Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well-known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features saxophonist Eddie Manion.
If you say say “Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist” to most rock fans, their minds understandably go to Clarence Clemons or his nephew, Jake Clemons. But in the words of someone very wise, “there is another.” He started playing sax alongside a teenage Springsteen at an Asbury Park club called the Upstage in 1969, a couple years before Clarence Clemons even met Bruce. He guested at various stops on the Born To Run and Born in the USA tours, traveled all over the world with Springsteen on the Tunnel of Love tour, was a key part of the Seeger Sessions project, joined up again with the E Street Band after Clemons’ death in 2012, and plays on Wrecking Ball, High Hopes, Western Stars, and Only the Strong Survive. In fact, he’s on the road with Springsteen and the band right now.
We’re talking about Eddie “Kingfish” Manion. If you’re not familiar with his name, that’s because he’s a quiet, unassuming artist who stays out of the spotlight and lets his work speak for itself. That work also includes a long stint in Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and work with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, Bon Jovi, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Diana Ross, Culture Club, Robert Cray, and many other greats.
“I don’t take what I do lightly,” he tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from his hotel room in Austin, Texas, the day after the E Street Band played the Toyota Center in Houston. “I’m very happy to be doing what I’m doing. I’m proud of Bruce. I’m proud of the band. I’m proud to be from New Jersey. It’s been a good life so far.”
Manion was born in the central New Jersey town of Lakehurst. Like countless musicians of his generation, including Springsteen, his life changed forever when he saw the Beatles play on Ed Sullivan in 1964. “I was 12,” he says. “Girls in the neighborhood would stick their heads out their windows and scream, ‘George, Ringo, John, and Paul!’ Everybody put a band together. It was an exciting time.”
His musical palette expanded a couple years later when he joined the Columbia Record Club and acquired albums by Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, and Sly and the Family Stone. Not long before this, his mother bought him a saxophone and he started playing at school. The instrument was slightly passé in rock at that point, but he didn’t care. “I wish I had grown up in the Fifties, since every song had a sax solo back then,” he says. “The Dave Clark Five had a sax player, thank God. They were the saving grace. The Beatles had a lot of horns too. I got really interested in all the beautiful arrangements that they had with horns, piccolo, and trumpets.”
Manion joined the bands Lazarus and Little Joe and the Kokomos, and played bars up and down the Jersey Shore in the late Sixties and early Seventies, including some informal jam sessions with Bruce. On Aug. 15, 1969, he was playing a gig in Howell Township when word reached him that a giant music festival was taking place in upstate New York. “When we were done with the set, we got in the car and drove out to Woodstock,” he says. “By that time, you didn’t have to have tickets. We just parked the car about two miles away and walked the rest of the way. I remember eating little more than a hot dog all weekend and seeing Blood, Sweat and Tears, Sly and the Family Stone, and Janis Joplin.”
“The last thing I remember,” he continues, “is waking up in the backseat of my car on Monday morning and hearing Jimi Hendrix play ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ The night before, we jumped in a stream to get all the mud off us. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to play up on that big stage.’”
To up the odds of that happening, he enrolled at the Berklee College of Music the next year. The experience sharpened his skills, but he grew weary of life as a struggling musician. “I got kind of tired of buying PA systems and trucks and having the band break up,” he says. “There’s not much money.”
Manion’s second love was photography, so he joined the Navy and went to the U.S. Naval School of Photography. From 1973 to 1975, music receded into the background of his life as he worked as a Navy photographer. “I remember being in the barracks in Beeville, Texas, and looking on the coffee table,” he says. “The newest issues of Time and Newsweek were on it. Bruce Springsteen was on the cover of them both. I was like, ‘I know that guy.’”
Seeing his old associate on the cover of both magazines inspired Manion to leave the Navy and head back to Jersey, sax in hand. It was a decision that quickly brought him to the attention of Southside Johnny and that guy hew knew from the cover of the magazines.
How did you first meet Bruce?
