The Story Behind “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and How “The Big Man” Joined the Group

In 1989, Bruce Springsteen informed his longtime backing-band members that he would not need their services for the foreseeable future. The E Street Band had been with “The Boss” since 1972, even though they weren’t known by that name when they started. The original lineup comprised bassist Garry Tallent, keyboardist Danny Federici, drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, keyboardist David Sancious, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

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In 1974, Ernest “Boom” Carter replaced Lopez, and a few months later, Sancious and Carter left to form their own jazz-fusion project, Tone. Keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg were brought in, and guitarist Steven Van Zandt joined the fold the following year. The lineup remained stable until 1984, when Nils Lofgren replaced Van Zandt, and Patti Scialfa joined on vocals and, later, guitar.

As the band toured, they built a reputation on their live shows. They started out on the club circuit, evolved to theaters and arenas, and ultimately stadiums. After the huge success in the ’80s, Springsteen shocked everyone when he dismissed his band. He continued recording and touring with different musicians, occasionally utilizing an E Streeter here or there. In 1995, the band reunited, including Van Zandt and Lofgren, to record four songs on a Greatest Hits collection.

Four years later, the band staged a reunion tour with Springsteen and have steadily been involved in most of his album projects since. Band members have also pursued successful solo careers as producers, session musicians, actors, and songwriters. On the 1975 album Born to Run, Springsteen shared the tale of how they got started. Let’s take a look at the story behind “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

“It’s Important”

“Bad Scooter” is a pseudonym for Bruce Springsteen himself, and “The Big Man” refers to Clarence Clemons. The song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” tells the story of the formation of The E Street Band. In the documentary Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run, Springsteen shared, “I still have no idea what it means. But it’s important.”

Teardrops on the city, Bad Scooter searching for his groove
Seem like the whole world walking pretty, and you can’t find the room to move
Well, everybody better move over, that’s all
‘Cause I’m running on the bad side, and I got my back to the wall
Tenth Avenue freeze-out

“It Just Had a Nice Ring to It”

E Street intersects Tenth Avenue in Belmar, New Jersey. Keyboardist David Sancious lived at 1105 E Street where the band sometimes rehearsed. In 2017, at A Conversation with Bruce Springsteen at Monmouth University, Springsteen remembered, “My recollection is we were on the bus one night trying to come up with a band name. It seemed pretty easy—it just had a nice ring to it … E Street. E Street. Well, David lives on E Street. David was a big, important part of the band at the time, and it just came up.”

Well, I was stranded in the jungle, trying to take in all the heat they was giving
The night is dark, but the sidewalk’s bright and lined with the light of the living
From a tenement window, a transistor blasts
Turn around the corner, things got real quiet real fast
I walked into a Tenth Avenue freeze-out
Tenth Avenue freeze-out

A Rock ‘n’ Soul Band

Sessions for Born to Run went from January 1974 to July 1975. The band worked six months on the title track alone. Springsteen wrote in his 2016 autobiography: “I’d loosely imagined the Born to Run album as a series of vignettes taking place during one long summer day and night. It opens with the early morning harmonica of ‘Thunder Road’ … followed by ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,’ the story of a rock ‘n’ soul band and our full-on block party. It’s Steve Van Zandt’s only Born to Run appearance, where he spontaneously arranged, badgered, and befuddled the jazz players of a prize New York City horn section, amongst whom were the Brecker Brothers and David Sanborn (all of whom must’ve been thinking, ‘Who is this crazy f–ker in the wife-beater tee and straw fedora?’) into honking out some primitive boardwalk soul.”

And I’m all alone. I’m all alone
(And kid, you better get the picture)
And I’m on my own. I’m on my own
And I can’t go home

Thunder and Lightning

Clarence Clemons began playing alto saxophone when he was 9. He was inspired by King Curtis, and especially his work with The Coasters, to switch to tenor sax. He was playing with Norman Seldin & the Joyful Noyze at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey, when he met The Boss. In Big Man: Real Life and Tall Tales by Clemons and Don Reo, the sax man wrote about the meeting: “It was one of those nor’easters—cold, raining, lightning and thunder. Now, this is God’s honest truth. I open the door to the club and a gust of wind blew the door right out of my hand and down the street. So, here I am, a big Black guy, in Asbury Park, with lightning flashing behind me. I said to Bruce, ‘I want to sit in.’ He says, ‘Sure, anything you want.'”

When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band
From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raise their hands
I’m gonna sit back right easy and laugh
When Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half
With the Tenth Avenue freeze-out

Introductions and Tributes

Through the years, Springsteen always incorporated band introductions into the show. Beginning in 1999, he used “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and took on a preacher persona as he featured each E Street member. During the Wrecking Ball Tour, following the deaths of Clemons and Federici, when it came to the song’s third verse, the band would pause, and a video package featuring the fallen musicians would play. 

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Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

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