Little Steven: From Asbury Park To Soulfire
What do Bruce Springsteen, Nelson Mandela and The Sopranos have in common? Ahead of Little Steven’s upcoming UK tour, Shaun Ponsonby takes a look at one of the most fascinating, yet understated careers in rock & roll.
It is known that I love Bruce Springsteen, but I actually came to Springsteen through one of his sidemen.
He goes by many names; Steve Van Zandt, Miami Steve, Silvio Dante, Frankie The Fixer. Ultimately, he is settled on Little Steven. Instantly recognisable with his almost gypsy inspired get-up – he settled on wearing a bandana in the early 80s due to hair loss as a result of hair loss he suffered from a car accident.
He has had one of the most fascinating careers of anyone you could think of. Maybe even more so than Bruce. With The Boss, he has basically been a nice guy singing great songs and performing for 17 hours a night.
Steve has been a sideman, songwriter, producer (including a number of Springsteen‘s biggest sellers), political activist, radio host, label boss and actor. There isn’t really much he hasn’t done. Granted, he has never been a particularly talented vocalist, but what he lacks in technical ability he makes up for in delivery and passion.
There are some truly unexpected stories throughout his career – did you know that Bat Out Of Hell never would have come out if it wasn’t for him? He convinced the label to put it out on the basis that the intro to You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth was one of the greatest in rock & roll history.
Did you know his wedding day featured Springsteen as his best man, the service was conducted by Little Richard and Percy Sledge sang When a Man Loves a Woman at the reception?
As he is essentially a consigliere, the general populace aren’t aware of how extensive his career is.
Seeing as he is making a rare appearance in Liverpool this November as part of his first solo tour in nearly 30 years, and given that he is something of a hero of mine, I thought I’d impart some of Little Steven’s finest moments.
1976: I Don’t Want To Go Home (Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes)
This was basically Van Zandt’s band before he joined Springsteen for the Born To Run tour. He began playing with Southside Johnny in an acoustic blues duo called Southside Johnny & The Kid in 1972. After a couple of years, Van Zandt left to become touring guitarist with 60s doo wop group The Dovells. When he returned from the road, the two put together Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes.
The success of Born To Run meant that record company executives descended upon New Jersey, and Asbury Park specifically, to find more Springsteens. The Asbury Jukes were the first band they signed.
Even though he had joined The Boss full time, Van Zandt stuck around to write and produce the first couple of Jukes albums. I Don’t Want To Go Home was the title track from their debut album, and has become of the defining “anthems” of the Jersey shore scene, with even Springsteen himself covering it on occasion. It was written for former Drifters vocalist Ben E King, but when King didn’t use it, Van Zandt re-arranged it slightly for The Jukes.
1977: Love On The Wrong Side of Town (Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes)
The Jukes didn’t suffer from second album syndrome. In fact, This Time It’s For Real probably improves on the first.
It is certainly a little more soulful. Other than the title track, this is probably the most significant mainstay of the band’s set. It was written by Steven and Springsteen in the mid-70s and dusted off for Southside.
In a sense, it really hammers home Steven’s production and arrangement skills. They are undoubtedly going for a 60s soul feel on the record, and it is achieved this without it sounding like throwback.
1977: Baby Please Don’t Go (Ronnie Spector & The E Street Band)
Surprisingly, Ronnie Spector claims in her autobiography that she and Van Zandt dated in the early 70s, long after The Ronettes’ (forced) decline, and before Springsteen’s breakthrough. She also appeared on The Jukes’ debut, duetting on Springsteen composition You Mean So Much To Me.
The cache that Bruce had built on the back of Born To Run meant that Van Zandt was able to wade in and produce more records for other artists, which was legally the only studio time the E Street Band could muster until work was able to start on Darkness on the Edge of Town (there’s a very long story behind that, but suffice to say it was all about contracts and management). He and Bruce even discussed starting a label where they could re-ignite some of their heroes career, and produced a number of albums with Gary US Bonds.
Van Zandt was only able to produce one single with Ronnie. This was the B-side to that single (the A-side being a cover of Billy Joel’s Say Goodbye To Hollywood), and was recorded with the complete E Street Band. It’s a tender ballad that manages to hark back to Ronnie’s ballads from 15 years earlier, especially the sublime Walking In The Rain, whilst also sounding contemporary for the time – no doubt with the help of the E Street Band.
Of note, it may be the only time the E Street Band have been billed on a studio release. Nancy Sinatra covered the song in 2004.
