At age 73, decades deep into one of rock’s most storied careers, Bruce Springsteen doesn’t need to experiment. But he made a point of pushing himself — by highlighting his vocals above all else — on his upcoming LP of soul covers, Only the Strong Survive.
“I decided to do something I had never done before: make some music that is centered around singing, around challenging my voice,” he said in a YouTube video announcing the record, out Nov. 11. “Now, in my own memoir, I give my voice a little short shrift by saying I didn’t think I had much of one. But once I started on this project, after listening to some of the things we cut, I thought, ‘My voice is badass!'”
Springsteen will test that premise across 15 tracks, tackling classics from artists like Aretha Franklin, Four Tops, the Temptations and the Commodores, among others. As a primer for the project, here’s some quick background on each tune.
“Only the Strong Survive,” Jerry Butler (1968)
Jerry Butler, the original lead vocalist of R&B group the Impressions, recorded this sweetly optimistic, string-backed tune for his 1968 LP, The Ice Man Cometh. Co-authored by iconic Philly soul songwriting duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, “Only the Strong Survive” became one of the singer’s signature tracks, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and inspiring other covers from Elvis Presley, country singer Skeeter Davis and jazz-fusion guitarist Larry Carlton.
“Soul Days,” Dobie Gray (2001)
Dobie Gray is best remembered for his streak of hits in the ’60s and ’70s, including his biggest single, 1973’s “Drift Away.” The breezy “Soul Days” is the title track from one of his later LPs, a 2001 project featuring mostly covers. And it’s a throwback in every sense, with Gray singing over nostalgic horns about his love of music and cruising in his Chevrolet.
“Nightshift,” the Commodores (1985)
Commodores drummer Walter Orange, who previously belted the band’s 1977 smash “Brick House,” takes the lead again for this groovy, reflective track. Co-written by versatile pros Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde, the 1985 ballad — which peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 — is essentially a tribute to two of the great soul singers, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who died the previous year.
“Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” Frank Wilson (1965)
At the height of Motown’s success in the ’60s and ’70s, Frank Wilson became one of the label’s chief writers and producers, helming tracks for stars like the Supremes, Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Early on, he also recorded this “Tears of a Clown”-like one-off for Motown subsidiary Soul — but only a small number of demo 45s were pressed, and the rest were destroyed. (At least two copies reportedly survived, making it one of the most sought-after vinyl rarities in existence.)
“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” Frankie Valli (1965) / The Walker Brothers (1966)
This beaming orchestral ballad, co-written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio, originated as a solo single for Frankie Valli. The original version was a relative commercial flop — it took one more year, and a gentle blue-eyed soul makeover from pop trio the Walker Brothers, to give the track its moment. With a swifter tempo and more dramatic vocal delivery, their 1966 cover topped the U.K. charts and hit No. 13 on the Hot 100 — cementing the tune as a staple and, decades later, leading to covers from both Cher and Keane.
“Turn Back the Hands of Time,” Tyrone Davis (1970)
With “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” Tyrone Davis channeled loneliness and regret into one of the sweetest, most nakedly romantic soul hits of his era. Co-written by Jack Daniels and Bonnie Thompson, the song topped Billboard’s R&B chart and hit No. 3 on the Hot 100, becoming one of his signature singles (along with 1968’s “Can I Change My Mind” and 1975’s “Turning Point”).
“When She Was My Girl,” the Four Tops (1981)
This strutting, harmonica-heavy single propelled the former Motown giants back to the Top 20, giving them their biggest hit in eight years. Co-written by Larry Gottlieb (who later penned tracks for Blue Oyster Cult and Kenny Rogers, among many others) and Marc Blatte, “When She Was My Girl” marked the end of the group’s prime commercial era, even picking up a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Song.
