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Norfolk's tribute to Clarence Clemons

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NORFOLK, Va.--A long time ago Bruce Springsteen said rock is "the music of survival." Over the weekend core members of the Asbury Park, N.J. rock scene gathered in Norfolk to pay tribute to E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

Clemons died in June of complications from a stroke. He was 69. Clemons was born and raised in Norfolk County, now known as the City of Chesapeake. The connection between Norfolk and New Jersey is correct and on Saturday night a full moon hit all the right notes on the Chesapeake Bay.

The joyful noise that rose out of Frank Guida's studio during the early 1960s in Norfolk was the root of the earliest versions of the E Street Band as well as Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

You know the songs even if you don't know they came out of Norfolk..........:


*. ""Quarter to Three" a 1961 smash for Gary U.S. Bonds, featuring Chicago's Gene Barge on tenor saxophone.

• "If You Want to Be Happy," a 1963 hit by the late Jimmy Soul (Based on the calypso classic "Ugly Woman"). Producer Guida was a white calypso singer who worked 1949-51 in Harlem before coming to Norfolk in 1951 to open Frankie's Birdland record store on Church Street in the city's black neighborhood.

• "May I," and "I've Been Hurt," by Bill Deal and the Rhondels, late 1960s Beach music hits out of Virginia Beach, just nine miles from downtown Norfolk.

One of the many lasting images I have of a special weekend was hearing Southside Johnny Lyon in performance as well as seeing him wander out of the historic Tazewell Hotel (built in 1906) on Saturday morning. Wearing blue jeans and a khaki jacket Lyon had a rolled up newspaper under his right arm as he was heading out to find rhythm and blues records at Norfolk flea markets.

Lyon, who formed Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes in 1975 is a survivor.

He told me there are more than 130 Jukes alumni, including Springsteen guitarist Steve Van Zandt, Jon Bon Jovi (1990) and Max Weinberg 7 horn player Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg.

"Norfolk was one of the big ports with a lot of black sailors," Lyon said. "Gary Bonds was part of it. His wife was part of it. Gene Barge was part of it. When we all heard those records they reminded us a lot of rock n' roll from New Orleans.

"There was that sense of beat, but a real swampy atmosphere. Especially with Gary's things. There was so much echo and you could hear people in the background. Obviously there was not just a band there. There was some whiskey, a lot of folks, and it was a good time. We responded to that in New Jersey. There's an ambiance that comes from that which makes you feel there's a great party going on."

Two shows took on a historic context for deep students of the Asbury Park sound. Bruce Springsteen did not show up, but that didn't matter to the large number of New Jersey fans who drove to Norfolk to celebrate Clemons.

The house band was mighty, sincere and impressive.

The profound bottom was anchored by E Street bassist Gary Tallent and original (first two albums) E Street drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez. The weekend's underrated soldier was Bon Jovi guitarist and former Asbury Juke Bobby Bandiera who also served as musical director.

Special guests included Clemons' son Nick Clemons, who appears to be more of a funk-fusion-hip hop artist--or something---and Clemons' nephew Jake Clemons, who took on the Big Man's legacy with dignity and grace. Jake played saxophone on "Spirits In the Night," the first Springsteen-Clemons collaboration," "Rosalita," and shaped a spot-on solo for Clarence Clemons' first hit single "Woman's Got the Power" with Bandiera on vocals. Soul singer J.T. Bowen did the original parts in 1983.

Who else was in the house?

Bonds, who covered "Quarter To Three," "New Orleans" and his 1981 Springsteen penned hit "This Little Girl (Of Mine). Bonds, 72, also served as the engaging and sometimes wacky emcee for both shows.
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During the first show at the precious Attucks Theatre, the oldest African-American theater operated in America {which I profiled on Sept. 6, 2011 } Bonds introduced Bandiera as "Bon Jovi's guitarist."
Bandiera responded, "No, tonight I'm you're guitarist."
That's why these Jersey guys know their chops. They maintain a workingman's commitment.

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Bobby Bandiera (right) and Southside Johnny at the Attucks (for more read Backstreets.)

