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.
While the Jukes continued to make appearances at the Pony, the ’80s brought a “new wave” of rock and dance music to the club. Among the favorites were Cats on a Smooth Surface (formed by former members of Holme), Hot Romance, NRG (whose dance contest once featured a losing contestant named Bruce Springsteen), Bystander, Diamonds (later known as Beyond the Blue), LaBamba and the Hubcaps, The Nines and The Features. In addition, the presence of hard rock continued with metal rockers TT Quick, Dreamer, Prophet and the Edgar Cayce Band. Yasgur’s Farm brought rock classics back to life and country rock was alive and well with the Tim Ryan Band. Backstreets became the epitome of the tribute band with their popular renditions of Springsteen songs. Reggae became a new genre heard at the Pony with performances by Jah Love and the Survivors, and then later Blue Gumbo.
Concert performances by national and locally known artists began in 1977 with shows by legendary soul performers Sam and Dave, who inspired Springsteen, the Jukes and another Pony favorite, British singer-songwriter Graham Parker.
“In order to the play the Pony you have to have a certain level of talent,” said Lee Mrowicki, the club’s veteran DJ and unofficial historian. “No matter how much talent you’ve got, you have to be recognized by an audience and have people that support you.”
The wave of the future was the “national act” in concert at the Pony. Legendary performances included stars on the way up such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Cheap Trick, Skid Row, Blondie, The Stray Cats and Winger. Other artists who took to the Pony stage included Meatloaf, Todd Rundgren, Jimmy Cliff, Joan Jett, Blue Oyster Cult, Gregg Allman, Dickie Betts, Ace Frehley of Kiss, Levon Helm, Robert Gordon, Johnny Winter, Vanilla Fudge, David Johansen (a.k.a. Buster Poindexter), Mink DeVille, Dion, Ronnie Spector and Mountain. Van Morrison used the club for the shooting of a music video because of its “cool atmosphere.”
The wave was joined by local favorites who were receiving national recognition, including John Eddie, Bobby Bandiera and Glen Burtnik, as well as “adopted sons” John Cafferty and Beaver Brown, Joe Grushecky and Gary U.S. Bonds. As always, there were members of the E Street Band around who played solo gigs while not on tour with Bruce. Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Soozie Tyrell and Nils Lofgren became Pony favorites. The club attracted fans from around the world hoping to catch a glimpse of local hero Springsteen, who performed regularly onstage with friends or with the E Street Band before going on tour.
Jim Babjak remembers getting his start at the Pony, playing lead guitar in his band, The Smithereens. They honed their craft playing Thursdays opening for Jersey Shore legend Lance Larson. “There were only two other clubs that liked us, Kenny’s in New York and the Court Tavern in New Brunswick,” Babjak said. “That’s where I started to learn to play in front of people that didn’t care. They were there to see Lance Larson. Lance was doing us a favor by letting us open up for him.”
The Stone Pony also started a tradition of hosting charitable events and benefit concerts. The Shore-based Jersey Artists for Mankind would bring national attention again to The Stone Pony and Asbury Park as the organization signed a major recording contract with Arista. The group sold more than 300,000 copies of their world acclaimed charity record featuring Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band members, Southside Johnny, members of the Jukes, Frankie Valli, jazz great Tal Farlow, and many other local musicians and singers. The goal was to raise funds to highlight the problem of hunger in the Garden State and throughout the U.S.
Funk-bass monster T.M. Stevens remembers coming into the Pony for a gig and getting a history lesson. “I was with Little Steven and we went to the Stone Pony to do a sound check,” he said. Van Zandt gave him a tour and described some of the pictures on the wall there. Springsteen later showed up for the show. “We played there that night and that was historical,” said Stevens. “That was how I got my picture in there.”
“It’s like a museum, you can feel the historical experience when you’re there,” said Stevens. “I just love the vibe in there, it’s really great.” Stevens has been called on stage to join artists such as Buddy Miles. “I opened for Kiss in there with my own band,” he said. “We went on right before Kiss, playing Sly and the Family Stone and Hendrix tunes.”
When artists step onto the Pony stage, they usually forget the history they see in the club. “When we were younger, we were just gung-ho about playing,” said Jim Babjak. “When you’re up there doing your thing, you forget about that. As soon as you’re on stage, you’re doing your own thing.”
Just like the seasoned musicians who walk in, audience members there are seasoned too. Some move and sway as close to the stage as possible. Others go there to relax and take in the whole atmosphere. “It’s always been a great crowd from the time we had songs on the radio,” said Babjak.
