Band: ‘Magic Out of Thin Air’

The first-time John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band played in Asbury Park was in the late seventies at the Fast Lane, an influential club that now is the site of the expansion of the adjacent Asbury Lanes. The last time Cafferty played in AP was December 11 for LaBamba’s Holiday Hurrah at the Stone Pony.

A staple of the Asbury Park music scene for more than 40 years, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their formation in Narragansett, Rhode Island, a blue-collar shore town that, at the time, shared a similar vibe with Asbury. A first-ever greatest hits package coincided with the anniversary, which will continue through May 11 in celebration of the band’s debut gig at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingston.

In the meantime, John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown will make their second stop in as many years at the URSB Carteret Performing Arts & Events Center on January 21. We chatted with him about that and their history.

What do you like most about URSB Carteret Performing Arts & Events Center and why?

It’s a beautiful venue, incredible, one of nicest places we’ve played. It looks great, sounds great, very comfortable for the audience. It’s beautiful. 

When and where was the first time you played Asbury Park, and how did it lead to you becoming a staple within the Asbury Park music scene?  

The late seventies – we were playing a place called Toad’s Place in New Haven, Connecticut. A guy saw us play there and wanted to bring us down to Asbury Park. He brought us to the Fast Lane. At that point, we had met Bruce and all those guys – Southside – when we played in Providence and Boston. We were friends with those guys. When we played the Fast Lane, those guys started coming down to the show. Everybody was still young enough and unattached and wanting to hang out at night, so they’d come out to see us play and sit in with us. We made friends very quickly after that. 

Obie, Bruce’s assistant, was very good about letting people know about us. She was very good about putting us all in the same room to talk about all the things we had in common, and we became friends. She was very instrumental in us becoming a part of that scene. Bruce was coming around quite a bit in those days. I know that he’d be up at his house writing, working all day and wanted to go out and play some rock ‘n roll. He knew we knew a bunch of good songs from the fifties and sixties, so he’d come down and we’d raise the roof.

I’ve never seen it, but I’ve been told that Narragansett, Rhode Island, in the 1970s and 1980s had a similar vibe to Asbury Park, and even had a bar akin to The Stone Pony. Is that right or is that just an Asbury myth? 

There were a bunch of bars up there. The University of Rhode Island is close by, so there were always a lot of college kids around. Back in the day, the drinking age was 18, which meant that not everyone was drinking, but everybody could get into the clubs, so every night was Saturday night. There were quite a few places to play all over Rhode Island, but we mainly were in Southern Rhode Island by the beach.

There was a place called The Beachcomber. I don’t know if it was similar, but it was as close to the ocean as the Pony. It’s not there anymore. Narragansett was built up, like Asbury Park. Newport is a little more like the City by the Sea than Narragansett, which was more like a blue-collar sort of vacation spot back in the day. Over the bridge, you had all the mansions in Newport, but on our side of the bridge [were] the working-class people form Providence. Narragansett Beach was a little town that ended up being leveled and redeveloped into condos, but there were a lot of bars that existed there, and surf shops – all the stuff from the sixties. It looked like it came out of a Beach Boys movie… but it got redeveloped into something else. I guess every place go through changes. 

When we were first coming to Jersey in the late seventies, it had a vibe to it for sure. We were musicians looking for that musical connection and found a lot of kinship and brotherhood with musicians down there. We had grown up in a similar era and had a lot of musical influences in common. We knew a lot of the same songs so we could jam together and we were not that far away. When you look the country as a whole, Rhode Island and New Jersey are not that far apart – just a few hours. 

We started the band at the University of Rhode Island. We had our first gig there. My youngest son just graduated there, so it’s come full circle from back in the day. We started out as a band in 1972. I was 21 years old. We started playing out in 1973. The next thing I know, I’m talking to you. It’s been quite a ride. 

You have worked with two of my boyhood heroes – Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Springsteen. What was the best part of working with each of them, and how did that experience impact you and your career? 

Both are multi-talented individuals. Both can do so many different things. What they have in common is that they are both great storytellers and writers and creators of characters to tell those stories. Their stories find a universal appeal to them where people hear the stories these guys tell and are able to see themselves in the story. That’s the thing they have in common. 

