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Lovin' Life - Big Joe Henry
10/31/2010 - By Teja Anderson
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Larger than life personality is all heart
When I arrive at Big Joe Henry’s home in Long Branch he comes to the door in a bathrobe and is surprised to see me; my fault for not confirming our morning appointment. But it’s no problemfor this easy going guy. He welcomes me in and is ready to go. This is a man who goes with the flow, jumps headfirst into anything that can help others and never stops smiling and laughing. Despite that fact that he is a household name here in New Jersey, he is both humble and self-deprecating to a fault.
Big Joe Henry is a bigger than life radio personality for NJ 101.5. He is on the air Friday nights at 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. playing classic hits from the past, telling jokes and fielding calls. But in addition to that, he is an amazingly generous man and an enthusiast of the Jersey Shore making it, his home for several decades. He may have gotten the name “Big Joe Henry” because of his size, which is imposing, but truth be told the biggest thing about Big Joe Henry is his heart. During his past 13 years at 101.5 FM, the station and Big Joe have raised more than $35 million for New Jersey-based charities. Every year he does the Polar Bear Plunge to benefit the Special Olympics and every year he emcees, hosts or serves as an auctioneer for countless foundation galas and charity events. He also found time to pen the sold out “Big Joe Henry Big Jersey Cookbook” to help the FoodBanks of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. In 2005 Big Joe was so upset by Hurricane Katrina’s devastation that he bought himself a Santa Claus suit, collected over 8,000 toys and other gifts, and drove with a convoy down south to personally deliver them just so kids caught in the path of that horrible disaster would have something new to call their own on Christmas Day.
It can honestly be said that this jovial man, whose motto is “Livin’ Large and Lovin’Life!,” has a twinkle in his eye as Living In the Jersey Shore talks with him about his favorite things - charities, his career in radio and food.
LIJS: So is there anyone in your life that doesn’t call you “Big Joe Henry”?
BJH: (Laughs) Nope. No; absolutely not one person.My mother used to but she passed away back in April of ’07. She was the only one and when it was “Joseph” Iknew it was serious but most of the time it was “Joe.” But she was the only one who called me that.
LIJS: You weren’t always big; when did the “Big Joe” moniker start?
BJH: As a kid, probably when Iwas in grade school, right around fifth or sixth grade and it stuck with me ever since.
LIJS: Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up?
BJH: I grew up in the Bronx and then moved to Pittsburgh for awhile, then college in Minnesota and then eventually worked my way back here by way of Chicago and St. Louis and Los Angeles.
LIJS: But how did you end up in New Jersey? Had you spent any time here as a kid?
BJH: I did. My family, all my cousins, lived here in Atlantic Highlands, so every summer Iw ould spend here on the Jersey Shore when I was a kid from the time Iwas five into adulthood. Ialwa ys said that if Iworked my way back to this coast I would live at the Jersey Shore. This is where I want to be, this is where I have to be.
LIJS: What are your fondest memories of being at the Shore as a kid?
BJH: Oh, there were so many. My uncle building his house in Atlantic Highlands, hanging around Sandy Hook, going to the beach and going swimming - you had to drag me out of that water back then - it was just a great time, a great time with family.
LIJS: How has the Jersey Shore changed since you were a kid?
BJH: (Laughs) it’s a lot more crowded, that’s for sure! It was a vacation place when we were kids, it was the place to go for the beach, the rides and the carnivals but I’ve seen it evolve in different ways. It’s sad in places where it has deteriorated, where you see the vacancy signs and the emptiness and the rundown parts; but then Iapprec iate the other areas that have revitalized and come through. It’s kind of a mixed bag for me. But I have had offers to go back to Chicago and other places for more money and I just won’t go; this is exactly where I want to be. This is a very, very unique area. You have people from New York and Pennsylvania that come here and enjoy the Jersey Shore in the summer but we get to live here all the time. This is my favorite time of year when the weather is great and most of the tourists are gone. Now Ican enjoy the beauty that we have. I mean the Bennies are really only here for a couple of months and the rest of the time we can go out and enjoy the shore.
LIJS: What did your parents do?
BJH: Well, my father was out of the picture; he left when Iwas really young. But my mother was involved in the advertising/media business and she was a very prominent woman in the business in the 60’s. If you’ve ever seen that show “Mad Men” on AMC? She was like the Office Manager (Joan Harris played by actress Christina Hendricks). She started out as a media buyer and she ended up becoming a senior vice president for a multimillion dollar company. She really worked her way up and took on a lot of responsibilities and did a great job. And, she was a single mom through everything.
LIJS: How long ago did you move back into this area permanently?
BJH: I came back here almost twenty years ago. Iwas a senior vice president of a sports marketing company and the guy ended up closing his office because of a bad thing and Ihad an opportunity to go back to Chicago and work for NBC again. But Ihad done radio like a hundred years ago and there was a little radio station in Long Branch - Oldies 107.1 - that I looked at and Iwalked in and the guy said, “What are you doing here? We’ve got to work something out; there is no way I can pay you what you are worth but if you stick with me and we build this radio station I promise you Iwill make it up to you.” And he did! Iworked there for five and a half years and Ieventually became their program director. He bought that radio station for $1.3 million and he sold it for $12.5 million, so we did something right. That was in December of 1996. Then in January of 1997 Iwent to New Jersey 101.5.
