The History of Asbury Park as a Jam Scene
Longtime New Jersey music scribe and JamBands.com contributor Bob Makin gave a version of the following talk at the Asbury Park Music Awards on Aug. 28, at Tradewinds in Sea Bright, N.J.:
Asbury Park is best known for its greatest musical export, Bruce Springsteen, especially recently with the media blitz behind the Boss' heroic new album, "The Rising." But the resurging resort was one of the East Coast's best spots for music, particularly for the improvisational variety, since Red Bank native Count Basie played in the 1930s at the cavernous Mrs. Jay's Beer Garden, which is now The Stone Pony. A young New Jersey jazz singer named Frank Sinatra also performed at Mrs. Jay's in the early days of his career.
Throughout the jazz era, music floated out into the streets of the seaside city from the many jazz and blues clubs that lined Main Street. Eventually rock 'n' roll would make its way into Asbury's nightclubs, but first it came up on the street in the form of the many doo-wop groups who often would improvise harmonies on street corners, like rappers do in ciphers today. Two of the movers and shakers of this doo-wop scene were Nick Addeo, who went on to become a longtime fixture in the city's municipal government, and Kenny "Mr. Popeye" Pentifallo, the original drummer of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, whose weekly jams of rock 'n' soul at The Stone Pony laid the foundation for what became the blue collar-friendly, bar band-oriented Sounds of Asbury Park.
The seeds of those sounds were planted at a tiny coffeehouse called The Upstage, which mainly would have acoustic acts to entertain its customers. But after hours, the many young musicians, who had cut their teeth at Jersey Shore teen concerts called Hulabaloos, would jam at the Cookman Avenue nightspot into the wee hours of the morning. They included Springsteen, who often led the jams, as well as such members of the E Street Band as guitarist Steve Van Zandt, organist Danny Federici, drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez and bassist Garry Tallent. Southside Johnny Lyon also was on the The Upstage scene, along with many players active in bands today, including Boccigalupe & the Badboys bassist John Luraschi, Blue-Plate Special bassist Vinnie Roslin, singer Big Danny Gallagher and guitarist Sonny Kenn.
The Upstage was run by Margaret and Tom Potter, a couple, who like Tex and Martha Vinyard in Freehold before them, nurtured young talent that had few other places to go. Without the Potters and the Vinyards, who opened up their Freehold home to garage bands that included Springsteen and other future Asbury rockers, there might not have been an Asbury rock scene, at least not the one that we've come to know and love. The most important contribution that The Upstage jams may have made to the history of rock 'n' roll is giving Springsteen an opportunity to perform with his future bandmates, not only of the E Street Band, but also Steel Mill, his first great band. A cross between the lyrical folk-rock of Bob Dylan and the heavy blues rock of Cream and Led Zeppelin, Steel Mill was one of the first New Jersey groups to play mainly originals. And they did so in epic proportions with jams that often ran seven minutes or longer in such places as The! Sunshine Inn, a favorite tour stop of a young Allman Brothers Band.
A few years later, The Stone Pony opened and became known as The House That Bruce Built, mainly because of the frequency of times he would show up to jam. When the Jukes became a national act in the wake of a recording deal with Epic, Cats on a Smooth Surface replaced them as the Pony's house band. In the summer of 1982, The Boss was at The Pony nearly every Sunday to jam with Cats, whose all-star lineup would go onto gigs with the Jukes, Styx, The Hooters and Meat Loaf. Springsteen would play '50s and '60s classics with Cats, such as "Twist and Shout,"Little Latin Lupe Lu," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Kansas City" and "Lucille."
After nearly a decade at their post, Cats' members became extensively involved in a 1986 charity effort called Jersey Artists for Mankind or J.A.M. for short. A good chunk of the Jersey Shore music scene became involved in the project, including Springsteen, Southside and several members of the E Street Band. The "We Are the World"-inspired project included several concerts and a single of "We've Got the Love" and "Save Love, Save Life" that was co-produced by Garry Tallent for Arista Records. Cats on a Smooth Surface's Glen Burtnik, now a guitarist with Styx, has kept J.A.M.'s all-star concert tradition alive with his annual Xmas Xtravaganzas at The Bottom Line in New York.Now, when the bulk of Mrs. Jay's Beer Garden became The Stone Pony in 1974, a small portion of the nightclub remained Mrs. Jay's, an extremely popular watering hole for the bikers Springsteen chronicled in his signature song, "Born To Run." The house band at Mrs. Jay's was a group called Acme Boogie Company, which was a jam band before the term was even coined. ABC ran the Monday night open jam at Mrs. Jay's. They rarely said no to anyone who wanted to jump on stage, no matter how much of stretch the tune they wanted to play might have been. It wasn't always pretty, but it was almost always fun, especially for those who joined in the jam.
