Danny Federici, the longest-serving member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, died Thursday afternoon at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York after a three-year battle with melanoma. He was 58.
Federici, who played mostly organ as well as some accordion and glockenspiel, was a selfless virtuoso, adding his riffs to the rich E Street sound but never trying too hard to draw attention to himself. He played with Springsteen before there even was an E Street Band - in the groups Steel Mill and Child - and was one of only three musicians to be in every E Street incarnation.
One of his most notable contributions to E Street music was his atmospheric accordion, on "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)." His organ playing could be soulful, as on "My City of Ruins," or bright and cheerful, as on "Hungry Heart," or cool and jazzy, as on "Kitty's Back."
When he took a leave of absence, in November, to undergo treatment for his disease, Springsteen released a statement saying "Danny is one of the pillars of our sound and has played beside me as a great friend for more than 40 years.
Federici learned his first keyboard instrument, the accordion, by watching "The Lawrence Welk Show."
"I started playing accordion at 7 years old - my mom was pulling me around by my ear," he said in 2005. "I had quite a little accordion career going on, before I even got involved in rock `n' roll. I actually have one photo of me sitting at the Flemington Fair with a lousy smirk on my face, in front of like 50 people in the grandstand."
He earned his nickname, the Phantom, in 1970. At a Steel Mill show at the Clearwater Swim Club in Atlantic Highlands, local residents complained about the noise, and police ended the show early. Federici slipped away into the crowd, avoiding possible arrest.
In addition to recording and touring with the E Street Band, Federici released two albums of his own jazz-pop instrumentals: 1997's "Flemington" (re-released in 2001, with one new track, as "Danny Federici" ), and 2005's "Out of a Dream."
The former was named after the town where he grew up.
"It took me a long time to come home, to think about who I am and where I came from," he said at the time.
Federici's last full show with the E Street Band was in November, in Boston. Nothing was announced from the stage, but there were rumors that Federici might be taking a leave of absence, and fans chanted "Danny! Danny! Danny!" as the band took its bows.
Since that show, Charles Giordano has taken Federici's place. Federici made his last appearance with the band in March, playing on eight songs during an Indianapolis concert.
When Springsteen made his induction speech as a new member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he acknowledged every member of his E Street Band individually, with a few warm, well-chosen words.
He described Federici as "the most instinctive and natural musician I ever met" and told him, "Your organ and accordion playing brought the boardwalks of Central and South Jersey alive in my music."
Shows by Springsteen and the band scheduled for Friday and Saturday in Florida have been postponed.