ARCHIVE: When Sonny Gets Blue

SonnyKenn(MCO'Connor)Sonny Kenn and his band headline the opening night of the Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival, this Friday in Marine Park. (Photo by M.C. O’Connor)

By TOM CHESEK (First published May 3, 2009)

The way that a lot of his contemporaries on the Sound of Asbury Park scene dressed, they’d likely be denied entry in most of the new Asbury bistros these days — but Sonny Kenn always evidenced a more finely tuned sense of style.

It’s a look that we described more than once as “31st century sideburns, ice cream blazers and Vincent Price shades straight outta Tomb of Ligeia,”  and even if the Star Trek ‘burns have been phased back a bit in recent years, the carefully coiffed look remains a marvel of pompadour and circumstance.

Besides, any man with the guts to display online photos of himself in matching leather band uniform (with his mid-1960s combo Sonny and the Starfires) or bizarre Moe Howard-goes-Fonzie hairdo  (with his Wild Ideas of the late 70s) must surely find supreme comfort and confidence in his own time-tested skillsets.

In the end, it’s all about that axe technique — a savvy attack that’s rooted in a time when there weren’t guitar “heroes” so much as there were gallant soldiers in the service of the song. A sense of timing that gives equal heft to the spaces between notes. An affinity not only for the iconic bluesmen, but for perennial renegades like Link Wray. An intellect for improvisation that carries echoes of great keyboard players in addition to the six-string suspects.

We’ve said this about Sonny Kenn also: “We get the wild idea he’ll keep on doing what does ’til he’s the last guy off the embassy roof.”  It’s that passion — coupled with a true music-fan’s verve (he was excited to show us a vintage Julie London LP scrounged from a used-vinyl bin) that keeps him 60 years young. Still working the watering holes of the Jersey Shore, giving private guitar lessons, doing the occasional gig with Kenny Sorenson’s Stringbean and the Stalkers long after other Shorerock pioneers have traded in the guitar case for the briefcase, Sonny shines through with a Kenn-do attitude and a stringed fury that New York magazine said could “peel the paint off walls.”

This Friday, June 5, Sonny Kenn and his band will be the featured headline act for the opening night of the 23rd annual Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival — an honor bestowed each year upon a Jersey Shore homegrown favorite, albeit one that the headliner himself tends not to get too precious about.

Red Bank oRBit paid a call upon Kenn at his little “Fortress of Solitude” studio on the borough’s Left Bank — a place that’s equal parts musical mad-laboratory, bohemian painter’s garret and the attic lair of the world’s oldest living teenager. What follows is but a portion of a nearly three-hour conversation in which we spoke of many things —  the painter’s passion and the inventor’s instinct; Muddy Waters and Mrs. Jay’s; dying industries and living legends. Read on.

RED BANK ORBIT: This is the first time that you and I have sat down for a formal interview since way back when I edited the old PIPELINE music rag back in the 1980s. You said something then that cracked me up; it was an obscure cultural reference even 25 years ago — to the effect that ‘no matter what music you play, you have to be able to draw people to the show, and if you can’t draw, take a course in Jon Gnagy.’

Oh no; Jon Gnagy. Ha! I think his face is still on all the drawing kits and pencil sets. He was a hipster, though; he had the beatnik beard…

So here we are again; this time for the paper-less, local online arts and entertainment guide.

Local’s good; you don’t have to travel.

Well, I figured the time was right for the big Sonny feature, what with your Friday headline spot at the Jazz & Blues Festival. Are you treating this as a high-profile showcase gig; making any special sort of preparations for it? 

Oh, I never rehearse anymore. Back in the 1970s, the Wild Ideas rehearsed three nights a week, but at age 60, I don’t have that kind of energy or desire.

I’d rather focus on recording here in my studio. The digital thing is great. And when I get tired of recording I walk over to the other side of the room and paint. This is my sandbox — I’m having fun! And I don’t have to build a castle every time.

So where’s it all start for you? The usual, Elvis on Ed Sullivan? Something in your dad’s record collection? 

I was exposed to early rock and roll at a very early age. I started listening to records when I was a kid, in Newark, looking in stores for Elvis records. And the original rock and roll stuff was so visceral, so different from the repressed 50s. We were the first generation to have a kind of music to call our own. There was that adrenaline thing — we need those ‘A’ personalities to take care of us.

I had my dad’s two guitars — although he died when I was really young, so he never actually taught me to play. He did the Western thing; he had a little 15-minute radio show. And he played at places like the Garden Of The Gods! They would have these concerts with country bands and gospel groups, and they’d feed the people steak and mashed potatoes and biscuits. Then they’d light up the rocks when the band played!

A guy I know says he saw your old band Sonny and the Starfires play at Monmouth Mall, before it was a mall — just Bamberger’s and a bunch of detached stores.

We played there when it was brand new, in 1965, when it was the Eatontown Shopping Center. The area where the bands would play is now, I guess, around where the food court is now. We opened for the Beau Brummels, and for Jerry Lee Lewis! And we played Convention Hall in Asbury, opening for Soupy Sales! It was the biggest crowd I ever played to, although they were all there for Soupy.

After that we became the house band at the Blue Club, which was later on the Sunshine Inn. All of those places are long gone; the Roman Arch, the Student Prince. Personally I think Asbury went to crap when they tore down the Mayfair Theatre.  It coulda been the shining center of an Asbury rebirth.

Then just like everybody else on the scene you had your hard rock sort of phase. You and Southside Johnny; kind of the road not taken with both of you guys. 

Johnny started hanging around with the Starfires because he knew Vini Lopez from Neptune High School. After the Starfires, me and Johnny formed a band, a power trio (Maelstrom), where he played bass. We would play the Upstage.

