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

Bruce Springsteen Still Is the Boss on New Album, Backed by Mighty E Street Band

While not breaking new ground, Letter to You sounds reassuringly fresh and full of energy

Yesterday, Bruce Springsteen released his 20th studio album Letter to You and his first with The E Street Band since High Hopes from January 2014 – wow, until I read that in some reviews, it had not occurred to me it’s been more than six years! While musically speaking Letter to You doesn’t include anything we haven’t heard from Springsteen before, I just love this album!

At 71 years, The Boss demonstrates he still knows how to write great rock songs. The E Street Band sound as mighty sweet as ever and once again prove why they are the ideal backing band for Springsteen. And, yes, admittedly, when you lose a loved one and live through a seemingly never-ending pandemic, listening to great music that in many ways sounds familiar provides reassurance that some things don’t change. I take some stability during these unsettling times!

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock (9216850a) Bruce Springsteen, center, performs with Nils Lofgren, left, and Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band during their concert at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in Los Angeles. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just don’t want to leave the stage. The concert, at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia lasted nearly four hours, four minutes, breaking the previous record for the group’s longest U.S. show set last week Bruce Springsteen Longest Show, Los Angeles, USA – 7 Sep 2016

“The impetus for a lot of the material was the loss of my good friend George Theiss,” Springsteen told Apple Music. Theiss was the guitarist of The Castiles, the first “serious” band Springsteen joined in 1965. According to Castiles.net, the other members were Paul Popkin (guitar, vocals), Frank Marziotti (bass) and Bart Haynes (drums). In May 1966, Springsteen had his first-ever studio session with The Castiles, during which they recorded two original songs. With the death of Theiss in July 2018, Springsteen remains the band’s only surviving member.

“There’s aging and loss of people as time goes by, and that’s a part of what the record is,” Springsteen further pointed out. “And then at the same time, you’re sort of celebrating the fact that the band goes on and we carry their spirits with us.”

But while much of Letter to You sounds familiar, there is one thing that’s new. “It was a great project for us because I don’t think we ever played live together in the studio and then kept everything that we did on the full take – all the singing, all the playing, it’s really, it’s the E Street Band really completely live. And I overdubbed a few solos and things, but it’s really, it’s really the band in one shot,” Springsteen told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe during a 1-hour interview. I’ve yet to listen to all of it. You can watch it here.

The current line-up of The E Street Band features Steven Van Zandt (guitar, vocals), Nils Lofgren (guitar, vocals), Roy Bittan (piano, vocals), Charles Giodarno (organ, vocals), Patti Scialfa (vocals), Jake Clemons (saxophone), Garry Tallent (bass, vocals) and Max Weinberg (drums, vocals). Except for Clemons and Giodarno, this line-up has been in place since 1995. Van Zandt’s, Bittan’s, Tallent’s and Weinberg’s tenures go back much further to the mid-’70s. Obviously, this is a tight band, and it shows! Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener One Minute You’re Here. “It’s unusual to start a record with its quietest song,” Springsteen commented to Apple Music. “The record really starts with ‘Letter to You,’ but there’s this little preface that lets you know what the record is going to encompass. The record starts with ‘One Minute You’re Here’ and then ends with ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams,’ which are both songs about mortality and death. It was just sort of a little tip of the hat to where the record was going to go and a little slightly connected to [2019’s] Western Stars. It was a little transitional piece of music.”

Since I already covered the album’s great title track in a previous Best of What New installment, I’m skipping it here and go to Janey Needs a Shooter, one of three tracks on Letter to You, which Springsteen wrote prior to his 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. All other songs were written more recently. “We were working on a lot of stuff that I have in the vault to put out again at some time, and I went through almost a whole record of pre-Greetings From Asbury Park music that was all acoustic, and these songs were inside them,” Springsteen said. “The guys came in and I said, ‘Okay. Today we’re going to record songs that are 50 years old, and we’re going to see what happens.’ The modern band playing those ideas that I had as a 22-year-old—and for some reason it just fit on the record, because the record skips through time.” Well, I wholeheartedly agree and love the rich sound of that tune!

Last Man Standing is a tribute to George Theiss. “That particular song was directly due to George’s passing and me finding out that out of that group of people, I’m kind of here on my own, honoring the guys that I learned my craft with between the ages of 14 and 17 or 18,” Springsteen said. “Those were some of the deepest learning years of my life—learning how to be onstage, learning how to write, learning how to front the band, learning how to put together a show, learning how to play for all different kinds of audiences at fireman’s fairs, at union halls, at CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] dances, and just really honing your craft.” This is the perfect tune for some sax work, and Jake Clemons makes his uncle proud.

Next up: House of a Thousand Guitars. “Every piece of music has its demands—what tone in my voice is going to feel right for this particular piece of music—and you try to meet it in the middle,” Springsteen explained. “That’s one of my favorite songs on the record; I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s at the center of the record and it speaks to this world that the band and I have attempted to create with its values, its ideas, its codes, since we started. And it collects all of that into one piece of music, into this imaginary house of a thousand guitars.”

The last track I’d like to call out is the above noted I’ll See You in My Dreams, which together with One Minute You’re Here bookends the album. “I remember a lot of my dreams and I always have,” Springsteen said. “But that song was basically about those that pass away don’t ever really leave us. They visit me in my dreams several times a year. Clarence will come up a couple times in a year. Or I’ll see Danny. They just show up in very absurd, sometimes in abstract ways in the middle of strange stories. But they’re there, and it’s actually a lovely thing to revisit with them in that way. The pain slips away, the love remains, and they live in that love and walk alongside you and your ancestors and your life companions as a part of your spirit. So the song is basically about that: ‘Hey. I’m not going to see you at the next session, but I’ll see you in my dreams.'”

Letter to You was recorded over just four days in November 2019 at Springsteen’s home studio. The album was co-produced by Springsteen and Ron Aniello, who also produced Western Stars, and co-produced High Hopes and predecessor Wrecking Ball from March 2012. Coinciding with Letter to You is the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You, a 90-minute documentary about the making of the album. It’s available on Apple TV+. If you’re a subscriber, you can watch it here. There are also two free trailers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Castiles.net; YouTube