Bruce Springsteen currently sits amid the figurative Mount Rushmore of American songwriters, but that hasn’t always been the case. When his debut record, Greetings from Asbury Park N.J., was released in 1973, it initially flopped. While other musicians may have faltered following this disappointment, Springsteen soared, and it was his love of music that kept him buoyant.
We all need our heroes, and Springsteen has been more transparent about his inspirations than most. He follows in a long-celebrated line of American blue-collar rockers and has always acknowledged the legends that shepherded him into place. As he once said himself: “The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.”
His own rasping vocal cords akin to the sand and glue of Bob Dylan paired with the silken note hitting ability of a soul performer, have served up that same armour against the world for many fans. His songwriting might be the area that draws the most attention when it comes to ‘The Boss’, but he is undoubtedly an artist with what a record exec might describe as ‘the full package’.
The performers who Springsteen dubs his favourite singers exhibit much of the same encompassing spirit as the man himself. His five listed favourites aren’t just great singers, they are interpreters of songs and superb songwriters to boot. Clearly, Springsteen is an artist with a keen eye for a performer with a soulful connection. This list is taken from his handwritten selection at a Rolling Stones award ceremony one evening.
Bruce Springsteen’s five favourite singers:
Ray Charles made making music seem like slicing butter with a hot knife. For most of us laymen, the craft of songwriting is mystic alchemy, but Ray Charles seemed to be able to whisk up a classic with the ease of a bird taking to flight. Briskly waltzing around the piano keys, like a summer stroll in the park, he exuberantly followed his whims into whatever genre they strayed, and he happily picnicked on the joyous sound therein.
Both Springsteen and the late Ray Charles share this ability to bring their own thing to every diverse genre they enter. Springsteen has covered the Charles classic ‘What I’d Say’ on more than a few occasions and even got to perform with his singing hero on Michael Jackson’s charity single ‘We Are the World’.
Much like ‘The Boss’ himself, Cooke was a performer who never feared holding a mirror to American society. Songs such as Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ both share the same performative intent to bring about progress. Thus, when ‘The Boss’ played a handful of songs following the premiere of the inspiring film Blinded by the Light, he opted to serve up a few Cooke classics.
Throughout his career, Springsteen has continued to cover his vocal hero at live shows and has always introduced the tracks with a modest announcement of how he struggles to do them justice. His own track ‘Mary’s Place’ even offers up a meta-reference to the late soul singer and his song ‘Meet Me at Mary’s’.
There is an undeniable kinship between America’s two favourite blue-collar troubadours, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. When Dylan first heard his New Jersey counterpart he joked, “He better be careful, or he might go through every word in the English language.” In that respect, they both share a rather verbose likeness and since that early comparison, their paths have often crossed.
Whilst some folks might question Dylan’s vocal ability, Springsteen certainly isn’t in that camp. In his autobiography, Bruce lauds Dylan’s ability to paint a picture with a song and rubbishes the claim that singing is all about carrying a tune. He writes: “Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans at that moment.”
Like many before him, Springsteen had his eyes opened to the true potential of rock by The Beatles. He said when speaking with Desert Island Discs of the song ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. “This was another song that changed the course of my life. It was a very raucous sounding record when it came out of the radio,” he explained. “It really was the song that inspired me to play rock and roll music — to get a small band and start doing some small gigs around town. It was life-changing. It’s still a beautiful record.”
As Keith Richards once bemoaned, “The Beatles are lucky, they’ve got four singers,” it was the rougher tones of Lennon’s timbre that secured a spot on Springsteen’s list.
Springsteen will be the first person to tell you that his trusted E Street Band have been a huge part of his success. The gilded ensemble of musicians add a finely-tuned edge to his style and have helped his songs to soar. One key member is saxophone player Clarence Clemons who lends the tracks a bristling singularity.
Clemons has also been lucky enough to work with the likes of Aretha Franklin in the studio and had been able to happily report to Springsteen that everything he has no doubt read about awe-inspiring vocals are true. When Rolling Stone conducted their top 20 lists at the award ceremony, just about every rock star in attendance touted her name and Springsteen is hardly a contrarian when it comes to coveting class.