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Max Weinberg talks ‘old Las Vegas’ as Bruce Springsteen returns to the Strip

Updated March 22, 2024 - 3:53 pm

In the spring of ‘74, a 23-year-old musician took a side job driving a brown-and-tan Mercedes-Benz 190 SL from New York to Los Angeles.

This driver was already an experienced drummer, but not famous. At least not yet. So he snared the chance to make some extra cash delivering this car to its owner across the country.

“This was before I met Bruce. In those days, you could sign up to drive somebody’s car from New York to L.A., and I drove into the old Las Vegas,” says Max Weinberg, the legendary drummer for the E Street Band, the “Bruce” referring to Springsteen. “I saw this really small strip, and the lights of Las Vegas suddenly appearing through the darkness, like entering the Land of Oz.”

Weinberg, today a celebrated rock star, pulled into a Motel 6 for his overnight stay. “I do recall seeing the old Sands hotel, the sign where Frank Sinatra and his pals posed.”

During the trip, Weinberg found a program for the Academy Awards show under the driver’s seat. “It turned out that the car belonged to a guy named David Braun, who was a major music executive at the time.” Braun had just set up George Harrison’s Dark Horse Records label, and over the years managed Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Michael Jackson.

“He asked what I did, and I said I was a drummer,” Weinberg says, in a story he’s never shared. “He gave me all of these people to talk to, whom I did. Nothing ever really came of it, but I was encouraged to keep going forward.

“Three months later is when I met Bruce and the E-Street Band, so it was a fortuitous trip.”

Street back to Vegas

Springsteen and the E-Street Band has made the long trip back to Las Vegas, playing T-Mobile Arena on Friday night. The band reportedly crushed it in their return to the stage at Footprint Center in Phoenix on Tuesday night, playing 29 songs over three hours.

Friday is Springsteen’s first Vegas show since Aug. 18, 2002 at the Thomas & Mack Center. Weinberg says the more than 20-year wait between shows is just a coincidence. “I can’t wait to get back to Las Vegas,” says Weinberg, who turns 73 next year. “The city has been the home of the people who created the modern entertainment industry.”

Aptly nicknamed ‘Mighty Max,’ Weinberg says he’s still able to kill it for three hours on stage. “I stay ready so I don’t have to get ready,” he says. “My first love is playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. There’s nothing else like it. Everything else is a distant second.”

Asked to put into words Springsteen’s long-lasting appeal, Weinberg says, “Most obviously, it’s the honesty that Bruce as an artist puts forward. You could pick any lane to discuss what he does as an artist, but there is a sense there is nothing artificial about him. It’s entertaining, but there’s always a deeper thing going on.”

Vegas ties

The band has more Vegas connections, or at least Weinberg does, than you might expect. The great drummer is a big fan of Liberace. Same for Sammy Davis Jr. He met Frank Sinatra in the 1980s, Jerry Lewis a decade later.

While growing up in Newark, N.J.in the ’50s, Weinberg watched Liberace’s weekly TV show with his sister Nancy, who “was and is a phenomenal pianist.”

“He wasn’t as flamboyant back then, but he was certainly flamboyant int he way he sold his piano playing, lifting his hands off the keyboard, and of course the candelabra,” Weinberg says. “I was fascinated by that.”

Years later, Weinberg saw the showman play an outdoor amphitheater in New Jersey. “It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen,” says the man who joined Springsteen’s band nearly 50 years ago.

Summit with the Chairman

Weinberg met Sinatra in 1987 at Resorts International in Atlantic City, introduced by fellow drummer Irv Cottler, a Las Vegas resident and Sinatra’s drummer for decades. Weinberg floored Sinatra by dropping the name of a drummer who pre-dated even Cottler, Johnny Blowers, who was a mentor of Sinatra’s from the early 1940s through the mid-’50s.

“He looked at me like, ‘How in the hell do you know who Johnny Blowers was?’ ” Weinberg says. “Johnny was an older drummer who played in the band at the Rustic Cabin (in Englewood, N.J.), where Frank Sinatra was the singing waiter. I knew all this because I’ve been very interested in the history of drums and drummers, stuff like that.”

Johnny blowers was an older guy in the jersey music scene that played the drums in the band at the rustic inn, where Frank Sinatra was the singing waiter. And I knew this because I’ve been very interested in the history of drums and drummers.”

Backstage with Jerry

Weinberg met Lewis when Weinberg headed up the Max Weinberg 7 house band for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.”

“I went to his dressing room and introduced myself, and said, ‘We have a New Jersey individual in common,’ and he said, ‘Who could we possibly have in common?’” Weinberg says. “So I said, ‘Skinny D’Amato.’ He practically teared up and said, ‘How do you know Skinny D’Amato?’”

Paul D’Amato, nicknamed “Skinny” because he was, had known Weinberg’s father from their days in Atlantic City. Weinberg’s family were partners Shelburne Hotel on the Boardwalk; D’Amato owned the nearby and famous 500 Club. One of the most famous acts ever to come out of that club was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

“That became the place to play,” Weinberg says. “It was a showroom. And in the back, they had an illegal gambling room.”

All-request Max

Coming off the boffo tour launch in Phoenix, Weinberg is eager to get back on stage in Vegas. He and his side project, Max Weinberg Jukebox, play The Pinky Ring at Bellagio on Saturday night (his is a private, VIP, invitation-only performance). “We play everything from The Beatles, the Stones, Neil Diamond, the Eagles, the Kinks, the whole British Invasion. It’s all audience requests.”

We’ll probably get a Vegas-themed song out of one of Weinberg’s shows. Springsteen has worked up a dandy “Viva Las Vegas.” Might we hear a cover of the Elvis classic, or any ode to Vegas?

“I would be surprised if there wasn’t,” Weinberg says. “I can tell you, I’m for anything that might pop up that’s Las Vegas related.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on X, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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