Beaver Brown Band's John Cafferty, played his Springsteen shtick for all it was worth singing his Eddie & The Cruisers hits like "On The Dark Side." Cafferty sounds like Bruce. He rolls up his sleeves like Bruce. He walks in the high noon sheriff steps like Bruce.

Actually, I have never seen John Cafferty and Bruce Springsteen in the same room.

During the first show at the Attucks, Cafferty even jumped in the crowd and worked the aisles like Bruce. While fetching a beer during the second show at The NorVa, a restored vaudeville house in downtown Norfolk, I heard a guy say, "I can't believe Cafferty has gotten away with this Springsteen thing for 30 years." I agreed.

Besides seeing a concert at the Attucks, another motivational force for me to travel to Norfolk was to see Southside Johnny.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes don't come to Chicago much anymore.
The last club show they did was a knock out performance in July, 1998 at the House of Blues.

Lyon, 63, was at the top of his game in Norfolk, including "The Fever" (which Springsteen gave to him}," Steve Van Zandt's "I Don't Want To Go Home": a smash for the Jukes, and on the second show at The NorVa, an extended version of Paul Butterfield's "Help Me," mixing his gritty vocals with passionate harmonica.


I sat down with Lyon on Saturday afternoon in our hotel lobby.
I had just finished a record run with my new pal Charles who took me to Birdland, www.birdlandmusic.com, a great source for Beach and "Norfolk Sound" music in Virginia Beach. Lyon fact checked the liner notes of a Bill Deal & the Rhondels compilation I bought. "Bill Deal did record for the Beach label out of Norfolk," Lyon shouted out to his Jersey boys.


Lyon said he made the eight- hour drive from his home in Ocean Grove, N.J. to Norfolk with a friend. Lyon has never lost his sense of discovery. "We stopped in Allentown, Pennsylvania to look at an auction for old records," he said. "This morning we got up early and went to the flea markets. When we first started going on the road, I did that, too but we were working so much and I didn't have a rent-a-car. Today we found an interesting thing in our exploits. It was on Gary's (Bonds) Legrand label, a 12-inch by Rudy Webb and the Marquees with a rapper. I'd never seen it before and to think of the Legrand label in the '80s was something. It was at a flea market here.

"But it was warped."

Garry Tallent and Lyon have a shared collection of 5,000 '45, 4,000 albums and 2,000 '78s. "We've winnowed it down to things what we really want," Lyon said. "Blues for me. Rockabilly for him. Some New Orleans rhythm and blues. I love soul music, I still look for it, but I don't collect it. I get it, tape it, trade it. When we used to have our little record parties we never played that. We played Chicago-style blues, Little Walter (Chicago blues harpist), and Gary would play his rockabilly stuff."

"We had to know all that coming up. You had to know every Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley song. Muddy Waters. A lot of R&B things. That's how people in Asbury Park interchanged bands. We all had a bulk of basic material which was early rock n' roll and rhythm and blues and you expanded on that."

Clemons was even a Juke, singing background on "The Fever" as Selmon T. Sachs. "I met Clarence at Piner's Lounge," Lyon said. "Garry Tallent was playing bass in an all-black group called Little Melvin and the Invaders. Melvin was the guitarist and hired Clarence to play sax. Steve Van Zandt and I went to see him and Gary. I went to high school with Gary."

Little Melvin and the Invaders played extended soul and funk dance numbers for sweaty bumpin and grindin' customers.
"We were in this little club, chicken shack out back, the whole thing in the piney woods of New Jersey," Lyon recalled with passion. "We were the only two white customers. And Clarence was the most welcoming guy. Huge, intimidating and friendly. He sat down with us. He always had an ability to welcome you in."

Clemons sax solos established a dramatic film noir' motif for Springsteen's extended characeter-filled songs, most notably in "Jungleland," but as a first hand witness, Lyon knows it took time.

"He brought good R&B roots into what was a rock n' roll band," Lyon explained. "Bruce and Steve were trying to find a way to make him fit and they experimented. They did those recurring lines and that great soulful thing that came out from him which only added atmosphere to these rock n' roll songs. It became a great fit. And it became great on stage because Bruce could play off of Clarence. You should have seen them in the early days. They were hilarious. They'd have bits. They would improvise. Any moment on state could be mind boggling."

