The quartet will take the stage for three shows this week at the Academy of Music in The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, the bio-musical, written and directed by Van Zandt, that played on Broadway in April.
From his New York home during a break last month from a European tour with Springsteen, Van Zandt waxed historical about the significance of his first favorite band.
At the time of that 1965 sighting, Van Zandt says, "the British Invasion had completely taken over. The Beatles and the Stones and the Yardbirds and The Who were dominating. And then suddenly there was this group that was homegrown, from New Jersey. That was exciting because it opened up the possibility that local guys could make it."
Make it they did, with three No. 1 hits - "Good Lovin'," "Groovin'," and "People Got to Be Free" - in the next three years.
Onstage, the 62-year-old Van Zandt remembers, "they were the most exciting live band ever - literally. Eddie Brigati was the most exciting white front man in the business. He made Mick Jagger look like he was standing still. Dino Danelli was literally the greatest and most exciting drummer in all of rock-and-roll. Everybody who came to town studied Dino, including Keith Moon. Felix introduced the whole Hammond B-3 organ thing, and Gene was a great guitar player."
In Once Upon a Dream, prerecorded interview segments tracing the band's evolution are mixed with taped dramatizations by young actors (in bad wigs) portraying the group, whose actual younger selves are also seen on a giant video screen in stylized visuals assembled by lighting designer and codirector/coproducer Marc Brickman.
A Philadelphia native who graduated from Central High School on the Academy stage 43 years ago, Brickman is renowned for his production work with Roger Waters and others. His recollections of the Rascals from back in the day are rosy.
"These guys were my heroes when I was young," he says. "Their songs defined my whole love life. 'A Girl Like You' - I couldn't get enough of that song. 'Groovin',' we used to listen to that while we drove around Fairmount Park. And I loved Dino Danelli, I thought he was the coolest cat there ever was."
Van Zandt isn't stingy either when handing out praise to the band, which performs 30 songs in the show. They include hits such as "How Can I Be Sure," "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," and "You Better Run" during a two-hour performance that plays more like a concert than a theatrical production.
"They were the first white soul band," says Van Zandt, who recently finished shooting the second season of the Netflix series Lilyhammer, in which he plays a New York gangster relocated to Norway in the witness protection program. "You can trace the E Street Band directly back to the Rascals."
The connection, he says, was not just a superficial Jersey one. It had to do with Cavaliere's booming B-3 organ, an instrument "straight from the church, so you had that combination of gospel and soul music. Rock bands by definition were guitar-based, so that put it into a different category," which would shape the E Street sound through keyboard player Danny Federici.
As far back as 1982, Van Zandt, who employed Danelli in his 1980s band the Disciples of Soul, tried to re-form the Rascals. He kept asking every five years, "but the timing was never right," Danelli, 68, a drummer whose pre-Rascals resumé included playing with Lionel Hampton and Jimi Hendrix, said last week.
The four members - who sound remarkably sharp and soulful considering the decades that have passed - finally said yes when Van Zandt approached them about playing a cancer benefit in New York 2010.
After the band broke up in 1970, "at first you all hate each other," Danelli says. "Then as time passes, you forget and forgive." Still "everybody had to be in the right spot in their minds and their hearts" to get back together. "Stevie was the guy we could trust to do it."
A one-off gig wasn't enough for Van Zandt, however. "They were so great at this benefit. . . . My sense of justice was offended that nobody had ever seen this group."
That show led to three Once Upon a Dream shows in Port Chester, N.Y., in December, and to Philadelphia promoter Larry Magid's urging Van Zandt to bring the scripted show about an emblematic '60s band whose songs you may know but whose story you probably don't, to Broadway.
"I wrote the show for people who hear them and think, 'That's just another great song on oldies radio,' " says Van Zandt. "I'm like, 'That's OK, but here's the real story,' about how they came together as a band and had this magical chemistry, and how 'People Got to Be Free' became an anthem of the civil rights movement."
The real story, says Danelli, is that the Rascals "were just a sign of the times. We were just translating what we were living, and that period from 1965 to 1970 was so turbulent and volatile and we just interpreted all of that into lyrics and music and tried to portray that to people who would come and see us.
"And it worked. We became interpreters. And anytime you can communicate with other people about the things that are important in their lives, that's a wonderful thing, whether it's now, 40 years ago, or 100 years ago. Whenever that happens that's a beautiful situation. And that's what the Rascals were."
Theater / Concert
The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream
7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. Tickets: $24-$204. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.kimmelcenter.org
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog "In the Mix" at www.inquirer.com/inthemix.