The Birth of the Sound of Asbury Park: The Musical History of Springwood Avenue and the West-Side
Updated: Jun 15, 2019
ASBURY PARK, NJ--The music scene in Asbury Park came long before Bruce and the E-Street band, long before the advent of rock music. The city’s African American community really brought the music to Asbury. The West Side’s Springwood Avenue was the epicenter of the music world in Asbury going as far back as the early 1900’s. The sounds of jazz, gospel and rhythm & blues filled the clubs and streets. This is where the cradle of musical expression began. Storied clubs started popping up on Springwood and thrived there until the riots destroyed the area in 1970. There were clubs that stretched from Route 35 to Main Street and all along Springwood Ave. The old school Jazz, R&B and Gospel musicians of the early days of Springwood Avenue are disappearing. Luckily that history is being preserved and embraced by the new musicians that are building upon that historic foundation and the memories of all those who came before are being honored. Arthur Pryor
One of Asbury’s first musical superstars was Arthur Willard Pryor, born in 1870, Pryor was said to be a musical prodigy. He played with his father’s band until he became a trombone soloist with John Philip Sousa’s Band in 1892. Sousa played in Asbury on numerous occasions at the Paramount Theater and that’s where Pryor discovered the city by the sea. Pryor formed his own band in 1903 and settled in Asbury in 1904. About 5 years later he decided that Asbury was going to be the bands permanent home. They played concerts in Asbury Park every summer for 17 years. He would parade down Springwood and into the heart of Asbury, playing and interacting with the residents that gathered to watch the show. He was credited with saying that he envisioned Asbury Park as the musical center of the country, and of the world.
The musical talent that was created in Asbury stretched far beyond its borders and beyond genres. Asbury Park born Vivian Eley was one of the West Side’s first Broadway stars. Vivian was an accomplished singer and dancer, she toured Europe with Teddy Hill’s Orchestra, appearing at famous venues like the Moulin Rouge in 1937. She was in the Hot Mikado on Broadway and Born to Swing in Philadelphia. She sang at the Apollo Theatre and recorded with Bill Campbell’s Blue Notes. Bruce Springsteen at the Carousel in Asbury Park
The African-American musicians and R&B and vocal groups that played in the West Side music scene influenced an entire generation of young musicians in the late '60s. Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny are credited with creating Sound of Asbury Park, but the sound was there long before them.
It wasn’t only the musicians that made music thrive in Asbury, the club owners and record labels were an integral part of the scene. Many storied music venues lined the streets of the West Side. Big Bill's, the Turf Club and Cuba's were among the jazz and R&B joints that made Springwood Ave. a musical destination. Cuba's
A former Asbury Park police officer named Odyssey Moore owned the Orchid Lounge.
It was a place that drew huge talent in the 50’s and 60’s to Springwood Ave. Performers like George Benson, B.B. King and Al Green played the Orchid Lounge, where the African-American clientele dressed to impress when they went out for a night on the town. The Orchid Lounge also drew young white performers who were entranced by the sounds that wafted across the avenue. Southside Johnny Lyon recalled standing outside the Orchid Lounge listening to B.B. King and other greats.
Gervis “Gus” Tillman was a talented songwriter who founded one of the few record labels of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s from the Asbury Park area. His Vibro record label was the first local record label to concentrate on recording West Side artists. He recorded such West Side artists as the V-Eights, Delmar Goggins and Bobby Thomas. You may not be familiar with them but musicians like Cliff Johnson, Max and Ben Bryant, Eddie Watt and Sammy Pugh to name a few were the building blocks of the Sound of Asbury Park. Most people don’t know those names.
They also don’t know or think about the segregation present in Asbury in the early days. The East Side was where the majority of the white folks lived and the West Side was where the black folks lived. The culture on the west side was unique and decidedly African-American. That culture helped give rise to the rich music traditions of the city.
Despite thriving through the '60s, the West Side music scene came to an abrupt halt during the summer of 1970, when race riots tore apart Asbury Park and devastated Springwood Avenue. The clubs and stages, including Big Bill's, the Turf Club and Cuba's, were either burned down in the riots or demolished in the aftermath.
Much of Springwood Avenue is still empty to this day. It seemed as though it was simply wiped from existence in the flash of an eye. Today, the current revitalization of Asbury Park means that the music will live on. Clubs like the Paramount Theater, the Stone Pony, the Saint, the AP Yacht Club and others are thriving. New acts, and those that have been around a long time still flock to Asbury.
As long as music lives in Asbury Park so too will the fore-fathers and fore-mothers of the Sound of Asbury Park.