LIJS: Wow, you have been there over 13 years and still going strong!
BJH: Yes, I have been blessed in this business to have longevity and to be able to do it here. To be on one radio station for 13 years is huge Iam very lucky to be there.
LIJS: Unemployment and the economy have hit almost every single business in the country; are you finding side jobs like voice-overs slowing down a bit? I know that you are a member of AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists)…..
BJH: Yes, Iam. The station itself is non-union but I do a lot of voice-overs. Well, I used to do a lot. That business is hurting really bad. There are so many of us. I went on an audition recently and there were 50 guys going for one voice-over job. It was ridiculous.
LIJS: Did you recognize any of the guys as fellow radio personalities?
BJH: Oh, big time! Iwa s like “Oh, I know that guy, I know that guy, oh my God, I know that guy! What kind of shot do I have?” Unfortunately that’s the business in this economy, where people who are well established in the radio business or in acting are trying to get those jobs.
LIJS: So you are auditioning against famous actors?
BJH: Yeah. I was up for a Dunkin’Donuts commercial and at the top of the script it said, “John Goodman-like.” So I thought, “I can do that.” So Idid the audition and they were thrilled and I got the call back on it and then I didn’t get it. So Iasked my agent what happened and he was like, “Well, they went out and they got John Goodman!” (Laughs) I hate when that happens! But I am just thrilled to be working right now, particularly with the radio station. They have been really good to me and I have been really good to them; it’s a good marriage.
LIJS: Is listenership up or down these days?
BJH: We are up, we are continually, continually up! The station is a monster and it is such a unique format that at first, when Istarte d there, they weren’t sure if it was going to work because it’s talk during the day Monday through Friday. They talk about the issues, particularly New Jersey issues, and then all of a sudden they flip the switch on the weekends and play music. When Istart ed they were 12th on the weekends in 35-54 (age of listeners) and within two rating books we were up to #1 and we haven’t fallen much below that since! Once in a while we will be down to #2 but right now in Monmouth and Ocean counties we are #1, through the roof.
LIJS: Obviously you are a big part of that, pun intended and now it’s time to make you blush a little more….
BJH: Uh, oh (Laughs)!
LIJS: I see and hear your name everywhere as far as being involved in and attached to so many charities and fundraisers for charities. You don’t have children of your own and yet you are involved in numerous children’s foundations and causes, you aren’t stricken with any illnesses and yet you raise monies to find cures for cancers, ALS, and many other diseases, you look well fed and still you lend your time and resources to help feed the hungry – where did you get this passion, this admirable quality and need to help others?
BJH: I guess from my mother. My mother would say on Thanksgiving Day, okay, let’s go and give dinners to those less fortunate. It really was her saying, “You got to give back. Take a look, enjoy and be grateful for what you have but try to help those that need it the most.” I have really kind of lived by that. I have a great job on the radio and I have a great voice to bring light to some of these charities and bring them to fruition and I think that I have an obligation to do that, we all have an obligation to do that when we can and it’s not necessarily financial. If I gave money to every charity Iwas involved with Iwould be broke, but what I have is my time and my voice. I probably get 10-20 requests a week for some type of event and I just can’t do them all. I do as many as I can and the ones that are really important to me.
LIJS: Okay, give us your top five.
BJH: My top five includes ALS, is a devastating disease; one year you will see a person and they are fine and the next year they are gone and there is no cure, it is just terrible. Another one is St. Clare’s Home for Children with AIDS up in Newark, started by Terry and Faye Zealand who are just the salt of the earth and have helped over 80,000 kids. The Family Readiness Council from the National Guard is another one; they go in and assist families of soldiers who have been deployed overseas to help them with bills and anything they need. Holiday Express is really pretty cool; to be able to go around during the holidays and bring toys and joy to so many families and kids.
LIJS: Over the years you must have collected quite the list of names and phone numbers of the rich and famous; who are your “go to” people when you are having a big event, who can you always count on?
BJH: Southside Johnny has always been there for me, Gary U.S. Bonds is another guy. Idon’ t approach Bruce (Springsteen) and Jon (Bon Jovi) and the reason Idon’ t is because I respect them and because everybody else approaches them. Iwill very nonchalantly let those guys know and if they are available they will pop in. Another guy is Bandiera (Bobby). Oh man, he is just a wonderful guy and we are very, very good friends.We have dinner all the time. If I really need something he will help pull it all together and make it happen.
LIJS: Do any of these people come to you and ask for your help?
BJH: Yeah, that has happened a couple of times. When Bruce was signing his book of lyrics I got a call from Terry (McGovern) saying, “Bruce wants to know if you want to do your show down in Asbury and promote it and some of the money will go to charity.” Two weeks later we were down in Asbury Park broadcasting and having fun!
