Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, November 15 2018
On paper at least, it looks like a bit of an oddball team-up; a partnership between a couple of performers who — while they can each boast some deep Asbury roots and a fervent local fanbase — have earned their musical street cred working two very different corners of that musical street.
On the one hand, you’ve got JT Bowen, an R&B/soul exciter in the classic spirit of Otis Redding; a gospel-infused entertainer with a preacher’s passion, who’s long specialized in fronting big, brassy, funky-sassy organizations on the stage — and whose long association with the late and legendary Clarence Clemons ranged from the 1960s outfit The Chosen Few, to the major label recording and touring project CC and the Red Bank Rockers.
On the other hand, you’ve got Arlan Feiles, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and Jewish kid from LA who — while he’s shared stages and studios with generations of local and/or internationally renowned music makers — has spent decades on the scene as the quintessential lone-wolf solo troubador. It’s a finely tuned songs-and-stories approach that’s allowed him to excel in settings that range from the corner of your favorite coffeehouse, to the Paramount Theatre, where he captivated the crowd during last spring’s TEDx Asbury Park program.
This Sunday afternoon, November 18, Mr. Bowen and Mr. Feiles convene inside the intimately scaled space of the Asbury Park Music Foundation’s headquarters (located inside the Lakehouse complex on Lake Avenue), for the latest in a series of Sunday Sessions sounds-and-syllables events. It’s actually an encore duet for the artists who previously shared a mini-set at that TEDx happening — and who also played for an audience of people on the go, during an August set at Newark Liberty Airport.
As anyone who’s followed Arlan or JT at any time within the past several months already knows, the 3 pm matinee also serves as an appetizer for a very special endeavor: Dig Deep, a full album of Feiles originals, interpreted by Bowen and currently being prepped for release under Bowen’s name with the help of a fan-based fundraising campaign. Check out the title-tune teaser on YouTube, and you’ll hear a powerful cry for dignity and respect; put forth with a sense of slowly simmering, righteous anger by JT’s big voice (and a surprisingly chunky rocked-up rhythm guitar) — in a way that evokes the sort of early 70s symphonic-soul heat, and bitterly cold urban landscapes, of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack and their contemporaries.
“I first met Arlan a little over a year ago, when we were both in a show at the Strand in Lakewood,” says Bowen in recalling the origins of the highly anticipated project. “I heard about him as a writer…I introduced myself and we hit it off right away, like I knew him for a long time.”
“He’s an all around real nice guy, and a very spiritual person too,” adds the singer of his new collaborator — who, for his part, told Madison Marquette’s Gary Mottola on the TEDx stage that “I’d known about JT for a long time…he’s a local hero.”
“As I shook his hand, it occurred to me that we needed to work together,” Feiles continued during the interview with Mottola. “I told him, your voice is so powerful, and it needs to share a powerful message.”
Thus did the 71-year old veteran find his newest collaborator, in a career that’s seen partnerships with Marc Ribler, and, most famously, the Big Man.
JT Bowen is pictured with Clarence Clemons, around the time when the veteran soul singer was recruited from his post as doorman at Big Man’s West, to become lead vocalist of CC’s recording and touring project, The Red Bank Rockers.
“I knew Clarence back in the 60s, when I was goin’ to high school in Maryland, and he was in Maryland State College,” says Bowen of the days when he picked up his first band experience as singer with “The Rockets” (while Clemons gigged with “The Vibratones”). “Time passed; he moved to Jersey…so I said I’LL move to Jersey!”
Settling within the Shore area (resettling actually, as he’d lived in Brielle in the early 1950s), the young guy who was raised by a jazz singer mother and a gospel singer father encountered a major detour in his path to musical stardom, when he was drafted into the Vietnam-era Army and shipped out to serve his stint in the Korean DMZ. Even that proved pivotal to his plans, however, when he and the troops were treated to a concert by a top-of-his-game James Brown and the Famous Flames — an experience that the singer recalls more than 50 years on as “inspirational.”
Upon returning stateside, Bowen would become part of Asbury Park’s West Side music scene in earnest, when he served as lead singer of Soul Flame — moving on to The Chosen Few (in which a pre-E Street Clemons played circa 1970-71), and then spending the late 70s and very early 80s as frontman of the band Surrender, cementing his reputation as an ace vocalist in a classic soul-circuit style, even though none of those groups would ultimately break out beyond local circles.
That on-again, off-again professional association with Clarence would pay off upon the breakup of Surrender, when the sax man — by that time an internationally famous icon in search of some new projects and frontiers — opened up his Big Man’s West nightclub, and asked his old friend to work the door of that short-lived (but fondly recalled) Red Bank rendezvous. From there it was just one quantum-leap into a position fronting the newly assembled Red Bank Rockers, CC’s big-band R&B/pop touring project (and occasional house band for some memorable nights on Monmouth Street) that issued one album on Columbia Records, and landed Bowen on MTV rotation with the video for the signature single “Woman’s Got the Power.”
That period of close proximity with the Springsteen crew would find JT guesting on records by Little Steven and Gary U.S. Bonds; duetting with Bruce in front of sold-out stadium crowds during the ’85 Meadowlands stand, and, after Clarence moved on to other projects, forming the S.O.A.P. supergroup Shore Patrol with Ernest “Boom” Carter and Eddie Manion. There followed, however, an interval of “about 20 or so years, when I got caught up in the guilt game…and the alcohol war.”
“It’s all God’s plan; God brought me back, and I was very grateful when I got the opportunity to get back and perform for people,” says the gospel singer’s son who’s never been shy about discussing his faith on stage. “I’m glad I went through some of the things I did…my singing style’s got a lot of heartfelt pain…you can’t fake that.”
A formal comeback in the early years of this decade found a newly resurgent JT Bowen returning to the Asbury scene in the company of the Soul Cruisers — and found Springsteen joining JT on the Wonder Bar stage for a 2011 tribute to their recently deceased mutual friend Clarence. The year 2014 saw Bowen emerge from Out of the Shadows with a new album of that name, written and produced by Marc Ribler — and the foreseeable future promises to find the singer (who also continues to gig with the showband The Mighty Kings of Soul) primed to take on “some new and very interesting challenges…I’m always willing to learn!”
Eddie Testa sits in as host of Sunday’s session at the APMF, with the event scheduled to run between 3 and 6 pm, and admission ($25) reserved at asburyparkmusiclives.com.
A reminder that Arlan Feiles joins Nicole Atkins as musical guests this Tuesday, November 30, for a fourth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance event, presented as a memorial to all transgender victims of violence, and hosted by Dr. Geena. Featuring a list of guest speakers and a special moment of silence, it’s a “backstage” format event at the Paramount Theatre on the Asbury boardwalk, with a start time 7 pm, and more details on the Facebook page of TDORAPNJ.
Eddie Testa will be headlining his own Wonder Bar gig on Thanksgiving Eve Wednesday, November 21 — while meanwhile that same night, up at City Winery (155 Varick Street in NYC), JT Bowen teams up once more with the Mighty Kings of Soul for an evening of pre-parade, turkey-stuffin’ sets.