Listening to Walter Orange and JD Nicholas sing “Nightshift” can still make you cry, 37 years after they recorded the song with their group, the Commodores. The two lead singers each take a verse. Orange begins with the one about Marvin Gaye. Nicholas takes the one about Jackie Wilson. It’s a hymn to a pair of recently departed heroes, quoting from their best-known songs, but it’s not a pastiche. The rich synth textures and the finely detailed percussion are a reminder that this was made in 1985, not 1965. The voices are filled with love and loss. When Orange begins with “Marvin, he was a friend of mine”, it’s more than just a reference to Gaye’s hit version of “Abraham, Martin And John”. It’s a statement of cultural kinship, of brotherhood.
By making “Nightshift” one of the 15 old soul songs he tackles on his new album, Bruce Springsteen is setting himself quite a challenge. In strictly musical terms, he does a decent job of reproducing the original. The rhythm track is convincing, he sings with passion, and there’s a flourish of B3 on the fade that Dennis Lambert, the Commodores’ producer, might wish he’d thought of. But what does such a thing mean in 2022, all those decades after first Elvis recorded Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” and The Beatles covered Barrett Strong’s “Money”? They were appropriating black music in order to build a platform for their own world-changing means of expression. Does it still work – is it still right – for a famous white singer to present us with his version of black music in quite so straightforwardly imitative a form?
Like many of his contemporaries, Springsteen began his career performing covers, playing black or black-derived songs for a young white audience. A generation was borrowing the syntax and grammar of the music, and the best used it to mould a language of their own. In the bones of almost every song Springsteen ever wrote is the DNA of R&B and soul music, and in a sense it’s honourable of him to want to acknowledge the debt so explicitly. But will the hundreds of thousands who buy his covers album bother to delve back and listen to the 1968 recording of Jerry Butler singing the title song, or William Bell singing “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” that same year? Some might, just as Long John Baldry’s version of “Hoochie Coochie Man”, the Stones’ “Honest I Do” or The Animals’ “I’m Mad Again” certainly led many to the work of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker in the early ’60s. But we live in a world in which there are still people who can seriously express a preference for Rod Stewart’s perfectly decent cover of “(I Know) I’m Losing You” over the Temptations’ sublime original, suggesting that we might not have come as far as we thought.
The specific motives that led him to record Only The Strong Survive are understandable and legitimate. He wanted to see how his voice worked on this material, detached from the meaning of the songs he writes himself, and to measure himself against a generation of great singers, such as Ben E King (“Don’t Play That Song”), Tyrone Davis (“Turn Back The Hands Of Time”) and the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs (“7 Rooms Of Gloom”). The homage would be implicit. In the process he might also rediscover the sense of mingled joy and pain that great soul music contains, and with which he infused crowd-stirring songs of his own, so effectively in something like “Hungry Heart”.
Covers were always a feature of his live act, from “When You Walk In The Room” and “Pretty Flamingo”, choices that exposed the roots of his own songwriting in the early touring days, to “Dream Baby Dream” and “Friday On My Mind” – and, of course, the ecstatic encores: “Twist And Shout”, “Quarter To Three” and the Mitch Ryder medley. The new studio album, however, is a sustained exercise in interpretation, a test both for himself and for his audience, who are invited to enjoy the sound of him stepping outside his own myth.
For a certain kind of listener, this is also an invitation to play amateur A&R man, questioning his choices. Why did he select two songs – “Only The Strong Survive” and “Hey Western Union Man” – from the same Jerry Butler album (The Iceman Cometh)? Perhaps he could have been more adventurous: why two songs from William Bell and none from, say, Frederick Knight, Philip Mitchell or Sam Dees? Or Curtis Mayfield, whose “Gypsy Woman” he covered on a tribute album in 1994?
What Springsteen doesn’t do is produce a caricature of soul music. It may be hard for somebody of his level of fame to affect the modesty that characterised many (not all) great soul singers, but for this he can rely on our knowledge of his own personality, in which a frontman’s natural extroversion has never shaded into brashness. If he can’t reproduce the sense Tyrone Davis brought to a song of being a country boy landed in the big city, then he can treat his “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” with proper respect; if he wasn’t raised in the black church, then he can bring restraint and finesse to the pathos of Bell’s “I Forgot To Be Your Lover”.
There are several shades of soul music on show here. “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”, sung by Frankie Valli before the Walker Brothers, is New Jersey’s version of Brill Building orchestral pop-soul. The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” is Motown at its sweetest. Both the Butler songs echo the gliding Philly Sound invented by their producers and co-composers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Adding the responses of the veteran Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) to “I Forgot To Be Your Lover” and Dobie Gray’s “Soul Days” is a nice touch, evoking and saluting the voices of the past.
Sometimes enthusiasm is not enough. “7 Rooms…” is taken a hair too fast and Stubbs’ majestic agony is beyond Springsteen’s reach. “When She Was My Girl”, the Four Tops’ first hit after leaving Motown, simply isn’t worth the trouble. Over the long fade of “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted”, Springsteen repeats “I’m gonna find my way” as if this were “Backstreets”, making you want to reach for Jimmy Ruffin, who was decidedly less sure about whether he’d ever escape his existential woe. And there are times when, while applauding Springsteen’s attempts to stay faithful to the originals, you wish he’d taken more chances; listening to the rawness of the bluesman Bobby Rush’s 1979 cover of “Hey Western Union Man” might have sent him off in more surprising directions.
But that was not his intention, and it becomes hard to carp when he brings off something as triumphantly as his note-perfect version of Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”, the zenith of northern soul, a surviving copy of which famously fetched £25,742 at auction in 2009. Singing as though he knows exactly how it felt to be among the dancers at Wigan Casino or Blackpool Mecca, he doesn’t just capture the details – the vibes, the baritone sax, the four-to-the-bar snare drum, the choir – of the recording conjured up in a Los Angeles studio by the producers Hal Davis and Marc Gordon in 1965: he inhabits its spirit.