Middle aged white man with red sunglasses on singing with wide mouth open into a standing mic in front of a guy playing drums

As a child, John Lyon, also known as Southside Johnny, believed Billie Holiday would come into his room at night and sing him lullabies. The front man of Asbury Jukes remembers hearing bars of “Strange Fruit” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” wafting into his room and serenading him to sleep.

“When I was baby, we had no heat upstairs, so my parents would leave the doors open so the heat would come through,” Lyon said in a telephone interview from New Jersey. “My parents would come home and put on Billie Holliday.

“I always loved her voice. When you heard Billie’s voice, you knew everything was going to be all right.”

Lyon and Jukes saxophone player John Isley recently completed the side project, “Detour Ahead: The Music of Billie Holiday” before embarking on a jam-packed tour with the Jukes this March. The New Jersey band begin their tour in Northfield, Ohio on March 2 and perform March 9 at the Southern Theatre (21 E. Main Street in downtown Columbus. The Jukes swing through Sweden and Norway toward the end of the month, and then conclude the month’s leg with a March 29 show in Clearwater, Fla.

Lyon said he was looking forward to his stopover in Columbus.

“Wonderful Columbus, Ohio. City of Beauty,” Lyon deadpanned. “To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the last time we played there. I believe we played at the Agora (now the Newport) several times but you play so many shows over the years, you forget places.”

Often called the godfather of the New Jersey sound, Lyon clearly loves playing his music in front of a live audience. His live shows often draw comparisons to power-packed sets of fellow New Jersey natives Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi.

“There are times you’ve been going for two hours and you feel exhausted,” he said. “Other nights you go wait ‘I haven’t done this song’ and they’re dragging you off stage.

“I never thought there was a ‘New Jersey sound.’ It was more of an attitude: ‘We’re from New Jersey so we have to kick everybody’s ass to make them respect us.’ When you played a bar in New York and you’re from New Jersey, it was really like picking a fight with somebody.”

Lyon is still picking fights and winning. He is a product of his family as much as his environment. His father was a bassist and his mother first started experiencing labor pains when the two were in a seedy New Jersey club. Lyon’s parents introduced him to the sounds of T-Bone Walker, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

“It was never background music,” he said. “Music was something we intensely listened to. That just rubbed off on me.”

  In the 1970s, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were as much as the New Jersey music scene as Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Lyon likes to the tell stories about how he and future Springsteen cohort Little Steven helped finance their first record on a good day’s winnings at the racetrack or how wunderkind producer Jimmy Iovine had to sneak the band into the Record Plant to lay tracks.

“Back then, we knew we were getting away with murder,” Lyon said. “Girls who would never talk with us during school would come and talk with us if we played in a club. You felt like you were a part of the whole history and tradition of the people you grew up listening to.”

Lyon and Springsteen shared the stage often and Clarence Clemons, Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, and Patti Scialfa of the E. Street Band as well as Bon Jovi are among the alumni of the Jukes. Bon Jovi told Billboard magazine Southside Johnny “has his place in the Holy Trinity. Bruce, Little Steven and Johnny were that to me."

Audiences may have been exposed to the music of Southside Johnny and the Jukes without ever realizing who they were. Lyon served as the technical adviser on “Eddie and the Cruisers” and the band performed in the Christopher Columbus movie “Adventures in Babysitting.”  The band contributed songs to the soundtracks of “Home Alone” and “The Mighty Ducks.” In 2007, Lyon performed “Bossman” with Nancy Sinatra on the “Chasing It” episode of  “The Sopranos.”

While he may not have a Springsteen-sized bank account or Bon Jovi’s notoriety, Lyon never begrudges his more famous friends. He seems happy to still be making music decades after he started.

“There’s always that urge to make music,” Lyon said. “It always astonishes me I’m a singer in a band people pay attention to because I never dreamed that would happen.

“There’s one club I always go to and there’s some guy in a black leather jacket pushing his amp and guitar in through the doors. I think ‘Man that was me 40-some years ago.’ People continue to make music to express themselves and not to make cash or impress record companies. They do it because they love to do it.”

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