SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — When Max Weinberg was a student at Columbia High School he walked into the News-Record office and asked the editor to write a story about his band, of which he was the drummer. The editor told Weinberg, “Come back when you’re famous.”
So a few years later he returned as the drummer in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and on the heels of the release of “Born to Run.” He asked the editor to write about his band again.
“I still don’t think he did it,” Weinberg joked in a phone interview with the News-Record on March 28.
He’s returning to South Orange on Saturday, April 6, to play hits from the 1960s and 1970s with the Jukebox, his four-piece band, at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. Weinberg doesn’t make a set list for the show and instead asks the audience to choose the songs that he, guitarists Bob Burger and John Merjave, and bassist Glen Burtnick will play.
“We were going to do an hour and a half of 18 songs,” Weinberg said about another show the Jukebox played in Chicago a few years ago. “Then my manager suggested we take a few audience requests. Eventually we decided to do all audience requests. It’s different every show, I’m having a ball with it.”
Weinberg projects the list of songs that the band can play in the venue, and the audience calls out what they want to hear. He then makes a connection from the song to his life, telling stories about a career that has taken him from Essex County to the E Street Band and 17 years as the bandleader on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.”
That career began in Maplewood, where Weinberg and his family lived until he was in first grade before moving to the Montrose section of South Orange. He was 5 years old when he began learning to play the drums, but when it was time for the fourth-graders at Marshall Elementary School to pick an instrument to learn, Weinberg wanted to try something else.
“I wanted to play the saxophone,” he said. “I saw that the horn players were always in the front, so that’s what I wanted to do. But I had braces, so the orthodontist wouldn’t let me.”
Braces weren’t the only thing that prevented Weinberg from becoming a saxophone player. He went to camp the summer after third grade, and by the time he came home and it was time to sign up for band, percussion was the only section with an opening.
“I’d already been fooling around on the drums, so I stuck with it,” Weinberg said. “And it fanned out from there.”
He continued to play in the school band at South Orange Middle School, and took every music class he could when he became a student at CHS. Weinberg arranged his schedule so that he didn’t have an academic class until after lunch, dedicating his entire morning to orchestra, band and chorus. He was a member of the CHS marching band and sat behind the drum set in a band with his friends.
“I loved it,” Weinberg said. “We played at the Baird and at every church and temple in the area.”
They were playing the same music that Weinberg and the Jukebox will play at SOPAC, but when he graduated from CHS in 1969, those were current radio hits. He covered everyone from the Beatles to Aretha Franklin to the Kinks, all while wearing uniforms to match with his band. Those songs captured a feeling Weinberg is still trying to recreate.
“We treat this material like the classics that they are,” he said. “We try to cop that feeling. This is all nostalgia, but it’s treating the music with the respect it deserves and bringing back memories of the time when it was popular. There’s a lot of tremendous music being made today, but this is definitely nostalgic.”
The Jukebox has played a few shows at SOPAC already, and Weinberg has been in South Orange for benefits and his induction into the CHS Hall of Fame in 1987. He lives in Florida now, but flies into Newark often.
“If I land in Newark and have time to kill I drive up South Orange Avenue,” Weinberg said. “I have phenomenal memories of growing up in South Orange. I remember going to Village Records, where they would let you listen to music without buying the record. I spent a lot of time there. I’ll drive around and look at my old house and the house my band rehearsed in. It feels like yesterday.”
The Jukebox will be at SOPAC on April 6 at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at www.sopacnow.org/events/max-weinberg.