In the decades following his emergence on the national scene in 1975, Bruce Springsteen proved to be that rarity among popular musicians, an artist who maintained his status as a frontline recording and performing star, consistently selling millions of albums and selling out arenas and stadiums around the world year after year, as well as retaining widespread critical approbation with ecstatic reviews greeting those discs and shows. Although there were a few speed bumps along the way in Springsteen's career, the wonder of his nearly unbroken string of critical and commercial success is that he achieved it while periodically challenging his listeners by going off in unexpected directions, following his muse even when that meant altering the sound of his music or the composition of his backup band, or making his lyrical message overtly political. Of course, it may have been these very sidesteps that kept his image and his music fresh, especially since he always had the fallback of returning to what his fans thought he did best, barnstorming the country with a marathon rock & roll show using his longtime bandmates.
Bruce Springsteen was born September 23, 1949 in Freehold, New Jersey, the son of Douglas Springsteen, a bus driver, and Adele (Zirilli) Springsteen, a secretary. He became interested in music after seeing Elvis Presley perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and got a guitar, but he didn't start playing seriously until 1963. In 1965, he joined his first band, the Beatles-influenced Castiles. They got as far as playing in New York City, but broke up in 1967 around the time Springsteen graduated from high school and began frequenting clubs in Asbury Park, New Jersey. From there, he briefly joined Earth, a hard rock band in the style of Cream. Also in the hard rock vein was his next group, Child (soon renamed Steel Mill), which featured keyboard player Danny Federici and drummer Vini Lopez. (Later on, guitarist Steve Van Zandt joined on bass.) Steel Mill played in California in 1969, drawing a rave review in San Francisco and even a contract offer from a record label. But they broke up in 1971, and Springsteen formed a big band, the short-lived Dr. Zoom & the Cosmic Boom, quickly superseded by the Bruce Springsteen Band. Along with Federici, Lopez, and Van Zandt (who switched back to guitar), this group also included pianist David Sancious and bassist Garry Tallent, plus a horn section that didn't last long before being replaced by a single saxophonist, Clarence Clemons. Due to a lack of work, however, Springsteen broke up the band and began playing solo shows in New York City. It was as a solo performer that he acquired a manager, Mike Appel, who arranged an audition for legendary Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond. Hammond signed Springsteen to Columbia in 1972.
In preparing his debut LP, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Springsteen immediately re-hired most of his backup band, Federici, Lopez, Sancious, Tallent, and Clemons. (Van Zandt, on tour with the Dovells, was mostly unavailable.) The album went unnoticed upon its initial release in January 1973 (although Manfred Mann's Earth Band would turn its lead-off track, "Blinded by the Light," into a number one hit four years later, and the LP itself has since gone double platinum). The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (September 1973) also failed to sell despite some rave reviews. (It too has gone double platinum.) The following year, Springsteen revised his backup group -- now dubbed the E Street Band -- as Lopez and Sancious left, and Max Weinberg (drums) and Roy Bittan (piano) joined, and in 1975, Van Zandt returned to the group. With this unit he toured extensively while working on the LP that represented his last chance with Columbia. By the time Born to Run (August 1975) was released, the critics and a significant cult audience were with him, and the title song became a Top 40 hit while the album reached the Top Ten, going on to sell six million copies.
Despite this breakthrough, Springsteen's momentum was broken by a legal dispute, as he split from Appel and brought in Jon Landau (a rock critic who had famously called him the "rock & roll future" in a 1974 concert review) as his new manager. The legal issues took until 1977 to resolve, during which time Springsteen was unable to record. (One beneficiary of this problem was Patti Smith, to whom Springsteen gave the composition "Because the Night," which, with some lyrical revisions by her, became her only Top 40 hit in the spring of 1978.) He finally returned in June 1978 with Darkness on the Edge of Town. By then, he had to rebuild his career. Record labels had recruited their own versions of the Springsteen "heartland rock" sound, in such similar artists as Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band (who actually preceded Springsteen but achieved national recognition in his wake), Johnny Cougar (aka John Mellencamp), Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Meat Loaf, Eddie Money, and even fellow Jersey Shore residents Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, to name only some of the more successful ones. At the same time, the punk/new wave trend had become the new focus of critical devotion, making Springsteen seem unfashionable. Notwithstanding these challenges, Darkness earned its share of good reviews and achieved Top Ten status, selling three million copies as the single "Prove It All Night" hit the Top 40. (In early 1979, the Pointer Sisters took Springsteen's composition "Fire" into the Top Ten.)
Springsteen fully consolidated his status with his next album, the two-LP set The River (October 1980), which hit number one, sold five million copies, and spawned the Top Ten hit "Hungry Heart" and the Top 40 hit "Fade Away." (In 1981-1982, Gary U.S. Bonds reached the Top 40 with two Springsteen compositions, "This Little Girl" and "Out of Work.") But having finally topped the charts, Springsteen experimented on his next album, preferring the demo recordings of the songs he had made for Nebraska (September 1982) to full-band studio versions, especially given the dark subject matter of his lyrics. The stark LP nevertheless hit the Top Ten and sold a million copies without benefit of a hit single or a promotional tour. (Van Zandt amicably left the E Street Band for a solo career at this point and was replaced by Nils Lofgren.)
But then came Born in the U.S.A. (June 1984) and a two-year international tour. The album hit number one, threw off seven Top Ten hits ("Dancing in the Dark," which earned Springsteen his first Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, "Cover Me," "Born in the U.S.A.," "I'm on Fire," "Glory Days," "I'm Goin' Down," and "My Hometown"), and sold 15 million copies, putting Springsteen in the pop heavens with Michael Jackson and Prince. For his next album, he finally exploited his reputation as a live performer by releasing the five-LP/three-CD box set Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band