Bruce Springsteen Celebrates Soul and R&B on New Covers Album

Bruce Springsteen released his anticipated new album of soul and R&B covers on Friday, November 11. First revealed by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in mid-September and formally announced by Springsteen at the end of that same month, Only the Strong Survive is his 21st studio album. If you follow The Boss, you may have seen reviews to date have been mixed. While I feel some of the criticism is fair, overall, I think Springsteen has delivered an enjoyable album.

Only the Strong Survive comes two years after Letter to You (October 2020), and is Springsteen’s second all-covers collection since We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (April 2006). Springsteen made the album at his Thrill Hill Recording studio in New Jersey “in early lockdown during “off hours”, as reported by Pitchfork. Perhaps that explains in part why producer Ron Aniello played nearly all instruments (drums, bass, percussion, guitar, vibes, piano, organ, glockenspiel, keyboards, farfisa). Springsteen himself mostly provided lead vocals and also played some guitar.

The number of other contributors was limited. Most notable is the now 87-year-old Sam Moore, one half of legendary Stax duo Sam & Dave. Other listed contributors include backing vocalists Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore, Curtis King Jr., Dennis Collins and Fonzi Thornton, as well as The E Street Horns and Rob Mathes who provided string arrangements. Notably absent were soul fan Steven Van Zandt, who came up with the great horn arrangement for Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, and other members of the E Street Band. Again, perhaps it’s a reflection of the circumstances, or Springsteen simply wanted to leave no doubt the album was a solo effort.

“I wanted to make an album where I just sang,” he stated. “And what better music to work with than the great American songbook of the Sixties and Seventies? I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others. I’ve tried to do justice to them all—and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music.”

Time to get to some of the goodies. Let’s kick it off with Soul Days, written by Jonnie Barnett and recorded by Dobie Gray as the title track of his 2001 studio album – perhaps not the most obvious choice if Springsteen’s goal was to highlight ’60s and ’70s soul music. That said, I think it’s a great rendition. It’s also one of two tunes featuring Sam Moore on backing vocals. Just like with the other tracks on the album, Springsteen evidently did not aim to remake any of these songs – appropriate for an album that pays homage.

Another tune I think came out really well is Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). It was written by Motown producer Frank Wilson, who also recorded it as a single in 1965. But Berry Gordy felt lukewarm about Wilson’s singing. More importantly, he wanted his producers to focus on producing rather than becoming recording artists. None of the pressed copies of the single were formally released and apparently are now prized items among collectors. Yes, the strings on Springsteen’s cover are perhaps a bit lush, but the tune has that infectious Motown beat that wants you to be dancing in the street. I also think Springsteen’s raspy vocals work rather well. Of course, he does get a little help from a potent backing choir. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) also became the album’s first single on September 29.

Turn Back the Hands of Time, co-written by Jack Daniels and Bonnie Thompson, was first released as a single in February 1970 and became the second major hit for blues and soul singer Tyrone Davis. Again, Springsteen does a nice job of delivering a faithful cover.

For the most part, Springsteen chose to cover tunes that aren’t known very widely, which I think was a smart choice. While his raspy vocals go well with the rock-oriented music he usually makes, the reality is his vocal range has limitations. One of the exceptions is I Wish It Would Rain, which became a no. 4 hit for The Temptations in 1967 on the Billboard Hot 100 and one of their numerous ’60s tunes to top the R&B chart. It was penned by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong and Rodger Penzabene. Taking on the mighty Temptations is gutsy, but once again Springsteen does a commendable job. He even throws in some falsetto. The backing vocals are excellent as well.

The last track I’d like to call out is the second tune featuring Sam Moore on backing vocals: I Forgot to Be Your Lover. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, Bell recorded and first released the beautiful soul ballad in late 1968. The tune reached no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 10 on the Hot R&B Singles chart.

Only the Strong Survive appears on Columbia Records. It was engineered by Rob Lebret and executive-produced by long-time Springsteen collaborator Jon Landau. Following is a Spotify link to the album.

“My goal is for the modern audience to experience [the music’s] beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it,” Springsteen explained. “I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”

Throughout his entire career, Springsteen has included soul songs in his sets, so I feel there can be no doubt his proclaimed love for this music is genuine. Could some of his picks have been different? Sure. Is it odd he had Sam Moore as a guest and didn’t cover a Sam & Dave tune? Perhaps. Or that there weren’t any members of the E Street Band, especially since he will be touring with them next year? Not necessarily, given the album came together during COVID lockdown.