Not all the days of the Pony have been glory days. In the late ’80s, many clubs offering live music closed due to the rising costs of insurance and other expenses. A decision in 1991 to file for protection from creditors brought a forced sale of the Pony in bankruptcy court a year later, ending the “Jack and Butch” years.
A group of employees tried unsuccessfully to buy the club before Deal resident Steven Nasar purchased it in bankruptcy court. With the help of former Asbury Juke and concert promoter Tony Pallagrosi, the Pony continued the tradition of national concert acts, with bands such as Live, Hootie and the Blowfish, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, Helmet, The Ramones, Hole featuring Courtney Love, Guster, Silverchair, Culture, King’s X, Catch 22, Joan Osborne and many more. In 1998, Nasar decided to convert the Pony into a dance club called Vinyl. The Pony closed a week later after a long weekend of shows called the “Pony’s Last Ride,” at which Southside Johnny made a surprise guest appearance.
“If you ask people to name the 10 best clubs on the shore, I guarantee, the name the Stone Pony would come up,” said bassist Tom Latshaw. “When it was missing, I know people in the industry felt it.”
As talk of the revitalization of Asbury Park began to heat up before the new millennium, Cuban native and Jersey City restaurateur Domenic Santana visited the struggling resort town he’d only read about in newspapers. A friend pointed out The Stone Pony and told Santana about its place in rock and roll history. In February of 2000, the colorful and gregarious Santana held a news conference at the club to announce he and several investors had bought the venue and guaranteed the Pony would be open by Memorial Day weekend.
“Ballparks across the country that were once landmarks have been demolished and rebuilt, but with this concert venue Santana has stuck to the true definition of renovation,” said musician and writer Josh Davidson. “In making the Pony a comfortable place to see local talent he fixed what was broken and left alone what wasn’t, preserving the history of this legendary place.”
Christie Todd Whitman, a former federal cabinet member and governor of New Jersey at the time, rededicated the Pony when it reopened in May 2000. “A visit to The Stone Pony has been considered a pilgrimage to rock ‘n’ roll fans around the world,” Whitman said as she officially reopened the club. “It is a place that is important — not just to us, but to the world.”
Santana’s renovation included the addition of a permanent exhibition of art and artifacts from the history of the city and the venue itself, state of the art lighting and sound equipment, redesign of the outside Stone Pony Landing area, tenting and a small food facility.
Of course the club was open for business during the reopening weekend, with performances by the Smithereens, Gary U.S. Bonds and local legend Lance Larson. Some of the proceeds of the opening weekend’s shows were donated to the Stephen Crane House on Fourth Avenue in the city, where the author of “Red Badge of Courage” lived during much of his short life.
The club also made a commitment to become involved in the Asbury Park community. The Pony and the city co-sponsored a weekend-long Asbury Park Festival along the oceanfront. The event, which was free, featured local arts and crafts vendors as well as bands playing both inside and outside the club. The U.S. Postal Service created a special cancellation for the event and hundreds of people lined up to have envelopes stamped for the occasion.
Since the reopening weekend, The Stone Pony continued on in its tradition by hosting events involving community groups and charities. Proceeds from a concert entitled “Remembering Harry Chapin” went to support groups who fight world hunger. The club was also designated as an official drop-off point for the Food Banks of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Shortly after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, Jon Bon Jovi and other musicians joined together at the Pony to honor the fallen heroes of that day and to raise money to assist their families.
The club continued to open its doors for fundraising events such as the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation and the Acoustic Musicians Guild. The Pony also became center stage for “Light of Day,” a concert given by local and national musicians to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease research. The event was the brainchild of Bob Benjamin, who himself was diagnosed with the illness in 1996. What started out as an intimate birthday party for Bob eventually evolved in the year 2000 as a huge fundraiser. In its five years of existence, Bob’s fundraiser has welcomed performances by Marah, Joe Grushecky, Jesse Malin, Garland Jeffries, Joe D’Urso, Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys, Joe Bonnano, Mimi Cross, Soozie Tyrell, Pete Yorn, Teddy Geiger, Bruce Springsteen, Michael J. Fox, and many other artists. Over the years this event has gained national exposure for Parkinson’s and has raised more than $1 million.