Well, that would be at the Upstage Club. He probably wouldn’t remember me so much, but we jammed there occasionally. I also used to play once in a while with the house band at the Upstage, Margaret and the Distractions. The bass player and organ player were in Lazarus with me. The chief songwriter for Lazarus was Ray Cichon, who actually taught Bruce how to play guitar. Bruce memorialized Ray and his brother Walter in a song called “The Wall.”
What was a typical night like at the Upstage around 1969? Describe the vibe.
The vibe was friendly. The owner, Tom Potter, made it really accommodating to all musicians. He was a nice guy who just took an interest in kids. I remember he was very encouraging. “Oh, what do you play?” “I play sax.” Then he’d go in the back room and get a sax and bring it out if you didn’t have your instrument. “Here’s a sax. Go up and jam.” He was just all for kids and all for music, peace, love and happiness. It was that time, the Woodstock era.
When did you see Bruce after that?
Our band Lazarus used to rehearse at a chicken coop in Howell Township. We were looking for a guitar player, and Bruce came and auditioned one time. I remember him being at rehearsal. We were in a chicken coop with space heaters. Bruce came and played a couple songs, but he didn’t really like us that much. He thought we were too jazzy. We were into bands like Ten Wheel Drive. We did a lot of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago. We had too many jazz chords for Bruce.
We always kind of knew each other, but we weren’t really close friends. We just kind of passed each other. I went to Ocean Country College for a year in 1971. Bruce was going there too. I’d pass him on campus and say, “Hi. How are you doing?” I’d acknowledge him, but we didn’t really talk that much.
Did you ever see Steel Mill or the Bruce Springsteen Band in concert?
I did. I saw Steel Mill. I remember seeing Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons at a club in Seaside Heights in maybe 1972 or 1973. I was blown away. When I heard Clarence for the first time, I was very impressed. I had a lot of respect for him. We had a lot of things in common, people that we admired, like King Curtis, Junior Walker. Those were Clarence’s roots. Those were my roots too.
Did you know Steve Van Zandt, Garry Tallent, Vini Lopez, and David Sancious in those early days?
I didn’t know Steve until I joined Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, which was 1976. When I got out of the Navy, I came back to New Jersey. A friend of mine, Tony Pallagrosi, was a trumpet player. He said, “There’s a band at the Stone Pony looking for horn players. Do you want to audition?” I said, “OK. I’ll check that out.”
I went to the Stone Pony and auditioned for Southside Johnny, and we got the job. It wasn’t much of an audition. We just brought our horns. The fact that we had horns seemed to be the qualifying factor. And so I joined Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in January 1976, when the first album was being released, I Don’t Wanna Go Home. That’s where I met Steve Van Zandt.
Did you remember Southside from the Upstage days?
I do remember jamming with him a few times, but we never really talked. I remember playing with him.
Tell me about the early days of the Jukes. Southside was really bringing back that R&B side to rock that had been absent for a while, especially with his use of the horns.
Yeah. R&B has been my thing. I joined the Jukes in 1976. I was the first baritone sax player to play live with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes as a Miami Horn. I did three albums with them: This Time It’s For Real, Hearts of Stone, and maybe ten others.
Let’s talk about some of the early ones. What was it like working with Steve as a producer on This Time It’s For Real and Hearts of Stone?
The thing about the Jukes at that time, what made that particular band so great — Billy Rush on guitar, Al Berger on bass, Kenny Pentifallo on drums, Kevin Kavanaugh on keyboards, Southside Johnny — was that everybody really listened to Stevie Van Zandt. Whatever he said as producer, people played, exactly. The drummer would play exactly every drum fill Steve would create as producer. They would never deviate whatever from what Steve said to play. That’s why the early Jukes had a particular sound. Every night live, everything was faithful to the recordings.
I love Hearts of Stone. It’s just about a perfect record. Why didn’t these records sell more? What happened?
I don’t know. Steve Popovich signed Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes to Epic Records. Bruce Springsteen was on Columbia Records. I don’t know. Why didn’t it sell? I just don’t think we had the appeal of Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi. There’s a certain charisma… the music was there, but the charisma for the band didn’t really go to another level.
I think anyone that saw it live got it immediately. Those shows were really smokin’.