One important aspect is Springsteen picked songs that work well with his voice. Together with great backing vocals and musical arrangements that largely stay faithful to the original songs, Only the Strong Survive is a pleasant listening experience. Another question is how the album will be remembered in the context of Springsteen’s overall catalog. Time will tell.

Sources: Wikipedia; Pitchfork; Bruce Springsteen website; YouTube; Spotify

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Clips & Pix: The Boss Does The Commodores

I’d like to interrupt the broadcast with some breaking news I just spotted on YouTube. Bruce Springsteen has released a new single from his upcoming studio covers album Only the Strong Survive. Scheduled for November 11, this marks Springsteen’s second covers release, following We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006).

Unlike the Seeger collection, which focused on folk and Americana, Only the Strong Survive celebrates R&B and soul songs from the catalogues of Motown, Gamble and Huff and Stax, among others. Here’s Nightshift, co-written by Walter Orange, lead singer of The Commodores, together with Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde. The tribute to soul/R&B singers Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye became the title track of The Commodores’ 11th studio album released in January 1985 and a major hit for the group.

Nightshift follows Do I Love (Indeed I Do), the first single off Only the Strong Survive, which premiered on September 29. Both renditions sound mighty cool to me!

“I wanted to make an album where I just sang,” Springsteen commented in a recent statement on his website. “And what better music to work with than the great American songbook of the Sixties and Seventies? I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others. I’ve tried to do justice to them all—and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music. My goal is for the modern audience to experience its beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it. I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”

Here’s more from the above statement: This 21st studio album from Bruce Springsteen will also feature guest vocals by Sam Moore, as well as contributions from The E Street Horns, full string arrangements by Rob Mathes, and backing vocals by Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore, Curtis King Jr., Dennis Collins and Fonzi Thornton...Only The Strong Survive was tracked at Thrill Hill Recording in New Jersey, produced by Ron Aniello, engineered by Rob Lebret and executive produced by Jon Landau.

I can see some ignorant cynics say the Boss is trying to make a quick buck here or running out of ideas or both. But if you’ve ever been to a Springsteen show, you know how much this man loves soul music. And has prominently featured it during his concerts for decades. In fact, during my first Springsteen concert in Germany in the second half of the ’80s, he delivered at least an hour’s worth of outstanding soul covers. Dare I say it, these renditions were at least as good as his originals. The E Street Band, which at the time still featured sax giant Clarence Clemons, was on fire!

So kudos to Bruce for celebrating some sweet soul music. Count me in among the folks who are looking forward to his new album. The cynics can go and take a hike!

Sources: Wikipedia; BruceSringsteen.net; YouTube

Paul Simon’s Eponymous U.S. Solo Debut Album Turns 50

Today, fifty years ago, Paul Simon released his eponymous solo album. His first record that appeared nearly two years after the break-up of his duo with Art Garfunkel was his second solo effort overall and the first to appear in the U.S. The Paul Simon Songbook from August 1965 had come out in the UK only. It would eventually be released in the U.S. in 1981 as part of a five-LP boxed set titled Collected Works.

Simon started work on the album in early 1971. For the reggae-influenced song Mother and Child Reunion, one of the reasons why I spontaneously decided to write about this 50th anniversary, he traveled to Jamaica. Simon liked reggae and listened to artists like Jimmy Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Bryon Lee. So he decided to record the tune with Cliff’s backing band at a studio in Kingston to make it sound more authentic. Afterward, he went to San Francisco to record some demos there.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the songs. Opening Side one is the aforementioned Mother and Child Reunion. The tune had also appeared as the album’s lead single on January 17, 1972, Simon’s first single as a solo artist. Songfacts notes that Simon wrote this in response to the Jimmy Cliff song “Vietnam,” where a mother receives a letter about her son’s death on the battlefield…Simon said of the song that it “became the first reggae hit by a non-Jamaican white guy outside Jamaica. Among others, the tune reached no. 4 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, no. 4 in Canada and no. 5 in each the UK and Australia.

When I listened to the ballad Duncan for the first time, it reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa, because of the beautiful pan flute fill-ins. It turns out those flutes were played by Los Incas, the same Andean group of musicians who had previously collaborated with Simon & Garfunkel on El Condor Pasa. Duncan was also released separately as the album’s third and final single in July 1972. It charted in the U.S. and Australia but didn’t match the success of Mother and Child Reunion.

Another tune from Side one I’d like to call out is Run That Body Down, which has a nice jazzy touch. Some notable backing musicians on that track include renowned jazz double bassist Ron Carter and guitarist David Spinoza who among others worked with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the ’70s and produced James Taylor’s 1974 studio album Walking Man. Also, check out the great guitar solo by jazz guitarist Jerry Hahn, which starts at around 2:25 minutes.

