After nearly 50 years of singing and playing guitar around the world with some of the most recognizable bands of his generation, Bobby Bandiera has come full circle, landing right back where he started playing as teenager: the bars and music venues of Monmouth County.
A former longtime guitar player with county-based Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Bon Jovi, and a regular performer with Bruce Springsteen, Bandiera, now 63 years old, spends his weeks playing mostly at various venues in Red Bank, Rumson, Long Branch, Asbury Park and Belmar. Although he always played along the shore circuit throughout his career, to have the chance to do it regularly now, with the same passion for performance he exuded as an eager teenager, illustrates how much Bandiera has stuck to his roots.
Bandiera’s musical journey began at 16 years old when he landed a spot in a cover band, Holme, and played at the still popular Belmar nightclub, D’Jais. From there, Bobby played in the house band for The Stone Pony, where he formed relationships with Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, and Jon Bon Jovi. In addition to his success playing with bands that are synonymous with New Jersey, both for profit and for many charities, Bandiera has released three records on his own, and is currently working on a fourth.
“Music has been good to me,” he humbly says during an interview with Living in Media at McCloone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park, in-between his performances for the Hope and The Light of Day concerts that benefit local charities. “As long as people keep coming out, I’ll keep playing.” And judging by the avid following that Bandiera’s scintillating guitar solos, soulful voice, and generosity have cultivated over the years, people will keep coming out wherever he shows up for years to come.
Playing in the local community where he made a name for himself holds a special place in Bandiera’s heart. Like Bon Jovi has famously said: Who says you can’t go home?
LIM: Just this last week, and this upcoming week, you played at the Hope Concert and Light of Day Concert to raise money for various for charities. How important are those shows to you, to benefit the local community?
BB: I do the best that I can to help out as much as I can when I’m around. If a show is going to benefit someone who really needs it in the community, whether it’s the Food Bank, the Hispanic Outreach community, ALS, March of Dimes, Mary’s Place in Ocean Grove, it’s a good thing to be part of your community and give back. It’s always been fun, the three or four charity shows a year that I do. People need a helping hand. I play music. My life has been about putting smiles on people’s faces, making them laugh and helping them feel good after a hard day at work and to get away from the doldrums of the news and what’s going on in the world. It’s a good thing to know that you have that quality that you can bring people together in a room, have something to drink, and have a good time.
LIM: It never gets old?
BB: It never gets old. If I’m not terribly busy, I’m more than willing to lend a helping hand. Some of it has to do with realizing that my son was afflicted with schizophrenia. The Hope Concert started with trying to help my son, and we just finished our ninth year. We didn’t start it looking for success, it was just to help out. The recognition is a good thing and I appreciate it, but it’s really not about that. It’s just about getting the job done and seeing that people could live a better life because of it. The funds raised are a good shot in the arm for them because they need it.
LIM: What did the support from local musicians Southside Johnny, Bon Jovi, and Bruce Springsteen mean to you?
BB: It was fabulous that they jumped on board to help out. Tim McLoone also jumps on board to help every holiday season. They’re close and personal friends who want to be involved to get the job done. It was pretty overwhelming to know that they considered helping out in that regard. For them and for me, giving back in the community that you are proud of is not such a big thing. It just feels natural.
LIM: How old is your son now?
BB: My son is 34 years old and, gee, that means I’ll be 64 this year. And my daughter, she has two children.
LIM: What was it like to have to balance performing with caring for your son when you were both younger?
BB: It was tough to stay on track and focus my music and what I needed to do to make a living so that I could provide for him and be in a better place. It wasn’t overwhelming, it was just put your nose to grindstone and get it done. Anyone who thinks enough of their family will, I’m sure, step up to the plate and get the job done.
LIM: When did you start getting into playing music?
BB: It’s the age-old story you hear from guys my age. I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Rolling Stones on Ed Sullivan, and at nine years old I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I needled my parents for years to buy me a guitar, and I got my first one at 13. Since then it’s been a fun ride. But both the Stones and Beatles have probably outlived any music that has come along since. I was lucky to live in the 60s, when Rock and Roll and R&B was at its height. I hope people my age and younger pass it down to the younger generations.
LIM: Why do you think that’s important?
