Sonny Kenn is widely regarded as the first rock and roll star of the Jersey Shore. In the early sixties, his bands Sonny and the Sounds and Sonny and the Starfires routinely played shows at places like the Eatontown Shopping Center (currently known as the Monmouth Mall), the Hullabaloo Club in Asbury Park and the Canteen in Belmar as well as high school dances throughout Monmouth County.
After playing rock and roll for many years, Sonny started playing the blues with the first incarnation of the Sundance Blues Band, which also included Southside Johnny. A little later on, the two would form a power trio called Maelstrom that was a regular at the Upstage.
Sonny Kenn is now known primarily as one of the Shore’s finest blues guitarists. He can still be found playing in the area as well as in clubs in New York City. I caught up with Sonny in his Red Bank studio as he was working on his long-awaited follow-up record.
Was Sonny and the Starfires your first band?
Before the Starfires I had been playing with a group called the Blazers. There were only about two bands in my school at Manasquan. There was a band called the Galaxies and there was us. The Galaxies did mostly instrumental stuff like the Ventures. We came in and I was a big rock and roll freak so we were doing stuff by Chuck Berry and Little Richard. When the Rolling Stones came out we realized we were already doing about half of their first album so people thought we were doing Stones songs. We played a lot of dances and VFW shows. After the Blazers there was Sonny and the Sounds, and then Sonny and the Starfires.
I’ve heard that the Starfires had a certain look to the band.
Yeah, we had the gold suits. There was a place in Asbury which burned down in the riots called Fische’s, we used to go there. It was in the black section of town and the greatest clothes in the world were there. So, we would go in there and buy the gold suits, Italian high roll shirts, Spanish boots or Beatles boots as they called them. We’d get black slacks or matching pants and shirts, whatever. And that’s what we wore when we played. We’d sweat them up like hell and then Mom would clean them.
We played for about three or four years. It was until 1967. We used to play a lot at the Belmar Canteen there on 5th Avenue (currently Taylor Pavilion). They used to have dances every Friday and Saturday with live bands. It was a rental hall. The first version burned down but the second version is still there and they built it according to the original specs, so it looks exactly like the original. That place was a big deal because it was one of the few places in this area that teens could go and see a live band.
I remember a lot of bands coming through there. Usually they were a little older than we were. It was like God, if we could just play the Canteen, it would be so cool! So, one night this band didn’t show up and the guy running it called us up. We got everybody there in an hour and a half and played the dance. After that we started getting work there. It was like one of those early moments where you’ve got five guys and you’re playing rock and roll music with about 200 kids all dancing to you so much that you can hear the floor pounding. It was just very, very cool. It’s one of those things that stays with you.
We used to play a lot of high school dances and stuff. I know we played at Freehold and Manasquan... we played a lot of places. It’s funny when I look back it’s like here we were 16-17 years old and we worked a lot!
What was the ultimate goal for you at that time?
The ultimate goal was just to play. At that point, it was just to play in front of people and to hear yourself playing this music that you revered so much. You take a normal bunch of kids thinking about girls and they’re a little timid, then all of a sudden everyone’s watching them and what they do is important. In the big scheme of things it means nothing, but it becomes a big deal in your little world and it leads to other things if it doesn’t get too crazy. Some guys couldn’t handle it and ended up dead. Sometimes the party becomes more than the music. For me, the music was always more than anything.
Sonny & the Starfires used to play a lot at the Eatontown Shopping Center (now known as Monmouth Mall) what do you remember of those shows?
Back then the shopping center wasn’t enclosed and there was an outside area where the food court is now and they would bring in a small stage in front and put fencing around it. People would come into that and they would put on shows on every weekend at one o’clock in the afternoon and again at four o’clock to draw people to the shopping center because the mall had just opened. This guy, Frank Parr, started these shows. One of the first was a talent show. Our manager at the time came down and said, “Let’s go to the mall they’re having auditions for this talent show.” And when you’re 15-16 years old there’s not a hell of a lot of places that you can play, so we jumped in his Olds 88 and went up there. We auditioned and got into the show. Then after that we started doing regular shows there. They would usually have an animal act or something for the little kids. The big one was Mugs the Chimpanzee. There was a couple of big chimp acts in the 60s.
Mugs had done the “Ed Sullivan Show” and had been on the cover of Mad Magazine. But that was what you did, you know? They put on these things and people used to come to them. On a couple of occasions they had the Beau Brummels who had the song “Laff Laff,” which was a big hit. We opened for them and it was funny because they would set up on the first tier and we’d set up on the front tier. We started playing their songs and we had all the harmonies down and stuff, it was like a tribute to them. But we didn’t know that one of the guys had just quit the band and they couldn’t hit all of the harmony notes. So, they were all giving us dirty looks and thought we were trying to upstage them. But we weren’t, it was just a tribute. They didn’t sound too good that day.
One night we were supposed to play with Joey D & the Starlighters. He canceled for whatever reason. So, Frank Parr called up this promoter that he was working for and said that Jerry Lee Lewis was coming up through Jersey on his way to Connecticut to do a show and he would stop to do a pickup gig. He booked him to play both shows, but I think he only played the early show. I don’t remember him playing the four o’clock one.
