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40 Years of E Street: Roy Bittan on Bruce, Beach Pics and ‘Born to Run’

Keyboardist opens up about full band ‘Nebraska’ sessions, surviving Bruce’s solo turn and what the future may hold.

Keyboardist opens up about full band 'Nebraska' sessions, surviving Bruce's solo turn and what the future may hold.

On September 19th, 1974 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played two shows at the Main Point, a club right outside of Philadelphia. “He loosens up with a new song,” Paul Alpaugh wrote in the Villanova University student newspaper The Villanovan, “introducing a new keyboard man who makes the audience forget about the old one.”

Alpaugh identified the new keyboard player as “Roy Bittner,” which is pretty close considering he somehow thought that Max Weinberg’s name was “Larry Nash.” He meant Roy Bittan, who had joined the group a couple weeks earlier, when David Sancious suddenly quit and left the group in the lurch. His timing was pretty stellar considering Springsteen had only just begun working on Born to Run, the album that would forever change the lives of everyone involved.

Over 40 years later, Bittan is still in the E Street Band. He also just released Out of the Box, his first solo disc. We recently spoke to Bittan about this and the many other non-Springsteen records he played on over the years. But we couldn’t let him off the phone without going through his history with Bruce, and here the keyboardist discussed everything from the making of Born to Run to E Street’s recent Hall of Fame induction.

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Roy Bittan says that there is a “history of [Bruce Springsteen] picking me up and holding me in his arms.”

A couple of years ago we ran a photo where you’re on the beach with Bruce and he’s holding you in his arms like a giant baby. What was going on there? 
[Laughs] Well, it’s funny. There’s actually two photos like that. One was taken in San Sebastián, Spain, where he’s holding me like that, and the other was in Rio de Janeiro, same photo. First of all, we’re the beach rats in the band. Whenever there’s a beach around and it’s warm we’re like, “OK, come on! Let’s go! Let’s hit the ocean.” On this last tour we were down in Australia and South Africa. Any day we had off, we’d get in a van and travel to some beautiful beach. We lay in the sand, go swimming in the ocean and maybe watch the sunset before we head back to the hotel. We do it whenever we can.

But to explain the photo, we did a shoot with Annie Leibovitz for, I believe, The River. We did this whole photo session, and when it broke everyone moved away from the set besides Bruce and I. He picked me up, just like that. Annie, being the great veteran she is, still had a camera around her neck and captured the moment. I’m actually looking at that photo on my wall as I speak to you. So, there’s a history of him picking me up and holding me in his arms like that.

Moving on to actual music, everyone is always interested in the story behind Nebraska. How many of the songs did you guys try and record with the band?
I don’t know offhand. My vague memory tells me it was maybe a majority of the songs? I think we actually rehearsed those songs in the living room of my house. I had a really high-ceilinged living room with lots of glass and wood, and it actually sounded great in there. I think we cut. . . not cut, I think we rehearsed quite a number of those songs. I don’t have a good handle on what was maybe written later.

The fans would love to hear that tape. The “Full Band Nebraska” has become this mythical thing, and nobody can agree on exactly what happened.
I’d like to hear it, too. There may be a tape around somewhere. I’m not sure. 

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1978 at Shellow’s Ice Cream shop in East Camden, New Jersey. Bruce and the E Street Band in its Born to Run to Born in the U.S.A. linuep: Bruce, Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, Steve Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons. Frank Stefanko

Why doesn’t Danny play on Born to Run, besides the title track?
I don’t know if Danny was terribly present at that particular moment. Also, I have to say that when it came time to cut that, I think Jon [Landau] was instrumental in trying to do it in a “let’s cut a basic track” process. For the basic tracks on those songs, that turned out to be piano, bass and drums. Bruce wrote most of those songs on the piano. When I first visited him in Long Branch, he sat down at the piano and played me some of those songs, so it made sense to do it like that.

Also, Danny is a very different player than myself. I think that in focusing the recording, they wanted me to sort of lay those tracks with Bruce. Danny was a very feeling player. He was not the type to come in and play the same thing again and again and again, take after take, to get a track. He would play something and then change it up a bit, so he was not an architectural player like I was. That’s one of the reasons why we functioned so well in that band. If we’d both been architectural, we’d probably be fighting over how to build things in the structure of the songs.

So, I think the architecture that I provided was maybe difficult for Danny to play with at the time. I was just being asked to play piano and then when it came time to overdub organ, I was just being asked to overdub organ. I had just joined the band. This was my proving ground, really. I just ran with whatever I was handed, so I got to play organ on all those songs. I think that maybe me doing it made it easier to record because I was integrating an organ part into my piano part. I would take two swipes at the organ on a song and I would pretty much have it because I knew every note I had played on the piano.

Jumping way ahead in time here, how did the rest of the band feel when you were the one guy brought back for the Human Touch/Lucky Town tour?
That was a tremendously emotional time for everybody. Bruce decided he was moving on and leaving the band behind. I was one of the guys who was let go. It was not like Bruce and I had this idea we were gonna do something, and then he fired everybody else. I got the same phone call everybody did, and for a couple of months I was cut loose also. So at that point, we all had feelings. It was impossible to not have feelings about things.

As far as me coming back, I don’t know if anybody was really mad at me. But they certainly, I’m sure, did not have good feelings about the whole situation. We made those iconic records as a band. They were collaborations, to a degree. And then all of a sudden, you’re being told that all the work that you put into a band, you’re not allowed to experience that anymore.

I think that some guys may have had feelings about me in particular. I think it was misguided. Again, there was no grand conspiracy. But I think whatever they felt, they were entitled to feel. It was a harsh situation at that particular moment. I kind of always described it to myself like there was a plane crash and I was the only survivor.

