Danny Federici: Keyboardist with the E Street Band

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:23
Bruce Springsteen and Danny Federici perform on stage in Pittsburgh, 2007
Bruce Springsteen and Danny Federici perform on stage in Pittsburgh, 2007

The keyboard player Danny Federici was a long-serving member of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. His distinctive organ and accordion playing can be heard on classic Springsteen songs like "Hungry Heart", "The Rising" and the concert favourite "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" while his glorious glockenspiel on tracks such as "Born to Run" and "Racing in the Street" added the Phil Spector-like icing to the cake.

Federici was nicknamed "Phantom Dan" after doing a disappearing act following an incident with a police chief during his early days with Springsteen in the bars of New Jersey, and he didn't draw attention to himself – unlike the band's saxophonist Clarence Clemons or guitarist Steve Van Zandt. When asked about the marathon shows which helped make the Boss a legend in the Seventies and Eighties, Federici said: "I'm lucky, I'm one of the guys who gets to sit down. You know, Bruce has to go out there and bust his ass every night. I'm like, wow, I'm glad I picked the organ."

Born in 1950, Federici began playing the accordion at seven and became something of a prodigy on the instrument, entertaining at parties with polkas and his take on the classical repertoire. "My mother basically pulled me around by my ear and showed me off to the neighbours," he remembered. "I had a whole little career going. I had 'Danny' written on my accordion in rhinestones." In his teens, while attending Hunterdon Central High School in New Jersey, he switched to the Cordovox, an instrument which sounded like the organ. He then studied at the conservatory in Philadelphia but, following the "British Invasion" of the 1960s, realised he could play jazz and rhythm'n'blues and zydeco on the accordion.

Inspired by Felix Cavaliere of the Young Rascals, he switched to electric organ and formed a band called Child with his friend the drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez. In 1969, they came across Springsteen, from Freehold, another town in New Jersey, playing the Upstage Club in Asbury Park. "We found this skinny guy with long hair and a ratty T-shirt who was an incredible guitar player and a good singer, not to mention he wrote songs," said Federici. "We saw him, and were just blown away, so we asked him to join. It was a good find, wouldn't you think?"

With the addition of Clemons and Garry Tallent on bass, the group evolved into Steel Mill, eventually becoming known as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, though they weren't credited as such until the breakthrough album Born To Run in 1975, (and in fact are only billed alongside Springsteen on concert posters, the Live/1975-85 box set and the 2001 album Live In New York City). As well as Federici, Tallent and Van Zandt, the group included the drummer Max Weinberg, the piano-player Roy Bittan, the guitarist Nils Lofgren and the backing vocalist Patti Scialfa.

Federici himself didn't feature on Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, Springsteen's début in 1973, but was a stalwart of the group on the second album The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973), and on Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980) and Born in the USA (1984). He also played on The Rising in 2002, the first album fully recorded with the E Street Band after an 18-year gap, and Magic, which was issued last year. Even when Springsteen opted to use E Street members sparingly or to work with other musicians, he often called on Federici to provide just the right touch with his accordion or organ.

In the Nineties, Federici made an album of jazz instrumentals he called Flemington after his hometown in New Jersey and began touring with his own band. In 2004, he recorded another smooth jazz album, Sweet, which contained original compositions as well as instrumental versions of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and Bob Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door" and was reissued as Out of a Dream the following year. He also contributed to albums by Van Zandt, the Springsteen associate Gary U.S. Bonds and the singer-songwriters Joan Armatrading, Garland Jeffreys and Graham Parker.

Federici was easy-going and a team player, but he did suffer during David Sancious's brief, bossy tenure as the other keyboard player in the group during the mid-Seventies. He formed a much better partnership with Bittan. "Through the years, we've learned how to play in the holes between each other," he said. Diagnosed with melanoma three years ago, Federici took a leave of absence from the E Street Band last November and was replaced by Charles Giordano for the current tour. But he made a guest appearance with the Boss at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis last month, playing eight songs in what turned out to be his last concert performance.

When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, the singer paid tribute to Federici as the "most instinctive and natural musician I ever met and the only member of the band who can reduce me to a shouting mess".

Pierre Perrone

Daniel Federici, keyboard player and composer: born Flemington, New Jersey 23 January 1950; married (two daughters); died New York 17 April 2008.

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