Doing the B Street Shuffle
Doing the B Street Shuffle
A Q&A with Willie Forte
Of the B Street Band
By Geoff Gehman
In 1973 Willie Forte had a life-changing experience in Joe Maddon’s Dodge Dart. The former high-school football teammates were cruising their native Hazleton when Maddon popped in an eight-track cassette of the second album from a New Jersey musician he thought Forte would dig. Forte was hooked for good when he heard the first track, a tires-screeching, switchblades-flashing, calliope-crashing, rambling rumble called “The E Street Shuffle” written by and starring—who else?—Bruce Springsteen.
Today, Maddon is the very innovative, very successful manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. His good friend Forte is the founding keyboardist, vocalist and very busy manager-agent-publicist of the B Street Band, the longest-running, most-heralded group dedicated to playing Springsteen’s tunes.
Over 34 years Forte and his comrades have performed all over and off the map. There have been parties with Bruce lookalikes; gigs with Clarence Clemons, the late saxophonist in Springsteen’s E Street Band; opening slots for the Boss’ final shows at the now-demolished Spectrum in Philadelphia, one of his favorite venues. The B Streeters have been especially prominent this year, playing before Philadelphia Eagles home games and rocking up the second inaugural ball of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the state’s highest-ranking Springsteenian.
On Dec. 27 the B Street Band will dose the Mauch Chunk Opera House with Bruce Juice. During a recent telephone chat from his home in Jersey, Forte discussed other life-changing experiences: conquering Springsteen-loving clubs at the Jersey Shore; turning non-Springsteen fans into fans; playing a party at Fenway Park at the suggestion of the Boss himself.
Q: What was the first Springsteen song that grabbed you and wouldn’t let you go?
A: It was 1973, and I was riding around Hazleton in Joe Maddon’s Dodge Dart. He popped in this eight track and said: “You’ve got to listen to this guy–he’s from New Jersey.” The first song I heard was “The E Street Shuffle” and I remember thinking that Bruce sounded a bit like Bob Dylan; he definitely sounded like he was from Jersey. I also thought to myself: wow, this band is kinda like Blood, Sweat & Tears but with a very edgy side. At the time I was in a band that played the edgier, heavier side of classic rock: Grand Funk Railroad; King Crimson; the Allman Brothers; Three Dog Night; this group called Blood Rock.
I said to Joe: “It’s kind of tough stuff, a little different from the classic rock we do.” Joe said: “You’ve got to get your band to do it.”
Without Bruce’s music I don’t think I would have made it through all those excruciating days playing on the road. There are just tons of stories. Hitchhiking to a job from Pennsylvania to New Jersey because your car broke down. Living in fleabag hotels. Motor homes burning up. Houses burning down. Warming up your Hammond organ by turning on an electric heater under it.
In ‘78 I finally left the road, came back to Scranton and joined a band led by a guy who also liked Springsteen.
Q: That guy was drummer Bob Chipak, who died from cancer in 2007. Do you have any favorite memories of Bob in action? What did he do for you and what did you do for him?
A: What I got from Chip was doing the right thing. He made sure we had the right equipment, the right crew, that everything was consistent. I think what Chip got from me was my vision. I thought the Springsteen thing could be bigger, that it was a cult thing that was hidden, and Chip said: If you want to run with that, I’m with you. I knew that to be successful we had to keep hammering away at the Jersey Shore, that it couldn’t just be a place to escape from Pennsylvania. He bought into my plan of prolonging the life of a musician and making a living off music.
We were both Pennsylvania musicians who found a love of the Jersey Shore together. We were trying to break into a scene already full of Jersey and Philly bands. We had a little truck and a little PA and we were going to take anything that came along. One way or another we were going to conquer the state.
Q: What was the tribute-band landscape like back in 1980?
A: There were basically no tribute bands back then. There was “Beatlemania” on Broadway, there were bad Elvis acts, and there was one Doors band, Crystal Ship, from North Jersey; I remember seeing their advertisements. My band, Star, was very popular; we played classic rock ’n’ roll around Jersey, Hazleton and Allentown. When I went to venues and told them we were changing over to Springsteen, they said: “Really? Good luck.” Not one place would hire us, not even the Stone Pony [a ground-zero club for Springsteenians in Asbury Park, N.J.].
