Q&A: Roy Bittan – Bruce Springsteen's secret weapon

Roy Bittan with Bruce Springsteen
Roy Bittan with The Boss (Image credit: Kevin Mazur \/ Getty Images)

New Yorker Roy Bittan has built an illustrious career as pianist/keyboard player for the likes of David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Chicago, Peter Gabriel, Ian Hunter, Meat Loaf, Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger. But his most enduring collaborator is Bruce Springsteen, with whom he’s played as a central member of his E Street Band since 1974. Says Springsteen: “Roy’s sound, beginning on Born to Run, is still the sound that many people relate to - along with Clarence [Clemons]’s sax - as the signature sound of the E Street Band. An amazing musician.” Bittan is currently in the midst of Springsteen’s The River 2016 tour, a huge sweep across the US and Europe that entails 65 dates over seven months…

How’s The River tour going so far?

It’s really been a fantastic experience for us. This is really the first time that we’ve had a static setlist, because Bruce generally makes up a show as we go along. Usually, even though he’ll write a setlist, he pretty much abandons it after a couple of songs. So to do a 20-song list every night has really been a different thing for us. We’re all enjoying doing it and we’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the songs.

Now that you’ve revisited The River after all this time, do you appreciate the album in a different way?

Definitely. It’s 35 years later and I find that in playing the songs I’m sometimes surprised at what I created on the piano back then. I’m also finding moments where I realise my exuberance and youth created something, whereas today my experience would maybe make do me something else. So it’s been fascinating from that standpoint. Also, a lot of the songs we really haven’t played very much over the years. It’s lovely to revisit them and go back to some stuff that’s been on a shelf for a long time.

Can you give me an example?

Well, Point Blank is quite a great piece for me, in particular. It’s a very slow, piano-oriented song and my melodic motif and the call-response with Bruce was certainly a high point for me during that record.

The River tour of 1980 and ’81 marked the beginning of the Bruce we know now: marathon shows, the onset of superstardom, conquering Europe as well as the US. Were you aware that it was a landmark tour at the time?

For us, every tour is a landmark tour. It’s just the way we’ve been. Every album that he’s written, especially in those days, was so heavy and important for us as a band. And each time we went out we had these deep songs to play. I’ve always joked with Bruce that every time we’ve come back from a tour it’s changed our lives in some way. It’s hard to maybe put your finger on what it is exactly, but I can almost mark periods in my life as a result of tours.

You joined the E-Street Band in 1974, at the beginning of the sessions for Born To Run. Given that Bruce wrote most of the album on piano, was that a baptism of fire for you?

When I found out that Bruce was looking for a piano player, I jumped at it. Talk about a fortuitous moment to join a band. There was no question that it was certainly a big job to go in and try to interpret these songs, to make them come to life and magnify them. But I was just the right guy at that particular time, I think. Everything that I’d done in my personal career sort of led me to that moment.

Can you give me an idea of the nature of the bond between you and Bruce? You were the only member of the E-Street Band that he brought back for 1992’s Human Touch and the subsequent tour…

It’s an interesting question. From a creative point of view there was something about our musical backgrounds and the fact that my piano-playing was very much in tune with him. If Bruce could really play the piano well I’d like to think that he would play somewhat like I do. Davy Sancious [Springsteen’s previous pianist] was and still is a phenomenal player, but he was more jazz-oriented. He really didn’t come from the rock-blues-R&B place where I always felt my heart was. What happened really, when I was the only guy left for Human Touch, was that Bruce and I were living quite close to each other in LA.

We went out to dinner one night after we were all disbanded and he happened to ask what I was doing. I said: “Well, I’ve been writing some tracks.” He said, “Let me hear something.” So I took him into my little home studio and I played him Roll Of The Dice [which ended up on Human Touch]. It was a track that I’d created on my computer, with a drum machine and everything, but it really felt like an E Street Band song. It was right out of the gate. The only thing that was missing was the vocal. So I played him that and a couple of other things and he wound up asking me to give him a cassette of it. He called me early the next morning and told me that he’d written lyrics to the three songs. After I’d come up with something like that, somewhere in the back of his mind maybe he felt that it was comforting to have me there. Maybe he thought he could utilise me in the context that he was now going to move to.

What about the experience of hearing him put lyrics to Roll Of The Dice?

It was thrilling. To go from ‘OK guys, we’re never gonna play together again’ to all of a sudden there he is singing on a track that I’d recorded in my home studio. It was shocking and thrilling and I wasn’t quite sure where it was going to go. But certainly I was overjoyed to be a part of any of it.

Was it emotional being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014?

So many of my idols are in there, so to be included was a huge honour and a beautiful thing. It was a little bittersweet considering the circumstances, that we didn’t get inducted in ’97, but I think Bruce made a fabulous induction speech that night and really explained it in an honest way. It was a strange combination of things, of rules and emotional states at the time, so what can I say? All in all I’m really glad that it happened, for everybody’s sake. I think that we’re quite a band and everybody in the band is amazing. And we’re only getting better.

Away from Bruce, how did you end up playing on David Bowie’s Station To Station?

I hooked up with David in ’75 or ’76, because his guitarist, Earl Slick, was from New York and he and I were good friends. We’d played a bunch together in New York City when we were just starting out. Strangely enough, my band was playing in Los Angeles when he was recording there.

Slick was staying at the Sunset Marquis and I walked in, stepped out onto my little balcony, looked across the pool and there was Slick, standing on his balcony. He shouts over to me: “I don’t believe you’re here! David was just talking about you.” David needed a keyboard player and I guess he was saying to Slick: “Hey, those guys are going to be in town. Do you know Roy Bittan?” And Slick said: “Yeah, but I don’t know how to get in touch with him.” Then there I was! So he called David immediately and David said to tell me to come down to the studio. I said OK, but didn’t know what time. Then I got a call about 1:30 in the morning. I went down to Cherokee Studios and the rest is kind of history.

What’s your memory of those sessions?

We talked for quite a bit, then David played me something that they’d recorded, TVC15, and said: “I hear a Professor Longhair thing. Do you know him?” Like I said, my roots are really blues, rock and R&B, so I said: “Not only do I know his music, but I was just in Houston, Texas and saw him in a roadhouse there two weeks ago.” He kinda flipped out at that, so I went in, they played the track and I overdubbed it. I can’t remember much else about those sessions!

Bruce Springsteen: The Ties That Bind: The River Collection

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.