The mid-1974 arrival of pianist Roy Bittan gave Bruce Springsteen the opportunity to turn the E Street Band from a rock-soul-jazz hybrid with David Sancious behind the keys into a more straightforward rock band. Nicknamed “Professor,” Bittan’s ability to play anything made an instant impact in the group, as his piano formed the musical bed of many of Springsteen’s best recordings. In the '80s, Bittan added synthesizers to his arsenal, which helped Springsteen achieve greater commercial heights.
Jon Stewart has said when you listen to Springsteen, you don’t feel like a loser, but rather a character in an epic poem about losers. Roy Bittan’s piano provides the crucial difference in that equation. His virtuoso playing gives added weight to the characters' plight and an eloquence that they don’t possess.
In addition to his work with Springsteen, Bittan’s distinctive piano has backed dozens of artists, ranging from Dire Straits and Stevie Nicks to Meat Loaf. He has also produced hit records by Patty Smyth and Lucinda Williams. But it’s his tenure in the Boss’ employ for which he’s best known.
So, in honor of the keyboardist who the Boss has called the Dean of the University of Musical Perversity, we present the Top 10 Roy Bittan Bruce Springsteen Songs.
‘Be True’From: 'Tracks' (1998)
Bittan’s glockenspiel was a key component in Springsteen’s attempts to recreate Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. On this outtake from The River that surfaced on 1998’s leftovers collection Tracks, it works in perfect harmony with his piano, particularly in the breakdown in the final verse, to mirror the narrator’s romantic longing for the object of his affections.
‘Born in the U.S.A.’From: ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ (1984)
Yeah, that synthesizer riff is so easy that anybody can figure it out. And the song became so overplayed and misunderstood that Springsteen rarely performs it anymore on U.S. soil. Still, those six notes are as integral to the song’s power as Max Weinberg’s ferocious drums and Springsteen’s angry vocals.
‘Meeting Across the River’From: 'Born to Run' (1975)
Bittan may not have Sancious' jazz credentials, but he still proved more than capable of conjuring the late-night saloon feel of "Meeting Across the River." His arpeggios on the complex changes provide the foundation for bassist Richard Davis and trumpeter Randy Brecker to improvise on the song, which sets up Born to Run's epic closer, "Jungleland" (see No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Roy Bittan Bruce Springsteen Songs).
‘This Hard Land’ From: 'Tracks' (1998)
An outtake from the Born in the U.S.A. sessions that, like "Be True," finally received an official release on Tracks (see No. 10 on our list of the Top 10 Roy Bittan Bruce Springsteen Songs), "This Hard Land" is one of Springsteen’s most moving statements about America. Bittan’s sparse but stately piano lines weave in and out of the mix, giving plenty of room for Danny Federici and Steven Van Zandt to contribute, respectively, organ and mandolin.
‘Roll of the Dice’From: 'Human Touch' (1992)
Springsteen broke up the E Street Band in 1989, but kept Bittan on board for the Human Touch album and the subsequent Other Band tour. Bittan played Springsteen some demos he had been working on in his home studio, to which the Boss added lyrics. With Bittan’s piano and glockenspiel front and center, "Roll of the Dice" is the cut from Human Touch (which Bittan also co-produced) that sounds most like a classic E Street Band song.
‘Backstreets’From: 'Born to Run' (1975)
Before joining the E Street Band, Bittan had played in the pits of several Broadway musicals. On "Backstreets," one of four tracks from Born to Run to make our list of the Top 10 Roy Bittan Bruce Springsteen Songs, he puts his experience in building drama to good use – from the main riff to the runs in the bridge to the cathartic closer.
‘Racing In the Street’ From: ‘Live / 1975-85’ (1986)
Bittan’s piano leads the way on the side-one closer of 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, a tale of a man looking to escape his joyless life through drag racing. But we’re going with the version from the Live / 1975-85 box set, which features a beautiful three-minute solo at the end that calls upon Bittan’s classical training.
‘Thunder Road’From: 'Born to Run' (1975)
Springsteen wrote most of the Born to Run album on the piano, which made Bittan’s introduction to the band a baptism of fire. But Bittan proved he was more than up to the task on that landmark album’s opening number, giving the song – which has three distinct sections and a coda, but no actual chorus – a fluidity that instantly showed his worth to his new bandmates. And, of course, there’s glockenspiel. Nobody can rock a glockenspiel like Roy Bittan.
'Point Blank'From: 'The River' (1980)
Springsteen has long been influenced by movies (note how many of his songs have been named after films), and many of his best cuts have a cinematic narrative at their core. He tells the tale of a young woman’s broken dreams on a track that begins the second half of 1980’s The River, with Bittan’s dark piano lines leading the way over a descending spiral of chords. Together, they take the form of a classic film noir.
‘Jungleland’From: 'Born to Run' (1975)
The late Clarence Clemons’ legendary sax solo may be the song’s emotional centerpiece, but Bittan’s part is every bit as crucial. From the elegant main riff to the spare final verse to the speedy arpeggios in the outro, nearly every aspect of Bittan’s versatility is on full display, making it an obvious choice to top our list of the Top 10 Roy Bittan Bruce Springsteen Songs.