So I went to a guy in my hometown named Booty Beltrami who owned coal mines. I asked him to loan me some money to promote one show and rent the club and do the advertisements. If it bombed, I’d be out 10 grand.
Well, the gig turned out to be very successful. We played for a big crowd, around 2,000. It was May 19, 1980–a Tuesday night—in Asbury Park. We were definitely helped by these one-minute spots we bought on radio stations in Philly and New York.
Fast forward to 1981. I’m attending my first Bruce shows, on the “River” tour, at the Spectrum. I’m next to a woman who turns out to be Bruce’s mother. I tell her about my band and she says: “I heard your ads on the radio.” When those words came out of her mouth, you could have lifted me up to the ceiling.
Q: You were pretty successful pretty quickly. You filled Jersey clubs. You played live with Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band’s saxophonist and Bruce’s main man. At one point in the early ’80s you even earned more money than the E Street guys. So how weird was that?
A: You want to hear a great story? For years one of the only E Street Band members I had never met was [bassist] Garry Talent. I heard that he was upset with us over our success in the early days. I actually recorded with some Asbury musicians at his studio and I said to myself: I’m not going to introduce myself to him.
So two years ago last June here we are in a Jersey bar, the Headliner, and [former E Street drummer] Vini [“Mad Dog”] Lopez was with me. We were going to play to raise money for an original guy who had played bass with Vini, Danny [Federici, late E Street keyboardist] and Bruce. Garry comes in and Vini asks me: “Do you want to say hello to him?” I say: “No, no.” Vini says: “Go ahead.” So I got the nerve and went up to Garry and said: “I’m Willie from the B Street Band, which used to be Backstreets. Listen, I just want to say whatever we did that may have rubbed you the wrong way, I apologize. I never meant you hard feelings.”
And Garry says: “Listen, I want to tell you something: it was nothing personal about your band. [Back in the early ’80s] I’m home, I’m broke, Clarence is running around with you at the Jersey Shore, you’re packing clubs, and I asked [Springsteen manager] Jon Landau: ‘What’s going on here?’” He goes right into it, like it happened last week and not 30 years before. I can’t believe it had stuck in his craw all that time.
I was so glad to hear that; it was such a relief. So I ask Garry: “Can I get a picture?” And then: “Garry, you want to come up and play with us?” That night he played 40 minutes with us, three inches from me, so I could tell him what we were doing. It was a gas.
Q: Springsteen fans are known for being off the chart when it comes to supporting their guy. That means that you must have played for some pretty insanely dedicated folks. Any only-in-Springsteen-land scenes that come to mind—besides playing for 150 wedding guests dressed up as Bruce?
A: We performed at the memorial service of a brother of Tom Natelli, who is a client and a good friend of ours. There were just three of us: the lead singer [Glenn Stuart, a band member since 1991], the lead guitarist [Steve Baranian, a band member since 1981] and myself. Tom flew us to the service. We played acoustically and we also performed with this country singer, Maggie Rose, who’s pretty big right now.
Tom is a very generous, good-hearted, unpretentious guy. We first met him 14 years ago, when we played his 40th-birthday party. Now here’s a guy who has everything in life but the one thing he wanted to do was to learn to play an instrument and perform the music that he loves onstage. So I told him: Why don’t you get a guitar and learn the acoustic thing and play with us? And it actually happened. He’s been playing onstage with us for 10 years, including three weeks ago in Atlantic City. We gave him that opportunity.
Q: Tribute bands have boomed over the 34 years you’ve been running your tribute band; the Dead and the Doors are among many groups with multiple emulators. Have you been approached for advice and, if so, what have you advised?
A: I think that sometimes tribute bands miss the point. They’re trying to get the artist down so well that they forget the artist’s original spirit. When we started, E Street was a good bar band, and that‘s what we were emulating. We’re proud that over the years we added our own flavors and tastes and impressions of what Bruce did to the music that turned us onto the music that we love. We’re proud that we’ve kept the music pure, that we turned down a Las Vegas firm that asked us to hire a black saxophonist so we could have a Clarence Clemons type. We’re proud that people who didn’t like Springsteen became fans of his music because of us.
