To Bruce Springsteen, Danny Federici was "the Phantom"--not just because he played the organ in Springsteen's E Street Band, but also because he tended to make himself scarce when the spotlight wasn't on.
"I never showed up for the shows until I had to, and I never hung around," Federici said over the phone this week from his home in Burbank. "I wasn't into the schmoozing, hanging out and all the stuff that goes with it."
But Federici, 47, has something to schmooze about now: the first solo album of his career, a CD of pop-jazz instrumentals called "Flemington," after his hometown in New Jersey.
Besides raising the profile of the erstwhile Phantom, the album is a signpost indicating that E Street has branched into Orange County. "Flemington" is on Deadeye Records, a Lake Forest-based label that's a partnership between Federici and two veteran O.C. country-rock musicians, Ben Arrington and Frank Jenkins.
The connection goes back about four years, when Diamondback, led by Arrington and Jenkins, was serving as the house band for a benefit concert to aid an alcoholism rehabilitation center in Laguna Beach.
Federici dropped in to play, and he hit it off with Diamondback, a band of transplanted Arkansans. Federici played keyboards on Diamondback's 1994 album, "Ragin' Wind," and sat in on some of the band's shows.
His main slant a few years ago was writing music for the film industry--one of his reasons for moving to Burbank from the Jersey shore in the early 1990s. He also was the first bandleader of the Sacred Hearts, the house band at the House of Blues in West Hollywood.
Federici said he became disillusioned with the role of backing musician at the House of Blues, which led him to consider stepping out for the first time as a composer and solo artist. Then both his parents died over the past year and half. The time he spent back home, and the memories the experience evoked, gave him the theme for "Flemington."
"I had to go back, clear out the house, look at photographs and think about the past," said Federici, who has two infant daughters and a 27-year-old son from a previous marriage. "A friend of mine said, 'You never mention Flemington. People in this town think you're ashamed of where you grew up.' It really stuck with me. That's not the case at all."
Federici, whose tenure with Springsteen goes back to the late '60s (he played in Springsteen's pre-E Street bands, Child and Steel Mill), has taken a sharp turn from boisterous arena rock. His music has the light, melodic-jazz feel popular on the "Wave" mellow-pop radio format, along with some moody, cinematic passages, including "A Doorman's Life," written in honor of his doorman father.
"I would listen to music on the Wave and go, 'You know, I can do this, and probably do it better than some of the music I'm hearing.' I think it's a perfect transition. [Music fans raised on Springsteen] are listening to this stuff, and I listen to this stuff."
Arrington and Jenkins approached Federici about releasing his album on Deadeye, the label they had created for their Diamondback release. The partners solicited tapes from other unsigned musicians and have signed from around the country several grass-roots acts in a variety of styles. With his own record as the "spearhead," Federici said, Deadeye is negotiating for a national distribution deal.
Arrington said that being partners with Federici has had some unusual fringe benefits--including the chance to hang out in Federici's kitchen and talk about guitar players for a half hour with Bruce Springsteen.
Federici has kept up his contacts with other E Streeters: Guitarist Nils Lofgren and bassist Garry Tallent play on "Flemington," and Federici played keyboards on Springsteen's sparse 1996 folk album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
"It took a long time to come down off of 30,000 feet," Federici said of his period of adjustment after Springsteen broke up the E Street Band.
"It was such a comfortable situation; you felt nothing can hurt you, and you don't need to do anything else--and that's not the case at all. You can really come down to earth, and that's what this [solo album] is about."
That said, Federici is eager to fly at 30,000 feet again with a reunited E Street Band, and he is sure it will happen at some point.
"That would be wonderful for everybody concerned," he said. "I would like to make a statement myself before that happens."
Federici doesn't mind stepping out of the shadows he occupied as the Phantom of E Street. He is even getting to like schmoozing to spread the word about his album.
"It's OK, to tell the truth. I've got a lot of history, and I've got [a record] that's good, and it's fun to talk about."