Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Max Weinberg got a taste of the Beatles’ music even before the band’s legendary arrival in the U.S.A.
A school friend returning to New Jersey from a Thanksgiving 1963 trip to England was packing a copy of “With the Beatles,” which dropped across the pond in November 1963.
“This was like the Pony Express,” Weinberg said of hearing the record in a decade long before the internet, a time when culture comparatively crept around the globe. “We in the United States did not even know who they were.”
By January 1964, Beatles albums were causing commotion in the States, and the band sparked further fervor with a Feb. 9, 1964, performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was a sorely needed moment of release, a “great exuberant tidal wave of fun coming at you,” fewer than three months after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Weinberg remembered.
The show inspired countless kids to take up rock ’n’ roll music. Weinberg was among them.
He already was a working drummer. After catching D.J. Fontana swinging behind Elvis Presley on “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show” and “The Milton Berle Show” in 1956, the youngster took up the kit and was playing gigs with a bar mitzvah band around Newark, New Jersey, from age 7. But the Beatles were something different — a band, not a solo act, with a great drummer named Ringo Starr as a focal point.
“By the time the Beatles rolled around, I was just two months shy of my 13th birthday,” he said. “I was playing the drums all the time, so I had something to immediately turn my attention to. Wow, maybe this is possible, that you could have success with a group. So I was singularly focused on that throughout the ’60s and ’70s, up through the time I met Bruce [Springsteen] and the E Street Band.
On Sunday, Weinberg — whose drumming with Springsteen earned him that rock hall berth, and whose gig as bandleader on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” established him as a television personality — brings his own project, Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, to play a celebration of the Beatles’ 1963-66 music at Rocky Mount’s Harvester Performance Center.
Weinberg is not your typical rocker and Ringo freak with a Fab Four tribute set. He played music with three Beatles — Paul McCartney, George Harrison and his early drumming idol, Starr.
“I never got to play with John Lennon,” he said. “He walked in front of my car with [his wife], Yoko [Ono] on 74th Street in New York City once, before I was with Bruce. I was on a Broadway show on 78th Street, and I was headed there.”
It was while doing Broadway pit band work that he discovered Springsteen’s ad for a drummer, in the city’s Village Voice. He got an audition, got the gig, and his career was soon in full flight.
Weinberg became known as a granite-solid groove player capable of playing explosive fills at just the right times, while keeping his attention trained on “The Boss,” Springsteen, for any move that might signal a change in tempo, dynamics or set list. Starr was among those who noticed, and he brought on Weinberg for 15 shows of his first All Starr Band tour, in 1989. Starr had a three-drummer battery with recording session master Jim Keltner and The Band’s Levon Helm. When Starr left the kit during portions of the show, to sing and work the crowd from up front, Weinberg would jump behind Starr’s kit to play.
Before a show in New Jersey, Weinberg invited the entire All Starr Band entourage, including Dr. John and E Street Band member Clarence Clemons, to his place for a Jersey Shore-style cookout. A drenching rain fell, so they moved the party to Weinberg’s garage, where Starr met his mother. At the concert later, “Ringo dedicated a song to my mother,” he remembered.
The year before, when the Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Weinberg got to perform with Harrison, who with Eric Clapton set up right in front of Weinberg. At the other side of the stage, house band leader Paul Shaffer called for “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a song that Jerry Lee Lewis had made famous. Shaffer’s drummer, Anton Fig, kicked off the number with what Weinberg described as “a very excellent, strong, hard rock beat.” Weinberg waited before playing, so he could determine where the song was going.
“George Harrison, who at that point I’d never met, looked at me and in this great Liverpudlian accent said, ‘Play a shuffle,’ to me.
“I turned our side of the stage, with Eric Clapton and George Harrison, into sort of this in-between rockabilly rock ’n’ roll beat. They both got this big smile on their faces. ... And I was pleased, because I had just taken a cue, a direction, from George Harrison, and gotten it, which in the E Street Band is my role. My skill in that particular area came to the forefront, and it just so happened to be George Harrison giving me my cue.”
Paul McCartney did not show up for that induction, but Weinberg would play live with him in a couple of private shows and when McCartney sat in with Springsteen and the E Streeters in 2012 at London’s Hyde Park. They played “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist & Shout” together before show organizers pulled the plug, due to curfew.
