“You Have to Be on Columbia Records”

June 9th marks the 51st anniversary of Bruce Springsteen signing with Columbia Records. A recording artist is breathing rarified when he or she has been with one label for that long and Columbia seems to have cornered the market on that. Not only has Bruce only been with that label for half a decade but Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand have been there for a combined 124 years! Nearly every artist with their legacy level of success have label hopped labels at least once. But not Bruce. Columbia has kept a tight grip on him and made him very happy. But it wasn’t always like that.

It’s been told many times now that 1975’s “Born to Run” was his make-or-break album as the label was preparing to drop him. But let’s go back a little before that and look into Columbia’s gamble on an absolute unknown that we now know paid them huge dividends. With the benefit of hindsight, there was something incredibly romantic about those pre-Born to Run days that may be the most unique of Bruce’s whole career. It’s a place he still revisits, but only in limited doses, and never too deeply. Let’s take a trip back.

Not much ever came out of South Jersey, let alone the Jersey Shore. That’s the place New Yorkers went to get away from the thick city air and take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean or hang out poolside at any of the hundreds of motels that littered the shoreline. The locals called them Bennys (Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, New York). Rarely did someone from that area blossom, spread their wings and make their mark in a profound way. To the Bennys, the Jersey Shore may as well have been Mule Ditch, Arkansas or Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and, in many ways, it sure seemed like it.

Let’s just say for the sake of this article that, in 1971, Bruce existed. He was born and raised in Freehold, New Jersey, had a doting mother, a bipolar and difficult father and two younger sisters. There are voluminous writings about his early life, including his own autobiography, if you want to check in on all that. He was 22, staying at his friend Tom Cotter’s hippie pad, completely wrapped up in the late-60s/early-70s zeitgeist and living a starving artist’s lifestyle. He wrestled with a sense of abandonment by his parents, who moved to San Mateo, California two years earlier, that his young bravado pushed down emotionally and would wreak havoc on him emotionally years later. For now, his music career was more important and something big lay on the horizon. He just didn’t know what it was.

Then it all changed and quickly. Tinker knew a guy and took Bruce along on a trip to New York City on a crisp Autumn Thursday in early November 1971 to play for him. His name was Mike Appel, a struggling songwriter and manager, who worked for slick songwriting huckster Wes Farrell’s publishing company. Farrell had written hits for Jay & the Americans, Every Mother’s Son and Ronnie Dove, but his biggest claim to fame was co-writing the monster hit “Hang On Sloopy” with Bert Berns. But times had changed. It was the era of James Taylor, Carole King and Van Morrison and Appel was looking for artists in that and other contemporary molds. Farrell had been a good teacher since Mike first joined him in 1967, but mostly through example in the art of cutting yourself in on the deal. Though a staff writer, he took on a straight salary instead of royalties, and got the biggest exposure of his songwriting career when Farrell landed the music contract for ABC’s new sitcom, “The Partridge Family.” He even notched his second hit, their sophomore single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted.” His first had been his group the Balloon Farm’s 1968, “A Question Of Temperature.”

The day Bruce and Tinker walked into Mike’s office in Midtown, just four blocks south of the southeast entrance into Central Park, he was moving away from the Partridge Family experience and into artist management with his longtime writing partner Jim Cretecos. After getting screwed out of Sir Lord Baltimore, a fledgling hard rock group, by a con man named Dee Anthony, they took on a CSN&Y wannabe group called Montana Flintlock whose sound man was none other than Tinker West. Mike was all ears but not particularly impressed by what he saw or heard. To him, Bruce looked more like a hippie commune refugee, in torn jeans and a t-shirt, than a singer trying get a record deal, which showed the disparity of where each were at in 1971.

“I’m tired of being a big fish in a little pond,” he told the dubious manager.

Bruce was in the middle of a songwriting transition. He’d played in a kind of proto-heavy metal band with a beat called Steel Mill from 1969 to 1971 that, at different times, included future E Street bandmates Danny Federici, Vini Lopez and Steve Van Zandt, and was the principal songwriter. His songs were wild escapades, often undisciplined lyrically and stylistically, but well-suited for the time. Still, none of them really broke out or were concrete indicators of what lay ahead. He was now fronting the Bruce Springsteen Band and his songs were becoming more and more streamlined and bore some of the hallmarks of his first two albums.

