On stages throughout the area, J.B. Kline is celebrated for his virtuoso guitar chops and his blues, R&B and acoustic performances. Lambertville’s native son and bard is also an accessible, warm neighbor and teacher, whether at his music store at 25 Bridge Street or on the sidewalks of the City. He recently released his fourth album, “Makin’ the Deal Go Down,” so we talked to him about his heritage and inspiration.
On each of your albums there are songs about Lambertville. What makes it worth writing and singing about?
It’s where I grew up and I know it really well. When you look around, there are emotions and pictures and scenery everywhere. Lambertville maintains a lot of the beauty from earlier generations, while having a thriving community of families and businesses. The river and hills surrounding us help keep it that way.
What is different about the new album compared to the previous three?
It’s a little more fine-tuned. It’s more about Lambertville than the others.
Who was the “young Lambertville James Dean” in the title track?
I grew up on Blair Tract up by the highway. When I was 12, I stopped at the corner of Coryell and Main. Across the street, in front of Sked’s Luncheonette [now The Laundry Room], leaning against the wall was a guy with the coolest haircut, pants and shoes. He was probably 19. Fred Bair. He made a big impression back then. And his grandson has bought guitars from me.
The backup singers are fantastic.
Yeah, Carol and Jeannie Brooks [watch them with some of their sisters in this video]. I’ve known them since high school, so we’ve come a long way together.
Talk about “A Summer Night (In Old Lambertville)”
Last summer I was walking around the neighborhood. I passed the Swan Hotel and turned up Main Street, taking notes of the images and sounds. I sat on the St. John steps and put the song together.
In the last verse, you sing that “the new always seems to crowd out of the old.”
Yeah, but you can’t freeze buildings or a town—they’ll die. You have to recognize what change is good, while preserving the history. My family has been in retail since 1875—you have to change to keep going. You can’t keep selling the same things to the same people.
On your previous album, “All of Your Love,” you cover a tender song about the area.
“Down By The River, Along The Canal” was written by Jerry Fiess, a student of mine who became a singer/songwriter. He played that song for me and I immediately asked, “Can I record that?”
On your second album, the song “Belvidere Line” is a crowd-pleaser. Through your guitar, you channel the train and “the sound that lives in my mind.”
The accidents I sing about really happened. You had to have respect for that big train—it could kill you.
The river and the canal can be dangerous, too.
Oh, I have lots of stories. Early one morning, two teenage friends knocked on my door, drenched. They’d gotten mixed up on Ferry Street and drove right into the canal. Later, at the store my dad told me there were lots of emergency vehicles and personnel dealing with the car and he thought they were looking for bodies. Once, my daughter fell into the canal while feeding the geese. We had to form a human chain to pull her out.
Are the recent four albums your only albums, or had you made some earlier?
They are. I’d always recorded songs but I just didn’t have my “act” together. I had to decide what I’m good at, what I’m valuable at. For me, it’s helping young people get started in music through instruments and lessons, and it’s being “a rock star from Lambertville.” I’m a caretaker. Twenty years ago, I started going to Nashville for an annual music industry conference. When I first went, I thought I was a pretty good guitar player and might find some opportunities. I quickly saw that the best guitar players from every state are in Nashville—and they’re better than you! I had to evaluate my place in the music business—“What am I?” I realized I’m a songwriter/performer/band leader. Most important, I realized no one is going to sing about Lambertville better than I am.
Who is J.B. Kline and who is Geoffrey K. Kline?
People had always called me “J.B.” because of the store, founded by my great-grandfather, Jacob Barndt “J.B.” Kline, and its prominent sign. I was performing locally a lot and my manager, who had booked me a gig to open for Johnny Winter, asked, “What are we going to call you?” We thought “J.B. Kline” sounded cooler than my real name, Geoff Kline, and it jelled with my stage persona. It all came together in the early 2000’s and it’s worked ever since.
What is the history of the store and building?
In 1875, my great-grandfather turned three adjacent houses built in 1820 on Bridge Street in Lambertville into a tobacco store and retailer of postcards and stationery. They made cigars and sold loose tobacco up until the 1970’s in the basement under what is now Tesoro. It still smells sweet down there. My grandfather, George R. Kline Sr., turned J.B. Kline and Son Stationers into a wholesale distributor of candy, paper goods, tags, labels and other small products. He delivered to stores like Mary Iatesta’s on South Main Street and as far as Flemington, Harbourton and Mechanicsville. He also built the buildings along Kline’s Court. I opened the music store in 1993. In 2007 Joe Hosey, Kevin Joy and I created the studio, Riverdog Recording, in the basement.
When did you live in New York City, when you played with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and the Beach Boys?
I lived in Edgewater, NJ and in Manhattan from 1977-1982 at 26 West 27th Street and at 36th Street and 8th Avenue.
New Yorkers immediately love Lambertville. Why do you think that is?
Lambertville represents to them what a small town is supposed to be, mixed with more art and culture than most small towns have.
What brought you back to Lambertville?
The quality of life. We had our daughter, Kristin, and thought raising a family would be much better in Lambertville. At first, my former wife, Lynn, from Bayside, Queens, didn’t like it. We went to a function at the Moose Lodge and she said, “Everyone knows what we’re doing and they’re talking about me like I’m the new kid in town.” I told her she was right, but those people really cared about each other and about her. All these years later, Lynn is now one of those people.
You directly descend from New Jersey’s first native born governor, John Reading, and your father, George R. Kline Jr., was a Lambertville historian.
The book my dad co-authored [“Images of America: Lambertville and New Hope”, available here], featured many images from our store. My dad was a storyteller, a performer and even a playwright—I have scripts he wrote. He would dress up as Winston Churchill or FDR and do skits in the store. I care about Lambertville like he did, and I tell stories about it through music.
– From “A Summer Night (In Old Lambertville)” by J.B. Kline
And each old building holds a memory
People loved and died, worked and cried, inside each one, you see
Some went away, oh some are here to stay
Yeah people and buildings are a lot alike that way
And from the bridge the sunset is so vast
And I see a flag over in the distance, waving half-mast
And I hear voices and choices of people who grew this town
And I see faces and traces of people who knew this town
Listen to this song and enjoy images of Lambertville in the video on the home page of www.lambertvillehistoricalsociety.org.