From a professional beginning in Steel Mill (with Bruce Springsteen) and similar New Jersey bar bands, Little Steven toured as backing guitarist to the Dovells before passing briefly through the ranks of Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, whose first three albums he supervised. He also contributed several compositions to these, some written with Springsteen, with whose E Street Band he served on and off from 1975 to 1984 when, without rancor, he was replaced by Nils Lofgren.
Overcoming inhibitions about his singing, Van Zandt, also known as "Miami Steve" or "Little Steven," next led Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, a 12-piece that made its stage debut at London's Marquee Club with personnel that included the Asbury Jukes horn section and Jean Beauvoir (ex-Plasmatics) on bass. Theirs was a body of recorded work that, lyrically, reflected Van Zandt's increasing preoccupation with world politics, as exemplified by "Solidarity" (from 1984's Voice of America), which was covered by Black Uhuru. After a fact-finding expedition to South Africa, he masterminded Sun City, a post-Live Aid project that raised over $400,000 for anti-apartheid movements in Africa and the Americas via an album (credited to Artists United Against Apartheid), single, and concert spectacular featuring Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Ringo Starr, Springsteen, and other big names. To a less altruistic end, his reputation as a producer snowballed through his efforts on records by such artists as Gary "U.S." Bonds (with Springsteen), Lone Justice, and Ronnie Spector, as well as his own gradually more infrequent offerings.
Without a record contract for most of the '90s, Van Zandt's profile was raised at the end of the decade when he landed the role of Silvo Dante in HBO's acclaimed Mafia drama series The Sopranos, and toured with the reunited E Street Band. He also released Born Again Savage, which contained material recorded with Adam Clayton and Jason Bonham in the mid-'90s. In 2002, Van Zandt also developed a syndicated radio show called The Underground Garage, which expanded into a satellite radio channel within a few years. In 2006, Van Zandt launched the label Wicked Cool. These projects, along with acting (he starred in the Norwegian crime series Lillyhammer starting in 2011) and the E Street Band, kept him busy through the 2010s. In 2017, he revived his solo career with Soulfire. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine