Little Steven himself doesn’t give other people advice. “Oh, you can’t be stupider than me,” he was recently quoted in Classic Rock Magazine, “leaving the E-Street Band when I did, it’s one of those things you look back on and say (it) was a tragic mistake.” He was referring to his being a big part of Bruce Springsteen’s rise to fame leading up to the release of the blockbuster LP Born in the USA, which Little Steven also produced. When Springsteen went solo with his 1982 release Nebraska, Little Steven assembled a big rock and soul band of his own called The Disciples of Soul. Their first album didn’t sell all that well, but he still decided to go his own way just as The Boss was blowing up into the mega-star we know so well from the MTV saturated days of the 1980s. Many thought Little Steven had lost his mind, but in reality, he was just doing what he had always done even before he joined The E Street Band. He was being himself.
Little Steven was born in Boston in 1950. When his parents divorced and his mother remarried one William Brewster Van Zandt, it set them down in Middletown Township, New Jersey. It was there that the fourteen year old Steven Van Zandt caught The Beatles on TV the night of February 9, 1964. As Van Zandt remembers it, “The day before that, there were literally no bands in America. Day after, everybody had a band.” His early story is a typical wanna-be-a-musician trip through various early bands with names like The Whirlwinds, The Mates, and The Shadows. He may have been sent home from school for having long hair, but he did graduate from Middletown High in 1968. It was at Middletown High that he got to know another guitar minded member of the class of 1967: Bruce Springsteen. Both played in an Allman Brothers type band (with Steven on bass) and later with the Bruce Springsteen Band whose sound definitely leaned toward the Van Morrison side of the ledger. If they had an inkling that there were bigger things to come, Van Zandt downplays that notion today. “It wasn’t like the romanticised version of us sticking to our guns,” he told CRM. “The truth is, we couldn’t do anything else. We were completely incapable, so we had no choice (but to be persistent).”
In 1973, Van Zandt landed a gig touring with The Dovells out of Philadelphia. They ended a cross country tour in Miami and the “Miami Steve” portion of his career began as a nod to the loud Miami shirts he brought back to New Jersey. Springsteen had recently released Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ but a reunion of the former bandmates wasn’t in the cards (yet). Instead, Miami Steve and Southside Johnny Lyon put together the Asbury Jukes and fleshed out their bar band sound with the Miami Horns. By the 1976 release of their first album, I Don’t Want To Go Home, Van Zandt was the Jukes primary songwriter, arranger, and producer. Not only did they make music that fused Motown, Stax, Atlantic soul and New Orleans R&B, they pretty much invented the music everyone began to call The New Jersey Sound. They built their audience by honing their sound one show at a time, something Van Zandt feels is lacking in today’s musical environment. He sees the act of getting on stage and interacting with the audience as a critical element to being a musician: “People go straight from learning to play to selling their music on the internet. They’re skipping the most important phase of a career, which is to be a bar band.” Miami Steve and Southside certainly paid their dues in this regard.
Springsteen’s first two albums pretty well tanked, so the pressure was on. Initially invited to do some horn arrangements for the Born To Run album in 1975, Miami Steve was also invited to join the E Street Band. He has maintained an in and out relationship with them ever since. “I was as well known as Bruce in the area so when I called him The Boss, people knew that he was the real deal.” There were things the newly christened Little Steven could do better than Bruce (arranging songs and horn parts for example) and it was no accident that Van Zandt became the driving heartbeat of The E Street Band. Perhaps that is why no one could quite believe it when he departed the band just before Born in the USA was released.
One of the first things Little Steven turned his attention to after leaving The Boss was the Disciples of Soul. Having played a major role in developing the New Jersey Sound, Van Zandt felt the need to take the show on the road and bring that sound to the people. He started a record label (Wicked Cool) and a syndicated radio program (Little Steven’s Underground Garage) to make sure garage band music would have an outlet. Sure, he plays bands far removed from the garage (like the Stones), but he isn’t afraid to spread the gospel according to Little Steven.
Out of the glare of the E Street Band spotlight for a number of years, it was Little Steven’s speech inducting The Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that caught the eye of writer-director David Chase. Chase wanted Van Zandt to join his soon to be released HBO series in the lead role of Tony in The Sopranos. Carrying a series as the lead didn’t sound like his cup of tea, so Van Zandt more or less invented a secondary character with New Jersey roots much like his own: Silvio Dante. While the slicked back pompadour Dante sports is a whig, Little Steven’s own hairline is still very much intacted. The ever present head covering wasn’t born of baldness like Dwight Yoakam’s omnipresent cowboy hat. No, Little Steven’s head coverings began as a way to hide a forehead scarred from a car crash. On top of his other commitments, Van Zandt is a prolific writer: the Dante character had been adapted from a short story treatment he had previously written and he also wrote, produced and starred in another mob based drama (Lilyhammer). “I didn’t have any desire to be an actor, so I’ll be forever grateful to David Chase for persuading me otherwise. I got a wonderful burst of energy that learning a new craft gives you,” says Van Zandt.
Underground Garage has been syndicated since 2003 with an audience of more than a million listeners on the Sirius network. He acts as the executive producer of Garage as well as a new program he recently developed for Sirius called Outlaw Country. Why is he so driven? He claims that he has a perfectionist streak in him. The best way to not drive everyone nuts is to have enough projects hopping all the time that he doesn’t have time to obsess over the details of any one of them. He also likes a challenge: “People said rock ‘n roll radio would never work in this day and age, but of course it does. Rock ‘n roll is an endangered species, and I think it’s really important that it continues to exist and be accessible to future generations, Hopefully what I’m doing on the radio will continue to live beyond me.” Perhaps the free school curriculum developed for his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation will also help keep kids in touch with rock’s historical roots.
If the period after leaving The E Street Band wasn’t busy enough, Van Zandt found himself getting involved in the politics of South Africa and Central America. His all-star MTV video Sun City made more people aware of the horrors of apartheid through the movement he founded as Artists United Against Apartheid. One may not see a direct line from Little Steven, the AUAA, and the release of Nelson Mandela, but the connection is undeniable. As Van Zandt says now, “I probably would not have done the South Africa thing had I stayed (with the E Street Band). That is likely to be he one accomplishment of my life that means something, so you can also look at it that way. While I was sneaking into Soweto for a meeting, hidden under a blanket in the back of a car, the E Street guys were all off buying their mansions.” This isn’t a statement offered with any tinge of regret; Little Steven doesn’t do ‘regret’ he just goes on and does his thing(s).
Of course, Little Steven has returned to The E Street Band for notable tours up to the present day, but this does not mean the Disciples of Soul are on the back shelf. With their first new album out in 18 years called Soulfire (their sixth), no doubt the 15 member band will be hitting the road and he is still doing things his own way. It is a fair bet that the next turn Little Steven takes won’t be the one everyone expects. WOAS will be airing Soulfire just as soon as it arrives so stay tuned.
Top Piece Video: Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul doing Forever at the Soulfire album release party in May 2017.