As The Stone Pony struggled and maintained itself over the years, Asbury Park itself was a different story. Through years of corruption and destruction, the once beautiful and legendary oceanfront that surrounded the world famous club was completely abandoned and desolate. A glimmer of hope came in 2001 when a company called Oceanfront Acquisitions, later renamed Asbury Partners, purchased the redevelopment rights. With the direction and help of a new and honorable city council, progress slowly began to happen. The citizens of this once great area, along with countless skeptics and critics began to believe again.
Domenic Santana, who himself was a revolutionary, decided he did not want to stand in the way of progress. Thinking of the betterment of his new community, he sold The Stone Pony to Asbury Partners in July 2003. He stayed on as a consultant and helped to make a smooth transition into the next era of the club. The changeover was easily accomplished due in part to the efforts of Kyle Brendle and John D’Esposito.
Concert promoter John D. formed a company called Max Cruise in the fall of 2002, and he began to aggressively pursue national acts for the club. The first weekend in July 2003, after the change in ownership, saw performances by Rick Springfield and Billy Idol. Other artists that have appeared since under the auspices of Max Cruise (and its successor Live Nation) include Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Patti Smith, Sebastian Bach, Levon Helm, Peter Frampton, The Black Crowes, Sean Lennon, Dickey Betts, Clarence Clemons, The Wailers, Nils Lofgren, Indigo Girls, La Bamba’s Big Band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Poco, Leslie West and Corky Laing of Mountain, Lisa Marie Presley, Jimmy Cliff, The Outlaws, Hot Tuna, Taj Mahal, Bobby Bandiera, John Eddie, Railroad Earth, Glen Burtnik, Dave Mason, Blues Traveler, Johnny Winter, Dierks Bentley, Ziggy Marley, Steve Forbert and many others.
Long time “house promoter” Kyle Brendle has been putting together shows for all of the Pony’s owners since the mid 1980s. A constant champion of Asbury Park’s heralded music scene past and present, his finesse and dedication in the areas of promotion and local booking have made Kyle an integral part of the club’s longevity and success. In 2008, the Asbury Music Awards honored Kyle Brendle with the “Living Legend” award.
Young performers, many of who have gone on to be multi-platinum and Grammy-award winning artists, have also graced The Stone Pony’s stage. Weezer, Maroon 5, Jimmy Eat World, Yellowcard, Jason Mraz, Say Anything, All Time Low, Thursday, Panic at the Disco, Cute Is What We Aim For, Andrew McMahon and Jack’s Mannequin, Saves The Day, Cartel, Lagwagon, Mae, Bloc Party, The Jonas Brothers, Hellogoodbye, The Academy Is, They Might Be Giants, 30 Seconds To Mars, Circa Survive, The Spill Canvas, Motion City Soundtrack, MxPx, Pennywise, The Starting Line, Bouncing Souls, Bayside, The Almost, Mute Math and the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, are only a few of the many success stories The Pony is proud to have hosted.
In May 2004, the club also became the first location for The Bamboozle, a festival created by Max Cruise Entertainment which features both young and seasoned punk bands. After the second year, the event got so large it was moved to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The festival expanded to include shows in California and Chicago, as well as a traveling road show.
As the redevelopment of Asbury Park moves forward, so does the evolution of the legendary Stone Pony. Concerns had been raised about the club’s future, and what place it may have in the new development. That question seems to have now been answered by Madison Marquette, a national retail development company. Madison President Gary Mottola decided to bring his company to the city because of his love for New Jersey and his understanding that Asbury Park is unique and must be preserved and enhanced. Mottola knows the importance of music to the city, and that The Stone Pony has been — and will continue to be — a central part of that tradition.
In keeping with the club’s reputation as an important regional music venue, it only made sense for the Pony to partner with the world’s largest concert promoter, Live Nation, in April 2008. Live Nation has been able to develop Asbury Park as a primary musical market for national touring acts. This has also created new opportunities for local musicians to become part of a growing and ever-changing scene.
With sound, lighting and air conditioning systems upgraded, and a new roof installed in 2009, the next step was to make the music even bigger. The Pony’s “backyard” grew to the width of a city block in the summer of 2009 and played host to big-name artists in an expansive seaside setting. The Black Crowes, The Pretenders, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Peter Frampton and Snoop Dogg were among the performers who graced the expanded stage during the premiere season.
According to the former vice president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Robert Santelli, “the club has already earned its place in history as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great venues. Most rock critics and historians that I come in contact with on a regular basis feel that The Stone Pony is one of greatest rock clubs of all time.”
Contributors: Jean Mikle, Lee Mrowicki, Caroline O’Toole, Pete Walton