The day before founding E Street Band keyboard player Danny Federici died of melanoma at New York’s Sloan-Kettering hospital April 17th, his entire band – including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons and Steven Van Zandt – gathered around his bed to say goodbye. “All of us were singing songs,” drummer Max Weinberg says. “Danny was taking it in.” For the 58-year-old Federici – who formed the E Street Band with Springsteen 40 years ago in Asbury Park, New Jersey – it was a fitting send-off. “We grew up together,” Springsteen said in a statement. “He was the most wonderfully fluid keyboard player and a pure natural musician. I loved him very much.”
Federici left his mark on dozens of classic Springsteen songs – from the boardwalk-style accordion on 1973’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and his organ solo on 1980’s “Hungry Heart” through his haunting coda to 2002’s “You’re Missing.” “Danny was the glue that held the E Street Band together,” Weinberg says. “He was an unrestrained personality that created a wildness in the music. We used to call it the special sauce of the E Street Band.”
Growing up in Flemington, New Jersey, Federici was a music prodigy. “At the funeral service, one of Danny’s childhood friends told a story about him coming into a sixth-grade assembly with a roadie carrying his accordion,” Weinberg says. By 1968, Federici had taken up the organ, playing in the Downtown Tangiers Band with early E Street drummer Vini Lopez – with whom he discovered Springsteen. “One night me and Danny walked into the Upstage Club in Asbury Park, and Bruce was playing,” Lopez says. “We had our mouths open the first time we saw him. We went up and said, ‘Want to jam? I play drums, and he plays keyboards.’ We hit it off.”
The group – originally called Child and later Steel Mill – became the E Street Band in 1972. In 1975, Born to Run turned Springsteen into a worldwide superstar, with Federici and the rest of the E Street Band along for the ride. The next 14 years were a blur of sold-out stadiums and platinum records, but in 1989 Springsteen disbanded the group. Federici moved to California to seek work scoring movies. Springsteen re-formed the E Street Band for several new songs in 1995, and four years later, the reunion became permanent. “The band coming together proved we had an audience who cared about us,” Federici told Backstreets magazine in 2001. “It added a level of confidence again to the members of the band. People said, ‘Yeah, I remember those guys. What they do is valid.’ ”
In 2005, Federici was diagnosed with melanoma. “When he got sick, his first thought was to start an organization,” says Weinberg. “He faced the disease with real dignity.” (For more information, go to thedannyfedericimelanomafund.com) While undergoing treatment, Federici played on Springsteen’s 2007 album, Magic, and on the first leg of the tour behind the album. Fans were not told of his condition. “Playing with the E Street Band is an emotional experience all the time,” says Weinberg. “It took on an added depth and poignancy with the various stages of Dan’s illness.” Federici was still a dynamo onstage – especially when the band broke out “Kitty’s Back,” which features his signature organ part. When the group hit Europe in November, Federici stayed behind to receive treatment; Seeger Sessions keyboardist Charlie Giordano subbed in for the tour.
In March, Springsteen and Weinberg convinced Federici to fly to Indianapolis for his final performance with the E Street Band. Appearing halfway through the show, Federici joined the group for eight songs. “On the flight back, he told me it was a transforming night for him,” Weinberg says. “He really felt the love from all of us and also the audience.”
This story is from the May 15, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.