Bruce Springsteen channels soul music's icons on 'Only the Strong Survive' : World Cafe : World Cafe Words and Music Podcast The Boss' 21st studio album is a collection of faithful covers from some of his favorite soul and R&B acts like the Four Tops, Jerry Butler, and Commodores.

Bruce Springsteen channels soul music's icons on 'Only the Strong Survive'

Bruce Springsteen on World Cafe

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Bruce Springsteen Danny Clinch/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Danny Clinch/Courtesy of the artist

Bruce Springsteen

Danny Clinch/Courtesy of the artist

Episode Playlist

  • "Only the Strong Survive"
  • "7 Rooms of Gloom"
  • "Soul Days"
  • "Nightshift"

Bruce Springsteen has a lot of fans. He's referred to as a legend, an icon, the biggest rock star alive right now. So maybe that's why it's so much fun to hear him turn into the fan on his 21st studio album, Only the Strong Survive.

The album is a collection of covers Springsteen recorded of some of his favorite soul and R&B songs by artists like Jerry Butler, Commodores and the Four Tops. In this session, Springsteen talks about why he wanted to honor these artists and what it was like singing with Sam Moore of Sam & Dave.

Hear the complete session in the audio player above — complete transcript below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Raina Douris: It sounds like you were having so much fun on this record.

Bruce Springsteen: Yeah, the pressure of having to write everything wasn't there — that's always the toughest thing when it comes to recording, you know? And also the pressure of really the production and playing on it on every song. I removed all of that and I said, 'I'm going to make a record where I just sing and I focus all my energies on the vocals.' That was something I'd never done, and it was a lot of fun to do. I just had a great time doing it.

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"Only the Strong Survive" and "Hey, Western Union Man" are both originally from the same Jerry Butler album, The Iceman Cometh, which was recorded in Philly at Sigma Sound in 1968. That's the only album that you chose two songs from. Why did that album have such an impact?

I got into Jerry Butler late, you know, and really on this record. John Landau was my manager and an executive producer. He suggested "Hey Western Union Man," which I'd never heard. I listened to it and said, 'Well, it's kind of complicated,' but I gave it a shot. You know, ended up being a lot of fun.

Originally, the record was called Soul Days, and from then, I changed the title to Nightshift. I said, 'Now, the record should be titled Night Shift, right?' And then somewhere in there I said, "Only the Strong Survive." Maybe I'll cut "Only the Strong Survive" for the next volume of something like this. And I said, 'Gee, that's a great title. We should cut it now.' So I went in. It was the last thing we cut, and that ended up being our title. I ended up being a huge Jerry Butler fan. I've already cut several other of the songs from that album.

You mentioned that you just wanted to sing on this record. Why was soul and R&B the right genre for you to focus on singing?

The greatest vocal music, for me, is gospel music. There's just a freedom, spirituality and intensity in gospel music that you find watered down in other places. Then soul, of course all those frontmen came from the church, which is why it was a unique place in time. Those singers will never come again. It was just a culturally unique moment.

You have Sam Moore coming out of the church. You have Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers coming out of the church. Of course, Aretha. So that was just a natural place. I said, 'I want to go where the great singers are.' Well, the great singers are in soul music, for one place, and my attitude was like, 'These are songs that should be a part of the American Songbook — like Gershwin and Cole Porter.' These songs stand the test of time. They are 50 years old already. They're still great.

The only other artist you have two songs from on this album is Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops. You bookended it with one from 1967, "7 Rooms of Gloom," and one from 1981, "When She Was My Girl," which are two very distinct periods of the Four Tops.

"When She Way My Girl" was post-Motown, so the production and everything sounds quite current. And Levi was just one of the greatest singers of all time. That's all there is to it.

My luck is that I don't have the same quality of voice, but I have the same range that Levi has and that David Ruffin had. Basically, we're comfortable within the same range. So, for most of these songs, I don't change the key on them or anything; I sing them in the same keys they were recorded. These guys are my masters. They're my mentors. They're my maestros. From the start, I had to go, 'Well, I'm just doing this for fun because there's no way you're going to sing like David Ruffin.' But if I can find my place within these songs, I can make something fun, enjoyable and good out of it. That was my approach.

When "7 Rooms of Gloom" came out in 1967, you would have been about 18. Then, when "When She Was My Girl" came out, you were in your early 30s. What was it about Levi's voice that called to you when you were 18 and still was able to call to you at a different stage in your life? Why did it resonate with you?

Levi had a rock voice. In all of Motown, his was the voice that sounded the most rock. It was harsh. It was desperate. He was the most the most desperate singer you've ever heard.

If you listen to all of the Four Tops material, they're all about desperation: "7 Rooms of Gloom," "Shake Me, Wake Me" and "Standing In The Shadows Of Love." It's all about somebody out on the edge, so it pushes them towards a rock edge almost. So, Levi was always one of my favorite singers, the pure desperation and intensity in his voice.

He let some of that go on "When She Was My Girl," and you've got the first hints of a light disco, which I really enjoyed singing over. But he was still singing great. Just him and David Ruffin are two of my all time favorites.

You don't really mess with the arrangements of these songs. You're pretty faithful all the way through to the originals. I'm guessing that was intentional. Why did you want to go?

I wasn't trying to reinvent the wheel. My idea was this is classic stuff, right down to the arrangements, the string parts, the horn parts, the choral parts, and the rhythm section. Our idea was not that we were going to try and sonically enhance all of these records but stick very close to the original arrangements. That was what we did.

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You worked with Sam Moore of soul duo Sam & Dave on the record, and he sings on a couple of the songs with you. I know you actually had a chance to see Sam & Dave when they were still together back in the 1970s at the Fast Lane in Asbury Park. What do you remember from that show? Can you take us back there?

