Hosted by longtime band mates Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg, left, and Mark “The Love Man” Pender, right, the 40th anniversary edition of LaBamba’s Holiday Hurrah will rock Dec. 9 at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park in benefit of Toys for Tots. PHOTO BY JOHN CAVANAUGH
In a career spanning over 30 years, Philadelphia-born Richie "LaBamba" Rosenberg has brought his trombone, voice, and personality to the world of music and television. He's toured and recorded with Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Little Steven, Jon Bon Jovi, Diana Ross, Dave Edmonds, Ricky Martin, John Mayall, Darlene Love, Jessica Simpson, and Joe Cocker, to name a few. LaBamba enjoyed 25 years on late night television with Conan O' Brien, playing trombone as a member of the Max Weinberg 7 and Jimmy Vivino & the Basic Cable Band. With Conan, he also was featured in a myriad of comedy sketches, such as "In the Year 2000," developing a respectable cult following in the process.
LaBamba's musical roots stem from his family. At age 13, his stepfather introduced him to jazz. After graduating from George Washington High School in Philly, he spent much of his time playing in local and touring bands. In addition to performing, LaBamba has also made a career of orchestrating and arranging music.
Highlights of LaBamba's career include the formation of his very own band, LaBamba & the Hubcaps, a rockin’, R&B band. His craft excelled when he arranged, orchestrated, and conducted the album, “Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits, featuring Southside Johnny with LaBamba's Big Band.” He played the Super Bowl XLIII half time show with Bruce Springsteen, and performed by request of Jon Bon Jovi at the White House for the televised Special Olympics All-Star Gala. Out of his many achievements, LaBamba said the biggest thrill of his career was being asked to perform with his Big Band and Southside Johnny on “Late Night with Conan O'Brien.” He said, “To be a guest artist on the same show that I play for on a nightly basis was a dream come true."
LaBamba enjoys his spare time with his wife and their five children, who support him in all of his work and sometimes get in on the action themselves. Daughter Jade and son Reed will be among the special guests on Dec. 9 at LaBamba’s longtime stomping grounds at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park for the 40th anniversary edition of LaBamba’s Holiday Hurrah. Co-hosted for the first time by longtime band mate Mark “The Love Man” Pender, the Holiday Hurrah also will feature performances by fellow Asbury Jukes alum Bobby Bandiera, former Hubcaps Glen Burtnik and Joey Vadala, and beloved Asbury adopted son Willie Nile backed by a 17-piece band. The can’t-miss annual holiday event once again will benefit Asbury’s Toys for Tots program for which patrons can donate a new unwrapped toy.
I spoke with LaBamba about the Holiday Hurrah, as well as his amazing career backing some of the biggest names in show business, plus his latest ventures as a longtime band leader. Enjoy the following chat, and then grab some tickets for LaBamba’s Holiday Hurrah here.
Who gave you the name LaBamba and why?
I gotta thank Steve for putting that soundtrack on ‘When You Dance.’ He got those jungle sounds on that recording with LaBamba from a National Geographic-type of audio recording.
Steve and I got really tight. I was in his wedding party with Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds. Bruce was his best man.
Why does The Stone Pony and Asbury Park remain important to you?
The Pony remains important to a whole lotta folks. History!
What’s your most fond or funniest memory of the Pony?
It’s a historical tradition of sorts to be given a nickname in Asbury Park. Bands, club owners, bartenders, bouncers, colorful peeps around town. All the Jukes and E Streeters had names given to them. Days after joining the Jukes, I was hanging in the back bar of the Pony with the band, Bruce, his friends, and the place was packed as usual. At the time, I was sporting a large Fu Man Chu and an afro. I was also quite tan. I actually looked more Mexican than a Jewish kid from Northeast Philly. Well, in figuring out what title I was gonna be tagged with, a Jukes roadie by the name of Gary Anderson yelled, ‘LaBamba.’ Next thing I know, Bruce jumped onto the bar and with a shot glass in hand, yells to the crowd, ‘Give me an L, give me an A, give me a B,’ and so on. It stuck! The rest is history.
How did you get the gig with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Park Jukes?
Rick Gazda was a trumpet player in Philly. We were in bands together. He gave me the call to come to Asbury Park and check this band out. I never actually at that time – we’re talking 1976 – had heard of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. He told me they were connected with Bruce. I really didn’t know that much about Bruce either in ’76. I know that he played The Main Pont in Philly, which was a really cool speakeasy. They would have jazz there, a whole mix of stuff, folk and rock. I was Schenectady playing with a Holiday Inn band. I get this call from Rick to come to Asbury Park to check out this band Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes. I really disliked what I was doing so much, I left a note under the door of the hotel room of the leader/bass player I was working for. I said, ‘I got an offer I can’t refuse.’
It was the first time in my life I drove down the Parkway into Asbury Park. I’d never been there before. We were Philadelphians, so we would go to South Jersey, Brigantine on down and skip over the Wildwood because the Wildwoods were invaded by Canadians (laughs). When was I growing up, we had a summer rental in Ventnor.