Side two kicks off with one of Simon’s best-known songs and one of my favorites: Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. The song’s meaning is unclear. Songfacts states, When asked what “Mama Pajama” saw that made her so distraught in this song, Paul Simon has said that he’s not exactly sure, but he assumed it was something sexual. Simon made up a crazy little story for the song, and named the main character Julio because it sounded like a typical New York neighborhood kid (Simon grew up in Queens). What Paul didn’t realize until years later was the impact the song had on Spanish-speaking listeners who were thrilled to hear a song coming out of America with a Latin name in the title. That’s how you do it: You just make up stuff, based on things you may have seen or read, and then have clever people debate what you meant. Bob Dylan anybody? Or how about Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker? Julio also became the record’s second single. Its chart performance fell in-between Mother and Child Reunion and Duncan. It did best in Canada where it peaked at no. 6. On the U.S. and UK mainstream charts, it reached no. 22 and no. 15, respectively.

Next up: Peace Like a River. I decided to call out this song primarily because of Simon’s acoustic guitar playing, which blends folk with a dose of blues. Learning the acoustic guitar myself many years ago, I can definitely say he was one of the players I admired. The difference between Simon and myself: He became famous, while I always remained a closet acoustic guitarist! 🙂

The last tune I’d like to call out is a short instrumental titled Hobo’s Blues. Did I just say instrumental? No vocals, something I’m generally addicted to? Yep, sometimes you don’t need vocals. The standout here is French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, the only musician on the track besides Simon on acoustic guitar. Pretty neat!

Paul Simon was co-produced by Simon and Roy Halee who had co-produced Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (April 1968) and Bridge over Troubled Water (January 1970) albums. He also had co-produced the tune Mrs. Robinson from the soundtrack of the motion picture The Graduate, for which he had won a Grammy Award.

The album was mostly well-received by critics. According to Wikipedia, even Robert Christgau had something positive to say, writing in the Village Voice, “this is the only thing in the universe to make me positively happy in the first two weeks of February 1972” – jeez, he must have been on some substance! And in Rolling Stone that year, Jon Landau called the album Simon’s “least detached, most personal and painful piece of work thus far — this from a lyricist who has never shied away from pain as subject or theme.”

The album, which in 1986 reached Platinum certification in the U.S., topped the charts in the UK, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Notably, it was Simon’s only no. 1 album in the UK in the ’70s. It would take until the fantastic Graceland from 1986 to reach the top spot again. In Canada and The Netherlands, Paul Simon climbed to no. 2, while in the U.S. and Australia, it reached no. 4 and no. 5, respectively. The record was ranked at no. 268 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It also made the list for the 2020 update, coming in at no. 425.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

Ten Days of Tapestry

A legendary album turns 50 – part IX

We’re almost there. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of Carole King’s Tapestry, her iconic album from 1971, which I’ve been celebrating with this series over the past eight days. Up to now, I’ve explored all of side A, i.e., I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, It’s Too Late, Home Again, Beautiful and Way Over Yonder, and the first three tracks on side B: You’ve Got a Friend, Where You Lead and Will You Love Me Tomorrow. Next up: Smackwater Jack.

Smackwater Jack is Tapestry’s second tune Carole co-wrote with Gerry Goffin. Unlike Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Smackwater Jack wasn’t released until Tapestry. It’s a great mid-tempo bluesy rocker. Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau called it an “uptempo shuffle.” In particular, I dig the piano work including Ralph Schuckett’s electric piano, and Danny Kortchmar’s electric guitar. Also, as a retired bassist, I have to call out Charles Larkey’s great bassline.

In addition to its music, Smackwater Jack stands out lyrically. It sounds less personal and less emotional than the other tunes on Tapestry. This doesn’t make it any worse; in fact, I think it’s a great outlaw story told in a very cinematic fashion you could picture in a Western movie.

Check out this excerpt from the lyrics: …The account of the capture/Wasn’t in the papers/But you know, they hanged ol’ Smack right then/Instead of later/You know, the people were quite pleased/’Cause the outlaw had been seized/And on the whole, it was a very good year/For the undertaker…

Smackwater Jack also appeared separately as Tapestry’s second single, paired with So Far Away. Like the album’s first single It’s Too Late/I Feel the Earth Move, Billboard treated it as a double A. It peaked at no. 14 on the Hot 100.

Interestingly, Quincy Jones covered Smackwater Jack as the title track of his studio album that also appeared in 1971. I had not been aware of this. I can’t say I like it as much as Carole’s original version. Still, I think Jones deserves credit for making the tune his own by giving it a funky soul vibe – check it out!

Sources: YouTube; YouTube