The main thing I remember is I cried. I remember they brought me to tears. They were so good. This was late in the day and late in their career. They weren't getting along very well. I got to meet them backstage somehow. I hit it off with Sam a little bit, but I was just kind of starting to come up myself, and if there was 100 people in the place, I'd be surprised. Sam and Dave in their glory. They sang incredibly to 100 people in Asbury Park. I stood in the back of the room, and I was I was in tears because I said, 'I can't believe this place isn't jammed.' I was hearing some of the greatest American music being played in the United States on that night.

I knew I was at that spot at that time, and I was just heartbroken that there weren't more people there sharing it. They were they were incredible to the end. I heard them there. I heard them at the Satellite Lounge in Fort Dix. Unbelievable. Little Stevie and I used to follow them around.

So you said you would have been sort of just starting out around the time you saw Sam & Dave in Asbury Park. You're playing shows yourself. What lessons were you learning from seeing soul and R&B acts like that perform?

How to lead a band, for one. How to put on a show. The rock acts tried to play it cool all the time. You had to be cool. No, the soul acts came to set you on fire. They were a manifestation of heat, and I liked that more than the cool. I said, 'I'm not cool. I'm more comfortable in that heat.' So I just watched Sam. Sam led the band incredibly. He knew how to put on a show. He knew how to wire the audience until they were going insane. He sweat his clothes completely through. They were my my ideal of what it means to put on a show. I said, 'That's that's where I'm going.'

Sam is on this new album. He also sang harmony on a couple of songs on your 1982 album, Human Touch. How did you go from a kid in the crowd meeting him for a minute at the Fast Lane to actually working with Sam for one day?

Well, when I was 40, I had the nerve to call him and ask him if he'd sing with me on a couple of the songs I had for Human Touch. He said, 'Sure.' He came out, and he sang. His voice was incredible, of course. We've been friends for about 30 years.

Now, I feel like at this point in your career, people might be intimidated to sing with you. Was there any time where you were intimidated to sing with somebody like that?

All the time, you know. I'm always very self-conscious about my voice. I've been asked in the past to sing with a variety of different well-known vocalists. Very often I'll say no. I'll say, 'I have no business whatsoever singing on a mic next to you.' I will just come out and tell them why I'm going to say no, and I've done that on on several occasions.

We're going to play "Soul Days" next. Before we hear it, why do you love this song?

There was a song I stumbled on. You go on iTunes and you see you see "Drift Away" at No. 1. No. 2, "Soul Days." What's "Soul Days?" I've never heard of that. All right. Boom. I put it on. Oh, it's a great narrative.

It's a beautifully written narrative on "Soul Days." It's about somebody's love for soul music, you know? I said, 'I got to cut this and see how it comes out.' Dobie Gray had a beautiful version of it, but I really enjoyed cutting it. It almost sounds like it could have been one of my tunes. Great narrative, great story.

Rock and soul have always been in your musical DNA. How do rock and soul connect? What is their common thread?

There are just places where they cross over. The intensity. Where it connected for us was soul music was very popular along the shore. You had Top 40 bands who came in and made their living. Full horn section came in the summertime along the shore, played nothing but soul music. So growing up, we were exposed to a lot of soul music and rock music, and it became a very natural. If you had a set where you didn't play any soul music, it was almost impossible. You couldn't survive on Saturday night. People wanted to hear "Hold On, I'm Comin'." They wanted to hear "Midnight Hour." They wanted to hear "Mustang Sally."

You had to play those songs if you were a rock band. You had to play all these things, you know? So to me, there was always a connection. Of course, everyone knew the greatest singers were the soul singers, and they also had great songs. The E Street Band was always a rock and soul band. We're not really a rock and roll band. We're not really a rock band. We're kind of a rock and soul band.

You've spent much of your career writing about the condition of working class people through your lens and your upbringing. You've also made music like your album Western Stars a while back that addresses and explores the mythology of the American West and the image of the cowboy in the desert, the lonely traveler and the vastness. Now you've released an album of soul music, which is also an American art form. Where does it fit in for you in the American story?

Well, I didn't start with a thematic point of view on the record. I just said I want to make some joyful music. My records are very often, there's usually a theme of some sort that you have to deal with if you want to or wrestle with.

In this case, I said, 'I'm just going to make music that I love.' Of course, soul music is an inherent part of the American music scene. It's just forever. Its influence and its roots are steeped in American culture. That goes without saying. But I took the most simple approach I've ever taken to making records — I wanted to sing what sounded good, record what sounded good, record some great songs that other people had written. That was my approach.

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I want to close things out today with your take on the Commodores song "Night Shift." They released it in January 1985, right when you were on your massive Born in the USA tour, blowing up and becoming a star. Did you become a fan of that song in real time when it first came out, or did you come to it later?

When it came out, I said, 'Oh, this is a thing of beauty,' you know? All over the years, I stayed in touch with that song. I had a little bar that used to play it pretty regularly and I go in and sit and it was always a song that could reduce me to tears. It's just a wonderfully, wonderfully written narrative.

The way that it's sung, it turns Marvin Gaye's name and Jackie Wilson's name into this spiritual incantation almost. The way the song opens up with "Marvin." That's all you need. The song, it's already on its way. There's just something about the way the singer says those names that is essential and spiritual. Then, the whole song falls in place beautifully. It's an amazing piece of writing. It was a gorgeous record. All I did was I stripped some of the '80s sounds off it and turned it into little more of a direct soul ballad. It's perhaps my favorite thing on the record.

Bruce Warren and Miguel Perez produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Episode Playlist