E Street Band
Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

The E Street Band

2014
Category:
Award for Musical Excellence
Members:
  • Garry Tallent
  • Roy Bittan
  • Steven Van Zandt
  • Patti Scialfa
  • Nils Lofgren
  • Max Weinberg
  • Danny Federici
  • Clarence Clemons
  • David Sancious
  • Vini Lopez

Known for backing Bruce Springsteen in his storied performances, the E Street Band is a gang of musicians bursting with skill, soul and endurance.

The band’s abiding relationship gives them a trust, chemistry and improvisational skill that have thrilled audiences for more than forty years.

Biography

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According to Bruce Springsteen, this house-rocking group of singular musicians has always expanded his line of vision—while creating the framework for the marathon live shows that defined his career.

The band have lasted more than 40 years with an independent and highly individualized identity. The most essential albums of Springsteen’s career—Born to Run (1975), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1975), The River (1980), Born in the U.S.A. (1984) and The Rising (2002)—are built around the group. Yet only four albums and an EP, all live except an anthology, bear the band's name on the spine.

You could say that the ESB is the greatest instrument Springsteen plays. He recently said almost exactly that: “I write to live up the band’s abilities and power onstage. That’s something that’s particularly significant. Even if these days, sometimes the guys are on records, sometimes it’s someone else. But if I go into, say, Wrecking Ball, I think okay, this is something we’re going to deliver. And it just sets me thinking differently, the way you approach the production. So the band has always expanded my line of vision. It’s something they still do. I still think, 'What’s this going to feel like when we hit the stage?'”

Their guise is Jersey Shore bar band. The reality is that every one of the members has a story of his or her own. Everybody has had a solo career: Nils Lofgren, Stevie Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa, David Sancious and Max Weinberg have had extensive ones. Roy Bittan, the most virtuosic, produced Lucinda Williams’ iconic Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998). Garry Tallent has been a mainstay of Nashville’s Americana scene for a couple of decades—as producer, instrumentalist, talent scout and studio owner. Danny Federici, “the Phantom” from beginning to end, made four solo albums, and recorded and toured with Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Graham Parker, the BoDeans and Joan Armatrading. Vini Lopez played on just a pair of Springsteen albums, but he has been a mainstay of the Jersey Shore rock scene ever since, reviving the prog-metal-blues of this crowd’s early years in a band called Steel Mill Retro.

At the start, they were more or less a bar band, mostly made up of guys who had come up together on the Shore club scene from around 1966 to the early Seventies. The original E Street Band, the one that made Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey (1973), featured Bruce, Federici, David Sancious, Vini Lopez, Garry Tallent and Clarence Clemons, who was the late-comer. (The story that he first arrived at a joint on the boardwalk in the middle of a near-hurricane only sounds like a fable; it actually happened.)

Vini left in early 1974, around the same time that Sancious was signed to a record contract and went off to make a series of excellent jazz-rock-fusion albums. They were replaced by Max Weinberg, a North Jersey kid who had practiced his head off since hearing Ringo Starr for the first time, and had backed strippers and played in the pit of Broadway shows; and Roy Bittan, who had been in all sorts of bands, not always as a leader but, inevitably, as the most accomplished and most ambitious player.

The E Street Band was complete for the next nine years, during which Springsteen established his reputation by making four crucial albums (including Nebraska, 1982, on which the ESB did not play), and creating the framework for the marathon live shows that have defined his career.

But in 1984, after completing the two-year sessions that became Born in the U.S.A., Van Zandt—Springsteen’s oldest friend and key onstage foil—decided to pursue a solo career. His decision led to two of the best songs on that album, “Bobby Jean” and “No Surrender,” both redolent of what Van Zandt brought to the group. It also led to a major musical change; for the band’s new guitarist, Springsteen brought in not one of the young bucks from the Shore rock scene, but Nils Lofgren, a contemporary with a long history as a recording artist and bandleader himself. Lofgren is a fiery soloist, whereas Van Zandt, in the ESB lineup at least, has restricted himself to mainly rhythm parts. Van Zandt took up more theatrical space, Lofgren more musical space.

Springsteen has always tinkered with the band's lineup. A few times in the Seventies and early Eighties, he worked with a full horn section in addition to Clarence Clemons’ saxophone. Early on, violinist Suki Lahav was a regular member. In 1984, he chose to add a new singing voice, Patti Scialfa. Scialfa came from down the Shore, but she had also been around the big time, recording with the Rolling Stones, for instance, and touring with the ESB’s Asbury Park brethren, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. She and Springsteen sparked at the microphone, adding another focal point.

But the main E Street Band focal point was Clemons, who specialized in tenor (sometimes baritone, rarely soprano) saxophone, hand percussion and doo-wop bass harmonies. For most of the night, he was standing in the corner, and then would ignite the show any time he and Springsteen decided to strike a pose, trade licks or give each other a smooch. They were a symbol of both what rock and roll could be and what it had been. Their tableaux and skits were both bar-band amateurish and an eloquent, if mostly implicit, statements about healing division. It was not something that separated the two of them from the rest of the band or, for that matter, the audience itself. It was all about bonding, a spiritual endurance test to go with the physical one.

