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 has lasted more than 40 years with an independent and highly individualized identity. The most essential albums of Springsteen’s career – Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Born in the U.S.A., The Rising – are built around the group. Yet only four albums and an EP, all live except an anthology, bear the group’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?”
Its guise is Jersey Shore bar band. The reality is that every one of its 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. 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, it was more or less a bar band, mostly made up of guys who’d come up together on the Shore club scene from around 1966 to the early 70s. The original E Street Band, the one that made Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbruy 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 seems to have 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’d been in all sorts of bands, not necessarily always as 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, 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 lineup. A few times in the 70s and early 80s, 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’d 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 or trade licks or, for that matter, 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 statement about healing division. It wasn’t 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,” or the Mitch Ryder–derived “Detroit Medley,” or a jukebox classic like “Quarter to Three” or “Twist and Shout.” As the energy 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’d 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 doesn’t sound like such a much, you never saw Clarence, who, even when his body began to fail him, had a transcendent face and 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.
In 1989, just like that, Springsteen told the group he was moving on. The E Street Band was 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 a boxed collection of left-offs, Tracks.
In early 1999, Bruce Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he invited them all. When he was done accepting the honor; he called them on to the stage. And they played together. 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, maybe to changing the world. Bruce admits that, without the band as his vehicle, he probably wouldn’t have even thought of it.
As of E Street's 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction, the reunion has lasted now for 15 years. Together they have toured more of the globe than before: South Africa, Brazil, Chile, Argentina…at last, Mexico. Most of the performances have been in stadiums. In 2002, they made the first Bruce Springsteen album with the E Street Band since Born in the U.S.A. The Rising was not only a hit, it was 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 it had since the early 80s.
It’s not a bar band anymore, of course, except when it needs to be. Like a bar band, though, it seemingly can play any song in the rock and soul repertoire on a moment’s notice. Or at least come close – very, very close. Whatever obscure Springsteen song its members haven’t 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. Always. It’s a parlor trick and testament to just how good this band is, and just how everyone has learned to trust one another, too.
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 90s, 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. He was 58.
Clarence Clemons had looked weary and in pain through much of the 2000s. In June 2011, he died, suddenly, of a stroke. He was 69.
They were not replaced. Other musicians – fine ones – assumed their musical duties. But Federici and Clemons were not replaceable. They were, in a band of individualists, 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, it still sounds not young, but something better: fresh, enlivened by what it is doing, and by who it’s doing it with.
Sooner or later, of course, the E Street Band story has an ending. It doesn’t seem near, but it does stop somewhere. Just like all the shows do, usually right at the point of exhaustion.
You know it’s there when Springsteen steps up at the end of a lengthy finale, and makes the most outrageous statement of the night. “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. – Dave Marsh