Oh yeah. The band was great. I don’t know what happened. There certainly was enough money to put into the band. We did all the TV shows. We were presented the right way.
In some ways, I feel like the association with Springsteen hurt as much as it helped. You guys were seen as sort of the kid brother band. It made it hard to get your own identity since he was so damn famous.
Yeah. I think they’re really great songs, but nothing that went over the edge like “Born To Run.” I think we were a little bit ahead of our time.
Bering dropped by Epic must have been a real bummer.
I guess. I don’t know the business end of it. I’m just the guy on the bus that did all the gigs. When a business decision was made, it usually got to me last.
Tell me about making the Gary U.S. Bonds record Dedication.
You had Stevie Van Zandt producing and writing some great songs, some great songs Bruce wrote, like “Dedication.” And “This Little Girl” is just a great song. It’s a tremendous song. That was a hit record.
How did you wind up joining Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul?
Well, I left the Jukes in 1981. It was for a few reasons. I was not happy with the management of the band at the time, David Sonenberg and Al Dellentash. And Diana Ross came to see a Jukes concert, loved the horn section, and asked us to join her band. So I in 1982 I joined the Diana Ross touring band. We toured the United States and Europe in 1982.
What were those shows like? It must have been fun to play her old Supremes songs and her Seventies hits.
That was like going to a school of music in itself. It was a tremendous opportunity to work with her and be exposed to the whole Motown thing, and the Vegas show band. Seeing show bands like Temptations, Four Tops, Jackson Five, you really get an experience of what a good musician is. The conductor in the band was Joe Guercio. He was Elvis Presley’s conductor at the Hilton when Elvis was there in the Seventies. That was a tremendous experience. Playing with Diana meant I met Marvin Gaye in Belgium, right before he died.
Did you play with her at the famous 1983 Central Park concert in the rain?
No. That’s when I left Diana. One of the reason I left the Jukes was because Stevie Van Zandt was recording an album. We were in the process of making Men Without Women. I left Diana Ross in 1982 to join Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul.
I felt like Stevie was the Jukes. I wanted to pretty much do whatever he was doing. If he said, “We’re doing an album and we’re going to do a tour,” I said, “All right. That’s what I got to do.” So I left Diana Ross and then we did a tour with Men Without Women.
You were playing clubs and theaters. What were those shows like?
One day, we’re playing the US Festival to 80,000 people. The next day, we’re playing a small club to 200 people. Next day, we’ll be doing a TV show in Europe called Rockpalast. It was always interesting. We played the El Mocambo room in Toronto, where the Rolling Stones played. We played the Knebworth festival. I just wanted to get back on that big stage, and that’s one thing that I’ve accomplished in my carer.
Steven told me a few years ago that the biggest mistake of his life was leaving the E Street Band.
Looking back, that might be correct. But I have to disagree. There wouldn’t be Men Without Women had he stayed, and that’s such a great record. Recently we made two new albums. After 20 years, the Disciples of Soul got back together. We made Soul Fire and Summer of Sorcery. We made a live album from the Beacon Theater. Had he not left, he maybe wouldn’t have done all the things he did with Darlene Love, writing the Christmas song for Home Alone 2, and producing the things he did. He’s had a great career. I don’t think he would change a thing if he could.
According to the Brucebase, the first time you played with Bruce outside of those early Upstage jams was May 30, 1976 at a Southside show at the Stone Pony that was broadcast on the radio.
That was the Memorial Day broadcast that went out to radio stations all over the country. It was for the release of I Don’t Wanna Go Home. That was the official launch. Bruce, Clarence, and Max all came. Ronnie Spector played with us. Lee Dorsey played with us.
My actual first show with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was in August of 1976 at, I believe, the Carlton Theater in Red Bank. I think it was six nights. These were real Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band shows where we added the Miami Horns. We played five or six songs during the show. That was my first Bruce Springsteen concert.
Why did he decide to add a horn section for those shows?
I think Steve wanted it. It was for “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” and maybe “Something in the Night” and a few others. Then we did a bit of the lawsuit tour in 1977. The Miami Horns did the first couple of weeks of that. We had commitments with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes then, so we actually got a horn section from Philadelphia to take our place. They finished out the tour. Then we came out for a few shows on the Born in the USA tour. After that, I didn’t work with Bruce until the Tunnel of Love tour.