1978: Got To Be a Better Way Home (Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes)
The title track to Southside Johnny’s This Time It’s For Real established the kind of sound The Jukes would gravitate towards – a rock backdrop with 60s R&B horns. This was the basic structure of the following Hearts of Stone, widely regarded as their finest hour.
In truth, Springsteen probably provides the albums two best songs (Talk To Me and the title track), but Van Zandt’s opener Got To Be a Better Way Home sets the precedent. A danceable beat, a memorable riff, devastating horns, wrapped up in three utterly delightful minutes.
1982: Forever (Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul)
Before 1982, Van Zandt was known as Miami Steve to fans of Springsteen and Southside Johnny, apparently because he preferred the warm climate of Miami than cold New Jersey nights. When he recorded his first solo album in 1982 he decided he didn’t want comparisons to his lieutenant role with Springsteen, and chose the moniker Little Steven after Little Richard and legendary bluesman Little Walter.
When producing Gary US Bonds’ comeback records in the early 80s, Van Zandt was offered a solo deal and pretty much recorded Men Without Women live in the studio during down time on the Bonds sessions. As a result, much of the material on his first record were songs that he initially wrote for Southside Johnny, but were left unused. The band were a sort of amalgamation of the E Street Band, the Asbury Jukes horns and some genuinely unexpected sidemen – Dino Danelli and Felix Cavaliere were both alumni from The Young Rascals, whereas Jean Beauvoir was a long-time member of punk band The Plasmatics. He called his new band The Disciples of Soul.
Forever might actually be the most perfect pop song that Van Zandt has ever written. In fact it’s a better Motown song that what Motown were releasing at the time.
1982: Until The Good Is Gone (Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul)
Another track from Men Without Women, Until The Good Is Gone is a soul ballad that musically appears to be based on Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ 1965 hit My Girl Has Gone. When performing the song on his current Soulfire tour, Van Zandt has told how the song is about the period in which Springsteen, Southside Johnny and himself lived together.
1984: Standing In The Line of Fire (Gary US Bonds)
Van Zandt and Springsteen produced two records for soul singer Gary US Bonds. The E Street Band often used to close sets in the 70s with his 1961 hit Quarter To Three, so perhaps it was their way of thanking him for their influence. They are probably among the most surprisingly successful comeback albums, with both yielding a number of hit singles having not charted at all for around 20 years.
But the majority of the songs were written by Springsteen, even if Van Zandt did duet with him on Angelyne when Sony refused to allow Springsteen to do it. This was a holdover from those sessions that was used as the title track to Bonds’ 1984 album, which did not feature either Bruce or Stevie. The song has largely been forgotten, and the album has never been reissued. However, Van Zandt resurrected it as a tribute to Ennio Morricone on his latest album Soulfire.
1984: Out of the Darkness (Little Steven)
By 1984, Van Zandt had left the E Street Band. The timing was dubious seeing as Springsteen was about to unleash Born In The USA and become a pop culture icon.
Little Steven delved not only into his solo career, but into politics. The Voice of America album would have been a shock to anyone expecting more of the same. The Disciples of Soul lost their horn section, and the songs were much tougher. The opening title track was even something of a Ramones-esque punk song, whilst the likes of Solidarity and I Am a Patriot (a protest against blind nationalmism) delved into African and Caribbean sounds.
Out Of The Darkness is probably the best song on the album. Despite the obviously cheesy 80s-ness of the production (and video, for that matter), the positive outlook of the lyrics and truly monster earworm of a chorus raises it above the rest.
1985: Sun City (Artists United Against Apartheid)
The mid-80s was something of a glory period for the all-star charity single. We can debate the ethics behind those involved as much as we want, but most of the songs don’t real stand up as songs. Surprisingly, this one does.
Perhaps it is because it is a protest rather than a charity – a support for the cultural boycott of South Africa until the Apartheid regime is abolished.
Van Zandt wrote the song and assembled the project. Looking at the list of people he brought together is impressive to say the least. Unlike Band Aid or USA For Africa, it didn’t seem to matter how successful the artist was. Cult figures such as Lou Reed, George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth and Gil Scott-Heron mixed with usual suspects such as Bob Dylan, Bono, Hall & Oates and Peter Gabriel.
Most interestingly, Sun City isn’t a mere pop/rock song. Run DMC, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa, The Fat Boys and DJ Kool Herc held down the still emerging hip-hop scene (as far as mainstream America was concerned) and Miles Davis (“The scariest man I ever met”, according to Van Zandt), Herbie Hancock, Ray Baretto and Ron Carter were among the jazz legends getting involved.
It’s a mish mash that shouldn’t necessarily work. But it absolutely does.