So, here I am 16 years old and Lewis is one of my idols. I told Frank, “Whatever you do, you’ve got to introduce me.” He goes, “Yeah, okay. Just go in the dressing room and wait.” I’m waiting in the back and Lewis is in his office. Finally it’s about five minutes to showtime and I’m like we’re not gonna see him. Then just before we were supposed to go on he tells us to go into his office. I’ll never forget the scene... Jerry Lee had his feet up on the promoter’s desk, there was a six pack of beer with four cans already gone and a bottle of Jack Daniels with about an inch left in the bottom; his eyes were bright red, he had this gold suit on and his hair was dyed blonde. I walk in and go, “Hello, Mister Lewis,” and he just reaches out his hand and goes, “Howdy boy!”
Jerry had an album out at the time called Greatest Live Show On Earth and I asked him if he would do “High School Confidential,” which was one of my favorite tunes. He said, “I’ll see if I can squeeze it in.” So we go on and then he comes on and we’re sitting right down in front of the stage, I’m like five feet away from him. He goes through his Jerry Lee Lewis thing and I don’t think that the people really got it because he was a little too old for the young kids and the people that remembered him pretty much thought he was a maniac. But he put on a good show and he did my song and looked down at me when he sang it, which was really cool. Then as soon as he was done with the show he just walked off the stage. In the back they had a Lincoln Continental and a U-Haul. He gets into the back seat and the band just packed up everything.
They got the organ, the drums, the bass, everything off of the stage and into the U-Haul within five minutes and started driving off. The last thing I remember was watching him drive off literally into the sunset. That was one of the first exposures you had of meeting somebody you had idolized and when you’re that young with a band together and see somebody like that it almost validates your whole thing. It’s like we’re one of them!
Our manager ended up teaming up with the guy who did the promotions for the mall and they set up a little production company. We went up to the city in 1965 and cut a record. I didn’t know anything about cutting a record. It was at this place called Variety Studios in Manhattan. I thought we would just go in and play. They were talking about “overdubs, mike placements and double tracking.”
We went up there twice. I think we cut “Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry, “Just a Little” by the Beau Brummels, “Please, Please Me” by the Beatles, “Roll Over Beethoven,” which was another Chuck Berry tune and “Oh, Lonesome Me,” an old country song. We cut them and we got these lacquered dubs, which was cool. I remember going into that room. It was pretty advanced, one of the original eight-tracks in the city. When you were done they’d take the tape and run it through the cut. Then they would actually cut you a dub because cassette tapes weren’t invented yet. So, they’d cut you a lacquered disc and you’d take that home to listen to. We thought that was so cool... man, we made a record!
At that time you could only cut one in real time, so we were there for eight hours to make about ten copies. I remember a couple of labels came down to see us. Now that I think about it they were probably all Mafia labels! At that time we were just doing covers. They all told us that the songs sounded great but what can we play on our own? So, all of a sudden, we went back and started writing material. Pretty feebly at the time, but it was a start. By the time we got that all together, people were graduating and either going off to the service or off to college and the band split up. When you’re a teenager things seem to happen so fast. Just before that band split up, me and Johnny Lyon decided we were gonna form a blues band.
Johnny and me actually got a gig playing at a Good Guys Show at the Canteen in Belmar. I was giving lessons to this guitar player who was in a band that had gotten this gig and they wanted to know if I could come fill in as a guitar player. I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” So, we rehearsed a few times and went there. I remember the bill was Children of Paradise, which was some band from the Village, the Dixie Cups who had the hit “Going To The Chapel” and Van Morrison who had just come out with “Brown Eyed Girl.”
We all went into the back room and the promoter asks if we can back up the other bands. Van Morrison was trying to show me the chords to these songs and I was like, “I don’t know all of these, I’ll have to rehearse it.” He goes, “Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself.” So, he got the drummer from Children of Paradise and played with just him and the drummer. I remember he was still into the Gene Vincent thing. He had his hair kind of slicked back, a greenish gold suit with a jacket, tight pants and boots. It looked like some kind of Elvis/Gene Vincent knock off.
Then the Dixie Cups asked if we could do “Iko, Iko.” I said, “Do you have a chart or something?” And she said yeah. Luckily the chart she gave me had the chords written above it so I said, “Yeah, I can follow this.” We rehearsed it a little and then she’s like, “Iko, Iko - it goes like this” and she snaps her fingers a bit. I’m like, “You mean the Bo Diddley beat?” She goes yeah! So we’re just playing our Bo Diddley beat and they’re playing “Iko, Iko” and it worked!
So, anyway we finished that show and I said, “Let’s form a band.” I met Johnny through Vini Lopez because they both went to Neptune High School and we got to be pretty good friends. Johnny, at the time, was just learning how to play harmonica so I got him in. It was me and Johnny, this guy Ronnie Romano, Steve Atwater and we began doing the blues thing because me and Johnny were really getting into the blues. So, that became the first incarnation of the Sundance Blues Band.