Tell me about being invited onto the Tunnel of Love tour.
Steve Van Zandt was not in the band at the time. Bruce wanted to do something different for this tour. He decided on using horns. There weren’t any horn parts on the record, but when it came down to the live show, Bruce decided to add horns. They actually had Little Steven help arrange the horns. I remember [Springsteen’s longtime assistant] Terry Magovern had us at a Marine Reserve unit since he was connected with the Navy. He was a Navy Seal. He was one of the scuba divers that when a spaceship landed in the ocean, like Apollo 13, he was down there to lift out the astronauts.
Terry was a good friend. He had Bruce rehearse at this marine barracks in Red Bank, off the Parkway. We spent two weeks rehearsing horn parts and we didn’t know if we were going to do the tour or not. One day, after two weeks of rehearsal, Bruce went, “OK, you guys are doing the tour.” I remember we went out into the parking lot and it was snowing. We started jumping up and down, “Yah! We’re doing the tour!”
It was a great tour. The band was on fire. Clarence was in his prime. It was incredible. It was the most energy, the most amazing show. Everybody was at 100 percent. We’re still at 100 percent. That’s what scares me. The shows in the last week or so were on fire. There’s so much energy.
Bruce said that he wanted people on different sides of the stage for the Tunnel of Love tour. Things had become very ritualized and familiar, and he wanted it to feel different.
I guess that was the idea. It certainly had a different vibe.
How did you work with Clarence in terms of dividing up the sax parts?
Clarence played his normal parts and solos, and we complemented him with the horn section. Sometimes he would join us with the horn parts. Sometimes he’d stay out of it.
Did the two of you get closer on that tour?
Yeah. We were very close. We used to play poker up in his room every night. I think he owes me about 10 dollars.
Did he have a good poker face?
He had a very good poker face. We played for quarters.
How did you wind up playing “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with Bob Dylan and Keith Richards?
The Miami Horns were the horn section backing up every artist on a TV show called Guitar Legends. It was in Seville, Spain in 1991. It was a worldwide TV show. There was every guitar player you can imagine, from Les Paul to Keith Richards to Bo Diddley and Robert Cray. I was actually a member of the Robert Cray Band. I’m pretty proud of that. I joined in 1991 after this Seville, Spain show. It was a great experience. I recorded one album with him called Shame + A Sin.
I was in catering after doing all these rehearsals, and Keith Richards came up to my table. I was eating lunch. He taps me on my shoulder. “Hi, I’m Keith. I was wondering if you could play a sax solo with me and Bob on ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.’” I looked at him and I said, “You know, I think I can do that.” [Laughs.] “No problem, Keith.”
I think I was the only sax player there. It was just an honor for him to ask me. There was no rehearsal. We just started “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in the key of E. I went out there and I tripped Keith. My foot was right in front of him and he tripped. Then we started playing. I was so nervous. I didn’t know what I was going to play, but I started playing.
Did Bob speak to you or acknowledge you in any way?
No. He looked at me and kind of smiled on a few things. He gave me a nice acknowledgement. We did “I Can’t Turn You Loose” at the end as the encore. Everyone wanted to stand next to Bob. We started playing and his amp was so loud. You could see everyone start to walk away from the amp and get further and further away. But it sounded great. Steve Cropper was just tremendous.
You’re on Bon Jovi’s These Days, so you finished the Holy Jersey Trinity of Bruce, Southside, and Bon Jovi.
Yeah. I think that’s the only two songs I did with Bon Jovi. It was great. I love Jon. He’s a great musician and a great person. He always had a great respect for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Whenever I see him, he goes, “Hey Eddie, how are you doing?” He’s very personable. We have a lot of respect for each other.
How did you wind up being the sax player for Culture Club on their VH1 Storytellers concert?
They were doing a show in New York for VH1. I got a call from Bridget [Nolan] at [producer] John Scher’s office. She wanted to know if I’d do that show. I contracted the horn players and the harmonica player. It was great. They really sounded good.
