Published in The Coaster (Asbury Park, NJ) and The Link (Long Branch, NJ), June 13, 2019
We’ve said it before, but if there was such a thing as a Mount Rushmore of Honorary Shorecats (you know, those seasoned performers “whose wall-of-sound work ethic has allowed them to make themselves entirely at home among the stars and bars of the Jersey Shore, despite being rooted in other states/ other scenes”), then surely the chiseled features of John Cafferty can stake an undisputed claim there.
A frequent fixture on the Asbury Circuit since the days when music-biz types still spoke of Bruce Springsteen as a “cult” act, the Rhode Island-bred rocker was already a veteran of countless regional bar-band gigs when, as frontman of The Beaver Brown Band, he found a spiritual home-turf on the stages of the Stone Pony and the late lamented Fast Lane. As a true contemporary of The Boss — one whose rock-star cred was also rooted in the teen-dance band scene of the mid-1960s — the lanky guy from Narragansett soaked up all of the same sonic influences; investing the mileage and the man-hours in those rowdy roadhouses up and down the Northeast corridor, while ultimately arriving at a musical place that found the stuff of epic romance and heroism in the working-dude life.
Accompanied by such Beaver bandmates as guitar lieutenant Gary Gramolini and longtime signature saxman Michael “Tunes” Antunes, Cafferty forged a hard-earned reputation as a master showman of the shot-and-beer-joint milieu; competed to catch the ear of the old-school record industry, and — thanks in good part to a mythical music-maker named Eddie — tasted success on a big-time international level, with a pair of hits (“On the Dark Side,” “Tough All Over”) that topped the charts in the 1980s. While the guys could tell tales of having gone through the major-label wringer — an experience they share with felow Honorary Shorecats like Joe Grushecky, John Eddie, and Willie Nile — the band’s path since then has been a satisfyingly centered, back-to-the-basics dedication to that live-room natural habitat, as well an enhanced level of devotion to fervent fanbases in places like Asbury Park, where Cafferty and company return to the famous Stoney stage this Saturday night, June 15.
As Cafferty recalls, it was the late Springsteen associate/ uber-fan (and recently minted Asbury Angel) Obie Dziedzic who “really introduced us around to all the other musicians; who helped create a home away from home for us in Asbury Park.”
“We first got down to Asbury at the tail end of the 70s…it was still a pretty vibrant place at that time,” he says of the period when an ambitious rising star named John Bongiovi would often open those Fast Lane shows. “All of those guys were still young…still unattached…and we got integrated into that community right away. Whenever we were in town, Bruce would come looking for us out on the beach after our gigs!”
The way that the singer and guitarist sees it, “I wasn’t the most talented guy in my town” when he started out in the teen-combo The Nightcrawlers (backing up his cousin Stevie Smith, later of The Naked Truth). “Not everybody is into being a professional musician…there’s gotta be something that’s deeply rooted, that’s hot-wired into you…and guys like me stayed with it not out of some visions of grandeur, but because we had no other choice. We just had to!”
Cafferty’s chosen path would lead to a stint in The East-West Blues Band — and then on to the band which was originally known simply as Beaver Brown. And yes, it’s a confirmed fun-fact that they took their name from a can of paint found at the University of Rhode Island (“for us, it was all about free paint, cheap beer, and a place to rehearse”). With fellow New England natives like the J. Geils Band and Roomful of Blues as inspiration, the group fine-tuned its act in the live laboratory — and dropped a crucial calling card at the turn of the new decade, with their early self-issued single “Wild Summer Nights.”
Packaged with a pic-sleeve image of a classic “woodie” wagon on the beach, the anthemic ode to the shore-town lifestyle was further enhanced with an unplanned cameo by Obie — or rather, her trademark “Pontiac with a hole in the muffler…you could hear it coming a mile away, and when she came up to see us while we were recording, we mic’d up the street in the front of the studio to get that distinctive sound.”
A smash hit by indie D.I.Y. standards, the 1980 release received distribution and airplay as far afield as Cleveland; capturing the attention of influential NYC radio station WNEW-FM (which led in turn to a live-broadcast Bottom Line concert) — and, even more significantly, pop/ doo wop legend Kenny Vance.
Having been hired as music supervisor for a feature film project entitled Eddie and the Cruisers, the founding member of Jay and the Americans was charged with finding a sonic match to the persona of Eddie Wilson, the fictitious early-60s rock star (a creation of novelist P.F. Kluge) whose thwarted artistic ambitions would lead to a disappearance from public life, and a subsequent musical detective story that unfolded across the clubland terrain of southern New Jersey.
Vance was so impressed by his exposure to Beaver Brown, that he thought of the group as a natural fit — and when the cameras rolled, star Michael Paré found himself lip-synching to the songs of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, with “Tunes” in tow as his on-screen sax player Wendell. While Cafferty was understandably thrilled at the opportunity to work with Vance (whose own connection to the songwriting greats Lieber and Stoller found the frontman delighted at “feeling the attachment to that family tree”), the film laid a proverbial egg at the box office — and it appeared to be “back to the bars” for the briefly starstruck Beaver boys.
Thanks to the emerging home video market and cable-TV afterlife (a pre-internet phenomenon that also served to rescue A Christmas Story from its original “dud” status), Eddie and the Cruisers acquired a wholly unexpected second life about a year after its original 1983 release — and Cafferty was as surprised as anyone to find the film’s breakout number “On the Dark Side” making a mad dash up the nationwide charts. Heavy MTV rotation helped lead in turn to the soundtrack album’s record label Scotti Brothers offering the band an actual contract to record (and appear on camera) as their own selves — and that Eddie-generated momentum helped propel the Beaver Brown Band’s full-length debut Tough All Over to a respectable showing, highlighted by the singles and video releases of the title tune and “C-I-T-Y.”
When the band’s followup Roadhouse fell short of the previous LP’s sales — and the disappointing screen sequel Eddie Lives! failed to spark interest in Cafferty’s soundtrack — Cafferty’s major label recording career came to an abrupt end (punctuated by Scotti Brothers’ insult-to-injury decision to reissue Tough All Over and Roadhouse as “Eddie and the Cruisers” records). While the Beaver Brown Band has since placed cuts on the soundtracks to such Farrelly Brothers hits as Dumb and Dumber To and There’s Something About Mary, the focus has remained very much on bringing the music in person to the fans, with Cafferty observing that “we probably should make a new studio record, but financially it’s risky…we feel more comfortable on stage, and in that environment where we can be in control.”
“We draw a highly self-motivated crowd of fans,” the frontman adds with a laugh. “But I’m a fan right there with them, front and center…and that frame of mind is a way to relate to the people, and how they relate in turn to the music.”
“We’re still a bar band extraordinaire,” the singer sums up. “That’s still who we are, whether we’re playing a little club or taking that bar-band mentality to these big rooms like Mohegan Sun, which has become a favorite of ours.”
“Playing live music has taken us all over the world, to places like Tokyo, where the fans especially embraced us…and it’s kept us coming back to places like Asbury Park, where we’ll always feel welcome…when everything lines up, when we take our individual egos out of it, on our best nights we give ‘em all we’ve got, and then some!”
Jo Bonanno and the Godsons of Soul get the party started for Saturday’s Stone Pony show, with doors open at 7 pm and Mike Rocket keynoting the action with a solo acoustic set. Tickets ($30 in advance; $32 day of show) can be reserved at stoneponyonline.com, at the Pony box office, or downtown Asbury’s Blackbird Presents.