We both started getting into the blues together. At that point on Springwood Avenue there used to be a House of Hits right across the street from Fisches. You’d go in and there would be bins with Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson, Jimmy Reed and all of the Chicago cats. You’d go to Woolworths to buy a record and see Herman’s Hermits but this place had all this other stuff that you didn’t see in the regular record stores. So, every time we got paid from playing that night we’d go down the next day and buy four or five albums.
The Sundance Blues Band played at some of the Hullabaloo Clubs that were still left like the one in Toms River, we played at dances and started playing in some bars. We played for a while and then that band broke up. Led Zeppelin had come out and Johnny was into Zeppelin and Cream, Hendrix and stuff He said, “Let’s put together a power trio.” I’m like, “Sound’s good.” We called it Maelstrom.
Around this time we started playing at the Upstage Club. Tom Potter hired us to play downstairs because we were just a three-piece band so he figured we wouldn’t make that much noise. Little did he know we’d be rolling in these great big amps. We were basically doing a blues thing but we were doing our versions of it with just guitar, bass and drums.
Then my friend Chuck came back from the Army reserves or something and started playing guitar with us. He was the guitar player in the Starfires with me. This let me switch off and play a little piano sometimes. People used to come and jam with us. I remember Carl Hughes, who was one of my first drummers in like 8th grade or something, brought David Sancious down and that’s how I met Davey. He started sitting in with this little Wurlitzer keyboard. We’d play some Junior Walker, some Stones and some early blues. This was upstairs by now. We moved because the band had gotten bigger. I remember I had a ‘52 Buick and we would pile everything into the Buick and park right there on Cookman in front of the place. We’d play from 8 o’clock to about 12 o’clock and then take a break from 12 a.m. to 1 a.m. We’d go hang out on the Buick and then go back and play from 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock. Then we’d go home, ride down the beach and watch the sun come up.
Personally, I liked playing there but I remember seeing the scene change. You gotta remember I was an old greaser, I liked rock and roll, I liked the enthusiasm and exuberance of it. But it came to a point where we were playing “Shotgun” which is such a dance song and we used to do it pretty good... no matter what Johnny says he could play bass. And I remember one night looking out to the crowd and they’re all sitting on the floor. I said wait, something’s happening here. What happened to all the dancing? All of a sudden everybody got into that psychedelic thing where they were like, “Let’s all get high and listen to the music.” We weren’t about just jamming away endlessly and I started personally feeling separated from it for the first time. It was because I never did any drugs ever. I’ve done my fair share of drinking but never any drugs. And it just seemed like everybody around me was doing it and I felt like a fish out of water. I either broke the band up or it might have just fell apart. I know that keeping drummers was a problem and Johnny didn’t want to play bass anymore because he wanted to start playing harp. So, I just stopped going.
Did the genuineness of the blues steer you towards that direction?
Let me tell you something... when I was listening to WLIB, I heard music that I never heard before. It perks your ears up and you don’t know where to go to get it. And then when Johnny turns me on to go to House Of Hits and he’s like try this one... I go in and I’m reading the liner notes to a Stones album and they’re talking about Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. So, I said let’s go see what these guys sound like. Now, I love the Stones but when you hear the originals it’s like holy shit! They ain’t talking about going out on a date... they’re talking about screwing!
I remember when I was a real little kid living in Newark I used to listen to WLIB at night. They used to play a lot of this stuff. I remember the first time I heard Jimmy Reed, I didn’t know what it was. I swear it sounded like this mysterious music... this weird stuff going through the air. It was like magic. I remember going to bed at 10 o’clock with this little Sylvania radio next to the bed. I’d turn it on and there would be this little yellow glow at night. I’d have my ear right next to it because I didn’t want my mother to know I had the radio on. And I’d be listening to this stuff.
For a while, I did try the rock thing with my original stuff back when I was still trying to get a deal... the pie in the sky thing. I came close a few times, but it never happened because the stuff I did at the time wasn’t like Bruce or Beaver Brown or Chinnock. It was different. I remember a guy from a record label calling me up on the phone. I’d submit stuff and they’d call me back. And it got to the point where I was like what the fuck do you want? Then I talked to some people who said that the problem is that they don’t know what they want.
And now your son is giving it a go, right?
Yeah, well I guess once it’s in the family... He’s up in the city. They signed a deal with Ricon Records. The band’s called Sunshine Flipside. They just finished recording a couple of weeks ago and they’re in the process of mixing. If it happens it’s good. If not, well that’s the way it goes. We’re hoping something will come of that. The record sounds good. It’s a good rock and roll record. It’s like a punk/psychedelic Beatles thing.
How would you like to be remembered?
I remember sitting at a diner one time with Johnny and I just wanted to be the best blues rock guitar player. Then you realize that there’s no best in anything. So, now I just want to be able to play my guitar and write songs and have it affect somebody. I’m still having fun. I guess I’d like to be known as the guy that’s still playing!
We play down at Crossroads in Asbury and McCann’s in Belmar or BB King’s in the city. I get up there and I still feel relevant. The minute that I thought I was becoming a lounge act. The minute it’s like what am I doing here, I can’t do this anymore. I mean, I’ve come close. You have to know where it is and temper it. You have to feel it and that’s what makes you feel alive.