When Van Zandt joined Springsteen’s E Street Band

Photo: NBC PHOTO/ HEIDI GUTMAN

By Chris M. Junior

Sometimes a career-changing moment involves being in the right place at the right time. And sometimes it also involves doing the right thing at the right time.

For Steven Van Zandt, both factors contributed to his entry into Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band 35 years ago.

The setting was the Record Plant recording studio in Manhattan, sometime in late June or early July 1975, remembers former Springsteen manager/producer Mike Appel. Brothers Randy and Michael Brecker had been hired to add horns to the song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but the session was going nowhere fast.

Previously, Springsteen and pianist Roy Bittan had told Appel they would put together the song’s horn parts. But when Springsteen and Bittan mentioned that their collaboration would also include a trip to the beach, Appel had a gut feeling the parts would suffer. Even so, he held out hope that Springsteen would come up with something good and sing it to Bittan, who would take care of writing proper charts for the session-seasoned Brecker brothers.

On the day of the horn session, the Breckers were presented with their charts, but as valuable minutes ticked by, they stood silent, “not blowing any notes at all,” Appel says.

Looking to get everything back on course, Appel left the control room and entered the studio to find out what the problem was.

The Brecker brothers spelled it out for him: We don’t know how this horn arrangement is going to work against the track you just played us.

Returning to the control room, an anxious Appel suggested to Springsteen that they call off the session “and try to do this some other day when we are truly prepared.”

Hanging out in the control room while all of this was unfolding was Springsteen friend and former band mate Van Zandt; he had played with Springsteen in Steel Mill, then Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. Back in the day, Appel says, Springsteen sessions were kind of loose, so it wasn’t unusual for someone outside of the E Street Band to show up and listen in.

With the “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” horn session reaching a make-or-break moment, Appel says Van Zandt — known at that time as Miami Steve — was literally at his feet. And from the floor, Van Zandt raised his hand and broke the silence by saying with confidence, “I have it.”

Relieved, Appel told Van Zandt that if he had something in mind worth trying, he should go into the studio and show it to the Brecker brothers.

“So he starts leading them,” Appel says. “We played the track over and over, and finally, he comes up with that riff that’s on the record. When Steve went out there, he was totally, absolutely cocky confident that he had it — and he did have it. The Brecker brothers followed him immediately. They took everything he said; he had it down in his head what they should play, and that was it.”

Appel adds, “I always say he was the savior of that horn session. It was completely his idea. Nobody else offered anything in the way of changing any of the notes or anything like that. It literally stayed the way he did it from the moment he got [the Breckers] started on it.”

According to the Dave Marsh book “Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story,” shortly after the Brecker brothers recorded their Van Zandt-arranged horn parts, Springsteen turned to Appel and said, “It’s time to put the boy on the payroll. I’ve been meaning to tell you — he’s the new guitar player.”

Appel doesn’t remember it going down that way; looking back, though, he believes Springsteen did see Van Zandt as a “missing piece.”

“Every time Bruce would take a solo,” Appel says, “there was no rhythm guitar backing up Bruce. There would be nothing rocking behind him. And also, he liked Steve’s voice [for harmony vocals]. Steve was a guy who could back up your guitar solos with a good rockin’ rhythm guitar, he could play solos himself, you could play counterpoint off of Steve and they liked the same kind of things, so Bruce said, ‘Hey, I want this guy in the band,’ and that was it.”

Appel remembers being concerned about the wealth of material that Van Zandt needed to learn — Springsteen’s albums, his non-album material and loads of cover material — in a short period of time before hitting the road.

“This guy came back the next week, and he had learned every single song flawlessly,” Appel says. “He had every song down pat. That shows you the kind of love he had for it and the desire that he had to be in the band. He really, really wanted it.”

On July 20, 1975, at the Palace Theater in Providence, R.I., Van Zandt played his first E Street Band show ever; it also was the first show of the “Born to Run” tour.

“He was so happy to be there,” Appel says. “It was like he finally found the home that was his home all along. I think Bruce was equally as joyous. I think Bruce exuded some extra joy that night because he felt his longtime old buddy was onstage with him for good, and this was all to the good, and he could see the joy Steve was having.”

He adds, “Of course, Steve performed flawlessly also.”


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