Q&A: DAVID SANCIOUS (photo: Michael Bloom)
For Rock’s Back Pages, Rod Tootell recently put together an article on the making of Springsteen’s second album, “E Street Serenade: Bruce Springsteen, David Sancious and the E Street Shuffle.” For the piece, Tootell interviewed Sancious, the E Street Band’s genius first pianist who left for a solo career in 1974 and later brought his talents to Peter Gabriel and Sting. Thanks to Rod, for further reading we present their unedited conversation here, conducted in June 2012. Sancious speaks about meeting Bruce, writing the string arrangements for “New York Serenade,” and reconnecting over the years with his old Boss.
Can I ask you a bit about what you did before you joined Bruce’s band?
Before Bruce, I quit school — I left high school when I was 15 years old, which in the state of New Jersey at that time you could do without your parents’ consent. I had already been playing in clubs since I was about 13, lied about my age for a lot of years. I was 19 years old for about six years — at least five or six years I was 19 years old. I don’t think anyone believed me, because I had a really young face and a young voice, but I got away with it a lot. When I was in school, I was just playing on the weekends. I had worked a few jobs, got a job in the Danelectro guitar factory. I worked as a landscaper for a while, you know, stuff like that. Then I was playing on the weekends — I was pretty much restricted to that.
Being out of school, all I did was music, full-time. I was practicing at home, by myself everyday, and at night I would just play, wherever I could play, as much as possible. So that went on a lot, and then I met Bruce and the whole club scene in New Jersey. I met him at Upstage through Garry Tallent. Garry and I had met and worked together before. I think we did a recording session for someone at a studio session, and we hit it off right away. One night we were going to the Upstage, and Bruce was putting a jam session together for the second half of the night, which used to be from 1:00 until 5:00 in the morning. I was walking up the stairs and Garry introduced me to Bruce. Bruce asked, “Are you interested in playing in our jams?” And I said “sure” — we were used to playing for hours at a time — and that was the start of it.
He had a band called Steel Mill that he was going to end. He was going to start this new band, which became eventually the E Street Band. It wasn’t called that for a long time, it was just Bruce Springsteen. Then we had a band called Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, which was a Mad Dogs and Englishmen kind of thing: music and theater at the same time, it was pretty wild.
But before meeting Bruce I was just like everybody else in that club scene. I was more concerned about getting really good on the instrument, and I’d also secretly started playing guitar around that time (which I kept to myself for a while), and then I broke it out one night. But that was it, just the club scene around Asbury Park, a lot of practicing and jam sessions.
When did he formally say “come and join the band”?
I think after that night, the end of that first night. We closed the place, it was 5:00 in the morning, and we were walking out — at that hour, the last thing you can do is go right home and go to bed and go to sleep, so we all used to walk down to the ocean and hang out. If you live nearby, you’re walking home or catching a ride back to Belmar or wherever you came from. We were walking out of the club and he asked me, I think that morning, he said, “I’m going to be breaking up Steel Mill and starting a new band, would you be interested?” I said, “Yeah, absolutely.”
Would you say that band was very improvisational?
I think at the time, for the talent that was around the Shore… we weren’t the only good musicians, but I think it was a collection of pretty much the best players who were around that area at that time. Bruce was absolutely the guitar hero of the whole area. The band was always really interesting. Vini Lopez had a really unique style; Garry’s a fantastic bass player; Danny was great on the organ and accordion; and Clarence, of course.
Can we talk about the way the band progressed? Listening to live concerts from My Father’s Place in Roslyn, compared to a concert in Nashville about six months later, to me the band has just completely changed. There’s so much going on, there’s a lot of jazz in the mix, and it’s just very different to the sort of stuff they were doing before you joined. [Though Sancious played on Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, he didn’t officially join the touring unit until June 1973.]
It also depends on who was playing drums at the time. Once Ernest [Carter, drums] was in the band — it’s really a shame that there’s not more of him recorded, officially recorded — it really took off, I think. The change of drummer, it wasn’t comfortable, but Bruce calculated that it was necessary musically, and I think he was right.
That band, when [Carter] got in, it was really, really something. And also the amount of shows we used to do, you know, we were playing a lot. And playing long shows — Bruce likes to play a long time, as you know — and there’s nothing like getting a band in shape with a lot of live playing, night after night after night, whether you are sick or well, whatever. There’s nothing like it. Not just whipping a band into shape, but having its own nature evolve. Getting the best out of every player because it just comes out naturally at some point, and, yeah…. I bet it does sound dramatically different from, say, the sound ofGreetings from Asbury Park, really, really different.
