E Street’s Roy Bittan on Collaborating with Bowie, Bob Seger, Stevie Nicks
Unless Roy Bittan cures cancer or cracks cold fusion, his obituary is likely to focus on his work as the piano player in the E Street Band. He joined the group in 1974 after responding to a Village Voice ad seeking a pianist that knew "classical to Jerry Lee Lewis." It's hard to imagine what Born to Run would have sounded like without his playing, and he's so vital to Springsteen's sound that he was the only member to survive after Bruce fired the rest of the crew in 1989.
Even today, playing with Springsteen takes up so much time that Bittan had been unable to complete Out of the Box, his solo debut, until late last year. "We just did a 99-city tour, and when those things end I don't always have the inclination to jump into the studio," he says. "So I'd been working on this piecemeal between tours for a long time. It really turned into an eclectic collection of songs. Some of it had been sitting around for 10 years."
Bittan has also kept busy by playing on albums from a stunning array of artists. To celebrate the release of Out of the Box, we spoke to the keyboardist, producer and occasional accordion-player about 10 great non-Springsteen albums he's worked on throughout his long career.
David Bowie, ‘Station to Station’ (1975)
"I was staying at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles when we were on the Born to Run tour in 1975. David's guitar player, Earl Slick, was a friend of mine. I bumped into him at the hotel and he said, 'I can't believe you're here. We were just talking about you.' David knew we were coming to town and he wanted a keyboard player.
"When I arrived the next day at the studio David said to me, 'Do you know who Professor Longhair is?' I said, 'Know him? I saw him play at a little roadhouse in Houston about three weeks ago!' I wound up doing an imitation of Professor Longhair interpreting a David Bowie song. We began with 'TVC 15' and I wound up playing on every song besides 'Wild Is the Wind.' It must have only been about three days. It's one of my favorite projects I've ever worked on."
Jackson Browne, ‘The Pretender’ (1976)
"Jon Landau was producing Jackson at this time. He needed some piano stuff, and Jon asked me to come down. I think he was recording in Los Angeles, but I could be wrong. It was a beautiful moment for Jackson, and the record was just fabulous. It also became my introduction to the West Coast sound. The huge success of Born to Run really thrust me into the mix of recording musicians who were making real albums."
Meat Loaf, ‘Bat Out of Hell’ (1977)
"Jim Steinman wrote all the songs for this, and I was real intrigued when he played them for me because they were so theatrical. It was like a rock musical, and of course Meat came out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was also a big fan of Todd Rundgren, who was the producer. They brought in Max [Weinberg] to play drums, I was on piano and Todd on guitar and Kasim Sulton was on bass. We cut the whole thing live as a four-piece up in Woodstock over about two months. The only overdubs were the backing vocals. It was a strange album since some people didn't understand it came out of the theater world. I occasionally hear something from it today and just think, 'Wow, that's some really great playing.'"
Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel II’ (1978)
"This was just a fantastic bunch of musicians. Robert Fripp [of King Crimson] was on guitar and Tony Levin was on bass. Peter was branching out after leaving Genesis, and I was lucky enough to get in there with him. It was a real shift for me away from West Coast people and my thing with Bruce. This was a fantastic British artist that really wanted to stretch out and do something innovative. I've always been added to an ensemble to crystallize or define the music they're trying to realize, and I just loved working on this one. "
Stevie Nicks, ‘Bella Donna’ (1981)
"I go way back with Jimmy Iovine. He was the assistant engineer on Born to Run, and we developed a friendship and always had a real musical affinity. When he branched out into the production world he'd occasionally call me up to work on something. He needed someone to fill some gaps on Stevie's record Bella Donna and really interpret her songs. I hopped on a plane for L.A. and immediately started to run a fever, about 101 degrees. I was delirious when we began recording, but sometimes when you don't quite feel 100 percent your artistic guard is down.
