Jersey Strong in Song: 5 Musicians from the Garden State

Jon Bon Jovi turns 54 today, so we are shining a spotlight on his band and some other famous Garden State music makers.
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Catherine McHugh
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Jon Bon Jovi turns 54 today, so we are shining a spotlight on his band and some other famous Garden State music makers.

Considering how many iconic musicians hail from New Jersey, it’s strange that it is the only state in the union that has never managed to adopt an official song. (Before passing away last year at age 92, Red Mascara spent the last 55 years of his life lobbying for his tune, "I'm from New Jersey," to be recognized as the state's official song.)

Nevertheless, its citizens have produced some of the world’s most renowned musical artists. Beginning with native-born son Jon Bon Jovi, who celebrates his 54rd birthday today, here is a look at five diverse music makers who hail from the Garden State. 

Bon Jovi

Jon Bon Jovi Photo by Michael Zorn/Getty Images

Jon Bon Jovi performs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in November 2013. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Getty Images)

John Francis Bongiovi Jr. was born on March 2, 1962 in Perth Amboy, NJ. Born into a working-class family, the aspiring rock star was playing in clubs by the time he was 16. The success of his first demo, “Runaway” prompted him to form a band with high school friend David Bryan. They were joined by Dave Sabo on guitar, Alec John Such on bass and Tico Torres on drums. Guitarist Richie Sambora soon replaced Sabo and Polygram signed the band, renamed Bongiovi as Jon Bon Jovi and launched Bon Jovi, the band.

Since its self-titled 1984 album, the group has enjoyed remarkable success. Powered by the hits "Livin' on a Prayer" and "Wanted Dead or Alive," its third album, Slippery When Wet, went both gold and platinum within six weeks of its release. Buoyed by its catchy hooks and power ballads, the band is beloved by legions of global fans, and has outlasted nearly all of its “hair metal” peers from the 80s. To this day, Bon Jovi remains one of the world’s most profitable touring acts. While not always a critical favorite, the band did take home a Grammy in 2007 and, in 2009, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora were inducted into the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame.

Queen Latifah

Queen Latifah Photo gdcgraphics/flickr Via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Latifah at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo: gdcgraphics [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Here we go! Here we go! Here we go! Rapper, record producer and acclaimed actress Dana Elaine Owens was born in Newark, NJ on March 18, 1970 and began singing in the choir of Shiloh Baptist Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey when she was just a young girl. By high school, she was rapping informally and, with support from her parents who equipped their basement with electronic and recording equipment, she was on her way to becoming one of the first rap stars. 

From her childhood nickname Latifah (which means delicate and sensitive), she added Queen to create her stage name. Her 1989 debut album, All Hail to the Queen, sold more than 1 million copies, and the single "U.N.I.T.Y." (featuring the provocative lyric “Who you callin’ a bitch?” to call out the misogynistic lyrics in many of the era’s rap songs) off 1993’s Black Reign album earned Latifah a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance. In the 1990s, Latifah began to get TV and film roles and her memorable turn as Matron Mama Morton in the 2002 movie musical Chicago and her signature solo, "When You’re Good to Mama," earned her an Oscar nomination. In 2004, she showed fans another side to her voice with The Dana Owens Album, a collection of classic covers, which earned her a Grammy nod for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Though her syndicated daytime show was cancelled in 2014, she has barely missed a beat. In 2015, Latifah starred as The Wiz in NBC’s The Wiz Live! production and as Bessie Smith in HBO’s Bessie. As one of Bessie’s producers, she won an Emmy for it in 2016.

Count Basie

Count Basie Photo By Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Count Basie in 1940. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Born to musicians Harvey and Lillian (nee Childs) Basie, William James "Count" Basie was born on August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, New Jersey. In high school, Basie played drums in the band and took some piano lessons from his mother. But he credited his sometime organ teacher, the great Fats Waller, with teaching the basics of piano in Harlem.

Basie made his professional debut playing piano with vaudeville acts and he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils in Kansas City in 1928. When that band broke up in 1929, Bennie Moten's band hired him to play piano and, at some point, gave him the nickname "Count." When Moten died in 1935, Basie took over the band, expanded the personnel and formed the first Count Basie Orchestra. Within a year, the band developed its own swing style—a solid rhythm section backing the horn soloists, who were also supported by sectional riffing (the repeating of a musical figure by the non-soloing brass and reeds). This familiar pattern was evident in the band's theme song, "One O'Clock Jump," which Basie wrote in 1937.

