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Doing it to the Max

June 10, 2010 By:
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Born to drum.

And then some.

His roles as TV sidekick, author, raconteur, former music distribution executive, GQ-coiffed quipster ... all are side shows to his showcased talent: Max Weinberg doesn't bang the drum slowly; he makes it dissolve with riffs that roar and reveal a hands-on artistry of perfection.

Certainly the forever Bruce buddy and Springsteen E Street star was snared by drums early on. Breakfast at timpani's? "I was 7 and at a Bar Mitzvah at a catering hall in New Jersey, and my mother asked the band leader if I could join him," recalls the drum major self-taught at 5.

"Here is this kid, I'm wearing a three-piece mohair suit, getting up and playing 'When the Saints Come Marching in.' "

They kept marching -- down the aisle at weddings, other Bar Mitzvahs and sundry other parties as Max Weinberg at 7 -- future leader of the Max Weinberg 7 on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" -- was added as a novelty act to the band.

But he's never been a one-man band; Weinberg has always played with the best and the brightest and the biggest. And after decades in the business, he's fronting his own ensemble now; next pit stop for the Max Weinberg Big Band is on Monday, June 14, at Philly's World Cafe Live (www.worldcafelive.com).

It's his world and welcome to it: Weinberg's riffs don't just rock, they roll with rhythm and blues and all that jazz that would have had Bob Fosse shrugging his shoulders -- a Fosse choreographic trademark -- joyously.

Once a member of Team Coco, he's now solo -- choosing not to join O'Brien on his fast forward from "The Tonight Show" to TBS in November. But with a 15-piece band of his own, Weinberg's in good company.

Born in the USA? Well, the part they call Newark: Not bad for a Jersey boy -- a Jewish Jersey boy still active at his temple -- self-described as a one-time "nervous kid, with a lot of energy and anxiety."

There would be anxious moments later on -- primarily when Springsteen called in '89 to say he was dissolving the E Street Band; easy street didn't follow. Weinberg tried other avenues, taking Bar Mitzvah gigs for $125 a shot.

But if the Springsteen announcement was a shot heard round the music world, it didn't echo forever.

Later, the Boss reformed the group for reunions, and the E Streeters, with Weinberg, have been hitting the road at a regular pace.

In a way he pulled the lucky drum stick: Weinberg simultaneously had been heading up the Max Weinberg Seven for O'Brien's late-night show, since 1993, before moving with his flame-haired boss to the short-lived O'Brien "Tonight Show."

Dubbed "Mighty Max" by the Boss -- the one born to run sweating from those marathon concerts -- Weinberg has been mighty happy with the way life has turned out, even when he courted the idea of becoming an attorney. He enrolled for a brief bit in the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University.

Yeshiva bucher? "No, I stayed for just a short time," he says, his verdict that the family business -- his dad, Bertram, was a prominent attorney whose "approach to his profession was as a way to help people who couldn't help themselves; he had the real soul of a tzadik and knew the importance of tzedakah" -- wasn't for him; music was his muse.

Isn't it rich? Weinberg had much to draw on for inspiration, including icon Buddy Rich, whose drum rolls drew dramatic portraits of percussive power.

But perhaps one of Weinberg's most inspired innovators was one never too far from home -- or the bimah: Rabbi Avraham Soltes, religious leader of Temple Sharey in East Orange, N.J.

"I was so lucky. My temple placed a tremendous emphasis on culture," says Weinberg, "and because of our rabbi, there was a poetry about" services.

Indeed, the late Soltes, who, says Weinberg, had been involved with TV's landmark "Lamp Unto my Feet," feted the creative impulse among congregants -- including a young Max -- to the max.

"His approach was very artful, a dramatic, theatrical way of putting across the liturgy."

The rabbi served as an official inspiration, officiating at Weinberg's Bar Mitzvah and, years later, at his wedding. He was Weinberg's rock: "He was the closest I got, as a child, to what I considered to be a rock star." High-five to the rebbe: "It was like the High Holidays all year around."

Weinberg could have gone anywhere, but he went to ... temple: His mother, Ruth, 95, "had been president of its Sisterhood; the idea of being raised in a big Jewish household -- she had four sisters -- was important to me," as was the "exposure to the the liturgy at temple."

Of rabbis and ... rabble rousers: Weinberg points to a family tree that, when shaken, provided some rattling discoveries. "My mother's aunt, an anarchist, became a partner in the work of Emma Goldman," once described as "the most dangerous woman in America" for her anarchist actions.

Another branch featured his great-grandfather, Joshua Mindlin, "a Talmudic scholar ... who never worked a day in his life."

Jewish history and its teachings have worked well for Weinberg. It has all helped him order his priorities -- and his soulful sound of music. Indeed, allows Weinberg, the seder -- Passover being one of his favorite holidays -- gave him a sense of structure, not surprising since its etymological derivation from Hebrew means just that, "order."

Weinberg built upon that sensitivity years later, structuring his sound accordingly. "My drumming has been described as architectural," he says.

If they build it, he will drum: Weinberg cites architectural influences -- listing Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, the latter whose work included the Albert Lewin House, in Santa Monica, Calif., designed in 1938 for Weinberg's second cousin, a legendary director, producer and writer.

But he is in the mainframe a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright: Weinberg made a rite of passage out of visits to the FLW-designed Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park; Weinberg's father and father's family come from Philadelphia. And Bertram had once owned and operated the famously Jewish Pocono Highlands Camp.
The Next Generation

There are two children in the Max and Rebecca Weinberg camp (the couple married 30 years ago; they didn't have to go far to audition the wedding music -- The Boss himself performed): Daughter Ali is involved in the TV industry, while son Jay -- a chip off the older rocker -- sat in for his dad on "Late Night" and with Springsteen, pursuing his own already much-lauded career.

When he's not touring, Max is near the turnpike: The Weinbergs built their own hallowed homestead in Middletown Township, N.J., great proving grounds for what Max prefers to call the third act of his life.

Third act? No, he asserts with a laugh; that doesn't mean the end is near. Life's denouement? Decidedly not.

Declares the 59-year-old artist on a drum roll, curtains rising, applause roaring: "I consider life to have four acts." 

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