Bruce Springsteen became a voice of underdogs and the working-class, thanks to his unsparing observations about what life was really like for those with no access to a silver spoon.
As a songwriter, however, he was also deeply romantic and sentimental. In long-time collaborators the E Street Band, he found kindred spirits who shared his commitment to barnstorming optimism.
In hindsight, it's a bit head-scratching that it took Bruce Springsteen well over a decade to connect with mass audiences. His music has enormously appealing qualities—sincerity, earnestness, optimism, realism—and his gritty, gruff voice was both tough and tender.
These contradictions also permeated his songwriting. Springsteen found romance in the little things (a summer fling, a band finding their groove, letting off steam after work) and could be deeply sentimental about love and fidelity. However, he was also a realist: His songs acknowledged how difficult it was to get ahead and stay ahead, and was an unsparing observer about what life was really like for misfits, underdogs and those with no access to a silver spoon. Springsteen's music always held out hope that better days would be around the corner, though—and if they weren't, figuring out a plan B for survival was in order.
Unsurprisingly, Springsteen's background was unpretentious and working-class. He hailed from Freehold, New Jersey, where he caught the music bug thanks to two legendary The Ed Sullivan Show performances: Elvis Presley in 1956 and the Beatles in 1964. His mother supported his interest in performing by buying him his first guitar.
Starting in 1965, young Springsteen played with a string of New Jersey bands, including the Castiles—who recorded the songs "Baby I" and "That's What You Get"—Earth, Steel Mill and Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. During his years toiling away in local and regional clubs, he crossed paths (or played) with many of his future E Street Band collaborators.
In 1972, Springsteen caught a break when then-manager Mike Appel landed him an audition with Columbia Records' John Hammond, the man who had signed Bob Dylan in the '60s. Impressed and thinking he had discovered Dylan's heir apparent, the executive inked Springsteen to a deal.
The seasoned road dog had other ideas, of course, and 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. emerged with contributions from saxophonist Clarence Clemons, keyboardist David Sancious, bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez. The LP did have folk elements—and Springsteen's delivery occasionally had a shambling, Dylan-esque vibe—but its rough-hewn R&B and soul was defiantly distinct.
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. was not the commercial success Columbia hoped it would be, but Springsteen and his troupe of musicians, who were now known as the E Street Band, continued to hit the road. The collaborative prowess of that road-worn, ragtag group—which now also featured accordionist Danny Federici—emerged on 1973's The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, home to the troupe's epic show-closer "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)."
The rest of the world finally caught up with Springsteen's ambition and talent on 1975's Born To Run. At once vulnerable and supremely confident, the album featured widescreen sprawls (the Clemons showcase "Jungleland" and the howling, cathartic "Backstreets") and the fist-pumping title track. The E Street—whose lineup now featured guitarist Steven Van Zandt, drummer Max Weinberg and keyboardist Roy Bittan joining Federici, Tallent and Clemons—was the mightiest bar band in the land, backing a frontman who exuded blood, sweat and tears during every show.
1978's Darkness On The Edge of Town arrived after Springsteen's acrimonious legal battle with Appel. Accordingly, the LP was less wide-eyed and upbeat—although it contained one of Springsteen's finest chronicles of frustration, the snarling "Adam Raised A Cain," and an indelible anthem in "Badlands."
With its themes of mortality, fatherhood, temptation and aging, 1980's double LP The River continued down an introspective path. However, Springsteen and the E Street Band took a diverse approach to this emotional wreckage: Like the Clash's similarly expansive 1979 opus London Calling, The River touched on multiple genres—from sharp-shooting country-rock and upbeat blues to sparse soul and wrenching ballads.
The River also featured Springsteen's first major pop hit, "Hungry Heart," which landed at No. 5 on the singles charts. In response, Springsteen did a 180 and released 1982's Nebraska, an album full of songs he recorded at home by himself. The lo-fi production, sparse instrumentation and stark songwriting reflected a moodier side to the star that resonated widely, a testament to how popular the Boss was at the time.
Little did he know that 1984's Born In The U.S.A. would raise his profile even higher. With its contemporary production and modern-sounding flourishes such as keyboards, the LP spawned seven top 10 singles, sold 10 million albums by the end of 1985 and sent the group into the stratosphere. Springsteen and the E Street Band were at a creative and commercial peak.
In the album's aftermath, he once again retreated and released 1987's mostly solo Tunnel Of Love, a polished rock record featuring the moody hits "Brilliant Disguise" and the title track. At the same time, Springsteen's personal life took a downturn, however. After a four-year marriage, he divorced Julianne Phillips in 1989; that same year, he also fired the E Street Band, a break that would last for years.
In 1990, he regrouped by doing some purely solo shows, and then married Patti Scialfa in 1991, the year after she had their first child. With these new beginnings in mind, Springsteen released a pair of solo albums in 1992, Lucky Town and Human Touch. Although the latter spawned a hit title track, the commercial performance of these LPs paled in comparison to his '80s work.
Like clockwork, however, Springsteen bounced back and had a huge hit with 1994's "Streets Of Philadelphia." The introspective theme to the Tom Hanks-starring movie Philadelphia nabbed four Grammys and an Oscar. 1995 brought the equally sparse, folk-leaning The Ghost Of Tom Joad, which Springsteen supported with a solo acoustic tour.
In 1999, he and the E Street Band buried the hatchet and embarked on a well-received reunion tour. That union produced 2002's No. 1 album The Rising, Springsteen's first studio album with the E Street Band since Born in the U.S.A. Political activism, smaller-scale tours (such as the post-We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions concerts) and E Street Band shows followed as the decade progressed.
In fact, Springsteen continues to follow the same pattern today, with the occasional studio album (2012's Wrecking Ball, 2014's High Hopes) presaging barnstorming, marathon gigs with his E Street Band buds. Decades after he first started turning heads on the Jersey Shore with sweaty live gigs, the skinny kid from Freehold is all grown up and, incredibly, doing exactly the same thing.