Lee Mrowicki was nicknamed "The Voice of the Stone Pony" by Rolling Stone Magazine and has been associated with the legendary Asbury Park club and the rock and roll city for decades. He currently can be heard each week spinning the best of New Jersey music with Radio Jersey.
The Memorial Day radio concert in 1976, celebrating the release of the debut album by Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, voted by Asbury Park Press readers as the show that brought Asbury Park notoriety, almost didn’t happen.
If it wasn’t for Pop that might have been true.
Pop was Steve Popovich, the Vice-President of Epic Records who signed the Jukes and many others, including Boston, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, The Jacksons, and Meat Loaf. He started in Cleveland working in the Columbia Records warehouse, then in the sales department promoting performers such as The Buckinghams, Blood Sweat & Tears, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Simon & Garfunkel.
In 1972, Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records, promoted Steve to be the first VP of Promotion, the youngest executive at Columbia at the time. He promoted artists such as, Loggins & Messina, Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Janis Jopin, Santana, Dave Mason, Chicago, Mott the Hoople amongst others.
He knew the Jukes because of Springsteen and the ever promoting Miami Steve Van Zandt. And because of his affection of these two, when he came to work in NYC, he moved from Cleveland to Freehold, NJ, so he could be where the action was.
His idea to promote his latest signing of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes was to have them play at their home base, The Stone Pony in Asbury Park and broadcast it to the East and Midwest US through 9 radio stations in the biggest markets in those areas. In NYC, the concert was supposed to be carried by the biggest and most popular station, WNEW-FM. There was a small snag though… the management of WNEW-FM was requesting… no, better term, requiring of Mr. Bruce Springsteen to sign a contract that he would appear with the Jukes as a special guest, as he had done many times before with his friends the Jukes, who were still holding down their Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights at the Pony. (The Jukes played those nights to develop a crowd on the hardest nights to draw an audience in a club… the brilliant thinking of owner Jack Roig and his partner Butch Pielka---they knew a good thing when they saw it)
Pop loved the Jukes… he would come over to me outside the club to talk about who was going to be the next big thing in Asbury Park, which he referred to as a Little Cleveland, his blue collar and oh so cool hometown. We talked about Mad Dog & the Shakes...who he later paid to record a demo for him, to give them a shot.
So, there was a snag. And if you know Bruce, he don’t sign nothin’ that forces him to do somethin’.
I got to the radio station one day a little early and the GM Bob McAllan comes into the production studio and asks me if he thinks we could do a remote at the Stone Pony. My answer was “Sure...absolutely, I’ve done a few at the Monmouth College radio station...not a problem!”
Oh but there was a problem, these were the days when WJLK, the Radio Voice of the Asbury Park Press, had yet to broadcast in stereo.
So, Pop to the rescue… whatever it takes. He wanted the local guys to get the concert since WNEW-FM wasn’t going to get Bruce to sign their request to play, although everyone knew he would...these were his boys getting their big shot.
So, Epic Records bought little local radio station, WJLK Am&Fm, some equipment to simulate a stereo signal.
And I took the WJLK Van, the same one I would use to broadcast high school football games, sunrise Easter services in Asbury Park, and the Benihana Speed Boat Races. There I was...in the back of the Stone Pony, armed with my small transmitter, a microphone, and my headphones, with my trusty friend Steve Lubetkin back at the studio at the controls, and we were the local hosts of one of the biggest nights in Asbury Park musical history.
Since it was so crowded inside...the show had been sold out for weeks and the club was smaller that it is today (I remember going to see the club one day to check out the facilities and seeing Miami Steve & the Jukes where the back bar is today-- just a storage area where the beer deliveries were made---I can almost see Miami Steve in my mind, in a guinea t-shirt, no hat no bandana, sitting on cases of beer working the Jukes to death!)
The ‘JLK van was my office for the night...and the DJ’s from WNEW-FM stopped by the van-- I can almost see them kicking each other in the butt---they knew it was a huge mistake that someone made...they knew that Bruce was playing and the local boys got a chance to shine. I had guys I had listened to for years hanging with me...along with a few of the special guests that evening, Ronnie Spector—dressed as sultry as ever… and the legend from New Orleans, Mr. Lee Dorsey, both had appeared on the Jukes album and were going to sing with Southside.
The promotional video that was shot that night from YouTube is shown below... check it out if you haven’t seen it yet...it will give you the feel of that night.
A hot night in Asbury Park! (in the rain too!)
But the man who made it all happen was Pop. Years later, Steve would return to his hometown to create Cleveland International Records. When Sony bought out Columbia, the parent company, Steve sued Sony for royalties they never paid.
He called me one morning… “Hey Lee, we won!” in that cool, low key, gruff voice he had. But he said, they would probably appeal but for now, he was $4 million richer… he sued Sony the Giant and won.
Unfortunately, Pop would never see a cent of it. He passed away at age 68 in 2011.
Pop could make things happen.