Billy Chinnock just might be the forgotten hero of Jersey Shore rock and roll. Long before the E-Street Band was ever formed guys like Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, Garry Tallent, David Sancious and Danny Federici all played in bands with Chinnock. In many ways, the history of Jersey Shore music is incomplete without taking a closer look at Chinnock and his contributions to the scene.
A talented guitarist and songwriter, Chinnock was never quite able to shake the comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. He left the Jersey Shore and moved up to Maine where he was discovered by John Hammond Sr., the man who also discovered Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He released several critically acclaimed records but never achieved the success or recognition he probably deserved.
In recent years, Chinnock has spent much of his time with his company the Artist Group which produces everything from original scores for film and television to album projects and sound design on CD-ROM. He won an Emmy Award in 1987 for Musical Direction and Composition and was nominated the following year as well. He has also become a director and cinematographer for independent films.
Chinnock still performs once in a while and has been in the studio recording a new record due out in 2003. Speaking in a phone interview from his studio, Billy talked about his career from the Jersey Shore to Maine and everything in-between.
What do you remember about your early days at the Jersey Shore?
I was born in Newark and then my family and I moved to Milburn. We also had a little house in Avon-By-The-Sea on First Avenue. We formed our first little bands in the early 60s. By the end of the decade, I was living all over the Shore in places like Shark River Hills and I was caught up in the scene. The bands basically went Night Riders, Story Tellers into the Downtown Tangiers Band and then Glory Road.
I’d say probably the first record deal was in 1968 on KamaSutra Records. It was the Storytellers with a song called, “Cry With Me.” That band’s lineup included Danny Federici, Chippy Gallagher, Jimmy English, Bill Wolf and myself. Chippy Gallagher was later replaced by Vini Lopez. This was one of the predecessors to the Downtown Tangiers Band.
The Downtown Tangiers Band originally had a guy named Wendell John, eventually Wendell left and Garry (Tallent) came into the band. So that was Vini, Danny, Garry and myself. We played the great big Hullabaloo place in Asbury, the boardwalk and all of the little clubs. Wherever there was to play at the Shore, any place you could play, we were there.
The Asbury Hullabaloo was a huge room. It was just an amazing time. We were popular enough that we had a little van, a truck or whatever, and we were just playing continually with all original songs that I wrote. We also used to play the Hullabaloo Club up in Middletown.
Back in that time we weren’t really as fixated on a deal as we were in playing live. We were really young and there were so many places to play in New Jersey and New York that I think we weren’t totally focused on getting a record deal at that point. Although, Tangiers actually did cut an album for Koppelman-Rubin that was never released. It has a lot of those songs on it. I don’t know where the tapes ever went, but I think Vini, Danny, Garry and I were on it.
Asbury Park was probably like an early Liverpool. It was a great environment, a great place for rock and roll. It just nurtured it and people absolutely loved it, enabling us all to grow as artists. If anything, I think that the shame or the disservice in the matter was somehow in the explosion that followed. When Bruce really came into his own, a lot of very valid artists got kind of washed in the backwash. Making albums and stuff for a long time, it was impossible to escape somehow being lumped into that kind of melee of the other artists in Asbury syndrome.
Two people that I think may have been sort of overlooked in Jersey Shore history are you and Steven Van Zandt.
I would probably say that too because Steve worked for a long time with some of the early bands like the Jaywalkers. Absolutely, Steve and myself. I would say that’s a really good call.
I think at times, it’s been very politically incorrect to kind of put my role with the band members and a roof in a real family tree there. People kind of raise their eyebrows, you know. It’s like the environment surrounding Elvis, nobody really looked at the environment and the real players. The guys that were formidable back then. I mean, every member of the E-Street Band except for Steve Van Zandt and Clarence, who I used to go hear at the Orchid Lounge - everybody that eventually migrated to that band, in the early days, had worked with me for a long period of time.
I lived at the Shore until around the time of the riots, but after that, I moved to New York for a while. We had been playing since we were little kids. I think that it was a little bit of a volatile relationship at times with Vini, but, you know, he’s a drummer. And when I decided to move to New York, for the first time the band didn’t have that guy in the center. Especially in that little circle of Danny and Vini and all of us. And then they advertised and they found Bruce, which was a blessing for them.
