Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen (born September 23, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter and leader of the E Street Band. Nicknamed “The Boss,” he is recognized for his poetic lyrics, his Jersey Shore roots, his distinctive voice, and lengthy, energetic stage performances.
Springsteen has recorded both rock albums and more somber folk-oriented works. His most successful studio albums, Born to Run (1975) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984) find pleasures in the struggles of daily American life. He has sold more than 135 million records worldwide and more than 64 million records in the United States, making him one of the world’s best-selling artists.
He has earned numerous awards for his work, including 20 Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, an Academy Award, a Tony Award (for Springsteen on Broadway) and was inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1999. In 2009, Springsteen was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient, in 2013 was named MusiCaresperson of the year, and in 2016 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen was born on September 23, 1949, at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was brought home from the hospital to Freehold Borough where he spent his childhood. He lived on South Street and attended Freehold Borough High School. His father, Douglas Frederick Springsteen (1924-1998), was of Dutch and Irish ancestry, and worked as a bus driver, among other jobs, but was unemployed most of the time. Springsteen said his mother, Adele Ann (née Zerilli), a legal secretary and of Italian ancestry, was the main breadwinner. His maternal grandfather was born in Vico Equense, a town near Naples. He has two younger sisters, Virginia and Pamela. Pamela had a brief film career, but left acting to pursue still photography full-time; she took photos for his Human Touch, Lucky Town and The Ghost of Tom Joad albums. Douglas Springsteen, Bruce’s father, suffered from mental health issues through his life which worsened in his later years.
Springsteen’s last name is topographic and of Dutch origin, literally translating to “jumping stone” but more generally meaning a kind of stone used as a stepping stone in unpaved streets or between two houses. The Springsteens are among the early Dutch families who settled in the colony of New Netherland in the 1600s.
Raised a Catholic, Springsteen attended the St. Rose of Lima Catholic school in Freehold Borough, where he was at odds with the nuns and rejected the strictures imposed upon him, even though some of his later music reflects a Catholic ethos and includes a few rock-influenced, traditional Irish-Catholic hymns. In a 2012 interview, he explained that it was his Catholic upbringing rather than political ideology that most influenced his music. He noted in the interview that his faith had given him a “very active spiritual life”, although he joked that this “made it very difficult sexually.” He added: “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”
In ninth grade, Springsteen began attending the public Freehold High School, but did not fit in there either. Former teachers have said he was a “loner, who wanted nothing more than to play his guitar.” He graduated in 1967, but felt so uncomfortable that he skipped the ceremony. He briefly attended Ocean County College, but dropped out.
—Bruce Springsteen, on the impact of The Beatles
Springsteen grew up hearing fellow New Jersey singer Frank Sinatra on the radio. He became interested in being involved in music himself when, in 1956 and 1957, at the age of seven, he saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. Soon after this his mother rented him a guitar from Mike Diehl’s Music in Freehold for $6 a week but it failed to provide him with the ‘instant gratification’ he desired. In 1964, Springsteen saw the Beatles appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and, inspired, he bought his first guitar for $18.95 at the Western Auto Appliance Store. Thereafter he started playing for audiences with a band called the Rogues at local venues such as the Elks Lodge in Freehold. In late 1964, Springsteen’s mother took out a loan to buy her 16-year-old son a $60 Kent guitar, an act he subsequently memorialized in his song “The Wish”. The following year, he went to the house of Tex and Marion Vinyard, who sponsored young bands in town. They helped him become the lead guitarist and subsequently one of the lead singers of the Castiles. His first gig with the Castiles was possibly at a trailer park on New Jersey Route 34. The Castiles recorded two original songs at a public recording studio in Brick Township and played a variety of venues, including Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. Marion Vinyard said that she believed the young Springsteen when he promised he would make it big.
Springsteen was signed to Columbia Records in 1972 by Clive Davis, after having initially piqued the interest of John Hammond, who had signed Bob Dylan to the same label a decade earlier. Despite the expectations of Columbia Records’ executives that Springsteen would record an acoustic album, he brought many of his New Jersey-based colleagues into the studio with him, thus forming the E Street Band (although it would not be formally named for several months). His debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., released in January 1973, established him as a critical favorite though sales were slow.
Because of Springsteen’s lyrical poeticism and folk rock-rooted music exemplified on tracks like “Blinded by the Light” and “For You“, as well as the Columbia and Hammond connections, critics initially compared Springsteen to Bob Dylan. “He sings with a freshness and urgency I haven’t heard since I was rocked by ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘” wrote Crawdaddy magazine editor Peter Knobler in Springsteen’s first interview/profile in March 1973. Photographs for that original profile were taken by Ed Gallucci. Crawdaddy discovered Springsteen in the rock press and was his earliest champion. Knobler profiled him in Crawdaddy three times, in 1973, 1975 and 1978. (Springsteen and the E Street Band acknowledged the magazine’s support by giving a private performance at the Crawdaddy 10th Anniversary Party in New York City in June 1976.) Music critic Lester Bangs wrote in Creem in 1975 that when Springsteen’s first album was released “… many of us dismissed it: he wrote like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, sang like Van Morrison and Robbie Robertson, and led a band that sounded like Van Morrison’s”. The track “Spirit in the Night” especially showed Morrison’s influence, while “Lost in the Flood” was the first of many portraits of Vietnam veterans, and “Growin’ Up“, his first take on the recurring theme of adolescence.
In September 1973, Springsteen’s second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was released, again to critical acclaim but no commercial success. Springsteen’s songs became grander in form and scope, with the E Street Band providing a less folksy, more R&B vibe, and the lyrics often romanticized teenage street life. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and “Incident on 57th Street” would become fan favorites, and the long, rousing “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” continues to rank among Springsteen’s most beloved concert numbers.
On August 13, 1975, Springsteen and the E Street Band began a five-night, 10-show stand at New York’s The Bottom Line club. This attracted major media attention and was broadcast live on WNEW-FM. (Decades later, Rolling Stone magazine would name the stand as one of the 50 Moments That Changed Rock and Roll.)
Oklahoma City rock radio station WKY, in association with Carson Attractions, staged an experimental promotional event that resulted in a sold out house at the (6,000 seat) Civic Center Music Hall. With the release of Born to Run on August 25, 1975, Springsteen finally found success. The album peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and while reception at US top 40 radio outlets for the album’s two singles was not overwhelming (“Born to Run” reached a modest No. 23 on the Billboard charts, and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” peaked at No. 83), almost every track on the album received album-oriented rock airplay, especially “Born to Run”, “Thunder Road“, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and “Jungleland“, all of which remain perennial favorites on many classic rock stations.
Springsteen appeared on the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week, on October 27 of that year. So great did the wave of publicity become that he eventually rebelled against it during his first venture overseas, tearing down promotional posters before a concert appearance in London.
A legal battle with former manager Mike Appel kept Springsteen out of the studio for nearly a year, during which time he kept the E Street Band together through extensive touring across the U.S. Despite the optimistic fervor with which he often performed, Springsteen’s new songs sounded more somber than much of his previous work. Reaching settlement with Appel in 1977, Springsteen returned to the studio, and the subsequent sessions produced Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). Musically, this album was a turning point in Springsteen’s career. Gone were the raw, rapid-fire lyrics, outsized characters, and long, multi-part musical compositions of the first three albums; the songs were leaner and more carefully drawn and began to reflect Springsteen’s growing intellectual and political awareness. The cross-country 1978 tour to promote the album would become legendary for the intensity and length of its shows.