1985: Ride The Night Away (Jimmy Barnes)
Jimmy Barnes is an incredibly successful performer in Australia, but never did much anywhere else. He seems to be kind of like the Australian Frankie Miller or Bob Seger.
Starting in the pub rock band Cold Chisel, he transitioned into a successful solo career on his native ground. His second solo album was called For The Working Class Man, and featured this Van Zandt composition. It has a Stones-ish riff, but the production pushes it into Bryan Adams or Rod Stewart territory. His high pitched squawk can grate at times too.
Van Zandt has overseen a couple of re-recordings of the song. Firstly on Southside Johnny’s 1991 comeback album, and secondly on his latest solo album.
1987: Bitter Fruit (Little Steven ft. Reuben Blades)
If 1987’s Freedom – No Compromise proved anything, it was that Little Steven had no intention of developing any kind of consistency of sound. After the blue eyed soul of Men Without Women and arena rock of Voice of America, he had now decided to go on a sort of dance-rock meets world music kick.
His political leanings were pushed even more centre stage, with his ire being directed at U.S. transgressions in Central America, South Africa and against Native Americans. The album also came with a suggested reading list in the sleeve notes.
It can border on preachy, but at his best he is able to make you forget that he is talking about politics. Bitter Fruit is the best example of this. It is a danceable song, and it’s easy to miss the subject matter; anti-communism Reaganomics in Latin America, which explains the presence of Panama-born Reuben Blades. Weirdly, it reached number three in Sweden.
1989: Leonard Peltier (Little Steven)
By now Van Zandt had let politics take over his life, something which he himself has admitted.
That isn’t to say he didn’t make progress. He was twice honoured by the United Nations for his activism against Apartheid. It was also around this time that he personally talked the APAZO – a rival, radical liberation movement to the African National Congress – from assassinating Paul Simon over his break of the cultural boycott to record and tour Graceland. He was also one of the leading Western voices calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.
But this did mean that his music suffered somewhat. He has stated himself that he had grown tired of playing guitar by 1989’s Revolution. As a result, the album is even more electronic than Freedom – No Compromise.
Leonard Peltier is obviously about the imprisoned Native American activist, and comes across as a sort of reggae-ish take on Bob Dylan’s Hurricane (although we could probably do without the slight Caribbean accent). He would return to reggae by teaming up with Nigerian star Majek Fashek to produce his hit 1991 album Spirit of Love.
1991: All I Needed Was You (Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes)
Southside Johnny had become disillusioned with the industry by the late 80s, and decamped to Los Angeles and played around with some local blues bands. Van Zandt showed up occasionally and the two ended up starting work on Better Days, an album that addressed where they had been and said something about the men they had become.
Southside referred to it as “The dysfunctional family reunion” – a helluva lot of the old gang came back, including Springsteen, as well as a superstar that Southside produced some early demos for (Jon Bon Jovi).
The resulting Better Days album more than matches the first three records that Van Zandt made with The Jukes. Time Magazine ended up naming it one of the best albums of the year. All I Needed Was You is another example of Steven’s pop songwriting at its finest. It comes across as a homage to the likes of Phil Spector and The Four Seasons, perhaps even lyrically. After all, lovers come and go, but those records last forever.
(Note: apologies for the video of cats, weirdly it was the only video of the song on YouTube)
1995: This Is The Time Of Your Life (Little Steven)
This is a bit of an obscurity, appearing only in the soundtrack to the Hugh Grant romantic comedy Nine Months (it’s rubbish, don’t bother).
The song itself is a little reminiscent of an early Van Zandt song, 1982’s Princess of Little Italy. It has a similar Italian feel to it, thanks to the mandolin and accordion. It is also miles better than the film from which it is taken.
It was the only release from Little Steven in a period of ten years.
1999: Guns, Drugs and Gasoline (Little Steven)
1999’s Born Again Savage was a departure from anything Van Zandt had done before. It’s basically a power trio – Steve, U2’s Larry Mullen and Jason “Son of John” Bonham. Musically, it’s steeped in garage rock and the heavier side of 60s psych, far and away the heaviest album anyone related to E Street has ever made.
Guns, Drugs and Gasoline is one of the hardest songs on the album and it’s hard to resist a bit of headbanging as it plays. Like most of the record, Steve has never played it live. Although recorded in 1994, it remained unreleased until 1999 just as Van Zandt re-joined the E Street Band and took the role of Silvio Dante in The Sopranos.