But Springsteen gave Lyon "The Fever," and through his blues-soaked vocals Lyon turned the rare trick of making a Springsteen composition his own. "I saw him play at Princeton University," he said. "It was the first time he did 'The Fever.' I thought it would be a big hit for him. He had had one hit., 'Born to Run.'
"Two weeks later we're having rehearsals with the Jukes to make our first record. He comes into the Stone Pony, sits down at the piano and says, 'I want you to try this song.' I said I knew the song, but he said he wanted me to put it on the album. I think he gave it to me because it's a blueiser song. But when I saw him do it, it was a knock out moment in a knock out show. I couldn't believe he wasn't going to record it. But I wasn't going to argue with him."

Springsteen also gave Lyon the pop-rhythm and blues chestnut "You Mean So Much To Me" for the Jukes 1975 self-titled debut. Wall of sound angel Ronnie Spector duets with Lyon on "You Mean So Much To Me"

Lyon keeps in touch with Springsteen, especially when it comes to charity affairs such as this week's series of "Light of Day" benefits in Asbury Park. Proceeds from the Norfolk concerts benefitted the Clemons Community Center in Chesapeake and are intended to benefit a scholarship in Clemons name at Norfolk State University.

Lyon said he has changed booking agents and expects to come to Chicago this year. as part of a Midwest run. "We should be playing there more," he said.

His new projects include the acoustic ensemble Southside Johnny and the Poor Fools. "Different songs, different styles, so I got some people together," he said. "(E-Street violin player). Soozie Tyrell who has been my friend for 30 some years said, 'Come on, let's do this.' We always talked about it. We did like eight gigs and now she's going on the road with Bruce. I gotta' find a substitute. But it's a lot of fun. We do bluegrass , country, blues (Mose Allison) and old rock n' roll. I've done it in the past for small tours but never made a record. I'm in the process of doing that too."

Lyon will also be releasing a live version of "Men Without Women," derived from Steve Van Zandt's wall-of-sound Disciples of Soul solo debut from the early 1990s.. "Two years ago someone gave me a copy of the CD and couldn't believe how much I loved the record," he said. "I loved it when it came out , but we were making 'Hearts of Stone.' Steve had written some of these songs for 'Hearts of Stone' and we rejected them. But they always resonated with me. So this July 3 we played an outdoor show at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. We did the whole album and recorded it. The band sounded great. As soon as I mix that, we're going to release that, too. "

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This unique, intimate weekend most likely would have not been possible without the early 1960s hits of Bonds, with Gene Barge on the sax. The liner notes to the 1990 Rhino Records compilation "The Best of Gary U.S. Bonds" points out, ",,,,Bonds was typecast as an oldies act until he was rescued by a fan from Asbury Park who had dillegently studied the Norfolk music scene. In 1982, Bruce Springsteen, who was greatly inspired by the Bonds sound and routinely peformed Bonds numbers live, graciously produced him for EMI Records....."

On the eve of Elvis Presley's birthday I told my Norfolk friends Bonds means as much to Norfolk as Presley does to Memphis. I will also tell you Bonds was residing on the same hotel floor as me and he still stays up til' quarter to three.

One of the joys of music is discovery, listening to the echoes and connecting the dots. In that respect Norfolk's tribute to it's hometown hero was a happy and lasting success.


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4 Comments

Great article Dave! You are one musical officionado! Nice to have met you.
Best, Sue

Thanks Sue, Hope to see you again and talk about Buffalo. I'm a huge baseball fan and always thought Buffalo is a major league city with great history--certainly more than Tampa Bay!!!!

Wow, you used my photo of Southside and Bobby. Now I can say I was published in the Chicago Sun Times. As a Norfolk native, I loved the direction you took with this. Thank you so much for a wonderful read

Dave, great article! But Southside was last in Chicago in 2011, a July show at Old Town School. I know that's not a club exactly, but it was a killer show nonetheless.

Wow, I missed that. I'm a huge fan. He couldn't remember the last time he was in Chicago. He told me it was an outdoor festival. Was that it? I think he will be at House of Blues in March. Thanks.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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