Keyboardist Danny Federici, a low-profile but essential and original member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, died Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City after a three-year battle with melanoma, according to a statement released by Springsteen’s publicist. He was 58.
“Danny and I worked together for 40 years,” Springsteen said in the statement. “He was the most wonderfully fluid keyboard player and a pure, natural musician. I loved him very much. We grew up together.”
Federici took a leave of absence from the band’s tour in November to pursue treatment for his illness and was replaced by Charles Giordano. After Federici’s death, Springsteen rescheduled three concerts in Florida.
Unlike the storied New Jersey ensemble’s more flamboyant figures such as Springsteen, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and guitarist Steve Van Zandt, Federici stayed out of the spotlight.
“I never showed up for the shows until I had to, and I never hung around,” Federici, nicknamed the Phantom, said in a 1997 interview with The Times. “I wasn’t into the schmoozing, hanging out and all the stuff that goes with it.”
But his work, primarily on the organ and accordion, contributed crucial elements to the band’s R&B-rooted;, barroom-bred sound. When Springsteen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he addressed Federici and said, “Your organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music.”
“Danny was a really important part of the band,” Charles R. Cross, the founding editor of the Springsteen magazine Backstreets and author of the book “Backstreets: Springsteen: The Man and His Music,” told The Times on Friday. “Particularly early on, there was this carnival barker-ish approach to both the songwriting and the sound, and the organ was an essential element for that. . . . It brought the band back to the earlier ‘50s beach-side sound.”
Songs such as “Hungry Heart,” “Born to Run” (where he added the signature glockenspiel chime) and “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” are considered some of Federici’s more prominent moments. Cross also cited the albums “Greetings From Asbury Park” and “The River” as bearing a strong Federici stamp. But his contributions span Springsteen’s entire career.
“He played a lot of the atmospheric fills,” Cross said. “There’s a little scene in that Bruce movie ‘Blood Brothers,’ where they’re working on a song, and Bruce is going, ‘I want that dark-cloud thing.’ [Keyboardist] Roy Bittan’s a master at creating that, but Danny was also a part of that. There is a dark-cloud sound to Bruce Springsteen’s best work, and that is because of both Bittan and Danny.”
Born in Flemington, N.J., in 1950, Federici started playing accordion at age 7, teaching himself his first song by watching a musician on Lawrence Welk’s television show.
In the mid-1960s, he was forming rock ‘n’ roll bands, eventually hooking up with Springsteen in the groups Child and Steel Mill, honing their skills in the clubs of Asbury Park.
He was a charter member when Springsteen got his record deal and formed the E Street Band in the early ‘70s, going along for the ride as “The Boss” went from critically acclaimed post-Dylan rock poet to the biggest star in pop music -- in large part due to the musical prowess, spirited camaraderie and epic length of the band’s concerts.
When Springsteen dissolved the group in the early ‘90s, Federici moved to Los Angeles for several years.
He led the house band at the House of Blues in West Hollywood for a time and released two albums of smooth jazz under his own name. The E Street Band reunited in 1999, and Federici remained at his keyboards until late last year.
“Danny was a marvelous musician, but for fans . . . his importance went beyond his keyboard work,” The Times’ former pop music critic Robert Hilburn said Thursday. “There has long been a sense of brotherhood and community surrounding the E Street Band, and Danny, through his playing and personality, contributed an essential element to that spirit.”
Federici made his final appearance with the group March 20 when he played a portion of its concert in Indianapolis.
Federici, who had been living in Manhattan, is survived by his wife, Maya; and children, Harley, Jason and Madison. There will be a private memorial service.
A website has been set up at www.federicimelanomafund.com, where donations may be made to the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund.