We last checked in with Little Steven (Van Zandt) back in early 2018 (FTV: 2-7-18) when we reviewed his second album with his ‘other band’, The Disciples of Soul. We say ‘other band’ because Van Zandt’s name has been more closely associated with his previous work with both Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Bruce Springsteen. The Disciples of Soul began as a side project that put out two albums roughly fifteen years apart, the latest being 2018’s Soulfire. Since we last checked in on him, Little Steven has taken his thirteen piece Disciples band on an 18 month world tour, recorded a soon to be released live album from that tour, and is in the process of wrapping up a new studio album that will up the Disciples’ recorded output to four albums. Surely Little Steven could be a member of the Rolling Stones in that he never sits still long enough to gather any moss. Near the end of 2018, Van Zandt sat down with Blues Music Magazine to clarify why one of the originators of what is termed ‘The New Jersey Sound’ of rock and roll has more recently been rubbing elbows with those in the realm of ‘The Blues’.
About the time the Blues Music Magazine piece on Little Steven came out, I happen to catch a glimpse of a CNN report about a Los Angeles teacher’s strike. Lo and behold, who had linked arms and was marching along with the front line of strikers? Little Steven, of course. This was not surprising when one considers that one of his many projects is an educational foundation (Teach Rock) he founded to reach school kids. Teach Rock provides kids with lessons to help them make a connection between school and the real world. This is no fly-by-night publicity stunt designed to sell more records. Little Steven is as passionate about education as he is music. The aim here is to excite both students and teachers about education via the history of music. The lessons that the Teach Rock Foundation have developed follow state educational objectives so they fit into just about any school curriculum. He very much wants the lessons to reach beyond the standard STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) by making sure that the Arts are included, which would make it a STEAM program. With materials that are applicable to teachers of in many disciplines, the lessons only require users to sign up to the Foundation’s mailing list to use the lesson plans which are distributed free of charge at www.teachrock.org .
Little Steven learned about the blues from bands like The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, John Mayall, and Paul Butterfield, just like a lot of other American kids. As Van Zandt told Blues Blast,
“I never heard of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, or Bo Diddley before that. I didn’t know of any of the ‘50s pioneers. I got turned on by the first Stones album, That’s where I learned about Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters. That led me to the Southside of Chicago. I focused my energies there. That was my main area . . . it’s were the guys who influenced me as a guitar player came from.” Still, he picked up something else from The Rolling Stones about becoming a performing musician: “The coolest thing for me that changed my life was Mick Jagger performing. He’s the only performer I’ve ever seen who didn’t smile. The first time I saw him doing Little Red Rooster without smiling was the coolest thing I’d seen. I realized later that he took it out of show business and showed me that this was a lifestyle, and I thought that was gonna be my lifestyle, my life.” Little Steven may have found his calling, but there were a lot more lessons to be learned along the way. Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon were in many ways pioneers who explored a lot of music while inventing what is now commonly known as ‘The New Jersey Sound’.
According to Van Zandt, they got the idea to be more than just a rock band when they (Little Steven, Southside Johnny, and Bruce Springsteen) visited a nightclub in the backwoods of New Jersey to see the legendary soul singers Sam and Dave. Southside and Little Steven had a revelation that night: “We’re gonna be the white Sam and Dave. We’d add horns, but with rock guitars.” All they needed to do was fine tune the idea and the best way to do that was to play. Van Zandt continued the story: “There had been a storm, and the roof of a club had caved in. They were gonna close at the end of August, so [before they closed the club] they wanted to milk a few more bucks from the summer tourist. We said we’d play for the door, but we’d play what we want. They were closing in three weeks so, as long as they didn’t have to pay us, they didn’t give a (expletive deleted) as long as we brought friends to buy beer [laughs]. We come and do Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and Stax album tracks. The first week, we had 15 people and then 150, then 250, and then they fixed the roof and we ended up playing three nights a week. They expanded the club to a 1,000 people, and we did those three nights for a year or two. That was a hellova residency. That was the Asbury Jukes. Those kinds of residencies are where you really make your bones.”
In previous interviews, Van Zandt has made the point that it this is exactly the kind of dues that too many musicians fail to pay today when they do more promotion on digital platforms than performing in real clubs. It is also the reason why Little Steven got involved with the IBC (International Blues Challenge). It allows him to work with young musicians in workshops around the world. He helped rescue the floundering Notodden Blues School in Norway which has since been rechristened Little Steven’s Blues School. There he meets and works with young Norwegian musicians on what he calls ‘The Five Crafts’. To be a musician, Van Zandt encourages his young players to 1) learn their instrument, 2) analyze their favorite records and pick them apart to see how they are crafted, 3) perform with like minded musicians which will lead them to, 4) understanding music composition and eventually, 5) to an understanding of the recording process. It is the template that certainly worked for his career and other musicians can take their career to whatever level they wish with these tools.