Many of the band's arrangements were reworkings of a standard tune—"I Got Rhythm" or "Lady, Be Good"—but sometimes a member of the band would write with a particular soloist or two in mind. For example, "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "Lester Leaps In" were created as features for saxophonist Lester Young. 

Basie was a shrewd judge of talent and character, and he was extremely adept in dealing with musicians’ egos. He and his band recorded with many other famous artists, including Duke Ellington (1899–1974), Frank Sinatra (1915–1998), Ella Fitzgerald (1917–1996) and Sarah Vaughan (1924–1990). Perhaps most impressive was the band’s 50-year survival in a culture that experienced so many changes in musical fashion, especially after the mid-1960s, when jazz lost much of its audience to other forms of music.

Basie died of cancer in Hollywood, Florida, on April 26, 1984 but his role in shaping the popular big-band sound of the mid-20th century will never be forgotten.

Lauryn Hill 

Lauryn Hill Photo By Lisa Liang Via Wikimedia Commons

Lauryn Hill performing in New York's Central Park in 2005. (Photo: Lisa Liang [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Born to Valerie and Mal Hill, in South Orange, New Jersey, on May 26, 1975, multi-hyphenate entertainer (singer, songwriter, rapper, producer and actress) Lauryn Hill was singing at Harlem's Apollo Theater by the age of 13. Soon afterward, she and Prakazrel "Pras" Michel and his cousin, Wyclef Jean, formed a band that would become The Fugees. The band’s blend of hip-hop, soul and R&B broke through on The Score in 1996. Featuring the hit single remake of Roberta Flack’s "Killing Me Softly," the album sold 17 million copies and garnered two Grammy Awards (Best Rap Album and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group).

Hill's first solo effort, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), was a spectacular success. The album sold more than 12 million copies and earned her five Grammys, three American Music Awards, a Billboard Award, a Soul Train Award and an MTV Music Award. Collaborations with Aretha Franklin and Carlos Santana and dozens of magazine covers followed but Hill found it difficult to handle the subsequent super fame and became increasingly reclusive. 

During her withdrawal from public view, Hill had five children (ages five to 17). She has continued to perform intermittently but developed a reputation for being unreliable and keeping audiences waiting. In 2012, Hill was charged with tax evasion and sentenced to three months in prison the following year. 

However, last year, she produced and contributed six tracks to Nina Revisited, the tribute album released alongside the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, which has received many accolades and on February 22, she joined The Weeknd for a performance of his song "In The Night" on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Bruce Springsteen Photo

Bruce Springsteen in 1984. (Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage)

Sure, he was born Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen on September 23, 1949 to working class parents, Adele and Doug, in Long Branch, New Jersey, but to millions worldwide, he’s better known as simply The Boss. To many, Springsteen is New Jersey. He has spent his 40-plus year career championing the working class with his plainspoken yet visionary and sincerely romantic songs.

For his 16th birthday, Springsteen's mother took out a loan to buy him a $60 Kent guitar, and he hasn't stopped playing since. While performing in clubs around the Jersey Shore in the 60s, he met most of the musicians who would become the E Street Band. Their first two albums garnered critical but little popular acclaim. But 1975’s Born to Run established them as true greats amid the rock-and-roll landscape, and they supported it with a long cross-country tour that made them famous for their marathon live performances (three or four hours per show).

Throughout his prolific career, Springsteen has experimented with different musical styles and stripped-down productions, recording albums with and without the E Street Band. He has also been vocal politically—especially when conservative-minded politicians have attempted to co-opt his songs for their own messages without his consent—and active in humanitarian causes. 

In January 2016, Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked off The River arena tour in the United States, which draws heavily from their 1980 album and its new reissue. On September 27, fans will get a rare insight into Springsteen’s mindset when Simon & Schuster releases his highly anticipated memoir, Born to Run. The book will cover the “poetry, danger, and darkness” of Springsteen’s New Jersey childhood, as well as his rise to massive stardom.