Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul

Steven Van Zandt established himself as a songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer to be reckoned with before he stepped out as a solo artist in 1992, adopting a new stage name, Little Steven, and fronting Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul. One of the architects of the trademark New Jersey sound as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and as a mentor to Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Little Steven embraced a potent mixture of Jersey-style rock and blue-eyed soul on the Disciples of Soul's debut album, 1992's Men Without Women. He fashioned an international hard rock sound on 1984's rabble-rousing Voice of America and added funk and hip-hop influences on 1987's Freedom No Compromise. Steven would put the Disciples of Soul on the back burner in favor of solo efforts and his work with Bruce Springsteen in the '90s and 2000s, but following the release of 2017's Soulfire, he assembled a new edition of the Disciples of Soul for the tour that was featured on 2018's Soulfire Live!, and he soon brought them back to the studio for 2019's Summer of Sorcery. Little Steven Van Zandt was born Steven Lento in Winthrop, Massachusetts on November 22, 1950. When he was seven, his mother, Mary Lento, married for the second time, wedding William Brewster Van Zandt. Steven would adopt his stepfather's surname and the family relocated to Middleton Township, New Jersey. Steven picked up the guitar at an early age, and after the Beatles and the Rolling Stones invaded America in 1964, he started his first band, the Whirlwinds, that same year. In 1967, Van Zandt met Bruce Springsteen, a fellow New Jersey musician with big ambitions, and the two became close friends and colleagues, teaming up in a hard rock band called Steel Mill. Van Zandt would later play with the Bruce Springsteen Band, which was formed after Steel Mill broke up, and worked in bar bands as a sideline. Van Zandt was working the oldies circuit as guitarist with the Dovells when Springsteen's career began to take off, which prompted him to return to New Jersey and start a project of his own. While he was a proper member of the group for only a short time, Van Zandt would become a crucial behind-the-scenes figure for Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, a barn-burning blue-eyed soul combo fronted by vocalist Johnny Lyon. Van Zandt helped assemble the band, wrote most of their best material, and produced their first three albums (1976's I Don't Want to Go Home, 1977's This Time It's for Real, and 1978's Hearts of Stone), all while serving double-duty as guitarist with Springsteen's E Street Band, a position he took on in 1975 during the recording of Born to Run. In 1984, Springsteen released the album Born in the U.S.A., the album that would make him a superstar, but by the time the E Street Band hit the road in support, Van Zandt had amicably left the group. He had already made his solo bow in 1982 with the album Men Without Women, in which he adopted the stage name Little Steven, and introduced his group the Disciples of Soul, a powerful rock and soul show band in the manner of the Asbury Jukes, which included members of the Jukes horn section, drummer Dino Danelli of the Rascals, Alvin Ailey percussionist Monti Louis Ellison, and former Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir. Little Steven reshaped the group's sound for 1984's Voice of America, which moved the band into a more aggressive hard rock direction, dropping the horn section, and adding a strong leftist political slant to the lyrics. (Steven also cut a single opposing the re-election of Ronald Reagan, "Vote That Mutha Out," but his label was wary of the song and it was initially only released in the Netherlands.) The third Little Steven album, 1987's Freedom No Compromise, was another politically charged project, but most of the Disciples of Soul had been replaced by session musicians during the recording, and it was credited solely to Little Steven. Van Zandt's career was under the radar for much of the '90s, as he busied himself with occasional live work and cut an unreleased album with his garage rock project the Lost Boys, but in 1995, Bruce Springsteen reunited the E Street Band to record some new songs for his Greatest Hits album, and in 1999 he made the reunion official by taking the group out for an international concert tour. (Diplomatically, Springsteen brought both Van Zandt and his replacement, Nils Lofgren, back into the fold.) Between his duties as the host of his radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage, his work as an actor on the shows The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, running his label Wicked Cool Records, and recording and touring with Springsteen, Van Zandt had put his solo career on hold. In 2017, with the E Street Band on break, he decided it was time to make a new Little Steven album, and 2017's Soulfire focused on the vintage soul and R&B elements that dominated his work with the Asbury Jukes and on Men Without Women. For the supporting tour, Little Steven formed a new edition of the Disciples of Soul, a mighty 15-piece ensemble with Marc Ribler as guitarist and musical director, Rich Mercurio on drums, Jack Daley on bass, and a small army of keyboard players, horn players, and backing vocalists. The tour was extensively documented on the 2018 concert souvenir Soulfire Live! The live album was credited to Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, and this edition of the group quickly returned to duty to record another album, a diverse program of rock, blues, soul, and Latin influences titled Summer of Sorcery, released in May 2019. ~ Mark Deming

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