The Kennedy Center

Bruce Springsteen


(Singer and composer, born September 23, 1949 in Long Branch, New Jersey)

He was born in the U.S.A., and his news from Asbury Park keeps defining the sound of the American Dream. Right alongside the greats, Bruce Springsteen continues to shape our music, combining the swagger of Elvis Presley, the heartbreaking urgency of Bob Dylan, even the urbane optimism of The Beatles and the down-home jubilation of Chuck Berry at his best. "Springsteen restored a note of urgency and realism to the rock and roll landscape," his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fittingly noted. "Each painstakingly crafted album since his 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. has served as a literate pulse-taking of a generation’s fortunes." The best way to explain the truth of rock and roll is to listen to The Boss.

"Almost any Bruce Springsteen concert is triumphant," proclaimed the New York Times cultural critic John Rockwell in 1980, "in the sense that his music celebrates ecstatic release more than that of any other rock musician alive, and his performances are so consistently affirmative that audiences become part of that ecstasy." The Boss was just getting going. In 2009, Jon Pareles noted in the New York Times, "Few musicians anywhere consummate symbolic occasions and mass events better than Mr. Springsteen…. In an era when pop hits can be as ephemeral as a deleted mp3 file, Mr. Springsteen has spent much of his career laboring to write durable songs about American dreams." His populism is from the heart, and his music never lies. In 1975 he managed to appear simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek. More recently, baby-boomer fans of the buff soon-to-be 60-year-old also saw his picture gracing the cover of AARP Magazine, which echoed a generation by saying that "He’s our blue-collar conscience, our rock and roll sage." Born to run and never, ever stopping, Springsteen along the way has garnered 19 Grammy Awards(r) so far, two Golden Globes, and an Oscar(r). His September 11 memorial anthem, a ravishing spiritual called "The Rising," drove the crowd at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama to a frenzy in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He has sold more than 120 million albums. He has sold more than 2 million concert tickets in 2009 alone. Recently, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Super Bowl XLIII halftime show in Tampa Bay—an intense set of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run," "Working on a Dream," and "Glory Days"—gathered a television audience of 151.6 million viewers, the biggest audience in American television history.

Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and grew up on the Jersey Shore. He found inspiration in music when he saw Elvis Presley on the "Ed Sullivan Show" at the age of seven. He bought his first guitar at 13, became lead guitarist and singer of a group called The Castiles, began playing gigs in New Jersey and New York, and headlined in Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. As a struggling rocker, he earned the nickname "The Boss," as he learned the ropes in groups such as the Rogues, Earth, Child, Doctor Zoom & the Sonic Boom, and a band called Steel Mill that in 1970 earned Springsteen this visionary rave from Phil Elwood in the San Francisco Examiner: "I have never been so overwhelmed by totally unknown talent." He would not stay unknown for long.

In 1972, what was already called the Bruce Springsteen Band was noticed by Columbia Records. John Hammond, the A&R executive who had signed Bob Dylan, auditioned Springsteen and offered him a contract. Like Dylan, Bruce Springsteen remains at Columbia to this day, and his recordings must rank as among the most exciting spectacles in the living fabric of American culture.

The success of Greetings from Asbury Park in 1973 was modest, but it made the charts eventually with the later release of the landmark Born to Run in 1975. The veteran Jersey Shore musicians making music with Springsteen from the beginning included sax genius Clarence Clemons, bassist Gary Tallent, drummer Vini Lopez, and keyboardists Danny Federici and David Sancious. They called themselves The E Street Band after the street in Belmar, New Jersey where Sancious’ mother lived. The 1973 recording The Wild, The Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle included the delicious single "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," and the band’s following grew and grew, building to a climax with the release of Born to Run. The lineup of the band now was choice, with Springsteen fronting, Federici and Roy Bittan on keyboards, Steve van Zandt playing guitar, Clemons and Tallent on sax and bass, and Max Weinberg on drums. A review by then cub critic Jon Landau in Boston’s the Real Paper after a performance on May 9, 1974 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ran this way: "I have seen rock and roll’s future—and its name is Bruce Springsteen."

Born to Run brought not just the title tune but also "Thunder Road," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," and "Jungleland." An unprecedented five-night, ten-show engagement in The Bottom Line in New York in 1975 would, decades later, be named one of the "50 Moments That Changed Rock and Roll" by Rolling Stone. In the 1970s Springsteen also gave hits to Manfred Mann, Patti Smith, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and even The Pointer Sisters scored big with his "Fire." In 1979, Springsteen and the E Street Band participated in a two-night anti-nuclear collective concert at Madison Square Garden featuring Musicians United for Safe Energy. It was the first of many causes The Boss, who later campaigned for Senator John Kerry and for future president Barack Obama, would support from the heart. His No Nukes live album and documentary followed. His austere, mostly acoustic album Nebraska, together with the epic The River are outcries for the working class of the heartland that the world could not ignore. His megahit Born in the U.S.A., which has sold 15 million copies and counting, is Columbia’s best-selling album ever, and remains a lesson in patriotism in rock and roll. "Streets of Philadelphia," for the movie Philadelphia, rose to the Top Ten, earned Springsteen an Academy Award(r) for Best Song, and helped raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic. His 24th album, Working on a Dream (2009), still manages a uniquely clear-eyed optimism about his home state, about his country, and his music. In it he sings "My Lucky Day." It’s a lucky day indeed, a lucky age that boasts such a musician.

September 9,2009
Bruce Springsteen