It was well past 1 a.m. on the morning of November 4th, 2000, when Joe Grushecky addressed the crowd that had flocked to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, to fight Parkinson’s Disease and see local stars like John Eddie, Boccigalupe and the Badboys, and Joe D’Urso rock the iconic club. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “please welcome back to the Stone Pony, New Jersey’s favorite son, Mr. ‘Murder Incorporated’ here himself, Bruce Springsteen.”
Springsteen hadn’t played the Stone Pony in five years at that point, meaning even a single song with Grushecky and his band the Houserockers would have been a dream come true to many in the audience. But he proceeded to play a thrilling 13-song set, wrapping up with the Southside Johnny classic “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” that didn’t end until 3:15 a.m.
It was a night destined to become the stuff of Asbury Park legend. It was also the first Light of Day benefit, kicking off an annual event that now includes about 85 shows in 14 countries. Along the way, the performances have raised $5.5 million in the fight against Parkinson’s Disease. The Light of Day Foundation is going bigger than ever to celebrate its 20th anniversary this month with concerts all across New Jersey, New York City, and Philadelphia, culminating at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park on January 18th with longtime Light of Day supporters Joe Grushecky, Willie Nile, Jesse Malin, Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan, James Maddock, and Boccigalupe and the Badboys.
“Light of Day isn’t about the music business,” says Grushecky, who has played every single year. “If it was about the music business it would have collapsed in a heap years ago. It’s about playing music because you love playing music and you love helping people.”
None of this would have happened without Bob Benjamin, a former Billboard writer who worked as a consultant for the Razor & Tie label in the 1990s before taking on a job as Grushecky’s manger in 1995. The Pittsburgh-based songwriter had just recorded an LP with Bruce Springsteen, American Babylon, and needed some help with his career.
“I didn’t have a manager or an agent back then,” says Grushecky, who has divided his time for decades between music and his teaching job at a Pittsburgh High School. “Basically, I was a one-man operation. [Springsteen’s manager] Jon Landau said to me, ‘Bob is a hard working guy, honest guy. I think he’ll do well for you.’ I hired him and we hit it off. He had moxie and real balls.”
The following year, Benjamin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He was just 38. When he turned 40 a couple of years later, his friends Tony Pallagrosi (a former Asbury Jukes horn player turned concert promoter), radio host Rich Russo and Asbury Park Press writer Jean Mikle decided to throw him a surprise party at a Red Bank, New Jersey, restaurant.
“A couple of days before the surprise party, Bob called me up,” says Pallagrosi. “He said, ‘You know that surprise party you’re throwing for me? Why don’t we pass the hat and give whatever we collect to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation in New York City because they have really been helping me find the right doctors and have given me a lot of information about the disease.'”
They took up Benjamin’s idea and wound up raising about $2,000 that night. And when Benjamin’s 42nd birthday came around two years later, his friends decided to expand on the idea by throwing a charity show at the Stone Pony. “The plan was to play [Bruce Springsteen’s 1987 song] ‘Light of Day’ as the last song of the night,” says Pallagrosi. “I can’t remember who, but someone had the idea to call the whole thing Light of Day. We asked the Springsteen organization, Jon Landau and Barbara Carr, if we could use the name. They were very gracious and agreed.”
Wanting to contribute more than just the title of his song, Springsteen showed up that year to play with Grushecky. The appearance generated a huge buzz in the Springsteen fan community, and helped pack the show in 2001 and 2002 when he moved to the Tradewinds club in Sea Bright, New Jersey. Those were both big events, complete with Springsteen surprise guest spots, but in 2003 the show moved back to Asbury Park and expanded to two nights. And not only did Springsteen come yet again that night, but Michael J. Fox did as well.
“I remember him standing on the side of the stage for a long time that night,” says Willie Nile. “And Bruce is there holding court, raising mighty heaven. I could see that Michael was just really scared. First of all, he’s going to playing with Bruce in a second. Also, follow that! Good luck! I’d tell Baby Jesus, good luck following Bruce.”
But at the end of night, when it was time to break out “Light of Day,” Fox came out onto the stage with a guitar to join in on the fun. “It was a glorious moment,” says Nile. “You could see how scared he was and how courageous he was. It felt like the sun was shining on him in that moment. I could see it on his face and his whole aura.”
The show grew practically exponentially every year from there, branching out to Los Angeles in 2005 for an event with Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, and Dave Alvin. A few years later, longtime Light of Day performer and LOD Foundation Vice President Joe D’Urso took it to Europe alone with Willie Nile and a handful of other acts.
“Those European tours were grueling,” says Nile. “There was minimal money and you’d be in a different country every day, not getting much sleep. But the people we met along the way, and the money we raised, made it worth it. We made lifelong friends on those trips.”
In 2010, the organizers moved the central Light of Day events to Martin Luther King Day weekend in mid-January and it’s been there ever since. That same year, Bob’s Birthday Bash moved to the 1,600-seat Paramount Theater on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Stars like Darlene Love, Southside Johnny, John Rzeznik, and Ed Kowalczyk have all headlined over the past decade, but the bulk of the show is built around Light of Day stalwarts like Grushecky, Nile, D’Urso, and Malin.
The highlights are too numerous to mention, but Grushecky’s mind goes back to two moments that stand out. “I can remember doing ‘Atlantic City’ with Bruce at the Pony [in 2004] and it was just electrifying,” he says. “We also did ‘Never Be Enough Time’ at the Paramount in 2014. That was smoking.”
The lure of a surprise Springsteen appearance (he’s never once officially appeared on the bill) helped Light of Day fill the Paramount year after year, but he actually hasn’t played since 2015 and the tickets still move very quickly and LOD events populate venues all across Asbury Park on MLK weekend. That’s at least partially thanks to the efforts of Pallagrosi, who now serves as the executive director of the Light of Day Foundation.
“For many years, a lot of the buzz surrounding the event was because of Bruce,” he says. “And Bruce has been so gracious to us and such a godsend. Because of him, we have worldwide presence. But when I became executive director, I really wanted people to know why we are there. It’s about Parkinson’s and ALS [Lou Gehrig’s Disease] and PSP [Progressive Supranuclear Palsy] and finding a cure and helping people on a daily basis. I wanted to pound that message home more and more every year and I think I have.”
Amazingly, Light of Day has even found a home in Ocean Grove, Australia (a sister city of Ocean Grove, New Jersey), and tours of Europe and Canada continue every single year, often lead by the tireless Joe D’Urso. And Bob Benjamin, who now lives in an assisted living facility in Freehold, New Jersey, remains their inspiration. “It’s been very gratifying,” says Benjamin. “There’s a lot of people who’ve worked with us over these 20 years. I never thought we’d be going that long.”
“We’re going to keep at this,” says Nile, “and one day they’re going to find a cure for Parkinson’s and the related diseases. It’ll be the most amazing day on earth and we’ll have the most amazing party celebrating it. And the next day, the very next day, we’ll pick another disease and go after that.”