The mighty Max Weinberg, star of late-night television, “found a place where Bernard Purdy, Buddy Rich, and Keith Moon intersected, and he made it his own. I ask and he delivers for me night after night.” —Bruce Springsteen
In 1974, Max Weinberg was playing in pit bands for theatrical productions when he answered the Village Voice advertisement that requested a drummer (“no Jr. Ginger Bakers”) capable of playing R&B and jazz for an immediate audition. Weinberg had never seen the E Street Band and was unfamiliar with most of their material.
He was, however, a talented drummer and possessed superior instincts. Legend has it that Max’s performance on “Let the Four Winds Blow” during his audition won him the job. Weinberg could easily play the beat for the song, but it was his ability to take cues from Springsteen — specifically, playing a rim shot when Bruce held up his hand to stop the band and then starting back into the song — that was most impressive.
Max joined the band at the same time as new pianist Roy Bittan, and the new lineup of the E Street Band went on to record some of Bruce’s best selling and most highly regarded albums. Mighty Max’s crisp, powerful drumming is a highlight of hits such as “Born in the U.S.A.,” as well as deeper album tracks such as “Candy’s Room.” Following the band’s breakup in 1989, Max worked on several different projects, including starting his own record label and a brief attempt at law school. Ultimately, he would find great success as the musical director and band leader for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Having literally talked his way into the job following a chance meeting with O’Brien on a New York City street, Weinberg put together a top flight set of musicians to form the Max Weinberg Seven.
Max was featured on “Late Night” not only as bandleader but also as a comic foil to O’Brien, particularly in the show’s sketches. When the E Street Band reunited and proceeded to tour regularly in the 2000s, NBC allowed a special dispensation, permitting Max to take leaves of absence from the show in order to go on tour. When scheduling difficulties associated with O’Brien’s move to the “Tonight Show” forced Max to miss several E Street Band shows in 2009, Bruce chose Max’s son, Jay, to serve as a temporary replacement.
Max’s time in late night television was also notable for sharpening his drumming skills. Having to play regularly for more than 150 shows a year meant that Max’s chops were as strong as they had ever been, and when the E Street Band reunited, the power of his drumming was on display each night in setlist staples “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “Light of Day.” On recent tours, new material, such as “Land of Hope and Dreams” and “Radio Nowhere,” have given a showcase to Max’s talents.