Anyhow, I get to Asbury, and the audition -- if you want to call it that because I was only trombone player there -- took place at the Stone Pony, not on the stage, as you might think, but on the dance floor in front of the stage. It was all laid out with a sound system.
We started going through some tunes that were being used for ‘This Time It’s for Real,’ the second Jukes album. Rick Gazda had contracted horns players from Philly to play on the first album, but not me. They were Philly guys. Errol Garner was one of the trumpet players who went on to play for so many years in the Saturday Night Live Band.
We started going through material. I didn’t know Johnny. I didn’t know Miami Steve, Little Steven Van Zandt. I didn’t know Bruce, who was there because he wrote so much of that album. You look at the first three albums, and a good portion of it, Bruce was involved with. Steven wrote most of the songs, but Bruce also wrote a lot, like ‘When You Dance,’ ‘Talk to Me,’ ‘Trapped Again,’ and ‘Hearts of Stone’ from the third album.
I was a complete idiot for not doing my homework, I guess. I was a novice … but they liked the trombone sound even though they had one on the first album. But with this new material, they wanted to have a steady trombone player in the band. Nobody else was standing there (laughs).
Rick had a big hand in putting the horn players together for the first one. He did a great job with it, so they put a lot into: ‘Rick had the right idea, let’s go with that.’
You have been doing holiday benefits in Asbury Park for a long time. You and Mark Pender have been band mates in a variety of bands. When, how and why did your holiday benefit evolve into the Holiday Hurrah, and how long has Mark been a co-host?
Holiday Hurrahs started in 1983. Mark and I have been playing in bands together for over 40 years starting with the Jukes in 1980. I started with the Jukes in 1976. This is the first year that Mark is co-hosting the show.
Back in ’83, I wanted to put on a holiday show. I love the feeling of the holidays and especially the music that comes with it. This will be 40th anniversary of Holiday Hurrah. It was a much smaller thing before Bruce came. Then in 1984, Steven wanted to get involved, and it became a huge event. Everything Steve does is huge. We were on Westwood One across the country on stations tied to WNEW, sister stations.
Has the Holiday Hurrah always benefitted the Asbury Toy Drive?
All the Holiday Hurrahs at the Pony have included a toy drive. We are asking people to bring unopened toys. Since the start of the Holiday Hurrah in 1983, we have made it a point to give, starting with a Missing Children campaign. It’s all about kids, the unfortunate ones. They are the future! And no better time to give than the winter holidays!
Which members of the Hurrah Big Band have been in the Hubcaps and/or LaBamba Big Band?
Long-term Hubcaps in the band are Mark ‘The Love Man’ Pender (trumpet); pianist Mike Mancini (Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder), who’s been with me 30 years; Julian Lennon/Asbury Jukes saxophonist Frank Elmo; saxophonist Jerry Vivino (fellow member of Jimmy Vivino & the Basic Cable Band on Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show ‘Conan,’ as well as Frankie Vali’s band); Ian Gray (founding Ocean Avenue trombonist), trombonist Ben Williams, an incredible master of the horn and a very busy guy in the NJ jazz community: trombonist Jon Shubert, so good I gave him the name ‘The Beast’; saxophonist Tommy ‘Taco’ LaBella (10,000 Maniacs, Billy Hector Band, Cahoots, Holme, George Theiss Band, Taylor Simon King, Bobby Bandiera); trombonist Clarence Banks, currently enjoying his 40th year with the Count Basie Orchestra -- now touring Japan, Clarence plays with us when he’s off the road; bassist Tony Tino (Ronnie Spector, Gavin DeGraw, ‘The Late Show’), a very busy cat from NYC, and ‘Conan’ drummer James ‘The Worm’ Wormworth.
Who else is in the Holiday Hurrah Band?
Sam Bortka (Huey Lewis, Aretha Franklin), sax, one of those NYC guys who does it all, currently with the Fab Faux; Tony Gorruso, trumpet, a high-note monster and sight reader from Sinatra tours to Buddy Rich Big Band; Joe Bellia, drummer for Dave Mason, the Jukes, Burtnik’s band The Weeklings; Steve Lukas, guitarist with a long resume of great stuff and a great reputation as a sight reader; trumpeter Tony Cinkutis, great player who attended the same Philadelphia high school as me a few years apart; Mike Lapicca, sax, a great find in NJ scene, and Tom ‘Bones’ Malone (Blues Brothers Band, SNL, Letterman).
Fellow Asbury Jukes alum Bobby Bandiera will be among the special guests on Dec. 9 for LaBamba’s Holiday Hurrah at The Stone Pony. PHOTO BY JOHN CAVANAUGH
Special guests for LaBamba’s Holiday Hurrah will include Willie Nile; Bobby Bandiera, a fellow member of the Asbury Jukes; one-time Hubcaps Glen Burtnik and Joey Vadala, and two of your five kids, son Reed and daughter Jade. How often do you get to perform with your kids, and are any of the other three also musicians?