“So through the years it’s been fun for me, whether it was playing with Ringo’s band, or having Paul McCartney sit in with us in the E Street Band in London in 2012,” he said. “I’ve had those experiences, where for two minutes I imagine myself to be Ringo Starr.”
The Beatles show is a break of sorts for Weinberg’s Jukebox project. The band, with a rotating cast of musicians, has played about 150 all-request shows since April 2017. The interactive concerts have encouraged people to shout out requests from a master playlist of about 300 hit songs by dozens of acts. He decided to add a Beatles-only show, working from a pre-written set list, in part to celebrate 55 years since the Fab Four debuted in America, and in part to answer questions from people who want to hear about the band and its impact from a guy who lived through Beatlemania.
That means Weinberg will tell stories and give history, in between songs.
“This is a little bit different,” he said of the project, but “if somebody yells out something that we’re not playing, we’ll probably play it.”
Weinberg studies drummers, and not just their beats and fills. His book "The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock's Greatest Drummers," features interviews with the likes of Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Fontana, Helm Keltner, Bernard Purdie, Weinberg drum hero Dave Clark (of the Dave Clark 5) and, of course, Starr.
"Ringo was as important to rock drumming in the '60s as Gene Krupa, the famous jazz drummer, was to big band and jazz in the ‘30s," Weinberg said. "He focused attention on the drummer, for one thing. ... Drumming-wise, no one’s ever sounded better. It’s hard to imagine the Beatles sounding the way they did on their recordings, or live – he was a very exciting drummer – without Ringo."
Over the years, Weinberg has talked to people who were Beatles contemporaries, or slightly older, in Liverpool.
From them, he learned that "Ringo was by far the best drummer in a town full of really, really good drummers," he said. "He was older than the other Beatles. He was from an area of Liverpool that was very hard-scrabble. It created his humor; it created his drive. And he was very ill as a child. He really developed a style that was very unique, listening to country records, listening to pop records.
"So Ringo had everything. He had style. He had wit. He was in the Beatles," Weinberg laughed. "There had never been anything else like the Beatles.
"You talk to any of the drummers of the '70s and '80s, and even today, they acknowledge Ringo’s abilities, his taste, his cleverness. And it helps to have great songs to play on. Believe me, I know. The hardest thing to do is get great songs to play on. The E Street Band, we certainly had that with Bruce’s songs. And with the Beatles, with Lennon and McCartney, and of course George Harrison writing, [it was] a great platform for a great drummer."
Weinberg became very close friends with Helm. When Helm hurt his leg, Weinberg played drums for him on a six-month run in 1987 with the Woodstock All-Stars, during an E Street Band hiatus.
"It really gave me the opportunity to get inside the guy’s drum style," Weinberg said.
Helm's old Arkansas buddies, the Cate Brothers, were at the core, along with keyboardist Stan Szelest, whose history with Helm went back to the Hawks, and who wound up in a post "The Last Waltz" version of The Band.
Weinberg remembered Szelest as a "mysterious rock and roll legend. ... Stan played a Fender Rhodes. He was a wild guy. I got a chance to play with him for six months. He could make a Fender Rhodes keyboard sound like an orchestra, or a freight train."
The man known to Springsteen fans as "Mighty Max" took a moment to reference his connection to the Craig County outpost called Paint Bank. Weinberg was friends with New Jersey native John Mulheren, the Wall Street Investor and Roanoke College graduate who with wife Nancy Mulheren had a second home there, at Paint Bank's Hollow Hill Buffalo Farm, along with a store, a lodge and a hunting and fishing guide service.
"I went down there with him for a weekend once," Weinberg said. "I think it was ’88. He didn’t want somebody to come in there and tear up the town and put in town homes or whatever. So he bought the town to preserve it, and I’ve been there."
Mulheren, who with his family has donated millions to Roanoke College, died in 2003. That was a decade after Springsteen donated a used fire engine to the Paint Bank Volunteer Fire Department.
That gives us a relatively reasonable transition back to music and performing. Here's where Weinberg shared with us how he got his gig with The Boss, and what that band is all about, from a performance perspective.