BB: It’s just a matter of generational difference. Most of the music that I hear when I do listen today, it doesn’t come close to the creativity that was being put forth by Lennon, McCartney, Paul Simon, and so many legends. Anything that’s played on the radio today means a lot to a 10 or 13-year-old kid. But I think passing on music to kids today is important, so they can compare the music that they listen to today to music from that era. I think it was the greatest era.
LIM: You grew up in Orange. When were you first introduced to the shore area?
BB: I was about 16 years old and my neighbor was a keyboard player in a cover band called Holme. They were looking for a guitarist. They were two to four years older than me and playing the club scene. They gave me an audition and liked what they heard. I also liked what I saw and the potential of working three to four nights a week in night clubs, making money. I took the shot. I quit high school. My mother was fit to be tied, but I did go on to get my GED. So, I was 16 years old, playing at a club in Belmar called D’Jais. I had to borrow my brother’s ABC card and use that to get in. You could only get one at 18 years old, and that was the only way they could let you work in a night club. I borrowed his card. I never had to use it. I was never approached – at least not yet.
LIM: Was that a difficult choice for you to leave school and start playing?
BB: My father would tell my mom, “Jesus Christ, he’s making more money than the both of us put together. Let him go.” I’d buy a car, buy my father a car, and fix the kitchen up for my mother and so on. But no, not really. To do what I wanted to do, playing music and being given the opportunity, I was ecstatic. I understood the value of at least getting my GED. But music has been my life since I was 15-16 years old, and it’s been good to me.
LIM: Did you take a lot of lessons? How did you learn to play so well so quickly?
BB: In the beginning my father spent his hard-earned money to send me to lessons. It lasted for two weeks. I told him I wasn’t going to go there and learn how to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I sat my ass down in the basement with a Chuck Berry record, Young Rascals, Cream and Jimi Hendrix and learned how to play guitar. I just mimicked what I heard and made it mine over the years.
LIM: So it seems like you had success right out of the gate. Were there any down spots or rough times that you had to endure?
BB: Over the years there were a few times when work was scarce and I had to really go out and hustle. Knock on wood, I never had to go out and take a day job. I always made enough money to sustain a living and raise a family. Music has been good to me, and it still is. I’m going to take it the rest of the way.
LIM: Where did you play next after being in Holme?
BB: I was with Holme for the better part of the 70s. By 1980 I was with Cats on a Smooth Surface. In 1981, we were playing the Stone Pony as pretty much the house band. Bruce Springsteen, in-between tours and records, would come out and enjoy listening to the band. He would ask if we minded him coming up to play with the band, and I’d tell him, “Nope, you can’t. Of course you can!” He would come up, and in summer of 1981 he was coming up almost every Sunday with us.
LIM: And you’ve maintained a strong connection with Bruce ever since.
BB: Yes. Meeting him at one of those shows at the Stone Pony was right around the beginning of our friendship. That was the first night I met him, when he came up to sing. Then he said he wanted to come by to a rehearsal. That was all fun. It was cool that Bruce wanted to come up and play with us on stage.
There was one fundraiser we played at the Count Basie, and somebody said that Bruce wanted to come but nobody had asked him. I jumped on the phone real quick, and when he told me that no one had asked him, I said, “I’m asking you now. It’s two hours to showtime, hurry up!” His celebrity was going through the ceiling across the country. It created some electricity in the room for us and helped put us, Cats on the Smooth Surface, on the map. And at that time, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were hanging around too, and had told me their guitar player Billy Rush was going to leave the band, and asked if I would join the Jukes. It was about 1986 when I jumped from Cats on a Smooth Surface to the Jukes. From there I was with Southside.
LIM: Was there any advice that they gave you about succeeding in the music business?
BB: If you’re smart, you’d get out of the business. No, I would hear that from my father. But they were always positive, in that they respected what I did and they loved having me around. We always worked together to make a good end product, whether it was a fundraiser, a record, or a live show. Bruce would do fundraisers at the Stone Pony for the schools his kids were attending. He’d tell me, “Bob, you’re going to have to learn one to two hours of some of my songs, as I’m going to jump on with some of the stuff you know.” When you’re respected that way and they want to bring you along, it’s fun to be included and respected for what you do. It makes for a very happy outcome. You’re getting paid back for all the hard work you do. It may not be in dollars, but it’s in respect.