Q: You’ve redefined “tribute band.” That’s a tribute to you.
A: I never looked at it that way; you may be right. I don’t think any group should say they’re the No. 1 Springsteen tribute band in the world. I think of us as the little android that circled the big planet. And wherever the big planet went, we were always caught in the gravitational pull.
Q: Are there any Springsteen songs you started out not liking and now like?
A: “American Land” is one that comes to mind. We were playing a party upstairs in Fenway Park; the client was a vice president of an IBM-like company. The client’s wife asked us if we would perform with a friend of theirs, Ken Casey, the singer of the punk band Dropkick Murphys. Casey asked us if we would play “Badlands” and “American Land.” So we learned “American Land” and we had so much fun playing it, and the response was so big, we decided to keep it around.
A little side note: I asked the client’s wife: “How did you hear about us?” She said: “Well, Ken Casey recommended you.”
“I don’t know Ken Casey; how does he know me?”
“Well, he doesn’t know you. He asked Bruce.”
Q: Is there a question you’re dying for Springsteen to answer? Like: “Why did you spend so much goddamned time slaving over Clemons’ sax solo in ‘Jungleland’’?
A: I guess my question would be along those lines: “If you had to do the ‘Born to Run’ album over again, would you do it differently?” I’ll tell you, it was excruciatingly painful for me to see the DVD [about the marathon making of ”Born to Run”]. If I had been the keyboard player in that band, I don’t know if I could have handled all those hours and all that pressure.
Q: I would have thrown bricks at Bruce before I left the band for good.
A: Watching the DVD definitely spoiled the recording experience for me. I take my hat off to those guys [in the E Street Band]; I just don’t have the discipline to put in all those hours in the studio. I’m much more comfortable playing live.
Q: You’ve had a banner year in 2013, landing gigs with the Philadelphia Eagles and Gov. Chris Christie. So what else is on your bucket list?
A: Well, one guy I want to mention is James Allen, the head of the board of Hard Rock International. He became a supporter of ours 30 years ago, when he was learning to be a chef in a little club in Margate, N.J. Since then he’s become one of our biggest fans. He brought Clarence [Clemons] to see us in Florida before Clarence died; that night we sat with Clarence and his wife until 3 in the morning.
I’ll tell you the truth: Jimmy’s one of the reasons I’ve been playing this long. He says he won’t rest until he gets Bruce onstage with us. If that happens, that will probably be my last act. That’s when I’ll retire and go into a new field.
Willie Forte: The Scoop
He played football in Hazleton with his good friend Joe Maddon, now manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. Quarterback Maddon was protected by Forte, a 5-foot-4 guard who doubled as middle linebacker. “Let me tell you, I was the toughest guy you’d ever want to meet,” says Forte. “I was so tough, teams were out to get me. I’m still tough, only now I protect the stage.”
In 1981 he spent $180 on a birthday cake with an icing rendition of the cover of Springsteen’s album “Born to Run.” Then he delivered the gift to Springsteen’s home, which turned out to be a trailer. Shooed off by Springsteen’s girlfriend, he left the present on Springsteen’s pickup truck. The cake was donated, he learned, to a children’s hospital.
Max Weinberg, the E Street Band’s longtime drummer, hired Forte and his B Streeters to play at the elementary-school graduation party of his son Jay, a drummer who has guested with the E Street Band.
He has played before Tampa Bay Ray preseason games at the request of Maddon, whose favorite B Street Springsteen numbers include “Jungleland” and “Spirit in the Night.”
He’s not impressed by “Thunder Crack,” for many years one of Springsteen’s most popular bootlegged songs. “I know it pops and that there are great improvisational lines for a guitarist, but it’s never really resonated with me as a keyboard player. I even played it with [former Springsteen drummer] Vini Lopez and I’m still not impressed.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call. He can’t wait for the night when he hears Springsteen perform “Wages of Sin.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.