2001: Affection (Little Steven & The Lost Boys)
When Van Zandt took the role of Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, he had zero acting experience. He was given the role when the show’s creator David Chase saw him induct The Young Rascals into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the role was created specifically for him as he refused to take a role that could have been played by a professional actor. Naturally, he had no idea that this little show on a niche channel was going to change television forever.
Occasionally a Van Zandt song would pop up on the show. This one was written for his then-new band The Lost Boys. They made an album that was never released, intending for Van Zandt to move away from the politics that had begun to weigh his work down somewhat. It appeared in season three episode Amour Fou and is the only song from the sessions released on a Sopranos soundtrack. It’s a fairly straightforward garage rock song, which fits with what Van Zandt would turn his hand to next.
2011: Soulfire (The Breakers)
It is no surprise that Little Steven didn’t make an album in the noughties. He was pretty busy. Aside from re-joining the E Street Band for several albums and lengthy world tours and starring in The Sopranos and later Lillyhammer, he started a popular radio show called Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which he has described as “the bands that influenced the Ramones, the bands that were influenced by the Ramones, and the Ramones.” This then expanded into an entire digital radio station, which led to him acting as the musical curator of the Rock Band video game and was the impetus behind his Wicked Cool record label, which has signed bands of this nature from all over the world.
Denmark’s The Breakers is one of those bands, and Van Zandt couldn’t help but get involved with a little bit of songwriting. The original version of Soulfire has a Faces feel to it, but the re-arrangement that serves as the title track on Van Zandt’s latest album transforms it into a mission statement for The Disciples Of Soul 2017.
The Breakers split in 2012.
2012: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (The Twylight Zones)
Another band Stevie signed to Wicked Cool was The Cocktail Sippers from Norway, who list Blondie, The Shangri-Las and Joan Jett among their biggest influences. Naturally, Van Zandt wrote a song for them too, but the version we have gone for here comes from the 2012 movie Not Fade Away.
The film was written and directed by David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, and also starred Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini as the father of a wannabe teen rock star in 1960s New Jersey. Van Zandt served as music supervisor and The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is one of the songs the fictional band perform.
It would be one of Gandolfini’s final performances. When he passed, Steven was on tour with his “other” boss. That night in Coventry, they performed the Born To Run album in its entirety for him.
Whether performed in the movie, by The Cocktail Sippers or Little Steven himself, it is a glorious example of retro rock & roll with a deep knowledge of what came before.
2015: Among The Believers (Darlene Love)
Darlene Love was one of the defining voices of her age. She was a member of The Blossoms, who performed as session background vocalists for pretty much everyone – Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Doris Day, Sam Cooke. That’s them on That’s Life. That’s them on Monster Mash. That’s them on the Elvis comeback special. That’s them in the T.A.M.I. Show.
Darlene herself became more well-known thanks to Phil Spector, who used her as the lead vocalist on many of the hits attributed to The Crystals (He’s a Rebel, He’s Sure The Boy I Love). She had a few solo hits, most notably Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – anyone who doesn’t believe that it isn’t the greatest Christmas record ever released should seek help.
Van Zandt always wanted to produce a record for her. He wrote and produced All Alone On Christmas for her, which appeared on the soundtrack to Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (coincidentally, Southside Johnny performed Please Come Home For Christmas in the first film). But he finally got around to it in 2015 with Introducing Darlene Love. For the album, Stevie called in songs from Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Joan Jett, Desmond Child and even original Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
Naturally, he contributed some himself too. This originally appeared on 1984’s Voice of America, but with Darlene they give it the full Wall of Sound treatment. It goes from an outwardly political song, to a song of pure gospel passion.
Van Zandt seemed to have liked the arrangement so much that he now plays it this way on stage himself.
2017: The City Weeps Tonight (Little Steven)
In late 2016, Little Steven created a new Disciples of Soul for what was supposed to be a one-off performance at London’s BluesFest. But he enjoyed the performance so much that he ended up making an album and taking it on the road.
Even though Soulfire is a bit of a scrapbook of songs he had used in various guises over the years (including new versions of songs he recorded with Southside Johnny), it is far and away one of his finest releases. In a sense, Van Zandt and Springsteen have swapped places. In the 80s, Van Zandt was political and Springsteen was not. Today, The Boss his extremely politically active, and Van Zandt has opted to sing love songs.
The City Weeps Tonight was supposed to open Men Without Women, but he never finished it. A tender doo-wop song, it represents the album pretty well – a return to roots. When it comes to rock & roll, there is little that represents roots more than the innocence of doo-wop.
Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul play Liverpool’s O2 Academy on Tuesday 14th November 2017. They also play a special free lunchtime session on the same day.
Little Steven Playlist
- Image: artist’s website