“It’s all about controlling your own destiny as much as you can,” says Van Zandt. “As far as learning your craft, you are in total control of that. You can go in your room and practice and practice until your fingers bleed, You don’t need a lawyer to do that. You don’t need a manager. We can always find a local club or bar with a bad night. That’s consistent all over the world. You go to the guy and say, ‘We’ll take the door, you take the bar, and let us do our thing.’” Little Steven was talking to Blues Blast Magazine was because of his deep held belief that all music is rooted in the blues. One may play other styles, but if you go back and study the origins of different forms of popular music, you always come back to the blues. As he told BBM: “I don’t know who led to who, but to me it was all research about learning my profession. I’d go back and learn where they came from and study Charley Patton, Son House, Rev. Gary Davis. Then Eric Clapton was going on and on about Robert Johnson, I guess I better listen to him. You try and learn from where they were coming from as much as you could even if there was no practical use for it.”
Van Zandt expanded his thoughts on how playing music evolves by using Eric Clapton’s career as an example. Little Steven pointed out that in Clapton’s early work with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and with Cream, he used a different guitar tone on almost every song they recorded. Once he began focusing on singing more and more, Clapton used his voice as the primary vehicle in his songs and the guitar playing became much less varied and he was less concerned about tone (even though he is still a great guitar player). Again Van Zandt returned to the idea that he wasn’t just going to be a musician in a band, he was developing a lifestyle: “To me, pop music is about individuals, and rock ‘n’ roll is about bands. Pop singers were saying, ‘Look at me.’ Bands were communicating friendship, family, and brotherhood.” Van Zandt was not as concerned with following trends as he was with making his lifestyle and extension of his artistic expression.
Before he was ‘Little Steven’, Zandt lived in Asbury Park, New Jersey with John Lyon and another future E-Street band member, Garry Tallent. They learned their instruments via Chess Records made by Little Walter, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. Little Walter’s band, The Jukes, gave them the template for their band name, The Asbury Jukes. ‘Southside Johnny’ took his moniker to honor the Southside of Chicago, home of the Chess sound that they immersed themselves in. ‘Little Steven’ took on his name in honor of his blues music mentor, Little Walter. Before all of this took hold, the teenage Van Zandt related to The Beatles, but, “We couldn’t do that. However, four months later (after The Beatles broke into America), the Rolling Stones came over and they made it look easier. They didn’t have great harmonies, their hair was messed up, and they wore different clothes. I learned all about the blues through the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, and Paul Butterfield.”
Little Steven has been building the Teach Rock program for a decade and has dedicated much time into reaching kids through music. As he explained the program to Blues Blast: “We started writing the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll for schools ten years ago. Music is a nice common ground for teachers to immediately establish a rapport with their students. Instead of saying, ‘Take that IPod out of your ear,’ we say, ‘What are you listening to?’ We have 100 lessons at teachrock.org that teachers can use for free. All the videos and records are properly licensed, and they meet the state standards. Statistics show that if students like one single class or one single teacher, they will go to school. If they come to one class that they like and that class keeps them in school, we want to be that cool class they look forward to.”
During the Disciples’ 2018 tour (called The Soulfire Teacher Solidarity Tour 2018), Little Steven put aside 500 free tickets for teachers and provided a one hour Professional Development workshop explaining how to integrate the Teach Rock program into their schools. It seems that Little Steven does indeed have a passion and vision for the power of music to drive education. We like to think that WOAS-FM has been contributing to the same mission during our 40 year history.
The 2019 Disciples of Soul tour visited Milwaukee this past May. While I would dearly have loved to be in the audience for this show, there were too many loose ends that needed to be wrapped up for our 40th anniversary / birthday party / volunteer appreciation open house that the public is invited to on June 6 from 2:30 to 4:30 pm . Drop by our studios in the OASD building (if you find the library, you will find us) on Parker Avenue. Stop in and have some cake and ice cream with us and look over the scrapbook of photos we have assembled from across the years.
It is hard to believe how fast the time has flown since our last swarray when WOAS hit 30!
Top Piece Video: Little Steven and the DofS doing Forever.