Saturday, April 19, 2008

Remembering Danny Federici

By Kelly-Jane Cotter
April 19, 2008

If the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is the quintessential sound of the Jersey Shore, then it is due in large part to Danny Federici.

Federici, who died Thursday after a three-year battle with melanoma, was a Flemington native. But his musical style was evocative of the beach-and-boardwalk scene that inspired much of Springsteen's work.

With a few taps on the keyboard or accordion, Federici could conjure a summer day in Asbury Park — the rides on the boardwalk, the call of sea gulls and, most importantly, the swirl of emotions such a day can bring. In songs such as "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" there is the melancholy hum of Federici's notes. In "Hungry Heart" there is irony, as Federici's bright lines contrast with the narrator's tale. In "Kitty's Back" there is excitement, anticipation and the swagger of youth.

"Kitty's Back" used to be one of those Holy Grail songs — a track everyone wanted to hear live but that the band seldom performed. But in recent years, the song has become a more familiar presence on set lists. And it sounds great in Convention Hall in Asbury Park, maybe because there are so many longtime fans in the audience and their energy gets linked to the song. Federici always received his due from those crowds during those kinds of songs.

"I knew him to be a tremendously talented musician and a natural, organic player," said Tony Pallagrosi, a former member of Southside Johnny's Asbury Jukes and a longtime participant in the local music scene. "I still listen to "Flemington,' one of Danny's solo albums. When I first heard it, I thought it was the contemporary version of Booker T. It was so grooving. Here's this cat who's part of a group and he had the chance to step out and do something different, and it reeked of the great R&B influences that made the E Street Band what it is."

As the editor of the New York-based Crawdaddy magazine, Peter Knobler first encountered the E Street Band on Dec. 7, 1972, at a concert at Sing Sing Prison.

Crawdaddy chronicled rock 'n' roll as it became a force in the '60s and '70s, and Knobler said he recognized immediately that the E Street Band was the real deal. The band's camaraderie, he said, was compelling.

"They were a band of brothers — they were good friends," Knobler said. "Danny Federici, he was just a classic Jersey guy, a regular guy. He totally filled out the sound. He had no airs about him, none of them did. He did not take his musicianship too seriously, yet you should've seen him play."

Chris Phillips, editor of the North Carolina-based Backstreets, a Springsteen fanzine, said Federici added to the mystique of the band.

"I've been listening to the live version of "You're Missing,' " Phillips said, "and it's a fine example of Max (Weinberg) hits the snare and Bruce points it over to Danny. And it's not that anything jawbreakingly technical is going on, but those notes Danny plays say as much or more than the lyrics. Sometimes he would bring that Jersey Shore sunshine part of the song, or maybe even some circus tones, but his music also was haunting at times, bringing in a whole different color to a song.

"I don't see Bruce as a poet, I see him as a songwriter," Phillips added, "and that's why the E Street Band is so important, because they provide that half of the experience. And Danny has always been part of that foundation."

Backstreets plans to devote its June issue to a tribute to Federici.

"Danny was there from the beginning — he and Bruce knew each other from the '60s," Pallagrosi said. "They were all in their formative stages at that point, and whatever they did individually influenced each other. They forged a musical identity together.

"That's the magic of music, and one of the defining characteristics of rock 'n 'roll: The whole is greater than the parts," Pallagrosi said. "That certainly has been the case with the E Street Band, just like the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and all the bands that have created something important. When members leave, it changes the equation."

Springsteen's concerts for last night in Fort Lauderdale and tonight have been postponed. Springsteen and the E Street Band are due back in the area in July for shows at Giants Stadium. Springsteen also is scheduled to perform May 7 at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.

On his Web site,, Springsteen posted this remembrance: "Danny and I worked together for 40 years — he was the most wonderfully fluid keyboard player and a pure natural musician. I loved him very much. . . . We grew up together."

Federici's family and bandmates have set up the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund to raise money to fight this most deadly form of skin cancer. Details will be announced on

For more thoughts on Danny Federici, read Press Staff Writer Jean Mikle's blog.

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