Asbury Park R&B/soul legend JT Bowen’s first single, “Love You Like the First Time,” from the Arlan Feiles-produced LP, “Dig Deep,” is the Makin Waves Song of the Week. PHOTO COURTESY OF NOT-POP RECORDS
When I go to Asbury Park, I take Neptune Boulevard to Springwood Avenue because every time, the West Side seems to be getting nicer and nicer. That does my heart so much good, especially seeing the redevelopment of the Turf Club, a beloved jazz, R&B and soul venue popular from its opening in 1940, through its move down Springwood in 1956 to its rock ‘n’ soul heyday in the 1960s.
One of the most popular soul and R&B singers to call Springwood Avenue his musical home is the great J.T. Bowen, who led such hot bands as Soul Flame and The Chosen Few. Among his mates in the latter band was future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Clarence Clemons before he was the saxophonist of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. While Bruce and other future E Streeters were ripping it up a few blocks away at The Upstage, J.T., Clarence, and The Chosen Few were making crowds shout and sweat at The Turf Club, The Orchid Lounge, and all along bustling Springwood Avenue.
It’s been more than 50 years since those clubs were hopping. The Orchid Lounge burned down during the race riots of early July 1970, while The Turf Club was shuttered, thereby extinguishing the historic music scene of Asbury’s West Side. While Clarence subsequently found fame on E Street, J.T. continued to rock throughout the Jersey Shore with The Chosen Few until 1976, then went on to front a band called Surrender through 1981. Right around that time while working as a door man at Clarence’s new club, Big Man’s West in Red Bank, J.T. was tapped to front Clarence’s backing band, the Red Bank Rockers, touring extensively with them while simultaneously recording with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul and Gary “U.S.” Bonds and performing with Asbury Jukes saxophonist Eddie Manion and E Street Band drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter in The Shore Patrol.
Perhaps the highlight of J.T.’s storied career has been sharing the stage with Bruce, singing Clarence’s hit “Woman’s Got the Power” alongside him in 1985 at Giants Stadium and twice in 2011 in Asbury Park. A decade has passed since those glory days, but like Springwood Avenue and its Turf Club, J.T. Bowen is making a comeback. With the help of his good friend and producer Arlan Feiles, a celebrated Asbury Park-based singer-songwriter whose rootsy blend of folk ‘n’ soul has delighted audiences around the world, J.T. has made a delicious new album. On “Dig Deep,” he mines eight of Arlan’s most soul-searching songs, including the island-spiced fun of the LP’s first single, “Love You Like the First Time.” The Makin Waves Song of the Week will rock both the dance floor and the bedroom.
As the Makin Waves Song of the Week, “Love You Like the First Time” also can be heard between 6 and 8 p.m. on July 23 on “Radio Jersey” at ThePenguinRocks.com. If you miss it, you also can tune in any time at The Penguin or MixCloud.
The dynamite of “Dig Deep” ignites with “Viola,” a modern-day civil rights anthem that could break the chains of oppression with its dignified delivery and church-like clamor. The title track looks beyond Black Lives Matter and other protests to a day when all brothers and sisters of creation will live in peace, harmony and sustainability if they can “dig deep with some dignity.”
The bouncy joy of Allan Toussaint/Lee Dorsey-like “Doin’ the Work” makes for a danceable spiritual about commitment to both love and fun. The LP’s standout track, the John Hiatt-like “Angels Among Us,” is a soul bullet that will penetrate the hardest heart and turn it into mush as its staccato stagger explores the divine turning points of life in which love shows the way through darkness and light.
The gospel march of “Walk with Jesus” takes spiritual path, then the road with Bowen takes another civil rights turn with the freedom song “50 Miles.” J.T. sings, “Tell Martin we’re still marching for him,” while the memories from Selma to Montgomery stand like a monument to a dream that must be realized by our children since we have failed to do so.
“Dig Deep” then closes with “Don’t Back Down,” a driving Springsteenesque testament about the need to rise up and keep on keepin’ on with the strength of grace. There’s always hope, that still, small voice that can guide us through the wilderness if we let it. “Dig Deep” embodies that hope, as do the fresh paint and soon-to-reopen doors of The Turf Club.
I wish J.T. the greatest success with this gorgeous, deeply stirring album. I pray that he and Asbury Park’s Springwood Avenue return to the glory they so richly deserve. And I look forward to seeing him, Arlan, and many of our friends on July 27 at a dual listening party — also for Arlan’s new album, “Blame Me” — at Clinch Transparent Gallery in Asbury. Proceeds from at-the-door donations will benefit the much beloved Asbury Park African-American Music Project, whose efforts to revitalize Springwood Avenue and its music scene are chronicled here.
For more about JT, visit jtbowenmusic.com.