Along with joining Springsteen's E Street Band in 1975 (and arranging the horns on "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out"), Van Zandt produced and largely wrote Southside's first three (and best) albums of "Miami Horn"-fired blue-eyed R&B, starting with 1976's I Don't Want to Go Home. Van Zandt reprises the title cut, the first song he ever wrote, on "Soulfire."
His role with the Jukes and as Springsteen's consigliere started a pattern that's persisted throughout his career.
"If I had to describe myself in a word, it would be producer. That's what I enjoy most," says the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who was inducted as a member of the E Street Band in 2014.
"Creating whatever it might be, whether it's producing a record" -- such as 2015's "Introducing Darlene Love," by the girl-group powerhouse, on his own Wicked Cool label -- "or a radio show or a TV show." After "The Sopranos" ended in 2007, Van Zandt starred in the Netflix drama "Lillyhammer," in which he again played a hairpiece-wearing mafioso, this time on the run in Norway. He executive-produced and cowrote the show, and directed the final episode.
"I never wanted to be the boss," he says. "My role in 'The Sopranos' was really modeled after my relationship with Bruce. Silvio Dante was the only character in the Sopranos who didn't want to be the boss."
"Fronting the band is a lot of work," he says. "With Bruce, I'm (messing) around for the whole show. I've basically got a front-row seat to the greatest show on earth. My role is to play the clean rhythm guitar that all rock bands need. Bruce and Nils (Lofgren) do all the solos. He might throw me one solo a month, which is fine. I'm not there to show people how good of a guitar player I am."
Still, in the early 1980s, Van Zandt got the itch to front his own band. On the 1982 underrated classic "Men Without Women," he took a "Motown-based straight-ahead soul" approach. Personal songs like "Save Me" and "Until the Good is Gone" were "about music being my religion. Not just a career. It was bigger than that to me."
But as the 1980s moved on, Van Zandt became a political firebrand, "half artist, half journalist," with "Voice of America" (1984) and "Freedom: No Compromise" (1987). He organized the Artists United Against Apartheid all-star group, with the 1984 protest "Sun City."
"Everyone thought Ronald Reagan was God, and I didn't. And I thought it was my obligation to throw some light on a whole lot of things that were being covered up, or not talked about."
Does he feel a similar responsibility now?