Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Ten That Made Springsteen; 7. Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, People Get Ready

Soul music has been a constant in Springsteen's career. Maybe even more so than R&R. Albeit that the influence wasn't always as pronounced as his R&R influences. But from the very beginning Soul music was there. At first the influence might have been secondary, borrowed through the Beatles and the countless Garage acts. But soon enough Springsteen picked up on some originals and reworked them in his own fashion. Rufus Thomas' greasy Soul classic "Walking The Dog" was somewhat of a regular in the early days of the E-Street Band. Through Sancious' influence it came out decidedly jazzier than Rufus' funky original. More Funk came into the picture when Little Steven joined the band as a regular guitar player. On the "Born to Run" album Steve arranged the horns on "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" almost as a carbon copy of the Stax sound. That Memphis based label had been almost as influential on the development of R&R as Elvis and the Chess studios that gave us the likes of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Bands like the Animals and the Rolling Stones looked at acts like Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas for their sound and inspiration. When the Stax revue hit Europe in '68 they were treated like major stars, where as in America they were still a few regular Joes from Memphis Tennessee. Of course this was a two way street. The British Invasion had an enormous impact on American music and soon the Soul and R&B stars from the states would be covering their British counter parts. With Springsteen's affinity for British Invasion music and Garage a dive into Soul would be inevitable.

Not only did Springsteen infuse his show with a few classics from the genre, most notably "Quarter To Three" from Gary 'US' Bonds and "Raise Your Hand" from Eddie Floyd fame, his showmanship borrowed a lot from the world of Soul. E-Street show were infused the Cropper like guitar phrasing from then 'Miami' Steve, Danny's soulful organ grinding and Clarence's wailing. Springsteen milked the Soul antiques for all they were worth, bringing down the band, slowly, softer, before taking them back into a R&R explosion that would have everybody jumping in the aisles, dancing on there seats. To top it off Springsteen stole James Brown's cape routine, where he would fall down, apparently from exhaustion, the Big Man rushing to comfort him and pick him up, leading him back stage to rest. But Springsteen would break free, bust loose, fueled as it were by the power of R&R, blazing in yet another chorus of "Quarter To Three", "Twist and Shout" or "Higher and Higher". Seemingly refusing to go home until both he and the audience were completely drained. He sometimes mockingly warned that the next tune might be bad for your health, asking those with weak hearts to step out, by the time he was through, that warning didn't sound as tongue in the cheek as it seemed at first.

But it didn't stop there. Springsteen infused his show with numerous raps. Something uncommon in R&R shows, but a custom that had a long tradition in Soul music. James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Solomon Burke and much of the Stax roster were known to rap to their audience at length. Springsteen is one of the few R&R artists I've known to do that. That isn't to say that his raps were carbon copies of the great Soul acts. Springsteen had his own original voice when he was spinning his yarns. For one thing his stories were a lot more subdued at first, though they did grow cockier when success came knocking. For fans the story telling is part of what Springsteen is about. Some of his tales are considered to be as classic as his songs. There is the story of small town resident Ducky Slattery as in the intro to Änd The Band Played" in 1973, getting the band together as in the intro to "The E-Street Shuffle" in '75, his struggles with his father as in the intro to "It's My Life" and his uneasy first steps into the world of girls leading into "Pretty Flamingo", and of course the teenage werewolf story where God personally commanded Springsteen to "Let it ROCK!!!!" in 1978. His early raps hovered somewhere between that church Soul shouting, the romantic confessions from the classic Doo Wop records and Frank Sinatra's coy stage antiques.

As his success progressed and took him into the big arenas and stadiums, the story telling gradually changed into something that was getting closer and closer to Solomon Burke and his version of store front preaching. Springsteen gradually developed a thunderous preacher shtick. The preacher bit first surfaced during the "Born in the USA" tour where the "garden of eden" bit led into "Pink Cadillac". But gradually the bit grew and took a more prominent place in the shows. With the Tunnel of Love Express tour "I'm A Coward" was a staple, a show piece that came back every show and had an important narrative function in the set. There still was the more Doo Wop based rap leading into "All That Heaven Will Allow", but they would become a thing of the past after that tour. The big arenas and stadiums begged for a more powerful and more important, louder performance. The subdued raps had people scurrying to the beer stands, the preacher shtick commanded more attention, with added audience participation the shtick was more inclusive and about as intimate as you could get before tens of thousands of people. "I'm a Coward", built around Gino Washington's "Gino's a Coward", proved to be the perfect vehicle.

