Steven Van Zandt Biography

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Birth Name: Steven Van Zandt
Born: 11/22/1950
Birth Place: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Born Steven Lento on Nov. 22, 1950 in Winthrop, MA, he took his surname from his stepfather, William Van Zandt, who moved the family to Middletown Township, NJ in 1957. Like many young men and women of his generation, Van Zandt was consumed by the idea of starting his own rock-n-roll band after seeing the Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971). He found a compatriot in Bruce Springsteen, a fellow Italian-American whose passion for music had spurred him to form several bands in the Asbury Park, New Jersey area. Van Zandt and Springsteen would perform together in an ever-changing array of bands between the late '60s and the mid-1970s, including Springsteen's Steel Mill, Steve Van Zandt and Friends, Friendly Enemies, The Sundance Blues Band and The Bruce Springsteen Band. At the same time, Van Zandt, who was frequently billed as "Miami Steve Van Zandt," was regularly performing with another singer from New Jersey, John Lyon, with whom he would form the long-running band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and as a sideman for The Dovells, the Philadelphia group responsible for the million-selling "Bristol Stomp" single.

While performing with the Asbury Jukes, Van Zandt was tapped by Springsteen to aid him during the recording of his third album, Born to Run (1975). The singer had released two previous albums, both critical hits but commercial failures, and the stakes were high to produce a hit record. Springsteen was struggling with arrangements for the horn parts on an ambitious track called "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," and called on Van Zandt for assistance. A walking encyclopedia of rock, soul and blues, Van Zandt not only created the song's stately horn intro, but also its signature guitar line. "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" was one of the strongest tracks on Born to Run, which provided him with his breakthrough into mainstream radio and the beginning of his long and storied career. Van Zandt was subsequently made a member of Springsteen's group, The E Street Band, and would serve as a trusted advisor and producer on several of his most significant albums. On stage, he cut an imposing figure, his head swathed in elaborate scarves or hats and his face a mask of menace with a hint of dangerous glee. The headgear was equal parts necessity and fashion choice: a childhood car accident had left him with a head injury that drastically altered his hairline.

While performing with the E Street Band and sharing co-producer credits with Springsteen on 1980's The River, Van Zandt maintained his ties with Southside Johnny, producing a four-song demo that landed them a record contract at Epic. He subsequently produced their first three albums, including their debut, I Don't Want to Go Home (1976). By 1979, however, his commitments to Springsteen and other artists, including seminal '60s soul rocker Gary U.S. Bonds, demanded that he sever ties with the Asbury Jukes. But after completing work on Born in the U.S.A. (1984), Van Zandt split from Springsteen to pursue a solo career. He launched a new group, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, which released five albums between 1980 and 1989. Though never particularly successful from a chart perspective, Van Zandt's work with the Disciples of Soul showcased a growing interest in political issues, especially the conservative politics of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

These concerns would find their most effective voice in Van Zandt's 1985 project, Artists United Against Apartheid. Comprised of an all-star lineup of rock, rap and jazz musicians, the activist group released the single "Sun City," which urged fellow performers to boycott the eponymous location, a South African casino that hosted popular world acts during the height of apartheid. The song reached the Top 40 in America and shed considerable negative light on the white-dominated government of South Africa, as well as the Reagan administration's policy of tolerance towards apartheid. It would be Van Zandt's most significant solo effort, though he would continue to release albums, both with the Disciples of Soul and on his own until the early 1990s.

In 1995, Van Zandt reunited with Springsteen and the E Street band for a handful of new tracks for the Greatest Hits. Four years later, the reunion became permanent when Springsteen officially revived the group for a massive, yearlong tour. Though no longer the band's lead guitarist, he and Clarence Clemons were unquestionably its most animated members, with Van Zandt serving as Springsteen's tough, cool right arm while Clemens remained his untouchable, soul-driven left. Van Zandt's trademark sneer and B-movie menace had deepened over the years, and that persona, as well as his knack for penning clever, highly informed speeches, made him a popular guest at music industry tributes and award shows. After writer-producer David Chase saw Van Zandt at a televised event, he was inspired to create the role that would introduce the singer to an even wider audience than through his music career.

Van Zandt was cast as Silvio Dante, the cagey, trusted consigliore to mob boss Tony Soprano on Chase's iconic "Sopranos" series. Van Zandt frequently told interviews that Silvo's colossal pompadour wig did much of the acting for him, but in truth, he offered a smart, measured performance that balanced the comic aspects of the character's personality - in particular, his penchant for imitating Al Pacino - with his role as sage advisor and voice of reason in the violent, testosterone-charged world of the Soprano family. For many episodes, his real-life wife, Maureen, who played Silvio's wife, Gabrielle Dante, joined Van Zandt. Silvio was one of the show's core characters, and would last with "The Sopranos" from its premiere episode to its controversial conclusion, which saw him hospitalized after a botched assassination attempt by a rival crew.

In 2002, Van Zandt became the host of Little Steven's Underground Garage, a weekly syndicated radio show that celebrated his undying love for garage rock, punk, R&B and psychedelic music. The show became exceptionally popular with listeners, and spawned two satellite radio networks: Underground Garage, which featured 24-hour broadcasts of the radio show's core music and guest DJs like Joan Jett, producer Kim Fowley and others; and Outlaw Country, a roots-oriented country station. In 2006, he added record label owner to the expanding Underground Garage empire with Wicked Cool Records, with the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, coming the following year. Its first initiative was Rock and Roll High School, an education initiative that examined world events from the perspective of rock's development through the decades. Van Zandt was later named as director of the music selection committee for the hit video game Rock Band, which put him in charge of finding new music for the game. Though Van Zandt frequently denied interest in more acting roles, he was top-billed in 2012's "Lilyhammer" (NRK), a Norwegian comedy series about an American mobster (Van Zandt) dispatched to rural Norway after testifying against former gang members.

By Paul Gaita