Liberty Hall is a great, great show, and Max’s Kansas City…
Wow, Max’s Kansas City — boy, I remember that place. The Wailers opened for us, and it was the first time The Wailers had played in New York, I believe.
Did you get to spend time with them?
We did, briefly — like hello, nice to meet you, not really in depth or anything.
And you watched them play, I presume?
Yeah, watched them play. I remember Clarence was hanging out in the dressing room.
I bet he was.
Yeah, yeah [laughs]… but I was amazed by them. Wow… it was really different. because that whole scene was pretty much brand new. I wish I would’ve seen [Bob Marley] more live when he was alive. I’ve seen so much concert footage of him, and man, what a presence. He was truly amazing, and you see and hear the influence he had on all kinds of people to this day — singers, other bands — it’s incredible.
In the documentaries that Bruce has done about the recording of Darknesson the Edge of Town and Born to Run, it’s pretty intense, high-pressure stuff. I get the impression that the recording of The Wild & the Innocent, on the other hand was actually very relaxed.
The atmosphere, it was more relaxed. I’ve seen some of that stuff — the film of them in the studio working on Born to Run, and Darkness as well — and I just think that is where he was then in his head: he needed to be that intense about what he was intense about. But I remember that when we started the recording for that album, everybody was a little run-down physically. Clarence had tonsillitis, I had a kind of cold or something… it was a bunch of people who were just working because you had to do that, and then everybody got better, of course, and carried on. But I do remember the atmosphere in the sessions as being fairly relaxed, not too uptight, not too tense. But it was a lot of work. We worked a lot of hours. We started in the morning. We used to drive up to 914 Studios from New Jersey, and then I think they put us in a hotel across the road from it or something. We put in a seriously full day and night.
Somebody said that some of you slept in the back in a tent.
I don’t remember the tent, but I remember there was a place where you could go in the back of the studio and crash out for a while if you were tired. I definitely remember everybody taking advantage of that at some point. I don’t remember a tent — it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
Well, I think Bruce has said there’s a lot of stuff that everybody knows about him that he doesn’t know anything about. I’ve heard that when you originally did “New York City Serenade,” you did a lot of the basic tracks first and then added a lot of stuff afterwards?
No, I think “Born to Run” was like that. But “New York City Serenade” I remember, we just did it live in the studio — but without strings, of course. We recorded the guitar, piano, bass, drums, and organ, probably. And then I think the producer or the engineer found these three guys, these three violinists, who were music school teachers. They were from the local area. So the whole “string section” actually, was three people who got overdubbed. It wasn’t a string section of people. The engineer, Louis Lahav, was the first one to turn me on to the technique of doing that with strings. I knew about overdubs, but if you don’t have access to a whole bunch of string players you can tape three or four, preferably, if you really want to sound big. You can do it with three as well and you get them to play the entire arrangement about three times. So they play it once, it sounds like three guys playing. They go in, they rewind the song, they play it again, now it sounds larger and you just keep doing that.
It’s almost a Phil Spector sort of thing.
It is, it’s the same sort of concept. So these guys were lovely, and that was my first string arrangement I had ever written. I’ve written a few more since then for different people, but that was my first opportunity, and I was so excited about it. I worked really hard on it, and I stayed up all night for several days. Then came the day, and I stayed up all of that night before we were being picked up to drive up to the studio to do the session with the string fellows. I triple-checked everything, checked the harmony, and I did it on the piano of course, wrote out the parts by hand, and I was just…
Leaving nothing to chance.
Yeah, leaving nothing to chance. And it really worked beautifully, and the guys playing it were really complimentary about how it sounded. It had some interesting movement in it. And I also got to conduct them — I wouldn’t call it conducting now, these guys didn’t need me to keep time, but they needed a little bit of direction, I guess, as to where sections were. So I’m standing there conducting these three guys who were the age of the teachers I had in high school, music teachers, and I thought, this is crazy, and it was all working so beautifully. It worked out well. I just remember everyone being really, really happy with it. I was, of course, and Bruce was thrilled.
It’s like the last song you want to hear on any evening.
I mean [laughs]… you know, one fan got in touch with me just to say how much they appreciated the song and my contribution to it. He was saying he was kind of in a state of… almost hypnotised by it. He just keep listening to it over and over again, listening to it every day!
