Mighty Maxby Pat Launer August 31, 2011
By Pat Launer
For Max Weinberg, it’s all about continuity and longevity.
Weinberg, drummer extraordinaire, who’s bringing his touring band to the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, credits his parents and his rabbi for his remarkable success.
Weinberg is best known as drummer for the E Street Band, playing with Bruce Springsteen for 38 years (more than 1,000 concerts in stadiums and arenas around the world). Simultaneously, he spent 17 years as band leader for Conan O’Brien (“the best band in late night TV,” according to The Washington Post).
The list of performers he’s played with is a veritable Who’s Who of American pop, rock, jazz, folk and blues, from Streisand to Sting, Tony Bennett to Pete Townsend, Chuck Berry to Bono, BB King to The Band, Isaac Hayes to Meatloaf, Bob Dylan to Natalie Merchant and Paul McCartney.
His father, whose Russian Jewish ancestors came to this country in the 1880s, was a third generation American. His mother, still active, vibrant — and driving! — at 96, was the youngest of five sisters, with whom she was very close.
“It was like Tevye’s daughters,” says the affable, engaging Weinberg, 61. “And for me, it was like having five mothers!”
Five Jewish mothers? Oy vey. But Weinberg loved it: “Talk about a Village raising you; it was a matriarchy, but the men were all impressive, self-made professionals.”
In their youth, the five sisters vowed never to move far from each other, and they stuck with that promise. Most, like Weinberg, still live in New Jersey.
“I had an incredible array of talent around me in my extended Jewish family,” Weinberg says. “Everyone had an opinion. We always have heated, spirited table discussions.”
Weinberg’s impressive family legacy is musical, intellectual, political and durable.
His great-great-great-grandmother survived in Russia until age 106. The eldest of his mother’s sisters, born in 1898, was the first female in the U.S. to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa. His mother’s aunt, Annie Lifshus, was a colleague of anarchist Emma Goldman.
Aunt Sadie wrote a book about the family history — at age 90.
“Fabulous letters” have been unearthed from the Old Country, including one from Uncle Joe, who described the destruction of his town by the Cossacks, trailing off ominously after reporting, “I can hear the horses coming…”
Weinberg’s father was “an attorney, a wonderfully accomplished violinist, a sports fanatic and a businessman” who owned summer camps (Pocono Highlands, for one). His mother, a high school phys. ed. teacher for 46 years, was “a phenomenal athlete” who loved musical theater and took her son, from age 5 onward, to all the great Broadway shows. Max was named after her father, whose two older brothers helped start The White Rose Tea Company in Brooklyn, N.Y. The company was later purchased by the A&P supermarket chain, which fulfulled Weinberg’s immigrant great-uncle’s dream of financial success in his adopted country.
The whole family had an active temple life. That’s where the influential rabbi comes in.
“Avraham Soltes was Central Casting’s image of a rabbi,” Weinberg says. “My cousin’s bar mitzvah was his first in 1952, and mine was his last, in 1964. He became the TV host of ‘Lamp Unto My Feet’ in the mid 1950s. After he left the rabbinate, he appeared as the rabbi in two movies: ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ and ‘The Goodbye Girl.’
“He was poetic, artistic and musical. And he was an incredibly inspirational presence in my life. Though he’s no longer alive, my mother and I still attend that same temple, part of the temple my grandfather helped form in 1910, now Temple Israel in South Orange, NJ. Some of the people I knew as a kid are still there, from when I attended Hebrew school three times a week and Sundays, until I was confirmed.”
The Jewish ceremonies, Weinberg asserts, “were touchstones for me. The Seder, and its meaning and concept of ‘order,’ influenced my whole approach to how a drummer serves his band’s music. My drumming is very linear, very composed, not just random banging. It’s a mindful concept of order, with a beginning, middle and end, presented in the service of others.”
The Little Drummer Boy
Weinberg’s Aha! moment came in 1956, when his two older sisters (6 and 8 years older than he) turned on the TV to see their heartthrob, Elvis. Six months before The Pelvis famously appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” he was on “The Milton Berle Show.”
“I was 5 years old,” Weinberg recalls, “but I remember it vividly. I was most struck by the great drum break in ‘Hound Dog.’ As soon as I heard that, I knew what I wanted to do. I was so taken by the drummer, DJ Fontana, now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To this day, he’s a dear, dear friend.”
Years later, Weinberg was to earn the moniker of “Mighty Max,” given to him by The Boss (Bruce Springsteen) for his aggressive playing style.
“People have commented on my very fast hands. With the E Street Band, they were described as ‘machine-gun rolls.’ That’s the result of my early start ‘playing drums’ on my bed, before I had a drum set. There’s no rebound on a soft surface, so my wrists really developed so that they could move the sticks.”
All that bed practice certainly paid off. He was named Best Drummer by the “Playboy” Pop and Jazz Music Poll (1985) and the “Rolling Stone Critics Poll” (1986).