It was a strange moment in time. But what can I say? It was a great experience for me. I got to co-write three songs. I got to co-produce and be involved in elements of the record that I’d never really been a part of.

To just keep bouncing around in time, how did the synths become so prominent on Born in the USA?
To put it in historical context, it was 1983 and MTV had started to happen. The 1980s sounds started to happen. We had Born to RunDarkness and The River. And here we were with some new songs. I think Bruce was looking, even at that time, for more color other than just classic instrumentation. At that particular moment, synthesizers were in vogue. I, of course, was interested for obvious reasons. There was a backlash against synthesizers for not really being a rock & roll thing and “it’s not this and not that,” but I always recognized it as a tool to paint other colors.

Getting back to Human Touch. I’ve heard Bruce say he felt he didn’t quite nail songs like “Real World” during the recording process. Do you think that’s fair?
I think that’s fair. With “Real World,” I had written that music and I had a track. He’s performed it live as a ballad. Maybe he’s only ever performed it as a ballad. I think we kind of missed on that. It’s hard to say. We were experimenting with computer recording. I had an early Pro Tools system in the studio that was incredibly archaic when you look back at it.

He was searching for something new, whether it was in writing or recording. He wanted a new direction. The interesting thing is that it was the prototype, so to speak, for the recording method that he’s been using ever since. He uses a computer. He may cut some things live, but it goes into the computer. We work on it. We overdub with the computer. It’s been our method of recording ever since then. So, it really was the first time that our so-called modern technique of recording was used.

On The Rising, I feel like the violin played parts that normally would have been synths. Is that true?
I think that’s true. I think that it could’ve been a synthesizer or it could have been the strings. I think maybe that was a reaction to pulling back the synthesizer sound and maybe just going back to a more real instrument sound.

As far as playing live, what are the challenges or playing as part of an 18-piece E Street Band as opposed to a seven-piece E Street Band?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t know if the amount of people makes a difference. What we have, basically, is a core band. We have Bruce, Max, Garry, Steven and myself pretty much to one side of the stage, and then Nils is to the right of Bruce and, of course, Charlie is far right. But for me, it’s all about the rhythm section and locking in with Max and Garry. Having Bruce and Steve right there, there’s always a lot of action going on.

So, that is what’s happening with me. Then there’s the singers, the horns, violin and all these things happen at different times during a song. It’s a little more intermittent, whereas the core band is firing on all cylinders all the time in some manner or shape or form. It’s great to hear the other stuff. It comes in and out, and I love it. But for me, it has always been and it always has been about playing with those seven guys. I say seven because that’s what we were.

A lot of fans were pretty shocked during the last tour when you guys brought back “Prove It All Night” with the 1978 intro. Did it surprise you that Bruce wanted to do that again?
It’s always a surprise when he pulls something out of the bag. We really did a lot of interesting things over the years. When we played Hyde Park a couple of years ago, we started the show with “Thunder Road,” just Bruce and myself. We hadn’t done that in, God knows, 30 years? It was a really long time, and it was a beautiful thing. We did that back when Born to Run first came out. It’s always a surprise when it turns around and he goes, “Hey, let’s do this like we used to.” It was a great little instrumental prologue to the song, and it’s just always great to stretch out like that. 

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Roy Bittan and Bruce Springsteen perform in New York City on November 3rd, 2010. Kevin Mazur/Getty

Are there ever times he calls for a song and your brain freezes? I think of “Racing in the Street (’78)” or something where it’s a variation of a song you’ve played a million times. That must get confusing.
[Laughs] Look, the songbook must be at least 250 songs, and then all the cover things we’ve done. So, there are moments when he’s going, “One, two, three,” and you’re still trying to figure out what you have to play. Sometimes he calls a song and you haven’t played it in 10 years. It’s a little freaky. But I guess that’s one of the things about having a lot of people on stage. Chances are there are a few of us that know how it’s supposed to go.

Might you tour this year? Do you have any idea what the future holds?
Ah, the acid test question! People always want to know what we’re doing. I understand that. The music business is generally one in which people make plans far in advance, and they don’t veer from their plans. Whereas, with Bruce, it’s just simply that he writes songs, he makes an album and then he figures out where he wants to go and play.

You know, there’s always some plans in the mix. But until he says, “The album is done, let’s go,” I don’t ever really know. It’s kind of been that way for 40 years. I just go along with it and read the river, pardon the pun, and I’m sure at some point he’s gonna say, “OK, this is what I want to do,” and it’ll happen. But until then, it’s just as much a waiting game for me as it is for the fans. So, did I dodge the question good enough?

Yes, that was a perfect dodge. Textbook.
Well, that happens to be the truth, so take it.

Finally, do you think you guys spoke too long when you were inducted into the Hall of Fame?
[Laughs] I don’t think that I spoke too long.

How about combined?
Yes, I think we did. I think there was a lot of extraneous talk and a bit too much talk. At one point I was thinking about stepping up to the podium and telling everyone if they had tickets to the next night’s game at the Barclays Center, we were going to have cots available so they could take a nap beforehand. Yeah, I stood up there for a long time waiting to talk. By the time I got up to speak, I was like, “OK, this is kind of. . .” It took the wind out of my sails in a way.

It was really nice to watch you guys play with Vini and David again.
Yeah, it was. That was a lovely thing. If you look at the history of the band and the two early records that Vini and Davie play on, those two records are charming, and it was informative to play with them. Playing with them was a beautiful thing.

By the way, have you looked at Wikipedia recently? Their photo of you is ludicrously unflattering. It’s the side of your head from this crazy angle.
Wikipedia? I’ll have to check that out. I’ve never seen that. I guess I’ll have to go in and do something about that.