Both are very fun guys, very funny, and a lot of fun to be around. For the things they’ve accomplished in this world, both are elite artists in their own fields. Despite what they both accomplished, they remain remarkably down to earth and approachable. Standing by their side, it’s a nice spotlight to be under, that’s for sure. More than anything, they’re both very inspirational at how hard they work and the things they try to obtain in their own work, their own creative output. That’s very inspirational, to see the work ethic that goes into it, it’s just incredible. Both are very prolific. 

What is the best feedback each of those guys have given you? 

Both in their own way have expressed that they really like what we do. They have an appreciation and respect for what we do. That’s a very good feeling to know that people you look up to also look to you with a certain degree of respect for your work. 

What and who inspired you to make music?

When I was a little kid, I was walking down the street with a baseball bat over my shoulder, a glove hooked on the handle of the bat, walking by cousin’s house. He was sitting on the front porch with a record player in a suitcase playing 45s. He was playing “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy and the sound of it stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know why, but the sound of the guitar playing that beat and the echo of the saxophone – the whole sound of it – just stopped me, made me feel a certain way. I don’t know why it gets to me in that way, but I became interested in playing guitar. Then, my cousin and I went to see The Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night, and like with a lot of guys, that was my moment of awakening. The Beatles made playing in a band look like so much fun. It looked like something you wanted to do with your buddies. 

When thought about Elvis Presley, I liked what Elvis did and all those guys from his era, but it was more of an individual thing. The Beatles made it look like it was something you could do with your friends, to be part of a team. It wasn’t as scary. It looked like a lot of fun. That got us off running. 

Is that why you have preferred to operate mainly as the front man of a band rather than as a solo act?

Yeah, it’s about being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself; something you could do with friends. Our band was made up really exceptional guys who all were the leaders of other bands before we had gotten together. They were all ‘The Guy’ in some other situation. We just pooled our talent into a local all-star band. When we pooled our talents, everyone contributed what they did best. What I did best was I was pretty good at writing songs and being a quarterback, so to speak, calling plays from the line of scrimmage. When we did a show, I knew how to read a room so at the moment, we’d use the music we’d have at our fingertips to bring the most out of the night. I was pretty good at doing that so that’s what I did in the band.  What we do has really been a great collaboration over the years. 

When, how, and why did the band transition from Beaver Brown to John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band? 

That happened when we started to make records. When we started the band in 1972, it was the era of strange band names. Beaver Brown fit that. When we got signed in the eighties, it was more the era of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Huey Lewis & the News. It was common for the lead singer, especially the writer of the songs, to have the name up front as the band leader. 

How did Beaver Brown get the name?

We rehearsed for about a year before we played anywhere. Then we got a job at the University of Rhode Island. We needed something to put on the poster. We didn’t have a band name, so we got a case of beer, looked around the room, and started naming things off the room: The Doorknobs, The Sunglasses. Someone said, ‘Beaver Brown,’ which was a can of paint that we used to paint one of the walls in the place where we were rehearsing. We were like, “Well, that’s not so good, but we’ll change it next week,” but we played, and pretty quickly become one of the more popular bands in the neighborhood so the name just sort of stayed with us.


Courtesy of John Cafferty

When did longtime Beaver Brown guitarist Gary ‘Guitar’ Gramolini and saxophonist Michael ‘Tunes’ Antunes start playing in the band? What has kept the three of you playing together so long?

It’s too late for any of us to learn how to swing hammer. This what we do. We are lifers. That’s what we are: musicians. I knew that at 22, and I’m going to be 72 this year. 

We stayed together just because it was the best situation for us. We have a group of guys who can walk into any room anywhere on any night, count to four, and create magic out of thin air. It’s something that you sort of cherish, that ability to do that. It’s not something that you can walk away from. 