LIM: And then you played with Southside Johnny for a long time.
BB: Yes, for about 25 years. In fact, I had written a song with Patti Scialfa, who is married to Bruce, right before I joined Southside, called “Under the Sun.” I’m going to put it on our new record. He liked it. The first record I played with him on was “At Least We Got Shoes.” To be with the band and play live and on the record, it was pretty cool. There were a couple of songs of mine over the period of the next 20 years or so that I would get on the records. And I’ve also put out three records of my own.
LIM: Which did you enjoy more, playing and making your own music, or playing in other bands and working on collaborations?
BB: I enjoy it all. I really do. I really enjoy the creativity of the studio, writing songs. I enjoy having a hand in producing the song as it’s being laid out, recorded, and overdubbing. I enjoy it all.
LIM: Had you ever travelled to play before you joined Southside?
BB: That was the first time I ever really travelled. I’ve been to Japan, Europe many times, cross country here many times, and to Canada. In 1986, the first time I ever really travelled was in Germany, and it was a blast because it was my first tour, first of all, but the wall was also still up. I remember going to Berlin and having to travel through the part of the country that was controlled by Russia. You couldn’t get out of the bus, not even to go to the bathroom. The trip took about two hours. Then we made it into the other section of Berlin, seeing Checkpoint Charlie, and all that was pretty fascinating. It was a very enlightening first three weeks. From there we went to Scandinavia, France, Italy, England, the Netherlands, all over. I travelled a lot playing with Bon Jovi as well.
LIM: Who knew that bands from the Jersey Shore in Monmouth County had a big following over there?
BB: People love American music there, they always have. That just shows how much music can be a universal soldier. It’s the door that opens up to everybody and anybody in this world. It’s good to be a part of it.
LIM: So how different is it to play for an international audience than a local audience here in Monmouth County?
BB: You see a little bit of a difference. Sometimes here, people are a little jaded because they see everyone coming through all the time and there are so many venues. You have Convention Hall, Stone Pony, and Tim McLoone’s Supper Club. People might say, “I didn’t get to see that show but I’ll come back in six months or a year because I know they’re coming back.” But in Europe, we didn’t pass through as often. They were always more enthusiastic, from my viewpoint, although certain places here in America have the best American fans. But there’s a little bit of a noticeable difference. They maybe had a little more respect for the music because they weren’t seeing it as often.
It was fun getting on an airplane and travelling somewhere and having anywhere from 150 to 2,000 fans come and see you play, and realizing, jeez, they’re coming to see us because they’ve heard our records. That’s what makes it so appealing to be a musician, to know and realize that if you do make some of your own music and get it on a record, that you are able to use it as a vehicle to make some money and go over there and play. Of course, you need to make a little more money to afford plane fare, afford hotels if you go with the intention of making money on whatever level you’re at. But sometimes if you break even, it’s still worth it because you know that you have fans and you know that they are going to keep buying your music and they’re going to keep coming back.
LIM: Is there any one memorable show that you’ve done that sticks out in your mind?
BB: Playing a Christmas show at the White House. I was part of the house band that got put together. There were actually two that I did around 1999. Anybody from Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton, Tracy Chapman, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, BB King, Stevie Wonder, some of them played at either show. It was great being in their company, having to learn the material that they wanted to perform, which was usually a Christmas song for a show that the Clinton administration was putting on for a party and to celebrate the Special Olympics. So I got to be on board for a couple of those shows and play in the midst of people that I had idolized over the years. They set up a tent on the lawn for us to play. That kind of sticks out as one of my most memorable things over the years.
LIM: Did you meet the Clintons?
