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Bruce Springsteen, Man With a Horn, Answers the Call from Springsteen, Southside, Conan

By Ellen S. Wilkowe • Daily Record • February 8, 2009

His kids call him Dad, but to everyone else, Richie Rosenberg of Randolph is best known as LaBamba. Everyone except for his wife, that is. “She calls me LB,” he said.

Gannett New Jersey, Trombonist Richie 'LaBamba' Rosenberg, a Randolph resident, performs nightly with the Max Weinberg 7 on 'Late Night With Conan O'Brien.' He's also a longtime member of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and leads several of his own bands.

Gannett New Jersey, Trombonist Richie 'LaBamba' Rosenberg, a Randolph resident, performs nightly with the Max Weinberg 7 on 'Late Night With Conan O'Brien.' He's also a longtime member of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and leads several of his own bands.

For the past 16 years, the man of one hat, one horn — a trombone — has found himself on the receiving end of Conan O’Brien’s jokes as a member of the show’s house band, the Max Weinberg 7.

“I don’t know idea why he picks on me,” Rosenberg said jokingly in a phone interview from — where else? — NBC in New York, where he tapes “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” almost daily from 2 to 8 p.m. “But from day one, there was always a camera on Max and on me.”

This year O’Brien will head west to take over “The Tonight Show,” and while an NBC spokesman would not reveal the band’s fate, Rosenberg said he will be going along — “a dream come true,” he said.

“I can only speak for myself and not the band,” Rosenberg said. “I just wish I didn’t have to leave this all behind.”

This, meaning New Jersey. “I’ll miss the Shore,” he said.

So how does one find his calling in the form of a late night talk show’s band, not to mention more than 30 years as a member of Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes and numerous performances with Bruce Springsteen, including the Super Bowl?

“I had no idea,” Rosenberg said. “But I was sure by the time I was in high school I enjoyed what I was doing.”

His high-mileage music career began at George Washington High School in Philadelphia, took root in Asbury Park and branched out to full-fledged albums, national and world tours, charity events, weddings and corporate parties.

At last Sunday’s Super Bowl, he performed at halftime with Springsteen and the E Street Band.

“There was so much adrenaline that I didn’t feel any pain in my foot,” said Rosenberg, who recently suffered a foot injury.

“I enjoyed it in a musical sense in the fact that all the music was memorized and there’s no reading. A lot of times you do a job and you’re reading with one eye on the conductor and one eye on the music.”

As for the fireworks? “We felt that heat,” he said.

Born to musically inclined parents, Rosenberg took to the piano and choir first. A sisterly intervention redirected him from the choir to the school’s instrumental director, who introduced him to the trombone.

“My senior year in high school, the saxophonist in jazz band and I both made first chair in the Philadelphia All City Jazz band,” he said.

His stepfather instilled in him an appreciation of jazz, specifically trombonist J.J. Johnson.

After a short-lived first year at the Philadelphia Music Academy, Rosenberg abandoned his scholarship to tour with the band Vicki Allen and the Image.

“I figured it would be more useful,” he said.

A call from high school friend and fellow musician Rick Gazda with “an offer you can’t refuse” brought him from Schenectady, N.Y., to the Stone Pony rock club in Asbury Park.

“I had never been there,” he said. “People from Philly went to Atlantic City, Margate or Ventnor — never anything north.”

The offer came from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

“It was their first rehearsal,” he said. “There was no other trombone player.”

That fateful night earned him his nickname, an initiation or rite of passage for band members. “Everybody had a nickname back then in Asbury Park,” he said.

“I had an afro and a Fu Manchu,” he said. “Some roadie with the Jukes, Gary Anderson, yelled out, ‘LaBamba!’ Then Springsteen jumped up on the bar and said, ‘Give me an L-A-B-A-M-B-A!’

“Bruce would rehearse with the band,” Rosenberg said. “He wrote a good amount of material for Southside. He was changing managers and was in a lawsuit, so he couldn’t record.”

After joining the Jukes, Rosenberg moved to the Shore area and lived in Belmar, Long Branch and “even across from the Stone Pony,” he said.

“It was a fun atmosphere,” he said. “The Pony was always packed.”

In 1981, a Jukes show at The Savoy, now the Hudson Theatre in New York City, caught the attention of Diana Ross’ producer, Nile Rogers. “He asked us (the horn section) to go on the road with her,” Rosenberg said.

