Steven Van Zandt established himself as a songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer to be reckoned with before he stepped out as a solo artist in 1992 and adopted a new stage name, Little Steven. One of the architects of the trademark New Jersey sound as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and as a mentor to Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, Little Steven embraced a potent mixture of Jersey-style rock and blue-eyed soul on 1992's Men Without Women, the first album from his project Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul. He fashioned an international hard rock sound on 1984's rabble-rousing Voice of America and added funk and hip-hop influences to 1987's Freedom No Compromise. Production projects and work as a sideman occupied Van Zandt through most of the '90s until he released a solo album, Born Again Savage, in 1999, the same year he rejoined the E Street Band. Van Zandt's duties in the E Street Band, his roles on the TV shows The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, and hosting his Underground Garage radio show took priority over his solo career, but he consolidated his passions and influences for his 2017 comeback, Soulfire, and revived the Disciples of Soul banner for 2019's Summer of Sorcery.
Little Steven was born Steven Lento in Winthrop, Massachusetts on November 22, 1950. When he was 7, his mother, Mary Lento, married for the second time, wedding William Brewster Van Zandt. Steven would adopt his stepfather's surname and the family relocated to Middleton Township, New Jersey. Steven picked up the guitar at an early age, and after the Beatles and the Rolling Stones invaded America in 1964, he started his first band, the Whirlwinds, that same year. In 1967, Van Zandt met Bruce Springsteen, a fellow New Jersey musician with big ambitions, and the two became close friends and colleagues, teaming up in a hard rock band called Steel Mill. Van Zandt would later play with the Bruce Springsteen Band, which was formed after Steel Mill broke up, and worked in bar bands as a sideline. Van Zandt was working the oldies' circuit as guitarist with the Dovells when Springsteen's career began to take off, which prompted him to return to New Jersey and start a project of his own. While he was a proper member of the group for only a short time, Van Zandt would become a crucial behind-the-scenes figure for Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, a barn-burning blue-eyed soul combo fronted by vocalist Johnny Lyon; Van Zandt helped assemble the band, wrote most of their best material, and produced their first three albums (1976's I Don't Want to Go Home, 1977's This Time It's for Real, and 1978's Hearts of Stone), all while serving double-duty as guitarist with Springsteen's E Street Band, a position he took on in 1975 during the recording of Born to Run. While his work with Springsteen led him to step away from his role with the Asbury Jukes, Van Zandt kept his production chops in shape by helming most of the sessions for Gary "U.S." Bonds' 1981 comeback album Dedication, as well as the 1982 follow-up On the Line.
In 1984, Springsteen released Born in the U.S.A., the album that would make him a superstar, but by the time the E Street Band hit the road in support, Van Zandt had amicably left the group. He had already made his solo bow in 1982 with the album Men Without Women, in which he adopted the alias Little Steven, and introduced his group the Disciples of Soul, a powerful rock and soul show band that included members of the Asbury Jukes horn section, drummer Dino Danelli of the Rascals, and former Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir. Little Steven reshaped the group's sound for 1984's Voice of America, which moved the band into a more aggressive hard rock direction, dropping the horn section, and adding a strong leftist political slant to the lyrics. (Steven also cut a single opposing the re-election of Ronald Reagan, "Vote That Mutha Out," but his label was wary of the song and it was initially only released in the Netherlands.) Little Steven doubled down on his political convictions when he spearheaded the all-star recording project Artists United Against Apartheid, who released the anthemic single "Sun City" in 1985, featuring a cast of musicians ranging from Bob Dylan and Tom Petty to Joey Ramone and Run-DMC. The third Little Steven album, 1987's Freedom No Compromise, was another politically charged project, but it failed to sell as well as Voice of America, and 1988's Revolution went unreleased in the United States.
Little Steven's career was under the radar for much of the '90s, as he busied himself with occasional live work and cut an unreleased album with his garage rock project the Lost Boys, but in 1995, Bruce Springsteen reunited the E Street Band to record some new songs for his Greatest Hits album, and in 1999 he made the reunion official by taking the group out for an international concert tour. (Diplomatically, Springsteen brought both Van Zandt and his replacement, Nils Lofgren, back into the fold.) 1999 also saw the release of a Little Steven album Born Again Savage, which found Van Zandt exploring psychedelic influences; it was released on his own Renegade Records label. And Van Zandt made his acting debut in 1999 with the premiere of the acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos, in which he played strip club proprietor and mob confidante Silvio Dante. (2011 saw Van Zandt landing another non-network cable project when he wrote, starred in, and executive produced the series Lilyhammer for Netflix.)
As a passionate devotee of '60s-influenced rock, in 2002 Little Steven launched a syndicated radio show, Little Steven's Underground Garage, that featured a mix of current and vintage garage rock sounds. The show became a success, and Steven became the program director for the like-minded Underground Garage channel on Sirius Satellite Radio (he also coordinated programming for their Outlaw Country channel). In 2006, Van Zandt founded a record label, Wicked Cool Records, that focused on contemporary garage rock and vintage punk. In 2017, with the E Street Band on break, Little Steven decided it was time to make a new solo album, and 2017's Soulfire focused on the vintage soul and R&B elements that dominated his work with the Asbury Jukes and on Men Without Women. An extensive concert tour that followed the release was extensively documented on the concert souvenir Soulfire Live! The live album was credited to Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, and Steven's latest edition of the group quickly returned to duty to record another album, a diverse program of rock, blues, soul, and Latin influences titled Summer of Sorcery released in May 2019. ~ Mark Deming