By the late 1970s, Springsteen had earned a reputation in the pop world as a songwriter whose material could provide hits for other bands. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had achieved a US No. 1 pop hit with a heavily rearranged version of Greetings‘ “Blinded by the Light” in early 1977. Patti Smith reached No. 13 with her take on Springsteen’s unreleased “Because the Night” (with revised lyrics by Smith) in 1978, while The Pointer Sisters hit No. 2 in 1979 with Springsteen’s also unreleased “Fire“. Although not a critical success, long time friend Southside Johnny recorded Springsteen’s “The Fever” in early 1976 and “Talk to Me” in 1978. The two of them along with Steve Van Zandt collaborated to produce “Trapped Again” in 1978.
In September 1979, Springsteen and the E Street Band joined the Musicians United for Safe Energy anti-nuclear power collective at Madison Square Garden for two nights, playing an abbreviated set while premiering two songs from his upcoming album. The subsequent No Nukes live album, as well as the following summer’s No Nukes documentary film, represented the first official recordings and footage of Springsteen’s fabled live act, as well as Springsteen’s first tentative dip into political involvement.
Springsteen continued to focus on working-class life with the 20-song double album The River in 1980, which included an intentionally paradoxical range of material from good-time party rockers to emotionally intense ballads, and finally yielded his first hit Top Ten single as a performer, “Hungry Heart“. Like the previous two albums, musical styles on The River were derived largely from rock ‘n’ roll music of the 50s and 60s, but with a more explicit pop-rock sound than earlier albums. This is apparent in the adoption of Eighties pop-rock hallmarks like the reverberating-tenor drums, very basic percussion/guitar and repetitive lyrics apparent in many of the tracks. The title song pointed to Springsteen’s intellectual direction, while a couple of the lesser-known tracks presaged his musical direction. The album sold well, becoming his first No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart, and a long tour in 1980 and 1981 followed, which included Springsteen’s first extended tour of Europe and ending with a series of multi-night arena stands in major cities in the U.S.
The River was followed in 1982 by the stark solo acoustic Nebraska. Recording sessions had been held to expand on a demo tape Springsteen had made at his home on a simple, low-tech four-track tape deck. However, during the recording process Springsteen and producer Jon Landau realized the songs worked better as solo acoustic numbers than full band renditions and the original demo tape was released as the album. Although the recordings of the E Street Band were shelved, other songs from these sessions would later be released, including “Born in the U.S.A” and “Glory Days“. According to the Marsh biographies, Springsteen was depressed when he wrote this material, and the result is a brutal depiction of American life. While Nebraska did not sell as well as Springsteen’s three previous albums, it garnered widespread critical praise (including being named “Album of the Year” by Rolling Stone magazine’s critics) and influenced later works by other major artists, including U2‘s album The Joshua Tree. Springsteen did not tour in conjunction with Nebraska’s release.
Springsteen is probably best known for his album Born in the U.S.A. (1984), which sold 15 million copies in the U.S., 30 million worldwide, and became one of the best-selling albums of all time with seven singles hitting the Top 10. The title track was a bitter commentary on the treatment of Vietnam veterans, some of whom were Springsteen’s friends. The lyrics in the verses were entirely unambiguous when listened to, but the anthemic music and the title of the song made it hard for many, from politicians to the common person, to get the lyrics—except those in the chorus, which could be read many ways. The song made a huge political impact, as he was advocating for the rights of the common working-class man.
The song was widely misinterpreted as jingoistic, and in connection with the 1984 presidential campaign became the subject of considerable folklore. In 1984, conservative columnist George Will attended a Springsteen concert and then wrote a column praising Springsteen’s work ethic. Six days after the column was printed, in a campaign rally in Hammonton, New Jersey, Reagan said, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.” Two nights later, at a concert in Pittsburgh, Springsteen told the crowd, “Well, the president was mentioning my name in his speech the other day and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album of mine must’ve been, you know? I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.” He then began playing “Johnny 99”, with its allusions to closing factories and criminals.
Springsteen also turned down several million dollars offered by the Chrysler Corporation to use “Born in the U.S.A.” in a car commercial. In later years, to eliminate the bombast and make the song’s original meaning more explicitly clear, Springsteen performed the song accompanied only by acoustic guitar, thus returning to how the song was originally conceived. The original acoustic version of the song, recorded in 1982 during the Nebraska sessions, appeared on the 1998 archival release Tracks.