LIJS: Speaking of famous people you recently were on the Red Carpet for the NJ Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. What was that like?
BJH: (Chuckles) That was the best! They called me up and asked if I wanted to that and Iwas like; “Are you kidding? Of course!” To get a chance to have fun with Danny DeVito and have a great conversation with Susan Sarandon, and Buzz Aldrin and Yogi Berra, Frankie Valli…the list goes on! It was just such an honor! I would take that gig every year. I had a blast!
LIJS: Turns out there are a lot of famous people who came out of this state…
BJH: We really are blessed here in New Jersey. Iend every radio show by saying, “Go out this week and support local New Jersey musicians, there’s no finer talent than right here in the great Garden State. Go out and give them a listen.”We have such talent in not only the entertainment industry but also in science, history and business.
LIJS: When you do live shows out of the studio are there ever any bloopers or funny, unexpected things that people will do or say?
BJH: (Laughs) Oh God. There was this one time when we were out at the beach doing a Family Feud setup at Jenkinson’s. The question was, “Name me what you would find in your mother’s cupboard” and an eight year old kid says, “My father’s pot!” And it was live! Iwasn’t sure if he meant pot to cook in or pot to smoke, but he clarified that it was pot to smoke and the crowd went nuts! That was a good one. The mother was mortified.
LIJS: You certainly take advantage of the Jersey Shore and host a bunch of things at the beach; the Polar Bear Plunge, what else?
BJH: Yes, every Sunday night during the summer Ido the (Big Joe) Jersey Talent Show at Point Pleasant Beach.We have the finals coming up this weekend and Iam very excited. We have had a kid that went on to win $100,000 in America’s Got Talent. Over 20-25 kids we had in the past have been on Broadway, one girl is now over in Italy singing opera. It is amazing the local talent here and there are always talent scouts at the finals so you never know what might happen for these people.
LIJS: At the Polar Bear Plunge, do you go in?
BJH: No. (Laughs) No, I am not allowed; the whole point is to have cold water; if I go it it’s gonna heat that stuff up! I just tell people what’s going on.
LIJS: I watched some of it on YouTube. You are very funny and so good at what you do. Hey, when I Googled you I found that there was another famous “Joe Henry.” Did you know that?
BJH: Yes I do. He’s a musician! I have two of his albums!
LIJS: I wonder if he knows who you are…
BJH: I bet you he doesn’t. This guy gets around quite a bit; he’s a very well known musician.
LIJS: Are you up on all the new social medias; Twitter, MySpace, Facebook?
BJH: No. The only thing I did really was to have my producer at the station put me on Facebook because I got so many requests to do that and it’s worked pretty well. It has been kind of interesting reconnecting with people I haven’ t seen in a while. The radio station itself has a Twitter so they will go on there and put stuff (tweet) about me or what I’m doing. But not me personally; I can’t do…it’s just not for me. Can you imagine? (He mimes typing) “Hey, I’m sitting here in my bathrobe talking to Teja…” I mean come on, the visual alone is frightening… so I let that go and I don’ t think Iwill ever do it even though people are always telling me to. I’ve got a million listeners and they know what I’m doing every weekend when I’m on the radio and that’s good enough for me.
LIJS: I heard a rumor that you might be opening a restaurant in the area soon....
BJH: Yes, and that’s a good rumor. I am really trying to find a place. The concept is pretty good and I believe in the idea and I am actually trying to make it happen.
LIJS: Can you share any information about it or is it top secret?
BJH: It’s kind of a secret but the concept is that it’s going to be a tribute to Rock & Roll, especially New Jersey Rock & Roll. Ihave about $140, 000 worth of memorabilia that I personally collected over the years or that has been given to me on loan that I’m going to put up there. There are seven or eight autographed guitars from Springsteen to Eric Clapton to Bon Jovi. This will be a place that everybody will like coming to. We will have comfort food, some of the food from my cook book. We are going to keep the food and drink prices really reasonable. We are in a tough economy, it’s not really the best time to open up a restaurant but Ithink that if you have a fun place that has very good food and entertainment and attractive prices, it’s going to be successful. Music is universal; everybody likes music. We will be able to do music on Friday and Saturday nights and bring in some friends and just have a really good time. I’ve always liked to cook and be around food as you can see… (Chuckles).
LIJS: Is the word “No” even in your vocabulary?
BJH: (Laughs) No. No, it is. It’s unfortunate that I can’t do everything, every charity out there; so many are really worthwhile and Ireally want to help people out. But there are only so many hours in a day.
LIJS: New Jersey is very lucky to have you.
BJH: I feel lucky to be here; I just love it here, the quality of life. I love the fact that other people have an image of New Jersey as someplace they never want to go; but whenever family and friends come to visit, they never want to leave. The beauty that we have here - the ocean, the beaches, the restaurants and the saloons...they are just unsurpassed.
Bay Avenue Trattoria in Highlands
Rock & Roll; especially Bruce
People who talk loudly on their phones in restaurants
Three People You’d Like to Have Dinner With:
Jackie Gleason, Jesus and Vince Lombardi
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