Weinberg was 23 when he read that ad in the Village Voice, looking for a drummer, no "junior Ginger Bakers" wanted. That is to say, no flamboyant, solo-happy players like the drummer for Cream. Weinberg was one of about 60 players who showed up, after years of playing in a wild variety of situations.
"My experience had been drumming always," he said. "Because of my family situation, I had to go out and work at an early age. Doing that, you have to be kind of good at everything. You can’t be just focused on one kind of music."
He played circus music, Broadway shows, some rock, some jazz. "Stripper music I played," he said, harking back to the days when live bands played go-go bars and strip joints. "So I was pretty versatile by the time I met Bruce when I was 23. I’d been playing for 15 years or so."
He didn't know Springsteen or anyone else in the band, but he said he could tell immediately that the band leader was "the real deal." The other players in the audition, Clemons, Garry Tallent and keyboardist Danny Federici, watched Springsteen carefully.
"I’d never experienced that kind of focus before in a band," Weinberg remembered.
Every drummer coming through got a half hour. Springsteen gave cues with his arms.
"There was one song where he cut the band, a 'safe at first base' cue. Obvious. Half the guys missed it. I did a couple of times. If you missed it three times, you were out, you weren’t paying attention, and you were into your drumming.
"He wanted an accompanist. This one song, he stopped the band. That was easy. You’re watching him. You stop. Then there was a long pause, and he threw his arm out, horizontally. And out of the 60-something drummers that auditioned, I was the only one who hit that snare shot. And that’s what got me the job, 45 years ago.
"And the reason I did that was because I was used to playing behind strippers and dancers, and stage show stuff where the drums were supposed to accent physical movement."
Weinberg learned later that Springsteen, after his first two albums, wanted to become more of a frontman than a "hot guitar player who sang. And to do that, he started doing a lot of physical stuff. And I just naturally picked it up."
After Weinberg had to commit to preparations for his TV boss, O'Brien's short-lived run on "The Tonight Show," his son, Jay Weinberg (nowadays the drummer for Slipknot), took on the E Street Band gig for a while.
Springsteen asked if Jay could do the show, then gave Weinberg 150 songs for his son to learn. Jay Weinberg woodshedded them, then went on a short tour, in which he slowly worked his way up to playing about half the show.
"My son’s a rocket scientist," Weinberg said. "He’s like a Vulcan. He’s unbelievably logical and methodical. He has a degree from Stevens Institute. That's like New Jersey's version of MIT."
Jay Weinberg's first full show with the E Street Band was in front of 250,000 in the Netherlands.
"He made his mistakes," Max Weinberg said, and it didn't matter that he was a young man playing with deeply experienced, older musicians. "When you’re onstage with Bruce Springsteen, you‘ve gotta do the job. If you do that and come out on the other side of that, you have learned something, not only about playing music, but about life by being around him. [Springsteen is] an extraordinarily inspirational character — not demanding, but leading by example, where nobody works as hard as him."
For example, "The Boss" is known for having his band out in the afternoon sun on the day of a show, learning new material.
"You get an email in the middle of the night — six songs to learn for tomorrow morning," Weinberg said.
"It’s work. We don’t rest on any laurels. You’ve gotta embrace the idea of playing every show like it’s your last, and embrace the fact that it might be an audience member’s first. How many thousands of times have we played “Rosalita [Come Out Tonight],” and it may be the first time you’re seeing it. Bruce’s attitude is that you deserve, if it’s your first time or your thousandth time, to see that song played the best it can be played. That’s something he’s been consistent with the entire 45 years I’ve known him.
"And it’s a pleasure. It actually makes work easier, when you have such definite signals about what’s expected."
No new dates are in the offing for Springsteen and the E Street Band, but Weinberg believes the unit could be ready to go at any time, with only a couple of days' notice.
Weinberg's performance contracts include a riff on the force majeure, which outlines all the conditions under which one could postpone or cancel a show.
"I had it with NBC and I have it now, it’s the Springsteen clause. It’s a force majeure, an act of god and/or Bruce Springsteen," he said. "So that’s how important it is to me. Whether we do it again, it’s not for me to say, but if we do, I’ll be there with all my energy and devotion."