All of my five kids -- Evan, Jade, Justin, Samantha and Reed -- play music. Three of the five are professionals. Cheek out our FB page, ‘Sunsets with LaBamba.’ My oldest son, Evan, produces and directs it. We needed something to do during COVID. They were featured with my band this week in Studio City.
My daughter Samantha is an opera major. We just went to see her in an opera at school. This is her last year of school, and she’s considering going for her master’s. She just got the lead part for this next opera in the spring. We’re really excited about it.
My daughter Jade is in New York. She’s been there a while now. She’s a theater major and a singer and a dancer. She joins me when we do the Holiday Hurrah. We do some songs together, and that’s a lot of fun.
My youngest, Reed, is a music major at UCLA. He’s a brainiac, that kid. He’s really got it going on: songwriting, orchestration, drums, guitar, bass. He is something else. He studied music theory. He decided he wanted to study music theory while in high school privately. By the time he got in college, he was so above the other kids were in that department. At that age, he learned more than I did.
I went to Philadelphia Music Academy for one year. I’d never been on the road before, so I was like, ‘OK, let me leave school like a stupid idiot’ (laughs).
My oldest son, Evan, went to Chapman for production and now is in his 12th season for ‘The Voice.’ He works as a stage manager on ‘The Voice.’ And he does other stuff, like the Academy Awards. He’s my personal manager. He helps me make decisions.
We have ‘Sunsets with LaBamba.’ During COVID, my son Evan sat us all down in a family meeting. He said, ‘We gotta get some shit together. It’s all going down, and we need something to do.’ Evan produced this talk show-type of thing in our backyard. He got somebody with one of those drones that flew up over our house, which overlooks a canyon It goes up in the air taking the shot. It was beautiful.
What do you like most about Asbury-based trombonist Ian Gray?
We call him ‘the Young Lion’ ’cause he reminds us of ourselves growing up in the field. He also really has his social media skills in order, which is one of the most important vehicles in the entertainment industry today. A lot of respect for that youngster. Great trombonist! Great guy! Will be a giant someday.
How often do you play with the Hubcaps and the Big Band?
Unfortunately, at this point I don’t nearly get as many gigs for the Big Band as I would like. It’s really quite a juggernaut of a project to afford. 17 bandmates! Although that’s my true love.
We played a high-end wedding last spring with the Hubcaps. Yes, we’re still taking on private events since 1985.
I’ll do some more writing and do some Big Band gigs. I’ll book some more next year. That’s my main interest.
I’m also doing work with Billy Gibbons. I occasionally play with Billy. I’ll be with him on the 15th in Nashville and three nights on Dec. 19, 20 and 21 at the Troubadour in L.A.
I’m occasionally recording with other people. I’ve done John Mayall records in the last number of years.
But my main interest is the Big Band orchestration. That is my love right there. The Big Band has four trumpets, four trombones, and five saxes who double on flutes and clarinet. We played Asbury Lanes in May, week before Memorial Day, so I will have played Asbury twice this year.
How often do you play with Bruce?
I did play with him on the Jimmy Fallon show last Thanksgiving. We did four songs in two nights. He had a percussionist standing in front of me. It was like where’s Waldo, but where’s LaBamba? But it was great see him again.
When I did the Super Bowl with Bruce, it was a month before I was in a car accident with my daughter. I was off from the show with Conan. A sub took my place. Eventually, I got a call from the show that they wanted me to play with the band from my house. They wanted to bring a crew out to the house, and my son was in media in school taking production courses at the time. My son said, ‘Don’t bring a crew out. I’ll do it. I can handle this.’ He set lights up in my bedroom. I’m in bed with my Marvel sheets in my DC pajamas playing trombone from my bed. That was crazy.
But a couple of weeks after that, we did the Super Bowl. I come walking in with a cane to a rehearsal Bruce had for the Super Bowl. He says, ‘What’s going on with cane? We’ve got this whole thing planned for you. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going take this suit. It’s a tear away suit. Underneath the suit, you’re going to be wearing socks with garters and boxer shorts with hearts on them and a white guinea T. You’ll be wearing that under the suit during ‘Glory Days.’ Then Pender is going to come from behind and tear away the suit.’ It was supposed to be a spoof of Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate. I still have the shorts, but it never happened. The NFL didn’t want to recreate that.
After I joined the Jukes, it was all down time for Bruce. He was in that lawsuit with Mike Appel. He couldn’t do his own recordings, so he was writing songs for other people. That’s another reason why he wrote for Johnny so much and Patti Smith and Dave Edmonds.
We used to hang out. There’d be ball games between the Stone Pony and Bruce’s team, which was not a lot of E Streeters. It had more Jukes on it, like Kevin Kavanaugh. We miss him.
How often do you play with Southside?
The Tom Waits tribute record we did together is one of the biggest deals I’ve ever been involved other than the Super Bowl. Occasionally I jump up there with him. We did The Holiday Hurrah two years ago. We’ve done some gigs together. When he comes out here, I jump onstage with him. We stay in touch.