Gary is an original member. Gary was going to the University of Rhode Island. He’s from Boston originally. When we started the band, he was at URI, as was Pat Lupo, the bass player. Myself and Kenny Jo Silva, our drummer, went to school in Providence, but we were hanging around URI, which was down by the beach. When we started the band, we had a couple of different sax players, but then Tunes and his wife were having their son and she couldn’t sing anymore, so Tunes was looking for another gig, and he came and played with us. It was just magic immediately, and we said, “You’re in the band.” That was maybe ’74 or ’75. 

How do drummer Jackie Santos, bassist Dean Cassell, and keyboardist Steve Burke help you, Gary and Michael to maintain the legacy of the band? 

Original keyboardist Bobby [Cotoia] passed away so Steve was a veteran player playing in A Roomful of Blues, a legendary band around our house. We’re a group of veteran musicians who all know one another and have similar backgrounds. Jackie played with Tavares, who are more of an R&B band. He’s incredibly talented and of the same age. Dean played in a band called The Make and toured with Barrence Whitfield and the Savages and Shirley Lewis. He’s out of Boston and pretty successful, as well, so we all sort of knew one another, all had similar backgrounds as far as musician upbringing. Not just anybody could walk into a veteran band like ours or any of the bands of that era and know how not only to play the songs but know the influences that helped shape the songs we play. There are a lot of reference points that are good to have in common. 

How does it feel to have recently celebrated the band’s 50th anniversary?

It will be 50 years of playing out in May. We did our first gig on May 11, 1973 at University of Rhode Island. It’s a good year for us because it’s our 50th and it’s 40 years since the movie soundtrack for Eddie and the Cruisers brought us national recognition. We just released a greatest hits record and plan on releasing a new record with new material hopefully by May. That’s what we’re working on. 

It’s been quite a thing. After the virus shut the business down – shut the world down, really – and then the curtains opened back up again, we said we either can get rusty or be better than ever. We decided to go better than ever and realized that we have a songbook that covers our whole career like songs I wrote that we never recorded that are vintage songs for fans. I also wrote a bunch of new songs over the years, especially this past year. I don’t know why I started writing again, but the songs are coming pretty frequently, and they’re pretty good.  

It’s been a lot of fun. I think the whole world has a new appreciation for things that are really important to their lives. We’re just very grateful and thankful for what has come our way and go out there and share it with people who have been there with us all along the way. Our shows have been pretty long. I warn people as soon as we start that we’re going to be here a while so feel free to move about room. They have our permission to come and go. To be a part of this live show, it takes a great band, but it also takes a great audience to make the magic. Everybody plays a part in it. Even if they’re not playing an instrument, they’re instrumental in making the night magical.  

When you started out in Rhode Island in 1972, did you think Beaver Brown was going to last this long?

You could ask The Rolling Stones the same question. I don’t think any 21-year-old kid is looking down the road 50 years thinking, “This is what I’m going to be doing.” We just took it one day at a time, one set at a time, one night at a time. We did the best we could and that somehow led into the next day, the next night, the next opportunity. The pages just kept turning, and it’s still going. 

We played the other night, it was magical. You probably still can hear it in my voice singing for three hours. It’s just big fun! 

How does the new ‘Greatest Hits’ album sum up and span those 50 years?

For us being able to have the hit songs that were from our own records, “Tough All Over” and “Roadhouse,” like “C-I-T-Y,” and combining that with songs from the movie soundtracks that we contributed to, having hits like “On the Dark Side,” “Wild Summer Night,” “Hearts on Fire,” we look at the body of work like it’s all our work, all part of the band’s output. We never really differentiated between how they got used once we recorded them. It’s all just John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. It’s all part of the songbook. I think having our greatest hits presented in one package is very much like the way we look at ourselves.

Is there anything I didn’t ask on which you would like to comment?

We very much look forward coming down to New Jersey. It’s always a thrill for us to play in New Jersey and see all our old friends there. The fan base from that area is so supportive of music in general, especially the type of music we play – the bar sound. They’re just wonderful music fans who welcome hard work and don’t just want to hear the hits. They’re interested in hearing new stuff, deep cuts, the whole package. It’s always a thrill to play down there and very much appreciated by the band. The last time we played in Carteret, we played for three hours. It was a long but very fun show.