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Southside Johnny sings the retirement blues

Southside JohnnyAny lovers of upbeat, horn-based rhythm and blues are probably familiar with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The Jukes were a dominant touring band in the '70s and '80s and are currently back on the road after releasing "Going To Jukesville" in 2002.

Their leader, Southside Johnny (real name Johnny Lyon), was introduced to the music scene in the late '60s in Asbury Park, N.J., where his good friends included current Sopranos cast member and E-Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen.

By the early '70s, Lyon and Van Zandt had formed a duo called Southside and the Kid, and Van Zandt was also playing with Springsteen in his E-Street band. Lyon and Van Zandt, both great fans of the Stax/Volt R&B sound, decided to add a horn section to the duo, and the Asbury Jukes was born.

Van Zandt did double duty, playing in both bands until the release of Springsteen's blockbuster "Born To Run" album, when Van Zandt left the Jukes to concentrate full time on the E-Street Band. But despite Van Zandt's departure, Springsteen's fortune became Lyon's as well, as record-company executives began showing up at Asbury Park clubs to see if the region produced any other gems, and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were signed to Epic Records.

This began a new life for Lyon, as the next 25 years were spent mainly on the road. The '90s were rougher for Lyon. A broken marriage and the death of his mother led him to come off the road for two years for the first time since the '70s. He moved to Nashville, Tenn., for time off, but, of course, living in Music Town USA leads to jamming and collaboration. By the end of the decade Lyon found himself rejuvenated and ready to return to road life.

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Bankrate spoke to Lyon about life on the road and the bizarre alien that is record-company accounting.

BANKRATE.COM: Have you always been able to make a living from music?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Yes. But I've never made any real money from records. I've always made my money from the road.

BANKRATE.COM: How many dates a year do you tour on average?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: We used to do 250 days a year in the '70s and '80s, and it's a lot less now. I don't know how much it is now. I haven't looked in a long time.

BANKRATE.COM: What kind of money did you make from that?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Well, it was a big band. We used to have 10 guys on the road when we had the full five-piece horn section and roadies and all that stuff, and I tried to pay everybody as much as I could. So there wasn't a lot of money for me. There would be a date for a lot of money, and we would book four other dates around it for maybe break-even or less money so that the band would get a full week's work. So I would lose money on four days and make a significant amount of money on the one date.

BANKRATE.COM: So what would you pull down in a year?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Myself, personally, about $100,000 if I worked it right.

BANKRATE.COM: Were you saving or investing in any way?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I didn't save as much as I should have. Right now, my retirement fund is not adequate. I'm trying to save as much as I can now, at 54. I have some money saved up, but if I wanted to retire right now, I couldn't. Hopefully, in between six and eight years, if I want to, I can.

BANKRATE.COM: When you slumped during the '90s, what did that do to your finances? Did you have any source of income?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: No. For two years I didn't make any money. My royalties for writing are very small, and the record companies have that great bookkeeping system. All the records made in the '70s and '80s came out on vinyl originally. Now they've all come out on CD, and they've all sold, and I've never gotten a royalty statement from any of the record companies.

BANKRATE.COM: Have you talked to a lawyer about that?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I'm trying to do that now, but it's just one of those things where I wrote it off so long ago. At one point, I asked for an accounting from CBS because we were on Epic for three albums, and they put out five CDs from the three. They put out a live album, and a best of, and I think there's even another best of or something like that. And they're all on CD. So I asked them one time for an accounting, and they said we owed them money. (laughs) We made our albums so cheaply. We made them for under $100,000, most of them. And they sold hundreds of thousands of copies. So, it's just the way business is done. If you talk to Prince or any of those guys, they'll tell you the same thing. It doesn't matter if you sold 100 million records or two, it's the same thing. There isn't any possible way they don't owe me money, all these record companies, but you have to sue them. You have to pay for an accounting, and they've got so much money.

BANKRATE.COM: So this new record is on your own label?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: Yes, this record has been out less than a year, and the blues record "Messin' With The Blues" has been out for a year and a half (actually, since 2000). I don't know how many they sold, but it has paid for itself and more, and that's all I care about. I don't look at records as a revenue generator. I'd love to sell 100,000 copies and make a million dollars, but I look at it like the old days, in the '20s. People made records thinking they could promote the band and go play. That's what I do.

BANKRATE.COM: What have you done to secure your financial future?

SOUTHSIDE JOHNNY: I have a financial adviser. He's put me in a number of money markets, a 401(k), a Roth, and I try to put in as much of my income as I can. I don't live an extravagant lifestyle. I try to put in as much as allowed into all the tax-free stuff, and the rest we put in money markets and things like that. Like anyone else, I took a bit of a beating in the stock market, but it's going to be at least another 10 years before I touch it, so I assume the market will do all right in 10 years. Should I assume that?

-- Posted: May 21, 2003
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