What do you recall about working on “Mary’s Place” for Bruce on The Rising?
That was a great experience. Clarence plays the solo. We play with the horn section after the solo and throughout the song. I can remember it just like it was yesterday. We did it at Bruce’s house at his old studio. I think it was the same sessions we recorded Seeger Sessions.
Tell me about those sessions. Wasn’t that album made over the course of just a few days?
Yes. We recorded one song, “We Shall Overcome,” which was on some compilation album [Where Have All the Flowers Gone: the Songs of Pete Seeger]. And then ten years went by. We got invited to a birthday party at Bruce’s house. The band playing outside for the party was the band that wound up being the Seeger Sessions band. That day gave him the idea to do this album. It just had the right feel. It sounded so good that day.
Then we went in the studio and did the entire album in one day. The horns were in the hallway with a video camera. Bruce was in the living room of his farm house, and the rhythm section was in the living room. Bruce would call out the songs, and we’d hear them for the first time and start playing. We made up the horn parts and all the arrangements on the spot. There was no forethought. Nothing was written out. We just heard Bruce playing and then we would make up parts as we went along. He’d point to people and they’d take solos. It was like we were playing live.
How was the tour?
The tour was tremendous. Going to Europe…you really get excited when you see the European fans appreciate Bruce so much. It’s just incredible playing in Italy and Spain. They loved the Seeger Sessions. I think the album was Number One in Norway for a long time.
I saw the show in the States and most of the crowd loved it, but there were clearly people that wanted “Born To Run” and “Thunder Road” and not “Erie Canal.”
It definitely was a hard sell for the States. But I think once they heard it the first time, they wanted to hear it again. Once you heard the band play live and you heard Bruce play those songs with that much energy and excitement, then you were hooked. The second time around in the States, they accepted it a lot more.
On that show you released from Dublin, they’re singing “Old Dan Tucker” before it even starts.
It was a great band. Bruce can make anything sound great. He’s just a master at performing. He’s a master at getting the best out of anybody he works with.
How was your experience playing halftime at the Super Bowl?
Well, first of all, that’s the year I got married, 2009. I moved to Pittsburgh from New Jersey. I met my wife in the year 2000, Colleen. We finally got married in 2009 after the Super Bowl. Then we moved to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers were playing at the Super Bowl. I’m living in Pittsburgh, the Steelers win the Super Bowl, my wife gets a seat on the 40-yard line for the Super Bowl, and then I had the experience of playing with the E Street Band. Clarence was up there. Everything they say about the greatest 12-minute live show was true.
It must have been surreal to be on that stage and realize that about 60 million people are watching you.
Yeah. You don’t want to mess up. That’s a little bit of pressure, though. All I know is that we were all playing live. It was all live. If we made a mistake, you would have heard it.
Later that year, you played at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary show at Madison Square Garden.
Jon Landau asked me to write the horn parts for that. I wrote them all out. We backed up Darlene Love, John Fogerty, and Sam Moore. And then Clarence played “Jungleland” that night. I’d never heard him play that song better. I said to him, “Do you want to play on these horn parts?” He goes, “No. I want to save it for ‘Jungleland.’” Well, he certainly saved it. It was tremendous. It was a great performance. I don’t think he was in decline there at all. His playing there was exceptional.
It’s incredible to think about him pushing through so much pain at that time.
Yeah. That night, he sounded impeccable.
Hearing the news that he died a couple of years later was so hard on the fans. I can’t imagine what it was like for a friend like you.
It was hard on everybody. I was playing with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes at the time. I had to play a show that night after hearing about it on the radio. It was impossible. I pretty much broke down. And then I was asked to play “Jungleland” a few weeks later at a tribute to Clarence at the Stone Pony. That was hard. I’d never played “Jungleland” before. I probably never will play it again. But it was pretty emotional for me.
Once the shock of Clarence’s death went away, I imagine you started wondering, like a lot of fans, how Bruce was going to fill that void onstage.