He sat down at Mike’s work piano and broke into two originals, “Baby Doll” and “Song For Orphans.” They were slow and Bruce’s choice in them betrayed his naivety but, internally, reflected his pride in his songwriting maturity. Compared to the Partridge Family world where Mike had just come from, they were real bores. One can only imagine what he was thinking when he heard lyrics like, “But times grew thin, and the axis grew somehow incomplete/Where instead of child lions/We found aging junkie sheep” or “The confederacy’s in my name now/The hounds are held at bay.” What the hell does any of that even mean? Still, there was something there. A germ of a seed was planted in Mike’s brain with one line from “Baby Doll,” a lament of a man in love with a deaf mute that held a modicum of charm. “Oh baby doll/They had to see by touching hands/We had to dance to a silent band/And you surprised me, being so graceful.”

That’s deep, especially for a 22-year-old from Freehold. But it wasn’t enough for Mike to run and grab a contract and a pen and not let Bruce leave his office without signing on the dotted line. They chatted afterwards, with Mike imparting some practical advice; telling him to write more songs if he wanted an album deal and ones that weren’t as boring as the two that he’d just played him. To his surprise, Bruce took it all in. Though it surely must’ve cut deep, he didn’t let on. He knew he still he had work to do. What nobody knew then was that Bruce is one of the most tireless workhorses in rock and roll history, always working on self-improvement. He wrote down his phone number and told the youngster that the door to his office was always open, with Bruce saying he’d come see him after visiting his parents in California over the holidays.

Nearly three-and-a-half months later, he did just that. His time away had done him some good. From December through all of January, he got away from performing with a band, cleared his head and wrote a lot of songs. He even dabbled with making a go of it at some clubs in San Francisco as a solo performer, but his heart just wasn’t in it. He reconvened with his band, which had been tended to by close friends Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny Lyon in his stead. But, deep down, Bruce knew he had to go it alone if he was ever going to make it as a recording artist. He loved all these guys and maybe there was a place for them, but for now, it was all about getting on a label and the one man who could help him was that was Mike Appel. He called him and set up an appointment.

It was Valentine’s Day 1972 when he sat down with Mike, Jim and Bob Spitz in New York City, fresh off a nine-show residency with the Bruce Springsteen Band at the Back Door in Richmond, Virginia where he’d been hot since the Steel Mill days. He brought with him a new batch of songs, sculpted and trimmed to meet his mentor-in-waiting’s expectations. His opening number, “No Need,” was long and slow but much more cohesive than the two songs he’d played months earlier. Bruce’s ace in the hole was his third song, “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.” It was action packed, compelling and filled with provocative lyrics about a young city boy trying to stay on the straight and narrow and not always succeeding. It was Bruce’s finest hour yet and one that made Mike fully realize the potential of what stood in front of him. In fact, he and Jim were downright dazzled. How could they have been so blessed to have such a talent drop in their laps? The line, “Silver stars studs on my feet like a Harley in heat” echoed back and forth in his mind, so much so that he asked Bruce to play it again. He did. And he followed it up with four more songs, including an embryonic version of “For You,” which would later grace side two of his debut LP in its complete form. After the dust settled, they agreed to talk business the next day.

The shoe was on the other foot that mid-February day. Although he probably didn’t know it, Bruce had leverage. This time, Mike didn’t want the young singer walking out of his office without some kind of agreement in place, so he laid it on the line, pitching him on his ability to get him signed to a major label and how nobody would advocate harder.

“You’ve seen both sides of me,” he told Bruce. “When you played songs I didn’t like, I told you they sucked…when you came back, I told you they were great, so you have to know I’m being straight with you.”

He had a point there. Not only that, but he agreed to see him again after not being initially impressed. That doesn’t happen very often, especially on your first go round. Mike also promised to work his ass for him in getting him signed and making him a superstar. He took the recording contract home with him and, after a few weeks of hemming and hawing, brought it back signed. It was a life changing moment for both. By March, Mike quit his job with the Wes Farrell Organization and launched Laurel Canyon Ltd. with Jimmy Cretecos and signed Bruce on additional publishing and management contracts. With those in place, he got Bruce into Media Sound Studios, in Midtown Manhattan close to Columbus Circle, to begin work on what would amount to roughly 60 publishing demos in order to copyright his work and pitch songs to other artists. Even “Baby Doll” and “Song For Orphans” made the cut. During the first recording session, Mike tiptoed through the building and barely left Studio C as Wes Farrell was recording an artist in Studio B. Shopping songs proved to be difficult. Hollies lead singer Allan Clarke cut “If I Was The Priest” for his 1974 solo debut and, to everybody’s eventual surprise, David Bowie recorded “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” and “Growin’ Up,” both of which were shelved for 15 years. At this point, it seemed like only Bruce Springsteen could effectively sing a Bruce Springsteen song.