You left the band, you got on with your own career. I was just wondering, after you left his band, did you follow Bruce’s career? If a new album comes out, do you put it on the turntable? (Photo: Armando Gallo)
Oh yeah, to this day. What’s been nice is that since I left the band and went off and did a whole lot of other stuff with other artists, and some stuff with my small band, we have been able to stay in touch — not on a continuous personal basis, but over the years we would do the same show. We did a Rainforest benefit together some years ago. I remember at rehearsals for a Grammy thing, or some event in New York City, I was working with Sting and Bruce was there. He came into the room and said, “Hey how’re you doing, haven’t seen you for a while.” And he was looking so excited, I said “What’s going on?” And he said, “I just met the Queen of Soul.” He’d just met Aretha Franklin, and he was really jazzed, really excited.
And you’ve also worked with her.
I did one album, yeah — actually it was the one that Andy Warhol did the cover for, before he died [1986’s Aretha] — but that was it.
And then years later, Bruce called me to do some stuff on Human Touch, and then we’re back in the studio together again — that was great fun. We did, I think, two songs, maybe three. “Soul Driver”…
“Soul Driver” is a very good song.
You know, a lot of people criticize that stuff, that period, because he was working with other musicians outside the whole E Street Band context. I think some people just have an automatic prejudice against that, you know, which I don’t share. I think those are fine records, both of them. That was a nice period.
And then some time went by where I might see him but not work with him, and then in 2011 he performed at Sting’s 60th birthday party at the Beacon Theatre, he did two songs. He did his own version of “Fields of Gold” acoustically, just him on guitar. It’s brilliant, you should check it out — it’s on an app actually, that you can get from the app stores [Sting 25]. It’s got all the performances. Bruce did a great version of “Fields of Gold,” and then we did “I Hung My Head” with him.
That’s a wonderful song.
Yeah, we did it in 4/4 — I think that song’s in 9/8, but we did it in 4/4 in a kind of Johnny Cash version. It was a Bruce version, which is fantastic, and then we did “Can’t Stand Losing You,” the Police song. It was so much fun, first of all, just to play with him again, on the same stage; he was killing it on the guitar, and it was great. We got to talk a little bit at rehearsals. So, you know, we’re not working together on a daily basis, but things come up occasionally and we get to see each other for a second. I have a strong feeling that — probably on a project of my own which might be coming up in the next, I don’t know, year or year-and-a-half — that we’ll do some more work together. Studio stuff, you know.
It would be great to hear that.
He’s a dream to work with. He’s really nice, he’s a great guy.
You’re working with Peter Gabriel as well?
He’s doing a 25th anniversary of the So tour. He’s put the original band back together
Were you on that?
Yeah — well, I’m not on the album, but I did all the touring: it was myself and Manu Katche, Tony Levin, and David Rhodes. He called me and asked me if I’d be interested — he said he’d been able to put everyone else back together — so, absolutely.
I wanted to show you this photo on the back of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and just talk about what you felt when you saw it — it’s such a wonderful picture.
Well, first of all, I’m barefoot! I remember I used to go around barefoot in summertime… and look at Clarence, we’re both barefoot.
That’s the beach life.
Yeah, that was a summer thing. Garry’s got clogs on, and he’s kind of barefoot. Danny’s got boots on. He’s the nicest dressed one in this picture. He looks like he’s going to have his photo taken for a record album. The rest of us look like somebody just stopped us and said, “Listen, just stand still….”
Dave Marsh calls you guys a “visual hodgepodge.”
Really [laughs] — totally right, a visual hodgepodge. I remember that day. And look how dark Bruce is! He really got so dark in the summer. We used to tease him, like he was becoming Puerto Rican. I mean, he got really dark, he used to tan really well. He used to surf back then, too. He was really into surfing. I wonder if he still does that. But yeah, I sure remember this picture, man… wow.
And it definitely gives the impression that the album is… well, it had a very relaxed feel to it. Everybody looks like they’re having a good time.
Yeah, absolutely. And the other thing I think of when I see this picture is, two of the six are gone. Danny is gone. Clarence is gone. Vini is still with us.
Did you keep in touch with Clarence and those guys?
A little bit. Not so much because our paths… we’re in different parts of the world, and all kinds of stuff. But I’ve seen Vini a few times — he actually came to Woodstock a couple of summers ago and rang me up, and we went and had a nice long lunch together and hung out.
How’s your back? You said you went to the chiropractor.
It’s my shoulder, an injury in the garden before I left.
Do you like gardening?
I love gardening. It’s my passion after music, there’s nothing like it. It’s one of the only other things that I’ve ever done, apart from music and a little bit of abstract painting, where I’ve been able to lose myself in time, and you have no idea how many hours have gone by and you have been engaged in this thing.
Thank you so much for giving me your time.
– February 25, 2013 – interview by Rod Tootell – images (1,2,4) courtesy of David Sancious/davidsancious.com; (5) by David Gahr, back cover of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
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