Each night, the climax of the show occurred amid some big rock and roll number, be it Springsteen’s own “Rosalita,” the Mitch Ryder–derived “Detroit Medley,” the jukebox classic “Quarter to Three” or “Twist and Shout.” As the energy reached its apex, Springsteen began to introduce the band, which was, in a sense, the final chisel cutting into the rock of their legend. He declaimed, “The Mighty Max Weinberg,” “Professor Roy Bittan,” “Garry W. Tallent” (because you mess with Garry at your peril), “Miami Steve Van Zandt,” “the lovely Miss Patti Scialfa,” “the great Nils Lofgren,” “now you see him, now you don’t Phantom Dan Federici,” and then, at last, “Do I have to say his name? Do I have to say his name?” And the crowd would begin to chant, “Clar-ence, Clar-ence, Clar-ence,” louder even than they’d chanted “Brooooce” waiting for the show to begin, and Weinberg would hit the biggest downbeat of them all, and Bruce would rattle it out: “The King of the World! On the saxophone, Clarence Clemons!”

If that does not sound like much, you never saw Clarence, who, even when his body began to fail him, had a transcendent physical presence out of proportion to even his own large stature. Give or take Little Richard, there has been no more commanding presence—commanding without moving a muscle—in rock history. This was the glory of the E Street Band.

However, in 1989, just like that, Springsteen suddenly told the group he was moving on. The E Street Band were a thing of the past. The guys were shocked. The music world was shocked.

Over the next decade, there was no attempt to revive a Springsteen-free E Street Band. From 1992 to 1993, Springsteen put together a touring group that sported two E Street alumni, Roy Bittan and Patti Scialfa (by then Springsteen's wife). He did a solo tour—just him, just once. He called when he needed the guys’ skill in the studio, when it was time to put out a greatest-hits album in 1995 and he wanted to record a couple of new songs, and in 1998, when he needed to spruce up Tracks, a boxed collection of left-offs.

When Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he invited them all. After accepting the honor, he called them onto the stage for a reunion. It sounded great—organic, fitting, necessary.

Just like that, they were a band again. Although many rejoiced, nobody was surprised when a reunion tour was announced for later that year. It featured both Lofgren and Van Zandt, and was augmented by the inclusion of violinist Soozie Tyrell. They toured America and Europe for a year or so. For most of it, Springsteen used just one new song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” an updated version of their old sound, a restatement of commitment—to one another, to their own lives, perhaps to changing the world. Bruce admits that, without the band as his vehicle, he probably would not have even thought of it.

As of E Street's 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction, the reunion has lasted for 15 years. Together they have toured more of the globe than before: South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Mexico; most of the performances have been in stadiums. In 2002, they made The Rising, the first Bruce Springsteen album with the E Street Band since Born in the U.S.A. The Rising was not only a hit, but also a resonant assertion of resilience, anger, fear and compassion in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. It kicked off a remarkably productive period. The group toured as much in the next decade as they had since the early Eighties.

They are not a bar band anymore, of course, except when they need to be. Like a bar band, they seemingly can play any song in the rock and soul repertoire on a moment’s notice. Whatever obscure Springsteen song they have not rehearsed in 35 years, or whichever oldie only three or four have even heard of, if someone requests it and Springsteen decides it would be fun to try, the E Street Band comes through. It’s a parlor trick and a testament to just how good this band is, enabled by their long-standing relationship and unshakeable trust.

Bruce summed it up in his 2013 interview on SiriusXM’s E Street channel: “I think the time we spent apart ended up being very beneficial to us over a long period of time. Because I think when we came back together in the late Nineties, it all became just what it was about. I do something with you I can’t do with anyone else. You do something with me, it’s similar. We’re blessed to be able to do this together. Let’s go do that.”

They’ve done it through thick and thin. In 2007, Danny Federici, the most distinctive organist in rock history, developed melanoma, and in April 2008 he died at age 58.

Clarence Clemons had looked weary and in pain through much of the 2000s. In June 2011, he died, suddenly, of a stroke at the age of 69.

Neither Federici nor Clemons was replaced. Other musicians assumed their musical duties, but Federici and Clemons are irreplaceable. In a band of individualists, they were the most singular of all. There is no substitute for the King of the World. There is not a second Phantom Dan. Nevertheless, there is an E Street Band. Onstage, they do not sound young: they are something better—fresh, enlivened by what they are doing, and by who they are doing it with.

In the words of Bruce Springsteen, “You’ve just seen…the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making le-gen-dary E-Street-Band!” Sure, it’s a brag. It’s also a fact.

Inductees: Roy Bittan (keyboard; born July 2, 1949), Clarence Clemons (saxophone; born January 11, 1942, died June 18, 2011), Danny Federici (organ; born January 23, 1950, died April 17, 2008), Nils Lofgren (guitar; born June 21, 1951), Vini Lopez (drums; born January 22, 1949), David Sancious (keyboard, guitar; November 30, 1953), Patti Scialfa (vocals; born July 29, 1953), Garry Tallent (bass; born October 27, 1949), Steven Van Zandt (guitar; born November 22, 1950), Max Weinberg (drums; born April 13, 1951)

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