Interview with Billy Smith
by Albee Tellone & Torsten Mörke, May 2007
Billy Smith and Steve Bumball opened the Asbury Park Rock-n-Roll Museum in 1986 after many years of collecting memorabilia of Jersey Shore musicians and bands. With a deep curiousity about the beginnings of Bruce Springsteen, they discovered many other of the "unsung heroes" of the scene and decided to give them all a place in their establisment. The museum was housed in the Palace Amusements building in Asbury Park, NJ. Located on Kingsley St. between Lake Ave. and Cookman Ave. - one block from the boardwalk.
Unfortunately,the economics of Asbury Park were very bad in the 1980s and the Palace closed permanently in 1988 leaving the museum without a home. It never re-opened. Billy moved to Florida but is still involved in collecting memorabilia. He was gracious enough to consent to this interview in May of 2007. The interview was conducted by email using a questionnaire method which was the combined effort of Torsten Mörke and Albee Tellone.
Torsten Mörke: What was your motivation to create a Museum about Asbury Park musicians ?
I always wanted to have my collection on display. My partner and I wanted to give the tourists and music fans a place they could visit in Asbury Park besides the Stone Pony. We also wanted to honor all the lesser known musicians from the area, in addition to the big names like Bruce, Southside, Little Steven & Bon Jovi.
How did you get all of these collectibles together ?
I started collecting Bruce items in 1975, and Asbury Jukes items starting in 1976. Then I began looking for earlier items, and contacted all the area musicians and their friends. I located and bought many posters from bands including Child and Steel Mill, and souvenirs from the clubs such as the Upstage and Student Prince. Once we had announced our plans for the Museum, we were approached by many people offering to loan us items for the display.
What about the Passiac marquee?
After those 1978 concerts, the marquee was given to Bruce by the promoter John Scher. It was in Bruce's house in Holmdel until he gave it to his tour manager Bob Chirmside. Bob is a friend of mine and he sold it to me so I could display it in the Museum.
Who were the people (both musicians and non-musicians) that supported your efforts the most ?
Max Weinberg was a big supporter. He was the first E Street Band member to visit, and he told Bruce and the others that it was very well done. Then later when we were forced to close, Max let us store the whole collection in his storage area at no charge. All of the local musicians supported us and were very happy to be represented in the Museum, especially the Upstage crowd including Margaret Potter and Big Bad Bobby Williams. Tex Vinyard also visited us often. He enjoyed looking at all "The Castiles" items and he liked meeting the fans and signing autographs.
We know that Bruce visited your museum many times. Tell us about that and his feelings about what you had there.
When did you find out that Bruce spent a great deal of his time jamming at the Upstage Club ? You were a child when the Upstage Club was open. How did you hear about it ?
Once I had read the Time and Newsweek articles in 1975, I became very interested in his earlier career. I wished I could go five years back in time and go to the Upstage. I started contacting the local musicians such as Vini Lopez, Big Danny Gallagher and Margaret Potter. They all had great stories about the Upstage and Bruce's early bands. Although I was too young to go to Upstage, I was lucky to be living in Neptune and I started going to the Stone Pony in 1976.
When did you first meet the late Margaret Potter ?
I contacted her in the late 1970's when she had a hair salon on Main Street in Asbury Park. She was always excited to meet fans of the local music scene, and she enjoyed getting credit for starting the Upstage Club with Tom, and for helping all the "kids" like Bruce, Steven and Southside. We remained good friends until she passed away.
Tell us about your visit with Tom Potter in Florida in 1986.
My partner Stephen and I went to Stuart, Florida in 1986 to meet Tom. He had moved down to Florida soon after the Upstage closed in 1971, and he was not in touch with many people in New Jersey. Margaret gave us his address and phone number, and we called and told him we were planning a Museum and we'd love to meet him. He agreed, so we flew to Florida and met with him. We brought some photos and memorabilia to show him, hoping to get him interested. He told us some stories, and then he said "I have a big box of slides from the club", which was very exciting! We didn't have any photos taken inside the club, so this was a great discovery. He offered to loan them to us so we could reproduce them and make prints for the Museum. We borrowed the slides and went through them all, and picked out the musicians we recognized. There were slides of everyone including Bruce, Steelmill, Southside, Margaret, Garry Tallent, Rick DeSarno, Billy Ryan, Big Danny, Bill Chinnock, David Sancious and many more. We sent all the slides back to Tom, and thanks to him we had a large display of rare photos from the Upstage. It was the most popular display in the Museum.
Was she a big supporter of your museum ?
Margaret was one of the biggest supporters. She wanted all the Upstage musicians to be recognized, and gave us several photos of her band from the late 60's. She helped us contact many people from the Upstage days, and they all trusted us because of our friendship with her. Margaret and Bobby Williams came out of retirement to play at our Grand Opening party at the Stone Pony in July of 1986, and they had a good time playing music again.
Were you involved in Margaret Potter's Society Of Associated Performers (S.O.A.P.) and do you have any memories of that organization ?
I was not involved.
The late Big Danny Gallagher was one of the people who helped run S.O.A.P. - did you know him well ?
I got to know Big Danny through my friendship with Vini Lopez. Vini was very close with Danny from the time they were kids, and he helped Danny get his job as a roadie with Bruce for the 1973 "Greetings" tour. Danny was bigger than life, always telling funny stories, always a big part of the Asbury music scene. He loved to sing the blues, and he enjoyed being recognized by the fans. Whenever we needed a local celebrity at the Museum for a TV or newspaper interview, we could always count on Danny and Vini. He will be missed by so many friends around the world.
Where is Steve Bumball now ?
Steve lives just across the Delaware River from northwestern NJ in beautiful Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania. It's located in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Nowadays he sell mechanical equipment.
Tell us about the "slide show party" you had with Margaret, Bobby Williams and Vini Lopez and who else was there?
Before we returned the slides to Tom Potter, we had a party for all the Upstage crowd and we showed them all the slides.They had a great time and it brought back many great memories for them. Margaret, Vini Lopez, Big Bobby Williams, Big Danny, John Luraschi, Eddie Luraschi, Lance Larson, Rick DeSarno, Billy Ryan, Sonny Kenn and many others were there.
What have been the reasons that you finally had to close your museum?
Our Museum was doing very well, our attendance got bigger every year. We had been featured in many magazines including Rolling Stone, and in many international newspapers and on TV. But towards the end of the 1988 season we were told by the Palace owners that they would not reopen for the next season, they said that they were losing money. We were located inside the Palace Amusements building without our own entrance, so we were forced to close too. We were very upset that they forced us to shut down, but we had no choice. We removed everything and stored it in Max Weinberg's storage area while we looked for another location. But that never worked out.
Are you still the owner of all those collectibles?
My partner and I took the items we personally owned, and we split the items we bought together. We returned all the items that were on loan. I sold many of my items in the collectibles store I opened in Red Bank in 1991, and I also sold the rarer items in rock & roll memorabilia auctions.
What are your plans for the future?
I still deal part-time in memorabilia, especially celebrity autographs.We have a website at www.WallsOfFame.com. And I still collect early Springsteen and Asbury items, but they are difficult to find these days. I have a large collection of items from Asbury Park and perhaps some day they will return there. For now, they are displayed in my house in Florida. I'm hoping that eventually Asbury will "rise up" and become popular again, and my collection can be on display for the visitors.
Interview by Torsten Mörke, www.Castiles.net
This site is a part of Castiles.net (The history of Bruce Springsteen)
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