Toms River resident JT Bowen takes long road back to stage with Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park
By Phil Stilton
Photos by Angel Kames
It was a chance meeting between two long time Asbury Park area musicians and according to J.T. Bowen, of Toms River, a little bit of fate that brought together Bruce Springsteen, The Sensational Soul Cruisers and The Nick Clemons band at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park this past Sunday night.
The show was originally booked as any other ordinary show for the Sensational Soul Cruisers, headed by Jackson Township resident and saxophone player, “Screamin’” Steve Barlotta. The Soul Cruisers, who have been a fixture each summer at Point Pleasant’s Martell’s Tiki Bar frequently play in Asbury Park, including several appearances at the Stone Pony. A few weeks earlier, after the July 4th weekend, Bowen said Barlotta approached him about an idea to give back to the Asbury community and threw out the idea of turning their upcoming show into a tribute to “The Big Man”, the legendary Clarence Clemons, the E-Street Band member who passed away at the age of 69 on June 18th. Bowen liked the idea and invited The Nick Clemons Band, fronted by Clemons’ son Nick to open up for the Soul Cruisers.
The road to get to that stage however, has a long and interconnected past that started back in Asbury Park back in the 1960′s and 70′s. Back then, the Asbury music scene was two scenes in one. On the east side, you had all of the predominately white bands. Over on the west side, it was where the predominantly black R&B and soul bands performed. JT Bowen played in Clemons’ band, the Red Bank Rockers, which was his band when not touring with Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street band. But the story goes back even further, back to JT’s high school days in Maryland. JT remembers playing local shows and Clemons, who was then attended Maryland State College, used to perform regularly. “I remember saying to myself ‘That guy can play!” he said about Clemons.
After high school Bowen spent some time with the United States Army, serving along the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. “I got out of the Army and made my way to New Jersey.” Bowen recalled “It was 1966 and I was with Clarence in his band, The Chosen Few. Then Clarence opened up his club Big Mans West. When Clarence went on tour with Bruce and the band, he asked me to work the door to help out.” Eventually the Chosen Few gave way to Clemon’s schedule with Springsteen. Big Man’s West was eventually closed its dors and Bowen met up with Steve Barlotta, who at the time was living in Staten Island. Barlotta was playing saxophone behind Eddie Testa of Eddie and the Cruisers, the band which was loosely portrayed in the Hollywood hit film, Eddie and the Cruisers.
The band played a few years and eventually Barlotta formed a spin off of the original Cruisers and founded the Sensational Soul Cruisers. Bowen reconnected with Clemons in their new band The Red Bank Rockers after getting an invite from the Big Man himself.
For Barlotta, it was his second time playing sax for The Boss. In 1989, Barlotta was playing Saxophone for Gary U.S. Bonds at the Cafe Bar in Long Branch when he got his first on-stage surprise visit from Springsteen. Springsteen performed a few songs with Bonds and Barlotta.
Twenty Two years later and according to Bowen, fate and tragedy brought them all back together. “After the Red Bank Rockers, everyone thought I was dead. I dropped out of sight. I had some problems with addiction, but with the help of God and American Keswick in Whiting, I got out of it.” Bowen said “I just happened to one day call a friend of mine, Lenny Underwood on the phone. A few minutes after I got off the phone, Steve called the guy too.” Underwood told Barlotta “You’ll never guess who I just talked to!” Barlotta then got in contact with Bowen and invited him to perform with the Soul Cruisers on occasion.
Which led back to the July 5th conversation between Barlotta and Bowen about putting together a nice tribute for the Big Man, Clarence Clemons. The stage was set, it was supposed to be a gig like every other, with one exception, it was going to salute the life and music of Clemons.
Unexpected to all involved, Bruce Springsteen showed up at the Wonder Bar. After watching the Nick Clemons Band peform, and a one hour set of the Soul Cruisers, Springsteen joined Bowen, Barlotta and the Soul Cruisers on stage for their encore set which were songs written or performed by Clemons. The Boss played 45 minutes with the band and made headlines around the world in another one of his unsuspected random local public encounters.
Barlotta said he was honored to once again peform onstage with Springsteen. Included in the set was also two Springsteen classics, “Action in the Streets” and “Saving Up”. The crowd of course went wild and it was a night to remember for all involved. “We had a wonderful night.” Bowen said “I haven’t seen Bruce in over 20 years and it was such an honor to be able to give back to the scene like that. It’s amazing how fate and God’s plan is fulfilled sometimes.” Bowen, when not performing on stage these days, is now a Deacon at the No Limit Worship Center in Manchester and currently lives in Toms River. “It’s been a long road, but I finally got my life back together.” he said.
As for Barlotta, The Sensational Soul Cruisers continue as they have for many years, playing their brand of the Shore R&B and motown classics up and down the Jersey Shore. On Sunday night, Barlotta didn’t realize the importance of his performance. He was the first saxophone player to play for Bruce Springsteen since Clemon’s passing in June. The Soul Cruisers will be performing tonight and every Thursday night this summer on the Boardwalk in Point Pleasant at Martell’s Tiki Bar. Bowen said he will also be there alongside the entire band. As for Springsteen showing up for a second look at the Soul Cruisers? With Springsteen, you never know!