Jersey Shore-raised keyboardist and guitarist David Sancious [pronounced SAN-chez] has always been one to defy musical categories. Perhaps that’s why he’s been so successful as a sideman, accompanying the likes of Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, Eric Clapton, Sting, Seal, Santana, and Natalie Merchant on stage and in the recording studio. He had the good fortune to launch his career with New Jersey’s rock poet laureate, Bruce Springsteen, but he’s taken his music so far beyond the early years of Springsteen’s E Street Band. He performs on Saturday, December 5, at the Record Collector in Bordentown.
Sancious was born in 1953 in Asbury Park but his family moved to Belmar when he was six. He began studying classical piano at six, impressed by his mother’s sheer virtuosity on the instrument. He began teaching himself guitar as a nine-year-old.
It was Sancious who grew up on E Street in Belmar, and it was the occasional rehearsal at Sancious’ parents’ house on E Street for which the famed E Street Band is named.
“The whole thing has been exploited to become a bit of a myth,” Sancious says in a phone interview from his home in Woodstock, New York, where he’s been based since the 1970s. “We didn’t regularly rehearse at my mom’s house. We did occasionally, when we didn’t have anywhere else to go, so there were three or four times when my mom let us use her place to rehearse. But we also used Tinker’s [Carl West’s] surfboard factory and all kinds of other places in Asbury Park and Belmar to rehearse.”
Sancious’ earliest musical memories are in his parents’ home. The youngest of three boys, he soaked up musical knowledge from various record collections. His father, an engineer at Fort Monmouth, was passionate about jazz, while his mother, a public school teacher, liked classical music. Both older brothers introduced him to a variety of rock and classic blues music and eventually avant-garde jazz.
“Then I came along and developed my own tastes in music as well. My dad used to take me to clubs to hear all kinds of music; it wasn’t mostly jazz or anything. It was a very diverse musical environment,” he says, adding that several years after he began playing classical piano, he also became passionate about boogie-woogie blues and early rock ‘n’ roll. “I was just naturally exposed to all kinds of music, and I found I liked it all instantly.
“My family were, equally in their own way, a big influence on me, in that they shared their interests with me and they all found time to spend time with me. I just sort of soaked it all up,” he continues, adding one brother is a software designer and the other an industrial design architect.
He began playing piano in the summer of 1958, after the family had moved to Belmar, and by the time he was nine, he and a group of friends would perform at various public functions, including the occasional nightclub. “Because our parents were so supportive of us, we were able to play in some interesting places by the time I was in my early teens,” he says.
During the time that Springsteen was emerging as a regional and then national act in the early ’70s, Sancious was also signed by Epic/Columbia Records to record for the label with his own band, Tone. His innovative keyboard playing can be heard on Springsteen’s first three albums, “Greetings from Asbury Park,” “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle,” and Springsteen’s breakthrough album, “Born to Run.”
Sancious says his mid-’70s albums with Tone are the sum result of his various influences from the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, and classical music. Tone was formed in 1974, while he was living in Richmond, Virginia. That group recorded two records for Columbia and another two for Arista Records. After being asked to work with a record producer in Woodstock, NY, he relocated there. Through the 1970s, ’80s, and into the ’90s, he remained busy as a session man, playing on recordings by other artists and frequently going on tour with them. Earlier this year, he was on tour in Japan with ground-breaking British guitarist Jeff Beck.
“People tend to want to compartmentalize you, but really, all these influences were at work: jazz, rock and roll, and classic R&B, as well as classical music,” he says.
Of his time sleeping on the floor at [Springsteen’s first manager] Tinker’s surfboard factory in Asbury Park and other friends’ houses in and around Asbury Park during the infancy of the E Street Band, Sancious says so much has been written about that period by various Springsteen biographers, it’s hard for readers to get the right impression about Springsteen or any of his faithful band mates, including drummer Vini Lopez, who was asked to leave the band after a dispute with Springsteen’s [second] manager about the paltry sums they were paid as sidemen.
“So much time has gone by from those days, the early ’70s,” Sancious says, “and now people have written many books about it. When we were going through it, the last thing we were thinking about was how wonderful we all were! A friend just gave me as a present — the latest book on Bruce [“Runaway Dream”], and it’s just amazing, I read this stuff and it’s all like folklore now, but it’s a little piece of your life. We didn’t think we were special in any way, we were just doing what we loved.
He first met Springsteen when he was 15 years old, at the Upstage Coffee House on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park. “I didn’t do solo records for a number of years, I just went on tours with people,” he says of the late 1970s and ‘80s, “and then I did a lot of touring with Bruce. There were a lot of versions of his band that were around years before Columbia Records got involved; the nationwide touring started after he got his deal with Columbia. But initially, in the early ’70s, we were popular in Richmond, Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston,” he says. “That’s a portion of my life but I’ve got whole other dimensions in my life, and I’ve done a whole lot of other stuff in my life besides playing with Bruce.”
Interestingly, for a man so well-spoken, lucid, and illustrative in his comments, Sancious reveals he dropped out of high school to move to Richmond while he continued to tour with Springsteen. “I’d had the experience of being down in Richmond with Bruce, and I decided I liked it,” he says. An A&R representative from Columbia Records showed up at a Springsteen show one night at New York’s Bottom Line nightclub to inquire about signing Sancious to a contract of his own with Columbia. He was offered free studio time to record the beginnings of his first album with Tone. “That was the beginning of my leaving Bruce and starting my own thing,” he says.
“Back in the 1970s if you wanted to record music, it was a pretty elaborate process. This was way before the days of personal computers. Back then it was often on 8-track. I remember we recorded in the only 16-track studio in the state of Virginia.” He was accompanied on his first formal demo tape for Columbia Records by his longtime friends, Jersey shore-area drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter and current E Street band bassist Garry Tallent.
Later in the 1970s, his A&R man, Tom Werman, called Sancious to say Columbia Records had gotten a telegram from Peter Gabriel. “He said he was leaving [progressive rock group] Genesis, and he asked if I wanted to record with him on his next album. Then, some years later, I went on tour with him,” Sancious says of his earliest work as a sideman and accompanist to musicians other than Springsteen.
Work with Gabriel in England led to work with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Seal, Santana and Sting. How did all this happen? “Basically, I got phone calls. I did solo records with my group, Tone, and they heard some of those records. But when the phone rings and it’s somebody like Peter Gabriel or Jack Bruce or Jeff Beck or Stanley Clark, I basically always say ‘yes’ to whatever they want to do.”
At the December 5 Record Collector performance Sancious will be accompanied by a percussionist also based in the Woodstock area, Joe Bonadio. “We met several years ago during a recording session for Martin Sexton,” Sancious says, “and we seemed to have a fantastic chemistry in improvising together. It’s really a kind of special connection and energy you have; you don’t get this with every musician you sit down with,” he adds, noting he’s played with some of the best drummers in the world, “but you don’t always get that connection.”
Sancious says his live shows defy easy categorization. “I just find that categorization moves everyone further away from what is happening; I don’t identify myself as a jazz musician; I never have and I never will. You either transcend your identity or you find a way to include all the elements of your identity.”
What can the audience expect? “I’m fortunate that I can go across several genres of music, and I do have a pretty broad range in several genres, so these categories of music, they mean nothing. Just say it’s going to be a night of original music. I’m just a guy who’s written some original music but don’t expect traditional jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, or R&B from me. You can expect original music played by two very confident and sensitive musicians. And yes, I’ll be bringing my guitar.”
David Sancious, the Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, December 5, 7:30 p.m. From Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. $15 in advance; $20 at the door. 609-324-0880 or www.the-record-collector.com.