By the time Bruce Springsteen walked into CBS Studios in New York in May of 1972 to audition for Columbia Records, he’d been playing in rock and roll bands for seven years – from the garage rock/soul hybrid of the Castiles to the thundering guitar jams of Steel Mill to the soul music of the Bruce Springsteen Band. Steel Mill built up a following along the East Coast and even recorded a few demos for Bill Graham in February of 1970. But Springsteen had no experience with record companies or serious recording studios. He was also at a crossroads in his career. Although he’d had local success, he was unsure of his future direction. He signed a management contract as a solo artist with Mike Appel, who encouraged him to develop his songwriting, in hopes of possibly having Springsteen emerge in the popular singer-songwriter mold.
Appel managed to get an audition for Springsteen with the legendary John Hammond – a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee. Hammond had been at the center of popular music since 1938, when he organized the From Spirituals to Swing concerts at Carnegie Hall. He signed some of the most important artists of the twentieth century to Columbia, including Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Hammond loved what he heard, and so he arranged for Springsteen to record several demos the next day, on May 3, 1972. Springsteen recorded more than a dozen songs that day, four of which were released on the anthology Tracks (1998): “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” “Growin’ Up” and “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street.” All of these songs would end up on his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973), and all but “Mary” would be recorded with a rock band – not exactly what Hammond had envisioned for Springsteen.
In a 1998 interview with MOJO magazine, Springsteen remembered the session: “It was a big, big day for me… I was 22 and came up on the bus with an acoustic guitar with no case… I was embarrassed carrying it around the city. I walked into his office and had the audition, and I played a couple of songs and [Hammond] said, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’ I knew a lot about John Hammond, the work he’d done, the people he’d discovered, his importance in music, and it was very exciting to feel you were worth his time. No matter what happened afterwards, even if it was just for this one night, you were worth his time. That meant a lot to me. He was very encouraging – simply being in that room with him at the board was one of my greatest recording experiences.”