That was when we really got into the blues. Johnny and I would go over to Springwood Avenue, to the House of Hits, where they had a whole bin of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters records, and that was a big turning point — we started really listening and understanding the blues; understanding that you never copy the blues. You absorb it, and express yourself in your own way.

When you’re on the ground floor of something like that, something that turns out to hold a special place in your life, you feel special. Suddenly we knew what guys likePaul Butterfield John Hammond were doing. It made sense.

And it was not long after that — I was with Johnny, feeling a little pompous, saying I don’t know what else to do on guitar. Everything on guitar has been invented, right? A week later, the first album by Jimi Hendrix came out, and Johnny calls me up and says, ‘I know what else you can do on guitar.’

Where I come in is when you had Sonny Kenn and the Wild Ideas, which I always thought of as a more guitar-driven expression of the kind of influences that the other Asbury guys were doing with all the horns. It allowed you to fit in at places like the Fast Lane, which skewed toward the new-wave crowd.

The Wild Ideas got scouted by Chrysalis, I think it was. I kept sending them tapes, all songs that I knew got a good reaction from live crowds, but the guy just said, ‘got anything that sounds more commercial? Like Bruce?’

I used to like playing the Fast Lane. And Big Man’s West in Red Bank was great, because Clarence set it up. One of the best shows I ever played was at Big Man’s, in the middle of a huge snowstorm. Only about 30 people showed up, and they were just gonna close the bar early and send everyone home, but I said, look, those 30 people braved a blizzard to come out and see me play? We’ll put on a show for them! And everyone had a great time.

A few years ago someone came up to me and said he was there that night — and those are the moments you kind of live for. I had someone else tell me that they saw us play years ago at a little bar in Atlantic Highlands, I can’t even remember the name right now, but they said that my song “Dance a Little Closer” became their wedding song. And it’s moments like that, that make you feel like you’re connecting. Songs are like stray children, I guess, and you like to know that one of them might have touched somebody’s life in some way.

Is this something you might tell your students; something that goes beyond the hard technique and into the real reasons for picking up the guitar in the first place?

When I talk about improvisation, I like to say that once you understand the language of music, you can improvise over it, over simple structures. With improvisation, I like to creep right up to the edge on tippy-toes, dangle over — and as long as you don’t fall off the edge, it’s okay!

I’m looking at a big stack of albums you’ve got over there propped up against the turntable stereo — you never gave up being a record guy, for sure, but I’m seeing that you’ve embraced a lot of new technology as well. So where’s it going, from the viewpoint of a guy who’s lived through 45s and albums and CDs and mp3s— what’s next?

Ringtones! Artists make more now off of 30-second ringtones. I guess that’s symptomatic of society; we listen for 30 seconds and then move on.It’s difficult for me to watch certain commercials — I can’t process split-second jump cuts, but younger people seem to be able — to their detriment, maybe.

I think we’re losing the ability to contemplate and consider. There’s a lack of verbal and social skills. People seem to be disconnected and unfeeling in a lot of ways, I don’t know, but sometimes I’ll see something that makes me wonder, like a bunch of young guys sitting on a bench, all talking on their phones to somebody else. Nobody talking to the people they’re with.

Well, with everybody, yourself included, making really professional sounding recordings with do-it-yourself home equipment, you’ve gotta appreciate the whole end run that’s been done around the old recording industry. Do you ever get the urge to do some old-school recording, with the whole band crammed into a studio? What do you like, or don’t like, about the way records are made these days?

What bothers me is all the compression. Most people listen to music now on small players, and compression to me is the difference between eating fresh green beans and eating canned.

In a lot of ways we’ve come full circle from the 50s and early 60s, with all these little regional labels, and the whole do-it-yourself thing. The old major label model has had its day, and nobody’s really shedding a tear over it. Well, Metallica might shed a tear over it.

Alright, lightning round! Who’s your favorite female guitar player?

Rory Block. And Memphis Minnie. And, one that you might not expect, Joan Jett. Because of the attitude. She’s like, screw you, here I am.

A lot of people might be surprised to learn that Sonny Kenn likes to listen to…?

Mike Ness, solo and with his punk band, Social Distortion.

Favorite places to play?

The Walt Street Pub — I play there once a month, and it’s always a good crowd. I’ll see people 65 years old; I’ll see 21 years old — the ‘guitar guys’ will be up front, and the girls will be dancing way in back. They’ll work their way up front when they’ve had a few martinis.

Also, Giamano’s is a great place to play. A totally different atmosphere. And One28 Bay in Highlands is a great room for a small band set-up or a duo. I also like playing B.B. King’s in New York, although everything else about the experience — driving there, parking, setting up — I could do without.

Greatest New York TV kids’ show host?

Sandy Becker, with his puppets and characters — Chuck McCann also.

Greatest New York/New Jersey area discount store?

John’s Bargain Store — specifically the one in Newark, which is where I found a 78 of “Rollin’ the Boogie” by the Dick Hyman Trio.

Something that inspired you, that wasn’t a record or a singer— a book, a movie, a painting, that hit you on the same level as Elvis?

The paintings of DaliMagritte and Tanguay. And as far as books, the cheap hot rod novels that I got in sixth grade. They were the male version of Nancy Drew.

DC or Marvel?

Absolutely DC. I mean, they had Batman! BlackhawkGreen Arrow — J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter! I loved Batman’s utility belt; to this day I’m attracted to little boxes of things. Little repair kits; miniature tools — they’re my surrogate utility belt.

Sounds like you got it all under control.

I’m just doing what I want to do, and at 60 years old that’s a wonderful thing. I savor the moment. And I’ll stop when it stops feeling good.