Right. For a few months, I had no idea what was going to happen. To get the call to do the Wrecking Ball tour in 2012 was a complete surprise. At the time, it was hard to believe. I didn’t get the call until after they started rehearsals. I think after the first day of rehearsal, he decided to add a horn section. That’s when I got the call. Jake and I shared the saxophone role for the Wrecking Ball and High Hopes tours.
It was the first time Jake played as part of a horn section. Did you help him adjust to that?
Yeah. Jake did a tremendous job. We went through the whole thing together. It was certainly hard on him, being related to Clarence. He did a tremendous job. Clarence would be very proud.
I think your presence helped a lot. The burden of playing the sax wasn’t 100 percent on his shoulders, because you were there too.
That’s true. It was also good for him to be around good horn players. We’re older. If he’s playing with us, he’s gotta keep up with us.
I was at that Apollo Theater show where he first played with the band in public. It was an emotional night, but pretty joyous.
Yeah. The horn section gave Jake a chance to relax and slowly learn the solos. It wasn’t like the pressure was on from day one where he had to play “Jungleland.” It was good for us to be there, and we’re happy to be there again.
There was that one night in Australia where Jake had that awful family tragedy and you suddenly had to play all the sax parts yourself.
That was a complete surprise. I think I had two hours notice. It was bittersweet. Jake’s father died. But the show went on. I was asked to play all the solos. Even though I had two hours notice, it all worked out.
What was it like playing the “Born to Run” and “Badlands” solos? Prior to those, they’d always been handed by either Clarence or Jake.
I never played “Badlands.” I’d never played any of those solos, actually. But I’d heard them so much that I knew them. [Laughs.] The good thing is that we did an entire-record format that day, so I knew which songs were coming. It wasn’t like he was grabbing signs and I’d be thrown a song I wasn’t familiar with. At least I had a head start by seeing the setlist, since we did Darkness on the Edge of Town, the entire album.
What’s it like to be onstage at other shows when Bruce is taking signs and making up the setlist as he goes along? Is that ever stressful?
That’s very stressful. Sometimes we’d see a sign and Jake and I would look at each other and go, “Do you know that? No. Do you know that?” Then one of us would have to play it. We pretty much covered it all.
You need to keep so much material in your head, since he’s willing to trot out basically any song in his catalog, even really obscure B-sides or alternate versions of released songs like “Racing in the Street ’78.”
It’s a lot of material. I have always been the guy… With all the Christmas shows we’ve done with Bruce, all the benefit shows I’ve done with Bruce, all the tours that I’ve done with Bruce, I’ve always kept everything. I always kept all the charts that we made. I could probably fill a trunk with all the music paper I have from all the shows I’ve done over 50 years. Luckily, when 2012 came around, I started putting it on a computer. I used a music program called Sibelius.
Thank God for that. I pretty much have everything somewhere in a chart that’s a workable arrangement we can pull out. And if Bruce wants to change something, at least we know where we are and we know the chords. I’ve always been the one to keep all that stuff. That came in very handy in 2012.
I’m a big fan of Joe Grushecky. I think he’s hugely under-appreciated as a singer-songwriter. When you moved to Pittsburgh, that obviously gave you the opportunity to play with him a lot more.
Yeah. I did all of Joe’s shows in 2015 and 2016. It was up until I went back with Little Steve and the Disciples of Soul in 2017. Joe’s a great songwriter. It’s fun to work with him. He’s a great guy too.
When the Disciples of Soul reformed, you were the one original member that came back.
Yeah, initially. Later on, Stan Harrison came back. He’s another sax player.
It was great seeing Steven play that catalog again. I never thought it would happen.
There was a promoter in England, Leo Green, who does a lot of blues shows in London. He asked Steven, “Why don’t you put a band together for this show?” Steven goes, “I haven’t performed live with the Disciples of Soul in 20 years.” We initially thought Steven was just putting the band together for one show. But that went so well with the lineup of people we had… We had such a great rhythm section with Marc Ribler on guitar and Jack Daley on bass, Rich Mercurio on drums, Andy Burton on keyboards… It sounded so great that it give him the idea to keep the band together and do more shows.