"We recorded live at first, with Russ Kunkel, Waddy Wachtel, Benmont Tench and Bob Glaub. Stevie called it hear 'Dream Band.' The first one we did was "Edge of Seventeen." We did the whole album in a matter of two or three days, playing live first and overdubbing later. She's the only artist I toured with other than Bruce. She asked me to go on the road, and I had some time off – I couldn't pass up the opportunity. It gave me a chance to reinterpret some of the Fleetwood Mac stuff. We began 'Rhiannon' real slow, almost a classical version of it. Then after the first verse the whole band would kick in. It was a fantastic experience."
Bob Seger, ‘The Distance’ (1982)
"This is another one that started with Jimmy calling me. I was beginning to become his secret weapon, and he had the most incredible instincts as a producer. Bob Seger is a Detroit rocker, and I just love his group, the Silver Bullet Band. He always made great records, and his lyrics are so intelligent. In a way, he's not unlike Bruce. For this record, Jimmy just brought me in because Bob had a couple of things he wanted me to play on, like 'Roll Me Away.'"
Bonnie Tyler, ‘Faster Than the Speed of Night’ (1983)
"Once again, this is a Jim Steinman album. Bat Out of Hell was so huge in England that they reached out to him to produce Bonnie's album. She was another great voice and just a fantastic singer. Any album with Jim is interesting. I remember when we finished Bat Out of Hell I said to myself, 'I have no idea whether this is going to be big or not.' I've always felt that way with Jim. I never judge his music because I love all of it, but it's always either a grand slam or a giant strike out. If it's a strike out, he goes out swinging. I've never been able to figure it out, even when we're making something like 'Total Eclipse of the Heart.'"
Bon Jovi, ‘Bon Jovi’ (1984)
"I met Jon at the Power Station in New York while we were making Born in the U.S.A. I just bumped into him in the halls and he asked if I could help him develop his music. He played me a cassette of his demos and I thought, 'This guy can really sing. Maybe I can help him along, give him a nudge somehow.'
"After we recorded the thing I tried to get him a deal. I couldn't get anybody to bite! I kept thinking, 'I don't get this. Why won't people take a chance on this guy? He's got a great voice. He can do it live, and he writes the songs! Also, he's great looking.' I used to talk to him and say, 'Jon, I played this for a couple of people and I'm not getting the right person.' Anyway, he found the right person and the rest is history."
Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ (1998)
"Lucinda was making the record down in Nashville, and I think she hit a wall. She wasn't grooving in the studio and was having difficulty finishing it off. I knew her bass player, so they wound up flying me down to produce the thing. I was told the whole thing had stalled. We wound up re-cutting most of the tracks, though the drums and bass parts were pretty good. I wound up playing some accordion on it.
"Lucinda is just this tremendous, authentic, fantastic artist. She reminds me of Bruce, even though they have very, very different styles. She's a great songwriter with an extremely beautiful, vulnerable voice. I produced the record, but unfortunately they already made a deal where Rick Rubin mixed it. I would have liked to have done that. But he did a great job."
Roy Bittan, ‘Out of the Box’ (2014)
"Finally being the one that calls all the shots is really a blessing and a curse. It's a funny thing to do after seeing what so many artists go through to make a record. You see the pain and the joy and the agony, and as much as you're aware of that, when you're working on your own thing you realize that every decision is yours and you have a million choices to make.
"This whole project was incredibly instructive, from beginning to end. I played all the parts, besides a guitar part by Nils Lofgren on one track, and produced the thing. It was a journey backward, in a way, because I utilized the elements of my playing that I'd been using my entire career, from all different points. I played the accordion. I played electric piano. I played organ. I played all the keyboards, so it really was an exploration in style and composition and recording.
"I decided to call it Out of the Box because the piano is a big box, an accordion is a squeeze box and all those keyboard instruments are basically boxes because they're cases with strings and hammers in them. And since it was my first record it was like, 'Here I am, out of the box.'"
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