His first public appearance came at age 7, when he sat in on a bar mitzvah band playing, of all things, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The bandleader began bringing young Max along as a novelty. Weinberg became a local child star. He started on the bar mitzvah circuit, but by age 16, he was playing at bars and nightclubs. He formed his first band in third grade, and in sixth grade, when he got his first paid gig — a dollar to play for a graduation party — he proudly proclaimed, “Now I’m a professional!” On his final sixth grade report card, his teacher wrote: “I hope you get to be a famous drummer.”
From the very beginning, Weinberg performed in a three-piece mohair suit (“even then, it was all about being a professional”). A coat and tie became his signature look (“In a rock band, you want to look like the audience. But in my bands, I don’t want to look like the audience. My band on TV brought back the show biz, show-time kind of professional”). This outlook is a reflection of one of Weinberg’s mottos: “Dress sharp, play sharp and be sharp.”
His sharpness of mind, humor and talent has gotten him far along the path of his mind-boggling career. He played at the 1964 World’s Fair, at both of Bill Clinton’s inaugural galas, in the original Off Broadway production of “Godspell,” with the Navy Big Band in the East Room of the White House in 1996 and at the Grammy Awards. In 1998, he served as music director of Comic Relief, co-hosted by Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. A highlight of that evening was a cameo appearance by the 90 year-old man who had inadvertently started it all, Milton Berle.
Continuing the Continuity…
In 1981, he married Rebecca Shick, a Methodist and fellow New Jerseyite. Springsteen and the band played at their wedding, which was, of course, officiated by Rabbi Soltes. Schick worked as a high school history teacher. Their two children, Ali (age 24) and Jay (21) continue the musical legacy. She’s an accomplished pianist and he’s a drummer in a touring punk rock band, Against Me. Both have played with the E Street Band. Weinberg played on the first album recorded by his sister, Nancy Winston, a New York pianist and singer.
He and his wife brought their kids up with a keen sense of spirituality from both of their religions.
“Most important to me is the concept of tikkun olam [healing the world],” Weinberg says. “I always apply that to my drumming. I see the faces of the audience, and the joy and rapture music is giving them. It’s my way of giving something back, and making things, however briefly, a little better in other people’s lives. When we blow into town and get people to dance all over their problems, I feel like Johnny Appleseed.”
Weinberg and his wife lavished on their children the same non-judgmental support his parents had given him: “They gave tremendous rein to our passions — as long as we moved toward excellence. Creativity was really, really stressed — and doing your own thing. Whatever you do, they said, do it with passion and professionalism. My father looked at law as a way to develop an ability to critically think. He raised me with that perspective.”
That may be why, after graduating from Seton Hall University, Weinberg dipped his toe in the legal waters, attending Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School for six months, during which he surmised, “The world needs more drummers and fewer lawyers.” But still, he says, “I approached rock and roll as a lawyer. That was the right way for me to develop that professional path.”
Weinberg created a one-man show about the ups and downs of his career that he toured to college campuses, and he developed motivational seminars for corporations. His advocacy of their mandate also landed him a HERO Award from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
In 1984, he published a book, “The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock’s Greatest Drummers.” It was considered an important addition to rock literature, since drummers talked more openly and candidly to one of their own about their work and technique.
“I got to interview my heroes of music,” Weinberg says enthusiastically. “DJ Fontana (Elvis’ original drummer), Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones), Levon Helm (The Band), Ringo Starr (The Beatles) and 10 others.”
A few years ago, Weinberg was himself a subject in a book of interviews: Abigail Pogrebin’s “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.”
In 1993, he put together The Max Weinberg 7 for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” a band that had what’s been described as “a muscular, drums-driven jump-blues vibe.” Their repertoire was vast, ranging from rock, R&B and soul to jazz, pop and big band swing. Weinberg became a comic persona on the show, “a big, swinging, Rat Pack kind of guy,” as he describes it. “Comedy was like drumming: it’s all about timing, and being fearless. I did whatever they wanted: dress as a woman, take my clothes off. If it was good enough for Jack Benny or Milton Berle, it was good enough for me.”
He stayed with O’Brien, taking off periodically to play with the E Street Band, until 2010, when O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” gig was famously and contentiously canceled and Weinberg underwent long-delayed open-heart surgery.
Now in “excellent health” and rarin’ to go on, he’s heading up the Max Weinberg Big Band of 15 players and touring with a slightly smaller ensemble, The Max Weinberg 7+, an all-star group that features Bill Champlin, a multiple Grammy Award-winning songwriter, singer and keyboard player (with Chicago, among other bands).
That’s the band that will be playing in Poway. They’ll focus on “rock/pop favorites,” according to Weinberg, including songs from Chicago, Booker T and the MGs, and Springsteen.
Which brings us back to another of his father-inspired mottos: “Show up, do a good job and give the pole more than their money’s worth,” or, as Bruce Springsteen put it, “Play great every night.”
“You come to see us,” Weinberg promises, “and you’re going to get the music, the behind-the-scenes insight and the oral history of the music in one slammin’ evening. In other words, the full Max Weinberg Experience. We’ll play our hearts out for you.”
The Max Weinberg Seven+ plays at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, 15498 Espola Road, one night only, Oct. 1, at 8 p.m. Tickets ($10 for youth to $60 for adults) are available at (858) 748-0505 or www.powayarts.org.