We eventually did the Soul Fire album, which was pretty much covers. Then he decided to release an album of originals, Summer of Sorcery. That was interesting since I went to Steven’s house, just myself, with my phone, for about 10 days in a row. I’d sit there with Stevie and I’d hit record on my phone. He’d start playing guitar for one song. He’d start singing some horn parts.
Eventually, the entire album was on my phone. We had no demo tapes. The only demos were on my phone. If I lost my phone, there would be no record. There would be no album.
I’d record everything with him on the phone, and then take it back to my hotel room and start writing chord charts and arrangements from what he was singing. Then I would give it to the rhythm section. After 10 days, we started going into the studio every day. I would give the charts to the rhythm section. We’d do the rhythm section first. Then we’d do the horns, and then the background vocals in the afternoon. After 12 days, we had an entire record done. He hadn’t done something like that in 20 years. It came out great. I want to start working on the next one.
You guys have plenty of downtime on this tour.
I should start knocking on his hotel room door. “Let’s do the first song!” [Laughs.]
Bruce’s new album, Only the Strong Survive, is basically just him, Ron Aniello, and you and the other horn players.
The horn section, strings, and background singers. Rob Mathes did the string arrangements. Ron is playing drums, bass, and guitar. Rob [Lebret], the engineer, is playing guitar. I gotta tell you, I’m really impressed with the musicianship on there. Ron is a great bass player. His bass parts are tremendous.
How many days total do you think you worked on that record?
Off and on, I probably did 10 songs on the album. There were maybe five or six different sessions. I’d drive from Pittsburgh to Bruce’s home studio. It started in March 2021. There were maybe eight different sessions.
When you work on a project like that, do they swear you to secrecy?
That’s a given. Everything is top-secret. The recording process, you have to be very quiet. And I was. I didn’t tell anyone until the record came out.
He didn’t use a horn section on the 2016-17 tour. It was just Jake on sax. Did it surprise you he wanted horns on this current tour?
I guess it was a little bit of a surprise. But I knew that Wrecking Ball and High Hopes were such great tours. We were able to do his entire repertoire with the horns and background vocals. He can approach any album, any song, and be able to do them live.
In 2016, it was just The River. There aren’t many horns on that album. It was originally supposed to just be that album done faithfully. It was initially just supposed to be three months. Like with anything, they extended it and extended it and it became much bigger than it was originally intended. But I can only guess that maybe with this tour he was missing the chance to have the toolbox where he can do any song at any point. You can do songs off Wrecking Ball and something from Tunnel of Love and songs we recorded, like “Mary’s Place.” It’s good to have the horns around.
How did you learn you were on this tour? Did Bruce call you up? Jon Landau?
I was at Bruce’s recording studio. I think it was Saint Patrick’s Day last year. I got a call to go into the studio. He wanted just a baritone for “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do).” I got the call to come in by myself. We recorded the baritone sax solo for “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” the Frank Wilson song. After recording that, he was sitting at the console. I was sitting on the couch. He came over to me and asked me, “I hope maybe you’d like to do a lot of playing next year.”
I was completely shocked. I didn’t know what to say. I said something stupid like, “Yeah, I’m tired of sitting home with all this Covid stuff. Absolutely.” I was very surprised. I pretty much knew I’d be on the tour since then. It was a nice surprise.
How were the rehearsals at the Vogel in Red Bank?
It was nice to get out of the Vogel and into the arena in Trenton. It just felt better. The Vogel is just kind of sterile. We use in-ear monitors and are used to them. We didn’t feel quite comfortable yet. But once we got to the arena in Trenton, everything started making sense. Rehearsals went really well. We rehearsed a pretty solid two weeks in Red Bank.
How did it feel to walk onstage that first night in Tampa?
Everybody did a great job. We were just excited to be playing after all the rehearsing we did. It was a pleasure to get out there and do what we do. It’s not like we haven’t all done this before. It was nice to get out and unleash what we do.
Are you guys traveling in a Covid bubble to minimize the chances of people getting sick?
