In 1974 he left the E-Street Band to embark on a solo career and formed the band Tone which would combine the various influences of jazz, rock and classical music that he had grown up with. Sancious has since released six solo records in his career. His most recent release, 9 Piano Improvisations, was released in 2000.
Sancious is a highly respected musician that is constantly touring and recording with others. He has toured or recorded with such artists as Peter Gabriel, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Eric Clapton, Stanley Clarke, Jack Bruce and Santana. And he’s easily played a part in the recording of over 50 records. In 1992, he found himself once again in the recording studio with Bruce Springsteen for the Human Touch record.
After what seemed like a endless game of phone tag for weeks and weeks, David and I finally were able to connect and take a few minutes to talk about his career. It was worth the wait...
You were born in Asbury Park and moved to Belmar when you were just six. One of the first things you noticed about your new house was that it had a piano.
Yeah, absolutely. That was the first time that I had ever really been around a piano much. Maybe I had seen a piano at school, you know, grammar school in the auditorium or something, but it was the first time I ever was up close and personal with one. I mean, we had one in our house… Definitely.
Did you start playing right away?
Yeah, well pretty much because my mother started playing right away. She had known how to play since she was a young girl. I had never heard her play for years because we weren’t able to afford a piano where we lived in Asbury Park. We didn’t have either the money or the space for a piano. But she was actually quite a good pianist. So she played instantly.
I guess what happened was that when my parents bought the house in Belmar, the owners wanted to leave some of the furniture in it and the piano came along with the sale of the house. So the minute she got in the house she sat down and started playing. I was fascinated right away. I watched a lot and then pretty soon after that I got into it right away.
Tell me about some of your early musical influences.
Oh, in general, early influences are kind of diverse, but they happened simultaneously, which was interesting. It was at the same time I was getting into music, I was really influenced by classical music, mostly from my mother but also from a few other sources. I was always fascinated by music in films and back in that time, in the fifties and sixties, most of that was kind of a classical nature.
My father was a huge fan of jazz music. He actually had a good friend who was a club owner in Asbury Park. He owned a club called the Orchid Lounge, a jazz club. My father and the father of one of my best friends from school were good friends with the owner and they used to sneak us into this club at night. We got to hear a lot of the great jazz talent at the time like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and B.B. King. A lot of great players came through then. We were way under age to be in this place, but they knew we were interested in music and I think they were just trying to do something to encourage us or give us a little boost so they snuck us in to a lot of shows.
You got your start in a jazz band when you were still very young. What do you remember about that period of time?
I had my first band when I was about nine or ten. The good thing about that time was that we had a lot of support from our parents and older people. I think they recognized, whether they thought it was just cute or charming or whatever, that these young kids were playing this music and they really did support us. They got us some gigs and sort of helped set up opportunities for us to play. We played a couple of dances for older folks, wedding receptions, talent shows, of course. My parents were completely supportive. It wasn’t like I needed any permission from them to go anywhere or play music of any kind with anybody.
Were you playing in bands with different musical styles at the same time or did you focus on one genre at a time?
I was playing classical music at home, jazz with my friends in Belmar, rock and roll with guys in Asbury Park and R&B on the other side of the tracks with guys like Ernest Carter. So I was playing all kinds of stuff.
That was the beauty of that time. There was all kinds of little quartets and quintets and different configurations of people that would get together and do something. It would be really interesting. You’d have some gigs for a while and have some fun, meet some other musicians and have some adventures then that would disintegrate and merge into something else.
See, partly because I’m black and partly because of the way things were at the time and partly because of where my interests was in music, I was really playing on both sides of the tracks, not just working in one genre of music with one bunch of guys. I did gigs... all the time that I was doing that stuff with John and Steve and Bruce, I worked a lot in Asbury Park. I mean, literally the other side of the tracks from Cookman Avenue to Main Street where it was all the black community and there were black clubs.
Unfortunately there’s only a handful of white artists who ever got too much experience in that and saw it. It was a whole other scene, you know. And I was lucky to be able to sort of move back and forth between both worlds in a blink of an eye. Ernest Carter and I were in a lot of pickup bands and R&B bands that would get together and work the area for a while. Same thing, it would last as a quartet or quintet for a while. One personnel change and then somebody would fall out, somebody else would fall in, change the name.