I sometimes feel less than politically correct to give the real history because my role in that early little part of Asbury Park has been quite overlooked. In the real reality of it... I mean, as God has things in life; in that very early period of time, it just seems like all of the boys were kind of in my band for three or four years. And when I finally left the area or kind of pulled out of the scene at 19, prior to the introduction to Bruce, all those boys played with me for years. Then when I left the Jersey Shore, Danny called me and said, ‘Hey, we got a new guitar player his name is Bruce.’
But I went to New York and made a change and from there moved up to Maine. Just for a change of life, a cool place to live. It was kind of the Back to the Earth movement back then.
Did you used to play or hang out at the Upstage Club?
Umm, I helped paint the Upstage. I was one of the original guys who helped paint the walls. I think it was Day-Glo blue. It was Day-Glo whatever. It was really an incredible time and I was there for the whole duration, beginning to end, I know it all.
I remember big Bobby Williams playing the drums and David Sancious playing flute or guitar or keyboard. I remember the whole gang there, Johnny Lyon, everybody. I would just say that at the Upstage you didn’t make any money. You made fifteen dollars a night and you played from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m.
What was it like going from Avon to Asbury Park back then?
It was kind of a treacherous walk because it was almost like the end of the fifties into the sixties. It was the era of James Dean so you had all these kind of greaser gangs and stuff that would hang out in Belmar. Sometimes while walking on the boardwalk you’d get chased. I remember one night I was walking back with Chippy Gallagher and we had a car following us up the boardwalk. People were running out and chasing us. We barely got home in time.
Which of your early bands did you think might go to another level?
I thought that either the Storytellers or the Downtown Tangiers Band might. Actually in 1991-1992 Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, myself and this drummer named Roger Cox, we actually did a reunion of the Downtown Tangiers Band and recorded three or four tracks in West Virginia. I don’t know how hard we shopped it, but we couldn’t get a deal. They were pretty cool songs. We were right on the same chord, it was like we were never apart. They’re my friends till forever.
When you were in Glory Road with David Sancious, did you get the feeling that he was going to kind of go off to a different area of music later on?
I thought so with David. I mean, I thought that David was never purely a rock and roll, R&B guy. I always felt that we were not necessarily holding him back but perhaps not giving him as much freedom as he needed. David was a free spirit. It just seemed like he had his own journey. Not as a side man, not as an ensemble player in a band, but his own journey, which he did when he left and formed Tone.
You were “discovered” by John Hammond, Sr., what was that like?
It was fabulous, he’s brilliant! He kind of oversaw things, and managed me a bit when I was very young. John couldn’t get me signed to Columbia but when I did my first little cheapie album on Paramount it was John Hammond who did the liner notes.
You released your first two albums while living in Maine. Your third album, Badlands had interesting timing. It came out around the same time as Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, which was originally going to be called Badlands as well.
Well again, it was one of those things. We recorded the album in Boston. My band was based out of New England at this point. We really weren’t aware of what Southside or Bruce was doing at the time. We were kind of in our own space. We weren’t like active peers living in Asbury Park watching Bruce and the band. So anything that happened was purely by coincidence. I didn’t have any previous knowledge that Bruce had an album he was thinking about naming Badlands, which he named Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Bruce used to play cards at my house in Shark River Hills, but for some reason the relationship grew more distant. I had no idea what he was doing and he had no idea what I was doing. We just released an album called Badlands and he had a song called “Badlands.” He changed his title once he became aware that we had an album out on our little local North Country record called Badlands - printing all of 3,000 copies.
Do you think that coincidence hurt your career at all?
That’s a really good question. I only think it hurt my career because no writer, no musicologist, no journalist had the interest or foresight, at that particular point in time, to explore my career. To see if I was just this “Johnny Come Lately” who arrived completely after the scene or actually was one of the -
Founders... That’s a good word. One of the founders of it from the very beginning. And I think that if someone had actually done that they might have given the records a little bit more consideration. I always felt that if people really listened... we had a black sax player. I refused to fire him because there was Clarence in Bruce’s band. I refused to do it! The record labels wanted me to, but I refused to not keep him in the band because someone would say E-Street Band.
The music was so different. I’ve always thought my stuff came more from my roots. It came from that Newark, New Jersey R&B, bluesy Eric Clapton thing, and hopefully with good lyrics. Growing up in North Jersey about an hour north of the Shore, I used to listen to WNJR radio at night. I was around ten years old and it was the R&B station back then. You’d hear all the great R&B hits, blues hour and all that kind of stuff. That’s how I got turned on to a lot of the bands like the early Paul Butterfield Blues Band and I got the fever. My father got me a guitar and as I started playing guitar I started working on writing songs. I always had the ability to do that. That was always my thing. I could always write songs.