Now Mrs. Jay's being a biker bar, a lot of Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers Band tunes were played either on the stage or the sound system. After years of listening to and seeing Bruce and the Jukes, many Asbury clubgoers, myself included, got turned onto the Allmans and the Dead in a big way at Mrs. Jay's. And what was my way of saying thank you? One night, I stumbled out of the club and bumped into a Harley, which, like a domino, knocked over a line of bikes. I stood there, my head down, my mouth open, scared out of my ever-loving mind, but a couple of bikers just came out and helped me pick the hogs back up. I really loved that place and miss it a whole lot.
Another spot for tasty jams in Asbury was the Hot Dog House, a punk venue on Cookman Avenue that evolved into a rehearsal studio. A stone's throw from where The Upstage had been, groups like Big Nurse, Piece of Wood and Nobody's Business would jam and party together at The Hot Dog House as often as they would work out new tunes. The tradition continues with a slew of hot, young punk bands.
On the other side of the musical spectrum, jam bands have become a hot live commodity, and the new and improved Stone Pony (www.stoneponyonline.com), www.savethepony.com) is not about to be left out of the action. So the legendary club created Jam Band Friday, where such great New Jersey artists as Robert Randolph and Railroad Earth have brought their fans into an Asbury Park that seems to be on the comeback trail. Coming up at Jam Band Friday will be the sensational guitarist-bassist Charlie Hunter on Oct. 12.
Along the same lines, The Saint (www.thesaintnj.com) on Main Street has organized The Tillie Jam 'n' Groove Fest in honor of the neon clown on the facade of The Palace Amusements, which is threatened by possible demolition (see www.savetille.com and www.palaceforsale.com). A national historic site immortalized in Springsteen's "Born To Run," the Palace — or at least Tillie — can be saved from the wrecking ball if purchased and put to good use. A children's museum has been suggested by the city government, perhaps attached to an arts education center for youth, which was long the dream of The Upstage's Margaret Potter before her death nearly a decade ago. The Tillie Fest, featuring Nick Clemons Band, Water and many others from Sept. 20-22, not only presented three days of great music, but it also helped to raise awareness about the plight of The Palace.
The event included the sale of "Jersey Jams, Jersey Cares: A Charitable Tribute to the New Jersey Families of September 11." In the spirit of Jersey Artists for Mankind, the compilation CD, featuring Asbury favorites Glen Burtnik and John Eddie, as well as Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Bernie Worrell and Levon Helm, and such popular Jersey acts as Robert Randolph, Railroad Earth, Matt Angus Thing, Kathy Phillips Band, Ta-Ta, Barbuda, The Alice Project and The VooDUDES, was produced by Jersey Jams Fund, a fiduciary fund of Bergen County United Way that provides music scholarship to the New Jersey Children of 9/11 and music therapy in the form of free concerts and CDs to their families. Jersey Jams Fund, which has raised $20,000 so far, also produced the Jersey Jams, Jersey Cares Summer Arts Carnival in July at The Stone Pony, which presented the very first Jersey Jams, Jersey Cares concert in March with Boccigalupe & the Badboys, Dann! y White Band, Water and The VooDUDES.Asbury Park, especially The Stone Pony and The Saint, has been incredibly supportive of Jersey Jams Fund, its charity CD and benefit concerts. Look for a bigger and better Summer Arts Carnival next summer.
Bob Makin is a longtime contributor to JamBands.com who also writes for Gannett New Jersey, The Aquarian Weekly and Backstreets. Bands can send him information at firstname.lastname@example.org and material to P.O. Box 6600, Bridgewater, NJ 08807.