When Springsteen disbanded the E-Street Band and formed another road act in '92, the Soul influence became even more pronounced when he added a gospel like background choir to some of his songs. On his records his writing became even more soulful than ever before teaming up with the legendary Sam Moore, from Sam & Dave fame, on "Soul Driver" and infusing his songs with quite a bit more Soul imagery like in "Leap of Faith". The shows might have been heavy on the guitar but it was clear that Springsteen wanted to bring this side of him more to the front. Seeing how the albums and tour turned out, one might wish he made a more fundamental choice and went all the way tour with his version of the Mar-Keys. Though Dave Marsh claims in his live overview "On Tour" that Springsteen's audience may have been too "white" to grasp the concept, and thus shunned the tour and album, I think that is hardly why it was a relative failure. Springsteen always had a strong R&B influence in his music, it has always been part of the attraction, the problem was that Springsteen still had one foot in the E-Street Band with his music and material choice. The result was more E-Street light and less the Soul revival it could have been.

In spirit Springsteen's music, especially with the E-Street Band, has always had a heart full of Soul. Not just musically but spiritually as well. Soul music, as Ray Charles designed it and Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield molded it, has always been about the sanctification of every day life. With a heavy root in church music, Soul music is very much about rising to the occasion, transcending hardship, keeping your pride in times of strife. That humanist strand infused with an almost religious fervor is very much present in Springsteen's R&R. Springsteen has often stated that he views music as a force that can change people, called his shows a revival meeting and a political rally. It is clear that Springsteen feels his music is more than just hedonistic escapism. Springsteen's R&R is less sex & drugs than most of his counter parts in the world of Rock. Songs as "Promised Land" are more indebted to a song as "People Get Ready" or "A Change Is Gonna Come" than they are to the staples of R&R. Although the first might not be the song that introduced him to the genre I do feel it captures the essence of Springsteen's approach to his music best. "People Get Ready" was, when released in 1963 one of the first civil rights songs to be recorded in the R&B and Soul industry. It is a song of tremendous promise and although its a Gospel it does have the feel of rewards to come in this world. "People Get Ready" taps into that quintessential American imagery of the train. Through the rail roads the west was won. As such trains symbolize the promise of America a century or so earlier as much as cars did when Springsteen grew up. Of course in "People Get Ready" the train also calls back to the underground railroad that helped to free slaves in the south. As such it is a song about personal freedom. "People Get Ready" acknowledges the individual but stresses that the individual is lost when he or she isn't connected to the people around him, in order to achieve something people have got to work together, get on that train together.

It's the spirit of "People Get Ready" that lead directly to one of Springsteen's most powerful recordings in the past 10 years, "Land Of Hope And Dreams". Comparing the lyrics one might even say that Springsteen was more than just a bit inspired. "People Get Ready" was often included as an apt coda to the song it borrowed so much from. The coda returned during the curring Magic tour in Europe at the tail end of "Promised Land", somehow it sounded like it had been there all along. "Land Of Hope And Dreams" debuted during the Reunion tour were Springsteen got the band back together. In the tour that followed his signature raps were gone, but he did refine his preacher shtick in a raucous version of "Light of Day". The Reunion tour was very much about the reaffirmation of Springsteen's promise, proving R&R could save, if only for those two to three hours of sweat infused performance. In his speech he captured it perfectly, "Unlike my competitors" he belted out to an enthralled audience "I cannot, I will not, I shall not, promise you life everlasting......" clinging to his mic, looking like he's going to pass out, rising up again sweat dripping from his forehead "but I can promise you life, right NOW!!!!!". What more do you need?

"Pink Cadillac (live)"
"Light of Day (live)"
"Land Of Hope And Dreams (live)"
"Gino is a Coward (aka I'm a Coward)" - Gino Washington

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