I’ve always appreciated people like Don Henley and good writing. But I always thought that Bruce came much more from Dylan and Phil Spector and that real straight down the pike kind of Americana. That’s “Born to Run” - great song, epic rock and roll. “Glory Days” - his stuff is really infectious, but if you listen to Out On The Borderline, my album in 1996, it’s a very different place. The Newark Star Ledger did a nice story one time and they compared it more to Clapton. They said it was American in more that plan. That to me is always where it’s been. It’s just more R&B, just a little bit more R&B and its been darker.
Bruce has always known me. We’ve known each other since we were kids because I used to go hear him with the bands or he’d come up and hear me with the band. And I’ve always had nothing but just a whole lot of respect for him. He’s always been incredibly talented.
Did the Jersey Shore comparisons really hurt your career?
I would say if it did anything they really kind of hurt my feelings at times because it made it hard to be heard. And, as an artist that’s releasing albums and seeing good reviews here and there and getting FM airplay but not having big hits - it’s like we were very successful and very lucky because of it. We had tour buses and houses and kept our families supported. Yet at some point in time you want a break and get that momentum going where you can bring your message a little bit larger. And that’s really the deal.
I think that Dime Store Heroes, my goodness, I mean we used Sanborn. Will Lee, the guy that played in Average White Band. We used such an eclectic New York band on that beyond my own folks. Songs like “Streets of Paradise” I mean, they’re just so un-Jerseyish. And yet, I don’t think it got the attention that it should have.
What do you think was your best album?
That’s a good question. I think Out On The Borderline probably was.
You’ve seen a lot of great local bands play around here. Was there anyone that stood out as someone that was going to make it?
I thought Bon Jovi was going to make it. He was my opening act and he did. He opened for me at Red Bank and at the Fast Lane. Jon triumphed above it because he was so very different too. He was a true - I’m not going to say a glam rocker - but he was very different than what the rest of everybody from that kind of rooted R&B Jersey rock. You know what I’m saying? A very different place.
What have you been doing recently?
We came back from the Atlantic record deal in 1991, did an album for Atlantic with a group called Billy and the Suns. I did that album, which they really didn’t promote and then I opened up this little multimedia company doing films and high-end websites, besides doing music. It’s kind of eclectic stuff. And in 1991-1992, I did a stint with some members of the Doobie Brothers and did this reunion band with Garry and Danny. We didn’t really make any money doing any of those things and by 1995 the Artist Group was just kind of booming, so I’ve been doing that. We released the album Out on the Borderline, did a duet with Roberta Flack on the theme to “Guiding Light.” I’ve been producing films, documentaries and all kinds of stuff. Got some momentum going...
And you won an Emmy for the theme to “Guiding Light.”
It really felt great. I mean, any time you’re recognized for good work it really feels great.
Tell me about the movie, Forgotten Maine.
That was the first feature I did. I shot it, directed it and actually did the music score for it too. Even though it takes place in Maine, it’s kind of a look at the changing face of America through the eyes of all these families and this kind of social network between the general store and the people who go there, the fishermen and farmers.
It reminds me a bit of a tone poem or a montage of images and stories. It shows you a part of America that we are trading away and devaluing, and it’s going away for other things. I just think that we need to realize that perhaps we don’t want to put a Wal-Mart in every town or perhaps we want to make sure that the little vendors like mom’s pizza shop or Joey’s haircutters - we want to make sure that some of that remains because that stuff has more value than we realize even on a commercial level.
Looking back how do you view your career?
I feel as if... if anything at all in my life looking back at my career, I’ve made some good records and I’ve made some bad records. There’s no question about it. I’ve done some good work and I’m proud of some things. But I just think that perhaps it would have been nice if my role in it was in proper perspective.
I’m a huge Springsteen fan and I’m thrilled for the boys and the guys and I’ve been thrilled for everyone since I was 18. I’m thrilled for Bon Jovi. I’m thrilled for all of them because I know how much that the arts takes from you to be able to do good work. But I just think that the artist and the people that are part of that momentum or time, they all lend a certain amount of energy to it and I think at times that perhaps my work was discounted only because no one knew my proper history. I think if they knew that every band member played with me before joining with Bruce they probably would have listened a little more. Not being sour grapes, but if they think I came along seven years later, I mean, that’s a very different perspective.