After a two-year tour with Ross, Rosenberg returned, only to hit the road with “Little Steven” Van Zandt’s world tour in support of his album “Men Without Women.”

In the mid-1980s, Rosenberg fine-tuned his own bands, LaBamba and the Hubcaps and LaBamba’s Big Band, made up of 13 horns. The Hubcaps served as the entertainment for last year’s New Jersey Hall of Fame induction ceremony and were invited to play this year’s as well.

“LaBamba is one of the most versatile musicians around, which is why the New Jersey Hall of Fame has asked him to lead the stage band for our annual induction ceremony,” said Don Jay Smith, New Jersey Hall of Fame’s executive director. “Last year they not only entertained our NJPAC audience on their own, but they brilliantly backed Phoebe Snow, Joe Piscopo and, of course, Bruce Springsteen. To see Bruce, Danny DeVito and Yogi Berra singing ‘Glory Days’ with the Hubcaps cooking behind them was absolutely amazing.”

Rosenberg’s musicians also have accompanied the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Tina Turner, among others.

Rosenberg brought his wife along for Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” tour, circa 1988.

“We played East Berlin before the wall came down,” he said. “There were people in trees waving American flags. It was a whole different scene then.”

Nearly 20 years later, in 2006, Rosenberg made the rounds again, this time on Springsteen’s “Seeger Sessions” tour.

“It was a great tour and a lot of fun to play, but it was a tough message to put across for Bruce fans,” he said. “I was never to a Bruce show where there were empty seats, but that first show in Boston there were.”

While touring in Europe with Southside Johnny in 1993, he got a phone call from Springsteen’s drummer, Max Weinberg, that piqued his interest.

“He was telling me about auditioning for the Conan O’Brien show,” Rosenberg said.

Sixteen years later, even as the show winds down, the Max Weinberg 7 remains an essential staple, musically and comedically.

In September, Rosenberg brought his big band on the show to perform, “the most outrageous experience ever, more so than the Super Bowl,” he said. “To have my own band on the show that I’ve been with this many years.”

Recently Rosenberg and his big band teamed up with Southside Johnny for the album “Grapefruit Moon: The Songs of Tom Waits,” released in September 2008.

“The first two sessions were recorded in Jon Bon Jovi’s garage,” he said.

Another Shore music connection, recent New Jersey Hall of Fame nominee Bon Jovi entered the circle as “an Asbury Jukes fanatic,” Rosenberg said.

Besides, what’s opening up your garage to band members you’ve admired since the 1980s.

“He (Bon Jovi) was in a band called the Atlantic City Expressway,” Rosenberg said. “He would practice in his parents’ basement. One night he invited us over — just the horn section.”

The pair have joined forces for charity events including the Special Olympics’ “Very Special Christmas” television special, hosted by President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at the White House in 1999.

Last year, Randolph High School string players joined the Asbury Jukes at the Community Theatre in Morristown. Rosenberg wrote the string arrangements and Randolph High School music director David Aulenbach conducted the students for a concert to benefit the Daytop Village substance-abuse program. Rosenberg’s oldest sons, Evan and Justin, performed with the band.

“They still talk about it, and we have an autographed concert poster hanging in our music area,” Aulenbach wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Record.

With five kids in the Randolph School District, Rosenberg is no stranger to the music department head.

“Being a long time Conan fan, I have always enjoyed watching (Rosenberg) on TV,” Aulenbach wrote. “On TV he is funny and a great showman. In person, he is kind, humble, extremely talented and a monster trombonist. He is the best.”

When Rosenberg is able to come up for air, he can be found out home helping his wife, Susan, with his kids. In addition to Evan, 19, and Justin, 12, he is the proud father of Reed, 6, Samantha, 9, and Jade, 17.

Rosenberg is currently working on new material. He was just made aware of a fan club in his honor, on MySpace.

Perhaps, they will follow him on “The Tonight Show,” too.

He said he plans on leaving for the Los Angeles area following the New Jersey Hall of Fame induction ceremony in May.

As for his own bands?

“I plan on keeping that going,” he said. “I could take a red eye anywhere.”

Ellen S Wilkowe can be reached at (973) 428-6662 or ewilkowe@gannett.com.