We really played a pretty wide variety of music. And the fun thing was that it was really the beginning of the time when everybody was starting to really want to do their own music. It wasn’t about being a cover band, you know. The real serious guys were interested in writing music and playing original music and working that out. But, at the same time, you had to know covers. You had to know tunes. So there were two scenes going on at the same time. And then there became a certain point when you really got serious and you stopped playing in cover bands. You only worked in bands that were playing original material. You only fell into that other thing if you needed the money or the work or you just wanted to do it because you knew the people and you dug the music and it was just fun. But the real serious interest at that time was creating music, being a writer rather than just playing whatever was on the radio.
After leaving the E-Street Band you formed the band, Tone.
Well, Tone started as a trio. It was myself, Ernest Carter and Gerry Carboy then we got Alex Ligertwood, Gail Boggs and Brenda Madison. Ernest was with me way before Tone got together because we had a couple of versions of bands with different names and stuff. We had our own thing together for a while, but then we were also in a lot of different bands together with other people.
At one time, Bruce was ready to change drummers and I suggested Ernest. He came down and he came to two auditions with him, I think. And it was really good, the second one, especially, was brilliant. Bruce was really blown away. And he did that for a while.
Those kind of spin-offs were all things that went on. The thing about Bruce and his two bands was that he always had version of a band that he was working on or trying to get together.
Where did Tone play?
We played a lot of colleges in the Northeast. We probably played almost all of the state universities of New York. We played a lot of the places like Rutgers, Princeton, Fairleigh Dickinson, lots of colleges in New Jersey. Colleges, clubs and theatres.
How did Bruce react to the news that you were leaving the band?
Well, Bruce was… I won’t say he was surprised because he knew that I was writing and had the interest the whole time. What he was, more than anything, was supportive. I mean, the whole thing was difficult because I always knew what I was going to do. I always had the intention to be a writer and make records and have a band and do a lot of different things in music. I wasn’t looking for one situation to be everything.
What he was more than anything was incredibly supportive, really helpful, gave me some hints, and sort of guided me to some people in the music industry, people who might be interested in that type of music. What I was doing musically was quite different from what he was doing musically, but at the same time he very much appreciated it. Completely, completely supportive in every way, emotionally, any kind of guidance or support he could give me he was always there. And he really was very complimentary about it. He really dug the music.
Throughout your career you’ve played with so many great artists. Is that something you do because you love it or do you do it to satisfy your diverse musical tastes?
No, I definitely do it because I love it and I think I’m blessed to be able to do it. It sort of goes along with the pattern of my life from day one of music, it’s really been about diversity. I really have naturally been drawn to and appreciated a pretty broad range of music. The people that have called me and asked me to do projects with them over the years, I mean, I think back on it and I’m amazed. If I really take a minute and look back at everything I’ve done since being on the Jersey Shore and playing in bars and stuff, it’s a lot of good people and a pretty broad range of artists.
I definitely do it because I love it. You couldn’t do it if you didn’t love it. You couldn’t live this life if you didn’t really want to live it because it’s wonderful – it’s got a certain amount of glamour to it, got a lot of perks, a lot of fulfillment – but there’s a whole other side that goes with it too. It’s a lot of work, things don’t always work out like you want, there’s rejection sometimes and you don’t get everything that you’d like to get. You have to deal with all kinds of things, but on the most part it’s fantastic. But, like anything, to do it well you definitely have to love it, devote your whole life to it to be a musician.
You’ve toured with such great artists as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Eric Clapton. Is there one particular tour that stands out as a great thrill?
That stands out? Well, it’s really hard to have one, it really is. I couldn’t say that there’s one except, I’d have to say one that does stand out – I won’t call it the best, but I’m starting to say that because part of me does want to say it was the best ever – I’ll just say that one that definitely stands out in my mind as say a really fantastic time musically and personally, which was Eric’s (Clapton) 2001 tour.
It was just a joy. We had a fantastic time. It was one of those combinations of where the combination of the music was fantastic and the people – the band and everything, the crew, the management, everybody involved in that project – it just had such a great aura, good vibes, good cooperation – that really stands out.
Are you constantly writing music? Would you say that being a songwriter was something you always wanted to do?
