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Danny Federici: The Phantom

Published: 4/18/2012

When Danny Federici died, four years ago today, Joyce Millman reflected on how his keyboards transformed the E Street Band's sound. Originally published April 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.

Keyboard player Danny Federici, a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, died April 17 at the age of 58 after a three-year battle with melanoma. He had been on hiatus from the E Street Band’s current concert tour since November 2007, when he left to undergo medical treatment, but he made a surprise guest appearance at the band’s March 20 Indianapolis concert four weeks before his death. Looking thin but smiling broadly, Federici played eight songs in a performance that E Street guitarist Steve Van Zandt, in a story posted on rollingstone.com the next day, called “a bit miraculous.”

Federici and Springsteen had been friends and collaborators for 40 years, playing in such pre-E Street groups as Child and Steel Mill on the New Jersey shore bar scene. When Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, his acceptance speech paid tribute to each member of the E Street Band. Of Federici, he said, “Danny’s organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music.” Indeed, wherever you were when you were listening to Federici’s tender, bittersweet accordion on “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” it was a warm summer night on the Jersey shore.



 Bruce Springsteen and Organ/Accordion player Danny Federici perform with The E Street Band during their 'Magic' tour on November 19, 2007 in Boston. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Bruce Springsteen and Organ/Accordion player Danny Federici perform with The E Street Band during their 'Magic' tour on November 19, 2007 in Boston. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

 

 

The accordion was Federici’s first instrument, learned as a boy from watching The Lawrence Welk Show on TV. Not exactly the sort of start you’d expect for your average rock musician, but then the E Street Band is not your average rock band. Springsteen’s music, especially in the early ’70s, was a mélange of styles – rock, jazz, R&B, anything that struck his fancy. Federici’s accordion added not only the sound of the boardwalk but also a nostalgic taste of Little Italy and, on the oft-bootlegged early live track “Bishop Danced,” a rollicking approximation of Wild West saloon music.

Federici played accordion and various keyboards on Springsteen’s first three albums (his glockenspiel joyfully tops the Wall of Sound layers of the song “Born to Run”), but he didn’t become the band’s full-time organist until the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town. His playing is crucial to the rootsy, straight-ahead rock sound of that record. The dirty-blues organ he brought to the tracks “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Prove It All Night” recalled the tough ’60s British garage-rockers the Animals, yet the more countrified “The Promised Land” would not be half as uplifting without his light, buoyant playing. Federici, whom Springsteen called “a pure natural musician” in his announcement of his death, unerringly conveyed the mood of a song. Nicknamed “The Phantom” (for eluding the police during a late ’60s concert that got out of hand), Federici quietly held down his familiar perch at stage left during E Street gigs and made his presence known in the Farfisa bounce of “Ramrod” and “Glory Days,” the elegiac fills of “My Hometown” and “Streets of Fire,” the churchly soulfulness of “My City of Ruins.”
 

 

 

 

 

Federici was not the original player on the studio versions of “Spirit in the Night” (from Springsteen’s first record, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.) or “Kitty’s Back,” (from the second album, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle), but they became two of his signature solos in concert. At Federici’s last full show with the E Street Band in Boston, Springsteen filled the set list with songs that showcased his departing friend. Although there had been no official word of Federici’s illness and imminent hiatus, rumors had spread through E Street Nation and at the end of the show, while Springsteen and Van Zandt hugged Federici between them at center stage, the crowd chanted, “Danny, Danny, Danny!”

As a long-time Springsteen faithful, I can testify that an E Street concert is one of the most transcendent experiences on the planet; for years, this band and its leader seemed to possess a superhuman stamina and exuberance, a matchless ability to make you believe in the rejuvenating power of rock and roll. When you’re at an E Street show, the world is young, even if you and your fellow fans are not anymore. A video clip of Federici playing accordion on “Sandy” from his Indianapolis return was posted on Springsteen’s web site (www.brucespringsteen.net ) April 18, with a note describing it as a “profound expression of the healing power of music and community.” But there are some things even music and community can’t heal. Federici’s passing reveals that the mighty E Street Band is mortal after all. And if they are, then we must be too.

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