“Dancing in the Dark” was the biggest of seven hit singles from Born in the U.S.A., peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard music charts. The video for the song showed a young Courteney Cox dancing on stage with Springsteen, which helped start the actress’s career. The song “Cover Me” was written by Springsteen for Donna Summer, but his record company persuaded him to keep it for the new album. A big fan of Summer’s work, Springsteen wrote another song for her, “Protection“. Videos for the album were directed by Brian De Palma and John Sayles. Springsteen played on the “We Are the World” song and album in 1985. His live single “Trapped” from that album received moderate airplay on US Top 40 stations as well as reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Top Rock Tracks chart.
During the Born in the U.S.A. Tour, Springsteen met actress Julianne Phillips, whom he would marry in 1985. He also that year took part in the recording of the USA For Africacharity song “We Are The World”; however he declined to play at Live Aid. He later stated that he “simply did not realise how big the whole thing was going to be”. He has since expressed regret at turning down Bob Geldof‘s invitation, stating that he could have played a couple of acoustic songs had there been no slot available for a full band performance.
The Born in the U.S.A. period represented the height of Springsteen’s visibility in popular culture and the broadest audience he would ever reach (aided by the release of Arthur Baker‘s dance mixes of three of the singles). From June 15 to August 10, 1985, all seven of his albums appeared on the UK Albums Chart: the first time an artist had charted their entire back catalogue simultaneously.
Live/1975–85, a five-record box set (also on three cassettes or three CDs), was released near the end of 1986 and became the first box set to debut at No. 1 on the U.S. album charts. It is one of the most commercially successful live albums of all time, ultimately selling 13 million units in the U.S. Live/1975–85 summed up Springsteen’s career to that point and displayed some of the elements that made his shows so powerful to his fans: the switching from mournful dirges to party rockers and back; the communal sense of purpose between artist and audience; the long, intense spoken passages before songs, including those describing Springsteen’s difficult relationship with his father; and the instrumental prowess of the E Street Band, such as in the long coda to “Racing in the Street“. Despite its popularity, some fans and critics felt the album’s song selection could have been better. Springsteen concerts are the subjects of frequent bootleg recording and trading among fans.
During the 1980s, several Springsteen fanzines were launched, including Backstreets magazine, which started in Seattle and continues today as a glossy publication, now in communication with Springsteen’s management and official website.
After this commercial peak, Springsteen released the much more sedate and contemplative Tunnel of Love album (1987), a mature reflection on the many faces of love found, lost and squandered, which only selectively used the E Street Band. It presaged the breakup of his marriage to Julianne Phillips and described some of his unhappiness in the relationship. Reflecting the challenges of love in “Brilliant Disguise“, Springsteen sang:
So tell me who I see when I look in your eyes/Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?
The subsequent Tunnel of Love Express Tour shook up fans with changes to the stage layout, favorites dropped from the set list, and horn-based arrangements. During the European leg in 1988, Springsteen’s relationship with backup singer Patti Scialfa became public. Phillips and Springsteen filed for divorce in 1988.
On July 19, 1988, Springsteen held a concert in East Germany that attracted 300,000 spectators. Journalist Erik Kirschbaum has called the concert “the most important rock concert ever, anywhere”, in his 2013 book Rocking the Wall. Bruce Springsteen: The Berlin Concert That Changed the World. It had been conceived by the Socialist Unity Party‘s youth wing in an attempt to placate the youth of East Germany, who were hungry for more freedom and the popular music of the West. However, it is Kirschbaum’s opinion that the success of the concert catalyzed opposition to the regime in the DDR, and helped contribute to the fall of the Berlin Wall the following year.
Later in 1988, Springsteen headlined the worldwide Human Rights Now! tour for Amnesty International. In late 1989 he dissolved the E Street Band, and he and Scialfa relocated to California, marrying in 1991.