The Stone Pony, one of the world’s best known music venues, opened its doors on Feb. 8, 1974 in a building which formerly housed a popular restaurant called Mrs. Jay’s. Founders John P. “Jack” Roig and Robert “Butch” Pielka first met while working in a club on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights. Roig purchased the building which then housed an abandoned disco called The Magic Touch, and enlisted the managerial skills and construction talents of friend and former co-worker Pielka as general manager and minority partner.
For many years, Pony staff and early patrons believed the club’s name came to Pielka in a dream. But in late December of 2014, Roig revealed that he was out with a young woman in October of 1973, and she was wearing a shirt with small horses all over the front of it. Jack says the shirt inspired the name.
Neither Butch nor Jack could not foresee that their venture would become an integral and irreplaceable part of Asbury Park history. The Stone Pony was about to take a prominent place in an evolving music scene which began at clubs like the Upstage, the Student Prince, and the Sunshine-In.
But the Pony’s success seemed far away on its opening night. There were seven inches of snow, the heater blew out and the night’s receipts totaled one dollar. By December of 1974, the club’s creditors were about to come calling and foreclosure seemed imminent. That’s when the first of the Pony’s many “house bands,” the Blackberry Booze Band, began playing regularly, and the large crowds they drew saved the club.
The Blackberry Booze Band featured Ocean Grove resident “Southside” Johnny Lyon and Middletown’s Steve Van Zandt. With new personnel and an added soulful, horn driven and classic R&B repertoire, the band was renamed Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and played three nights a week at the club.
“Everybody would be moving from start to finish,” veteran guitarist Billy Hector told writer and musician Josh Davidson of Chorus & Verse. “Every time I hear the music I go back to that time. There was a real scene.”
Van Zandt, also known at varying points as Miami Steve and Little Steven, eventually left the group to join friend Bruce Springsteen in a new version of the E Street Band. Simultaneously, Van Zandt became the Jukes’ manager and producer, shopping a demo to record executives in New York City.
The Jukes continued on and attracted a large and loyal following throughout New Jersey and began to pack the house at the Pony. They would perform their versions of classic soul and horn-based rhythm and blues to an audience with a new found cool Jersey attitude, a thirst for cold beer, and the hot sweaty dance music of the ’70s.
In 1976, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes signed with Epic Records. Their debut album received unprecedented promotional label support with the radio broadcast of a live concert on Memorial Day from The Stone Pony. It was heard not only on local station WJLK but on a network of radio stations in the east and midwest as well. With guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, members of the E Street Band, and legendary singers Ronnie Spector and Lee Dorsey, the concert brought the Jukes, The Stone Pony, and Asbury Park to national attention. A rousing rendition of Sam Cooke’s Havin’ A Party featuring Springsteen became the unofficial theme song of the Pony and of Asbury Park.
Popular bands performing at the Pony during the ’70s included hard rockin’ Salty Dog, female-led Stir Crazy, southern rockers Winfield, the legendary shore party band Holme, Salvation, Mad Dog and the Shakes (featuring local legend and former E Street drummer Vini Lopez), the soulful horn band The Shots, blues rockers Cold Blast & Steel, Cahoots and Acme Boogie Company.