“Hey, Western Union Man,” Jerry Butler (1968)
Like “Only the Strong Survive,” this swaggering single was co-authored by the hit-making Gamble and Huff. Butler’s tale of an urgent telegram (“Send a box of candy, too, and maybe some flowers”) is supported by a luxurious arrangement, built on funky drumming and regal strings. It reached No. 16 on the Hot 100, and it quickly became a classic — Diana Ross and the Supremes even covered it the next year for their album Let the Sunshine In.
“I Wish It Would Rain,” the Temptations (1967)
The Temptations originally released “I Wish It Would Rain” in 1967 on Motown’s Gordy imprint. It’s a gut-wrenching song about a man who discovers his woman was cheating on him. All he wants to do is cry, and he desperately hopes for rain so the drops can obscure his tears, because “everyone knows that a man ain’t supposed to cry.” “I Wish It Would Rain” reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the R&B chart, and it was later covered by the Faces, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Aretha Franklin.
“Don’t Play That Song,” Ben E. King (1962)
Ben E. King released “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” as the title track off his 1962 album Don’t Play That Song! Written by Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun and King’s wife Betty Nelson, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” climbed to No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 11 on the Hot 100. Aretha Franklin took the track even higher when she released a cover on her 1970 album Spirit in the Dark, sending it once again to No. 11 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on the R&B chart for five weeks.
“Any Other Way,” William Bell (1962)
William Bell originally released “Any Other Way” on Stax Records in 1962. It failed to make a big splash on the charts, peaking at No. 131 on the Hot 100. Singer Chuck Jackson had slightly more success with his 1963 cover of the song, which reached No. 81 on the Hot 100 and No. 47 on the R&B chart.
“I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” William Bell (1968)
William Bell scored a Top 10 R&B chart hit with his 1968 single “I Forgot to Be Your Lover,” which also peaked at No. 45 on the Hot 100. Nowadays, though, listeners may be more familiar with Billy Idol‘s cover of the song, which appeared on 1986’s Whiplash Smile under the name “To Be a Lover.” Idol reimagined Bell’s mournful soul ballad as an upbeat new wave track, full of peppy rock ‘n’ roll piano and his raspy, Elvis-esque snarl. The face-lift paid off, as “To Be a Lover” soared to No. 6 on the Hot 100, granting the punk rocker his second Top 10 hit in the U.S.
“7 Rooms of Gloom,” Four Tops (1967)
Four Tops issued “7 Rooms of Gloom” as a single on Motown Records in 1967. Powered by Levi Stubbs’ fiery, anguished lead vocal and propulsive drumming, the throbbing soul-rocker reached No. 14 on the Hot 100 and No. 10 on the R&B chart. Almost two decades later, Pat Benatar gave the song an arena-rock makeover for her sixth LP, 1985’s Seven the Hard Way.
“What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” Jimmy Ruffin (1966)
Jimmy Ruffin scored a Top 10 hit on the Hot 100 (No. 7) and the R&B chart (No. 6) with the 1966 lovelorn soul ballad “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” Songwriters William Weatherspoon, Paul Riser and James Dean are both poignant and unfiltered in their depictions of all-consuming heartache: “Every day heartaches grow a little stronger / I can’t stand this pain much longer / I walk in shadows, searching for light / Cold and alone, no comfort in sight.” Eighties British pop star Paul Young covered the song for 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes soundtrack, scoring a No. 1 adult contemporary hit.
“Someday We’ll Be Together,” Johnny & Jackey (1961)
Johnny Bristol and Jackey Beavers wrote “Someday We’ll Be Together” with Harvey Fuqua; the former two released the song as Johnny & Jackey in 1961 for the Tri-Phi label. The song earned some regional success, but it took on a new life after Motown bought Tri-Phi and Diana Ross & the Supremes released their version in 1969. The cover topped the Hot 100 in late December 1969, marking the last No. 1 hit of the decade and the final Supremes song before Ross left the group to embark on a solo career.
Bruce Springsteen Albums Ranked
Because he spent so many of his formative years painstakingly crafting his albums, we don’t often think of Bruce Springsteen as a prolific artist.