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E Street’s Roy Bittan on Collaborating with Bowie, Bob Seger, Stevie Nicks

Bruce Springsteen’s keyboardist shares behind-the-scenes stories from his sessions with some of rock’s biggest names

Roy Brittan

Roy Bittan is best known for as a member of the E Street Band, but he has also played with David Bowie, Bob Seger and Stevie Nicks.

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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.

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Roy Bittan performs during the 29th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

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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.'"

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Roy Bittan performs during the 29th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Michael Zorn/FilmMagic/Getty

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."

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Roy Bittan performs during the 29th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Michael Zorn/FilmMagic/Getty

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."

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Roy Bittan performs during the 29th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Michael Zorn/FilmMagic/Getty

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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