Sort of. We test every day. We wear masks in the hotel. The crews all wear masks. We’re staying away from each other, except when we go onstage. And you can’t wear a mask when you’re playing a horn. But everyone is doing a good job and testing every day and trying to do the right thing. We’re staying away from crowds outside the arena. I think we’re done with the worst of it. I think it was just Florida. It was a fluke thing that got in there. I think we’re through the worst of it. I think it’s smooth sailing from here on.
[Editor’s note: To put it mildly, this would prove to be wishful thinking. The day after this interview in February, Jake Clemons came down with Covid and Manion had to once again play all the sax parts himself at shows in Austin and Kansas City. A couple of weeks later, in early March, the band had to postpone three other shows due to an unspecified illness. The tour is now back on track.]
These shows must be a lot of fun for the new guys, Ozzie Melendez and Anthony Almonte. They’ve never quite experienced this.
Oh yeah. Anthony and I played together with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. He’s a tremendous musician, great person.
Let’s finally talk about your solo work. When did you first do an album on your own?
First album on my own was when I did an album of originals in 1987. Then I did two instrumental albums with just saxophone. That was Nightlife in 2015 and I recently did an album called Coastin’ In. The first album was called There’s a Reason for Everything.
It seems like Bruce has saved me. Every time I come out with an album, he asked me to go on tour. The expenses… One thing I’ve learned from Little Steven and Bruce is that I’m not shy about spending the money on studio time. I go overboard because I’m used to working in the best studios. I’m used to working with the best musicians. When I record my own albums, I wind up spending all my money. [Laughs.]
I don’t have a record deal. I release them on my own. I have my own label called Kingfish Mars Records that I just started a few years ago. I just sell the records on my website. Bruce, Steven, and Southside Johnny…doing the records that we do…I have to have quality that ranks with them.
Are you thinking yet about the next record?
Yeah. I’ll start working on that soon. I know we’re on tour until the end of this year. We’ll see what happens in 2024.
I’m guessing next year will be Australia and maybe the rest of the world.
I’m hoping. But you didn’t hear it from me. I don’t know. But I am thinking that would be a good time to go to Australia.
What keeps you busy in your downtime on a tour like the one you’re on right now?
I still love photography. I like to get out of the hotel room and walk around and take pictures. I call it “road art.” I don’t take pictures of musicians so much, but I wish I did. If I took pictures of all the musicians I played with and I met, I’d have a hell of a book. But I never did that. I’m very shy. I never wanted to bother people with pictures. Photography, to me, is an artistic form. I’d rather do my own work with photography. I do like to get out of the hotel and take some scenic pictures, little things that catch my eye.
Tell me your goals over the next five years. What do you still hope to accomplish?
I’d like to spend a lot of time with my grandkids. My wife’s daughter has twin boys. They are seven years old. I spend a lot of time with them, and my family. That’s the important thing. I’d like to do another album. I have this movie idea. I want to write a screenplay for it. I’m going to start writing now. I’ve had this idea for about 30 years. So you might see that.
Taking a big step back, it’s pretty crazy to think that you met this teenager at the Upstage in the Sixties and you’re still playing for him all these decades later.
It is. The thing is, I’m extremely proud of him as a friend and somebody that I knew. I remember when I was playing with the Robert Cray Band in the Nineties. We got nominated for Best Blues Album. We didn’t win, but we were nominated. I remember being at the Grammys, high up in the balcony. Bruce got an award for “Streets of Philadelphia.” I was so proud of him when he came onstage, that I knew somebody from my high school years that became the person he became, and such a great songwriter. I was extremely proud. I was like, “Wow.”
He could have any sax player he wants onstage, but he keeps coming back to you.
I feel very fortunate. You know, my mom passed away in 2018. She was Bruce’s biggest fan. Back in 2012, we played in Hyde Park. For some reason, I bought my mom a plane ticket. She’d never been to London. She came to the show and stood by the side of the stage.
Paul McCartney came out. It was incredible to have that experience of meeting Paul and playing with him. After the show, I walked with my mom back to the dressing room. Paul McCartney’s car was parked right there. He tapped me on the shoulder and goes, “Great show. Great playing with you.” To me, that was a moment in time since my mom was there. She got to meet Paul McCartney. Then we talked to him for about 10 minutes. I really felt like I accomplished something there.