Yeah, pretty much. I would say I’m constantly writing. Writing is my focus and I always personally thought of myself as a writer who plays well rather than a guy who plays the piano or the guitar or the synthesizer really well and kind of interested in writing. For me… in fact, my whole interest in music is sparked by wanting to write music, to be a composer. And so, yeah, I’m pretty much always writing.
For example, last year I worked with Eric Clapton from January 2001 to late December. I did his last world tour that just came out with a live album and DVD. So I didn’t… honestly, I can’t say I wrote a lot of music last year. I wrote a few things, little sketches and things. Things I’ve either developed more since that has ended or I’ll develop in the future. My normal thrust is if I’m home, I’m developing something. I’m either starting or finishing, developing some kind of musical idea that I’m working on.
You took a rather long time before your last record came out. Is it because you’re so busy in the studio with everybody else or because you’re rather demanding of your own work?
Umm, it’s a combination of being busy and wanting it to be what I mean for it to be. I don’t want to put albums out just to have an album out. Since my first album till present time, I think I’ve put out about 6 albums out over 3 record labels. The last record I put out is an album of solo piano music on my own label on the Internet. It’s a combination of being busy and doing things with other people. My life revolves around constantly touring for myself or other artists and session work. And, I really have to say, without it being intentional, it’s not something that I think about. I didn’t really plan to have so long of a gap in between projects, but it did sort of work out that way. I’m finishing an ensemble record that I’ve been working on in-between tours for quite a while and that’ll be my focus probably for next year. Once that’s out, I’ll focus a lot of that, do live shows and publicity for that.
I’m literally working around the clock. I kind of stop to eat lunch, hang out and have dinner with my wife and stuff. I’m just keeping real odd hours. I sleep for about four hours and then I get up around 2:00-2:30 in the morning and I work. It doesn’t make it good for promotional stuff.
Was it strange or did it feel a little different when, several years later, you recorded again with Bruce for Human Touch?
It was great! I love working with Bruce. I’d work with him anytime. I miss him terribly and any chance I have to work with him I would instantly do it. It was great being back in the studio with him and hearing the songs.
That was great because it was I think it happened over maybe three or four days in the studio. They called me about it before I left home, but I had been scheduled to be in Los Angeles to do another project, a recording session for about a week. And I just ended that project that I was called for, stayed out there for about three days and did some of that.
What do you like best about working with Bruce?
He’s got this thing, you know, this sort of melodic hook, this kind of energy that comes in his music. The minute you hear it you know it’s just going to be classic. It has this undeniable kind of vibrant, spiritual energy and this melodic hook that you couldn’t possibly get out of your head and you wouldn’t want to. It just really, really sticks with you instantly. The songs were all striking me as being like that and it was just a lot of fun.
Does it ever bother you personally that you’re not mentioned more in the history of the Asbury music scene along with the other artists of the day?
Well, I haven’t had a platinum record or a number one single or anything so my level of recognition with people on any level in the music industry is going to be different. If you know music and you’re a fan of music and you know the artists I work with you’re going to know who I am. But the average person who listens to radio or something and judges their artists by who’s on MTV or VH-1 probably is not going to be as familiar with me.
No, I don’t feel bad about that because I don’t look at myself in that light and I don’t even feel that way about it. I certainly have my share of recognition and I’ve gotten tremendous perks from what’s happened in my life and what I’ve done and who I’ve been associated with. So, I don’t feel left out or slighted at all by that. I don’t think about it. I don’t think about how much I’m being written about or how known I am in people’s hearts.
Have you been back to Asbury Park in the last decade or so? If so, what were your thoughts on your former hometown?
I’ve been back a few times. I haven’t been back there in a couple of years. The last time I was there it just struck me as how the whole Asbury scene, which used to be so vibrant, was like a ghost town. And it’s been like that for a long time. I was really encouraged to see the “Today Show” when they had the premiere of the album and they did a thing from Asbury Park on the beach. It was really encouraging to see the plans and hear people talking about the plans to bring it back and revitalize that whole area because it’s tragic that it should ever have gotten to that.
But Asbury Park is just one of a lot of places across America that it happened to. It’s special for us, for me, because that’s where I’m from, that’s where we lived and grew up. But I was really encouraged to see it. I hope they actually follow through on the plans and build some of that stuff and get some vibrancy back down there. People need it.
From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.