The E Street Band - the greatest rock & roll band ever assembled?
(No. 33 in a continuing series on artists who should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but are not)
By Phill Marder
The records, for the most part, read Bruce Springsteen.
But most concert banners screamed “Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.” And most record buyers understood the record cover may say “Bruce Springsteen,” but the music said “Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.”
Springsteen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, his first year of eligibility. He has been one of the Hall’s most active supporters, before and since his induction, becoming a fixture at the yearly banquets. A true Rock historian, he has played a major role in calling attention to some early Rock & Roll stars who otherwise may have slipped through the cracks - Darlene Love, for example. I call Springsteen a “true” Rock historian because he has studied the music’s foundations not from a critic’s viewpoint, but from the viewpoint of one who truly loves the music and understands the talent necessary to produce it.
All things considered, it is now time for Springsteen to help get his band mates inducted. For while Springsteen is recognized as one of Rock’s greatest songwriters, often a great singer and almost always a great live performer, it also should be remembered that he has assembled and maintained perhaps the greatest band in the history of Rock & Roll.
“The Boss” probably would have achieved superstar status without his employees. But his recordings may have lacked some elements of brilliance and it’s hard to imagine his stage marathons being the ultimate live experience without his colleagues.
For me, it started with “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.” I bought “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ,” but, honestly, I was very disappointed, my reaction being “this is what all the hype is about?” But the second album…that was the one. And Goldmine nailed it in the recent 5-star album issue, naming this masterpiece as Springsteen’s true (but unsung) classic.
But what made it so?
First and foremost, the songwriting. There are just seven songs, but each one is a beauty. However, listening then and now, I find myself drawn in by the keyboard touches of David Sancious and Danny Federici and the bass playing of Gary Tallent, not to mention his tuba work on “Wild Bill’s Circus Story.” And while the album is credited only to Bruce Springsteen, the back cover clearly pictures and names six individuals, Clarence “Nick” Clemons, Springsteen, David L. Sancious, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, the late Danny Federici, who passed away in 2008, and Gary W. Tallent. The inside jacket not only lists each member equally with Springsteen, but lists the instruments played by each. And it is clearly noted, each contributes vocals as well.
Springsteen was the leader and the star, but this, apparently, was a true team effort.
“Born To Run,“ the next album and the work that lifted Springsteen into Rock’s superstar stratosphere, was another on which the talents of the E Street Band, now taking the form we’re most familiar with, made brilliant songs into brilliant mini-symphonies. The opening “Thunder Road” would not have been the same without the contributions of new keyboardist Roy Bittan, and wouldn’t have had nearly the impact it does without the single-stroke roll of new drummer Max Weinberg leading right into the haunting sax refrain of Clemons.
Bittan’s keyboards again shine on “Backstreets” and “Jungleland,” the latter being enhanced by a super string arrangement by the Four Seasons’ Charles Calello. Of course, Clemons’ sax once again raises the song to another level midstream before Bittan’s keyboards bring it, and the album, to its grand conclusion.
While the E Street Band has not participated on some of Springsteen’s albums, and the group was even disbanded by Springsteen at times, “The Boss” and the band are joined at the musical hip, a fact readily acknowledged in Springsteen’s legendary live appearances for which E Street members reportedly are paid equal shares with “The Boss.”
Even more so than in the studio, it is hard to imagine Springsteen having the impact he has live without his cohorts, lovingly referred to by Bruce, who gives each a stirring introduction during their on-stage marathons. The keyboardists Bittan and Federici, whose touches remain the heart of the group, became “The Professor” and “The Phantom.” “Little Steven“ or “Miami Steve“ Van Zandt and Lofgren provide the E Street Band with two guitar virtuosos in addition to Springsteen, who isn‘t exactly chopped liver on lead. And, of course, Bruce’s wife, Patti Scialfa, adds rhythm guitar and harmony vocals in addition to contributing some excellent solo albums to the family‘s portfolio.
“Mighty” Max Weinberg certainly lives up to his nickname. For three hours a night, he sits on the drum platform providing power only the greatest talent and stamina could produce. If he’s made a mistake, I haven’t heard it. And the anchor he provides is complimented to the fullest by bassist Gary “W.” Tallent.
Then, of course, there is “The Big Man” Clemons, probably the best known and most talented sax player in Rock & Roll since King Curtis. If Bruce refers to him as “The Master of the Universe,” it’s no exaggeration - at least as far as the Rock & Roll Universe is concerned.
Springsteen knows what he‘s had working with him for most of the past 40 years. Each member has had a pretty good career without Bruce, but together they make the E Street Band a true band and one without equal. Springsteen gave it the leadership and the material, molding the individual superstar talents into a Rock & Roll juggernaut. And what they gave back made the difference between great music and music for the ages.
One year soon, Springsteen should take the podium at the Hall of Fame inductions and bellow, “in conclusion, it is my great honor and privilege to welcome into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame these marvelous musicians who have had my back from the beginning of my career. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-shaking, booty-quaking, Viagra-taking, love-making