Southside Johnny: Detour Ahead

This is the latest project I’ve recently completed. Recorded over four days in January of 2017, I arranged, produced, played on and mixed this project for the inimitable Southside Johnny. It was released on Leroy Records in December of 2017.

About three years ago, a bunch of us were hanging out backstage with Southside and he started telling stories about his childhood and about the music his parents played when he was a kid. He told a beautiful story about lying in bed and hearing Billie Holiday wafting up the stairs while he drifted off to sleep. He said, “I’ve always wanted to do a record of her material…” I replied, “Cool! I’ll write it.” He replied to me, “Great. You write it. I’ll sing it.”

Now, we all know how this stuff goes. What’s said while bullshitting sitting in a dressing room on the road often has no basis in reality. It’s just a bunch of guys killing time and talking about whatever comes up. While we did have some further discussions and picked out some likely candidates for songs we’d like to do, I didn’t really take it all that seriously. Before we knew it, almost two years had passed.

Fast forward to last August, 2016. We’re backstage again and the subject of Billie comes up again. Johnny: “Hey, are you ever gonna write this damned record? I’m gonna be dead before you write this record!” Me: “So, you’re serious about this?” Johnny: “I’ve been serious for two years…” Me: “Oh… Um, ok.”

So I retreated into my studio and spent the next seven weeks writing arrangements of some of Billie’s most remarkable songs. Not necessarily her most iconic, but the ones that we thought would really suit Johnny’s delivery and style. We called a run through rehearsal to hear all the arrangements and see how everything suited Johnny’s voice and to make sure he was cool with where I was taking the project. In short he was very happy (and therefor so was I! Whew… no rewriting!)

We started rehearsals on January 3rd, 2017 and recorded the entire album, live in the studio, recorded by Kyle Cassel at Kaleidoscope Sound in Union City, NJ on January 5th and 6th. One of the best things about being in charge is getting your friends on the gig! Chris Anderson and Ronnie Buttacavoli on trumpets & flugelhorns; Allen Won, Ken Hitchcock and myself on saxophones and (a whole lot of) woodwinds; Neal Pawley on trombone; and the absolutely smokin’ rhythm section of Glenn Alexander on guitar, Steve Count on bass and Shawn Pelton on drums. My personal assistant was Zack Sandlerr, who provided immeasurable support and help, and without whom I’m certain I would’ve completely lost my mind. The sessions were also video’d by my good friend Mike Rossi and Slice Productions.

There is something just so magical about having the entire band, live, in one space, laying down the tracks together. It’s a beautiful experience we don’t get to have all that often anymore. With technology nowadays, a lot of music is created one piece and one layer at a time. Getting to hear it all live and coming together as an ensemble was really REALLY special.

Over the next several weeks we would overdub all the solos, and I produced and recorded Johnny’s vocals. Johnny and I had a great time in the studio together cutting the final vocals. He didn’t yell at me too much… He was actually remarkably patient with the entire process. I wrote some challenging forms for him to follow – definitely not your run-of-the-mill re-reading of well trod standards, this stuff challenged him, and he more than rose to the occasion, in my opinion.

I cannot thank Johnny enough for the gift of trusting me to arrange, orchestrate, produce and mix this record, not to mention spending his money to create it. That’s a hell of a leap of faith to show your saxophone player. I will forever be in his debt for his generosity, and I hold this project as one of the highlights of my career. Hearing my writing played and sung the way I heard it in my head as I wrote it – that’s an amazing drug…

To my ears, Johnny sounds wonderful… there is a poignancy to his delivery – he means every word, and has lived much of what he’s singing, many times over. He tells the universal stories of love, loss, longing and heartache, all with a side of melancholy. Channeling Billie at her greatest. However he’s never maudlin and his wit and sense of humor come through loud and clear. Most of all, he just had fun making this record. It was beautiful to be a party to and witness firsthand. So did I. This recording represents over a year of effort from the first dot on the page to the final product on the shelves, and I couldn’t be more proud of the results of that work nor of the cats who helped me create it. I sincerely hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.