Friday, November 23, 2007

Phantom Dan: At The Heart and Soul of the E-Street Band

On November 21 an official press release was issued from the E-Street camp that Danny Federici has to take a leave of absence from the now rolling Magic tour. Danny has been diagnosed with Melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Sessions Band accordionist and organ player Charles Giordano will replace Danny Federici for the time being. Even though Charles will undoubtedly be up to the task at this stage in the history of the E-Street Band replacing members is tricky business. Ever since the band Reunited in '99 fans have been able to experience what I like to call the mythical incarnation of the E-Street Band. Even though the boys never played in that particular combination before, each one of the members on stage in '99 was an essential part of the history of the band. Danny's leave of absence now is different from earlier personal changes in many ways. It is true that Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez was replaced by Ernest "Boom" Carter in '73. Vini was fired on account of his erratic behavior. It is true both Boom and David Sancious left in '75, right before Bruce Springsteen would bust wide open. The band at the time wasn't making any money and both gentle men had the opportunity to build a career else where. Little Steven left the fold, in a temporarily lapse of judgment, right before the "Born in the USA" tour started. Steven wanted to pursue his solo career and there were some rumors he wasn't all to happy with his role in th band. Steven was replaced by the over qualified Nils Lofgren.

Both band members and fans were shocked when Springsteen disbanded the E-Street band in the late eighties. Springsteen needed a break from the band, needed to see if he had viability beyond the E-Street band. He was arguably going through a personal as well as creative crisis at the time. Touring with another rock band in '92, during the Luck Touch tour proved however what an essential ingredient the E-Street Band was to his Rock sound. As early as '95 Springsteen began researching a reunion with the sessions for the Greatest Hits album. At the time things didn't sit well. But after gaining critical acclaim with a solo tour promoting the "Ghost of Tom Joad Album", Springsteen was ready to get the boys back together. The band that reunited in '99 consisted of all the members that played an essential part in building Bruce's career and had become a legendary entity of it's own in the intermittent years. This was the Band that played on Springsteen's break through album, this was the band that rocketed Springsteen to unimaginable heights in '84.

The E-Street band became more than a band in '99. They became a symbol. The E-street Band signified the promise of R&R. A genre that has been band based since the British Invasion. R&R holds that romantic notion where you can get your friends together in your garage or basement and make your way up to the top. R&R success has to do with more than simply scoring hits, it has to do with the ties that bind, it is that idea of lasting friendship. The E-Street Band is one of those rare examples that such a bond is possible, one of the few bands that managed to stick together with everybody alive and well. Springsteen may have proved his merit as a solo artist but when touring with the boys he is as much a member of the band as he is the main attraction.

Danny Federici is at the heart and soul of that band. With base player Gary Tallent, Danny always played a background role. So its easy to understate his significance to E-Street. He isn't up front wailing his sax and doing silly dances with Bruce like Clarence Clemons, he isn't up blaring in the microphone with his arm around the Boss like Little Steve, nor is he dueling in solos like Bruce likes to do with Nils. Yet in more than a few songs Danny is an essential part of the foundation the Band needs for its theatrics. Listen to the band rip into "Glory Days" or "Ramrod" and hear Danny's raucous organ laying down the ground works. Listen to "The Fever" with the Band going into wailing blue eyed soul mode, Danny's there providing the essential texture. Listen to "Lost in the Flood" or the quintessential Danny song "4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and he's there to provide the the very heart of those songs.

Danny Federici is a rarity in R&R. He is one of the few examples of an accordionist working in a R&R bar band. Starting out on classical accordion from the age of seven, Danny was converted to the Gospel of R&R when he heard the Beatles. Like many boys from his generation Danny was pulled into R&R hearing "Twist & Shout" coming through the radio. For that generation R&R was a revelation. Even though initially he made the transition into Jazz and Blues from there, as admitted in a 2002 interview, he soon found himself playing in a New Jersey Garage band, the Storytellers. Through the Jersey shore scene he met Bruce Springsteen in '67, who was playing in the Castilles at the time. As early as '69 he found himself playing with the Boss in the short lived band Child. That band eventually evolved through Steel Mill and Doctor Zoom and the Sonic Boom into the E-Street band. It was in these early, pre-E-Street days that Danny would earn his nickname Phantom Dan. When a riot broke out during one of the Steel Mill shows sound equipment fell on the local chief of police. Danny fled the scene like a ghost.

Danny's affiliation with the Boss dates back for a rough 40 years. Few friendships survive that long a stretch, certainly not when friends form bands with all the tension the road brings. Listen to those early Springsteen albums today and it is apparent that Danny played an important part in Bruce finding his initial voice. "Wild Billy's Circus Story", "Sandy" and "Kitty's Back" are a few examples that stand out. Danny provided some of the jazzy and romantic touches that made those songs into the early Springsteen classics they are today. Danny would find himself playing an equally essential role throughout the history of the Band. Without him E-Street would have been a very different place in R&R indeed.

The Boston show of November 19th will be the last show Danny plays for a while as he goes into treatment. The set very featured a prominent "Sandy" with Danny shining on the accordion. I'm sure it wont be the last time around for Danny on E-Street. Dates for 2008 have already been announced. As I cannot imagine Springsteen and the boys continuing as the E-Street Band without Phantom Dan, I take it as a sign that Danny's recovery will be swift and to good health. My thoughts are with him and his family and I want to use this place to thank him for all he's contributed to the E-Street Band over the years. Take care and we'll see you on the road Danny.

Contribute to the Melanoma Research Foundation.

E-mail your best wishes to Danny at

Listen to Danny live in action with the band here:

"Wild Billy's Circus Story from '74"
"The Fever from '78"
"Ramrod from '80"
"Glory Days from '03"

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