Eddie Manion has been a professional musician for more than 40 years, but is doing something today that he has done only once before. He is releasing an album under his own name: Nightlife, an atmospheric collection of instrumentals ranging from standards such as “Stardust” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to the Bruce Springsteen-written rarity “City of Night,” plus a version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” sung by legendary Asbury Park doo-wop vocalist Nicky Addeo.
New Jersey music fans know Manion — a Lakewood native and current Pittsburgh resident — mostly, of course, for his work in the horn sections of groups such as Springsteen’s E Street Band and Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes, not to mention recordings and/or tours with Graham Parker, Robert Cray, Little Steven’s Disciples of Soul and, most recently, Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers.
With those artists, his rich tone and tasteful phrasing have mostly been heard in short bursts. Here, he gets to offer really stretch out, and proves he should be considered more than a sideman.
The centerpiece of the album is “Amazing Grace” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” performed as a medley. At first it was just going to be “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
“That’s a song I always wanted to do,” says Manion. “I just think it’s a great song that meant so much in the ’60s. It’s kind of like Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I think that’s the reason Sam Cooke wrote the song to begin with: He and his band were turned away from staying at a hotel in Louisiana, in the early ’60s, and he heard ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ and figured it would be good for a black man to write a song like that. So it actually has a lot of significance.
“Growing up in Asbury, and going to the Upstage club when I was in high school … I think I was there at the Upstage in 1970, coming out at like 5 o’clock in the morning, when Asbury Park was pretty much on fire from the riots.”
After the racially motivated mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. on June 17, 2015, Manion was inspired to add “Amazing Grace.” “I put it in the same key, and I wrote my own string arrangement on ‘Amazing Grace.’ I was thinking about how much grace the family members had in response to what happened. It was really their faith that got them through that. The grace of their faith.”
Manion says that when the last E Street Band tour ended in May 2014, he started thinking about what he wanted to do next. “And I thought I wanted to record an album of my own that shows what I really sound like on tenor and baritone sax,” he says. “I wanted to do all covers. I grew up with all of the great R&B players, in the ’50s and ’60s … Plas Johnson, Big Jay McNeely … and Ben Webster and Lester Young from the ’30s and ’40s … and Red Prysock, Lee Allen, Sam Butera, Earl Bostic, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, King Curtis, Junior Walker, Jimmy Forrest — I have one song on the record called ‘Bolo Blues,’ that (Forrest) did, which is the flip side to ‘Night Train.’ This is what I grew up listening to, when I started playing saxophone, when I was 10. Those were my heroes, my influences. And when I listened to their records, they all had something in common.They would all do cover versions of the Top 40 songs of the day.
“So I was looking for songs to put on the record. Songs that I could do, that I liked the melody and I thought would make great instrumental records. Songs that everybody could relate to, not just jazz standards and stuff like that.”
In most cases, they’re songs he has known for a long time. “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle,” for instance, was a 1965 hit for The Royalettes that was memorably covered by Laura Nyro in 1971.
“I just always loved that record,” says Manion. “I think, for years, I’ve always notated certain songs and thought, ‘Well, if I ever do an instrumental album, these songs will make great instrumentals.’ I’d write them down on a little piece of paper and put them in my wallet, and forget about it for a long time.
“So when I decided to do this record, I took ’em all out, and picked the best ones that I thought would be good to start working on.”
He says the album’s opening song, the 1961 Gene Pitney hit “Town Without Pity,” is something he’s always wanted to do “ever since I worked with Willy DeVille. I was on tour with him for three or four years in the ’90s. We’d always start out with an instrumental. Sometimes we’d do ‘Harlem Nocturne,’ which I recorded on my other record (2004’s Follow Through). And ‘Town Without Pity’ is sort of like that. It would be a great opener for a show.”
The Springsteen song Manion plays on the album ranks among The Boss’ most obscure compositions. “City of Night,” from the 2010 album The Promise (featuring outtakes from the Darkness on the the Edge of Town sessions), has never been played live.
Touring with Springsteen from 2012 to 2014, Manion says, “I think I learned every (Springsteen) song, just to be prepared for whatever might come up. Jake Clemons and I shared the saxophone role, and we shared solos, so we had to be prepared for just about anything. There’s nothing more frightening than Bruce going out into the audience, and picking up signs, and picking songs to do. That makes you want to — and have to — learn everything he’s ever recorded. Just to be prepared, on the safe side, because there are 60,000 people out there.
” ‘City of Night’ has a little sax solo in it, that Clarence (Clemons) played so beautifully. It was also a song that we never did. But it’s a song that I went over a few times, just to be prepared. I think it’s a beautiful melody. That’s the main reason; I thought it would make a great instrumental.”
In addition to performing with Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers at the main Light of Day festival concert Jan. 16 at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, Manion will present a show of his own that day at noon at the nearby Tim McLoone’s Supper Club. For information, visit timmcloonessupperclub.com.
For information on other shows — including the upcoming Light of Day tour of Europe, a U.K. record release show (Dec. 7 in Wellingborough) and a Jan. 9 show in Zelienople, Pa. featuring songs from Nightlife as well as a duo set with Grushecky — visit eddiemanion.com.