Good to his word, Mike got his client a meeting with a major record label and fast! Columbia Records, as a matter of fact; the home of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Johnny Cash, among others, and run by Clive Davis, perhaps the hippest record label president of them all. And nobody was more surprised about wrangling that audition than Mike Appel. It was the first label he called, and he started right at the top with a cold call to Clive Davis. He got brushed off. The only other name he knew at Columbia was John Hammond and he was able to get through to his secretary. Hammond was a legend to anyone in the business. He’d introduced Fletcher Henderson to Benny Goodman, was the first to record Billie Holiday and Count Basie, signed Pete Seeger as a solo artist and, perhaps most interesting to Bruce, discovered Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. Mike pressed his assistant in a way that was a notch just below outright obnoxious countered a little by charm and confidence, but something about the urgency in his voice struck a chord and she scheduled an appointment for him and Bruce to meet with Hammond on May 2nd at 10:30 am.

They showed up promptly with Bruce carrying former Castilles bandmate Vinny Manniello’s guitar without a case and a crack in the neck and sat in the 12th floor waiting room. In his five plus years of performing, he’d never bought one of his own. When Hammond emerged, crew cut, horn rimmed glasses atop his head and all, he didn’t seem too pleased to see two nobodies off the street waiting to talk to him. Always artist friendly, Hammond lunged at the manager first, giving him about five seconds in his head to let this guy try and win him over.

“OK, what do you have to say?” he asked Mike bluntly.

Nervous but ready for the moment, the new manager went into his quick but effective speech, which he surely must’ve rehearsed, beginning with the struggle every songwriter faces, writing quality songs and writing a lot of them. With nearly four decades of auditioning, recording and producing to his name, Hammond surely could empathize, right? If he did, he didn’t show it. Mike pressed on, telling the CBS heavyweight about the speed and efficacy his client had in writing great songs. Still nothing. He wasn’t very moved by Mike’s pitch so far and he made it obvious. Mike called an audible and took an emotional lunge at the legendary executive, practically daring him to listen to Bruce.

“If you’re the guy who discovered Dylan for all the right reasons, you won’t miss this,” he said.

That did it. A still perturbed Hammond shut Mike up with an “Alright” and motioned them to follow him into his office. Bruce always maintained his cool when it came to performing, but this was something different and somewhat hostile. Deep down he was absolutely thrilled to be in this spot but now the pressure was on. Hammond sat down behind his big wooden desk, folded his hands behind his head and, with a smile, simply said, “Play,” ready to hate him.

In the now legendary audition, Bruce rose to the occasion and played his heart out, almost like he was playing for the last time ever and this could be the only way he’d ever be remembered. And why not? He had nothing to lose.

“He just sat right in his little seat there and blasted Hammond right in the face with all his God-given talent,” Mike said in Marc Eliot’s 1992 biography “Down Thunder Road.”

Bruce cranked out several of his best songs, leading off with “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City,” the gem that won Mike over. Looking over his glasses at Mike, things got much warmer when he remarked, “You’re absolutely right, he’s great. You’ve got to be on Columbia Records,” he told the young singer.

The ice was completely melted. Bruce had won over a legend in the business and was now going to be on the premiere record label in the country. What was he going to tell everybody back in Asbury Park? Bruce, always a band guy, went into Columbia Records and won over the guy who signed Dylan by doing Dylan. It almost seemed like a secret side. When they wrapped up, Hammond told them that Clive Davis had the last say-so for signing an artist to the label and asked Mike to arrange for Bruce to play somewhere in Greenwich Village that evening to see how he performed in front of a crowd. It took some doing. Everywhere they went was a firm no except for the Gaslight Au Go Go on Bleecker Street, the original home of Gerde’s Folk City, which had an opening at 8:00 pm. Hammond walked in a few minutes before showtime and joyously watching Bruce perform effortlessly in front of next to nobody. Things were moving.

The following day, the three, along with Jimmy Cretecos, met up at Columbia Recording Studio E on 52nd Street at 2:00 pm and laid down 14 cuts for Clive Davis’ listening purposes. A little less than five weeks later, Bruce sat down in the mogul’s office, with his manager and a few attorneys, and walked out Columbia Records’ newest artist, sealed with Clive Davis’ blessing, and started thinking about what would come next. Surely a single and an album, but what would be on it? How would they go about it? Who would play on it? These questions, perfectly natural, would be met with answers that would shape Bruce Springsteen’s career and send him down a memorable road filled with peaks and valleys, curves and straightaways and a future he could never have possibly fathomed that June morning in John Hammond’s office. For now, Bruce Springsteen Mk. 1 was in the planning stages and the sky was the limit.