BB: Yes. It was just a quick, “How are you doing? What’s your name? Bob?” But here’s one silly little story: I’m backstage on a rehearsal day and everybody is dressed in jeans. It’s just a rehearsal day to get acquainted and go over some things the day before the dress rehearsal and show day. I’m in the hospitality room, and there’s the usual table with coffee and food. I was the only one left sitting there, everyone had gone out to the stage or some of the artists were milling about. I look up and see Eric Clapton getting a cup of coffee. So, I go over and introduce myself, quick and simple. He wasn’t overly exuberant about meeting anybody. We get out onto the stage and I remember the first song was going to be “Please Come Home for Christmas,” and I had a guitar solo in it. So we did the song. Eric’s song that he was going to do was a Freddie King Christmas song, I can’t remember the name of it. But, I’m up there just having played the first song and Eric comes up and says, “I just met you backstage,” and I said, “Yeah.” He says “Is this the order that the show is going to run, that’s going to be the first song?” I said “Yes.” He says, “Well how the f— am I supposed to follow what you just did?” I was like, what? What? The keyboard player was elbowing me to say something. I said, “Mr. Clapton, I learned how to play listening to your records in my basement.” He says, “Aw, bulls—,” and he picks his guitar up and starts playing his song. It was a pretty memorable time in my life, to be complimented like that.
LIM: Do you have any one favorite song you like to play, either your own or a cover?
BB: Anything that lets me extend my emoting, which is normally singing and playing the guitar. There’s one song that pops out, a song that was popular in the 60s, and probably his one and only hit song: “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, which Jimmy Web had written. It’s very emotional, singing-wise. I inserted some guitar stuff into the version that I did along the way. It’s fun to play and sing that song. It lets it be known, what I do.
LIM: Do you have any big shows on tap locally later in the year?
BB: I’m just doing the regular local stuff right now. McLoone’s, Jack’s Tavern in Belmar, Val’s Tavern in Rumson, Jamian’s in Red Bank, I’m there every Thursday night.
LIM: After all these years, what makes it exciting for you to still play so many venues in the community?
BB: Some people have said to me, “You’re 63, how long are you going to do this?” My brother just asked me. I said, “As long as people keep coming out, I’ll keep doing it, I’ll keep playing. If it’s two weeks, or seven years, I’ll keep doing whatever it takes.”
LIM: Is there one motivation or impetus to keep playing?
BB: Well, it’s still the way I make my living, and doing it so that I keep a following cultivated means a lot. So my driving force is to make sure I have a good band. There’s guys always coming in and out because they’re doing different projects and not available to do my band’s thing. I’ve been on and off the road so long I could never keep one group of guys together for a band. Knowing that summer is coming up, and that’s a big time for anyone in the music business to work, it drives me to keep it up. Now that I’m not on the road anymore, I’d like to get together with the musicians that kind of rise to the top in the local pool of musicians, and maybe at some point I’ll want to record with them as well. If you think that you know all there is to know and there’s nothing left to learn, then you’re fooling yourself. There’s always a better show. There’s always a better guitar solo. There’s always a better vocal performance. You just gotta pull it out. Music is emotion. For you to not want to pull it out, you’re fooling yourself. To get the opportunity to stand up in front of some people who want to see you do that because that’s what you do is a driving force enough. Years ago I was on an independent label for a minute, and the guy who ran the label said I sing like an angel and play like the devil. So that’s what I’ll be doing.
LIM: You mentioned before that you are working on a new album. Do you know when it will be released?
BB: I would say by the summer I’ll start recording it. Maybe sooner, but we’ll see what happens.
LIM: Are there any other hobbies that you have a passion for?
BB: Unfortunately not. I wanted to get into riding a motorcycle at one time, but my friends and wife at the time talked me out of it. I’m not a big beach guy, either. Music is pretty much it for me. But I do like to cook. I am considered by my friends to be a great cook, usually Italian.
LIM: You still sound like you have that novelty of excitement when you get on stage and play after all these years. That’s never really gone away?
BB: Never. Never has. I still love it. I still look forward to Thursday night, two days from now at Jamian’s, thinking that it’ll be fun. We’ll get the bass player and the drummer up there to do our thing. The next night there’ll be a few more guys in the band, and I’m looking forward to doing the songs that we know with that ensemble, and then Saturday I’m looking forward to paying acoustically at Convention Hall. Later that evening, I’ll jump up at a little club in Belmar and play “Balls to the Wall” guitar. It never gets old. I always look forward to it. It keeps me going.
La Tapatia in Asbury Park; Sono in Middletown
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