The Video History of Bruce Springsteen’s Tributes to Departed Friends and Influences
On April 23, 2016, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band paid tribute to Prince, who died just two days earlier, by opening his show with a version of "Purple Rain." It was the third time in as many months that the group has honored a colleague who had recently died. On the first two nights of their 2016 tour, they covered songs by the late David Bowie and Glenn Frey.
It struck us that, since he's been doing this since the early '70s, Springsteen has often been on the road when a friend or influence has passed. We poured over set lists from previous tours and found several examples where Springsteen has referenced another musician's death from the stage, either at the beginning of the concert or the at the start of the encore. In addition to the three mentioned above, we discovered that Springsteen has performed post-mortem covers of two giants of 20th century American music -- country icon Johnny Cash and folk legend Pete Seeger -- as well songs by Joe Strummer, George Harrison, Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich, Warren Zevon and, in the earliest clip we could find, John Lennon.
But the most poignant tributes came when two founding members of the E Street Band -- keyboardist Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons -- died. In both cases, Springsteen dedicated entire tours as an opportunity to allow himself, his band and the audience to come together and mourn the loss of friends and bandmates.
As one of the most bootlegged artists in rock history, Springsteen's acts of respect have made their way to YouTube. We've gathered them here, so take a look below at how he has musically eulogized some of those he loved and admired.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band began their show at Brooklyn's Barclays Center with the stage bathed in purple light. With each member of the group wearing something purple, they played "Purple Rain," the title track to the soundtrack album that unseated Born in the U.S.A. from the No. 1 spot in August 1984 and stayed there for 24 consecutive weeks. But the real star was guitarist Nils Lofgren, whose two-minute solo nearly equaled the one Prince played on the record.
Springsteen's concert at the United Center in Chicago, the second night of The River 2016 tour, took place the day after the Eagles singer and guitarist lost a long-running battle with intestinal issues. For the encore, Springsteen serenaded the crowd with a slowed-down acoustic rendition of "Take It Easy" with the crowd joining in. Soozie Tyrell played the solo on the violin.
Shortly before The River 2016 tour started, David Bowie passed away from cancer at the age of 69. On the opening night in Pittsburgh, Springsteen began the encore by recalling how Bowie had championed him early in his career after seeing him perform at Max's Kansas City in New York. "David – not that many people know, but he supported our music way, way, way back at the very, very beginning – 1973. He rang me up and I visited him down in Philly when he was making the Young Americans record. He covered some of my music, ‘[It’s] Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ and ‘Growin’ Up’ and he was a big supporter of ours. ... I took the Greyhound bus down to Philadelphia, that’s how early it was. Anyway, we’re thinking of him.” From there, they launched into Bowie's 1974 hit "Rebel Rebel."
Springsteen was touring South Africa when Pete Seeger, the legendary folk musician, passed away at the age of 94. At his next concert in Cape Town, he drew parallels between Seeger's activism and Nelson Mandela. “I lost a great friend and a great hero last night,” he said. "We’re humble to be here tonight in the land of Mandela, a great freedom fighter. We are here tonight in his grace, because he made it possible for us to be here. Pete, back home, was a very courageous freedom fighter also.” They then performed "We Shall Overcome," a protest song that Seeger adapted and became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. The song was also the title track to Springsteen's 2006 album that honored Seeger's legacy.
On April 12, 2012, Levon Helm of the Band died after a battle with cancer. A few weeks later, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Springsteen performed "The Weight" in his memory at the start of the encore. Springsteen called Helm "one of the greatest, greatest voices in country, rockabilly and rock n' roll...just staggering -- while playing the drums. When I auditioned Max [Weinberg, E Street Band drummer], I actually made him sing," he recalled with a laugh. "But Levon...both his voice and his drumming were so incredibly versatile and just had a feel on the drums that just comes out of a certain place in the past that you can't replicate."
Founding E Street Band member Clarence Clemons died on June 17, 2011, after suffering a stroke. When the band went back on the road the next year behind Wrecking Ball, the memories of Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici (see below) were evoked twice during each show. The first was in the band introductions during "My City of Ruins," when Springsteen, on a dark stage except for a couple of spotlights illuminating where they used to stand, asked, "Are we missing anybody?" He then reminded the audience that his friends' spirits transcended death. "If you're here and we're here," he said, "they're here." During the second-to-last song of the night, the self-mythologizing "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the music stopped after the line about the Big Man joining the band. A montage of Clarence played on the video screens, and the five-piece horn section, which included Clemons' nephew Jake, kicked the song back into gear by recreating Clemons' famous saxophone part.
Unlike the other entries in this list, this cover wasn't planned. During the portion of his concert in Chicago on Sept. 20, 2009, where Springsteen took requests from the audience, he spotted a sign for "Da Doo Ron Ron," the 1963 Phil Spector-produced hit for the Crystals that was co-written by Ellie Greenwich, who had died a month earlier. After he and Steven Van Zandt figured out a key that worked, Springsteen dedicated the performance to her, something he forgot to do when he took a request for another Greenwich-penned Crystals song, "Then She Kissed Me," a week earlier in Sunrise, Fla.
In November 2007, shortly after the start of the Magic tour, Federici took a leave of absence from the E Street Band to undergo treatment for melanoma. Unfortunately, outside of sitting in on the encores in Indianapolis on March 20, 2008, he never returned, dying nearly a month later on April 17. Three shows were rescheduled, and the tour resumed in Tampa on April 22. The concert, one of the most emotional in Springsteen history, opened with a video montage of Federici set to "Blood Brothers," and a performance of "Backstreets" that began with a spotlight on Federici's organ. Springsteen also changed a lyric in "Darkness on the Edge of Town" to "I lost my faith when I lost you." At the start of the encore, the band played the hymn, "I'll Fly Away." As the spring leg of the tour concluded, many concerts featured deep cuts from Springsteen's first two records in memory of "Phantom Dan."
Country music legend Johnny Cash died on Sept. 12, 2003, while Springsteen was touring in support of The Rising. For the next two nights, at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., and Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., Springsteen opened with a solo acoustic take Cash's 1956 hit "I Walk the Line."
Two of the most respected songwriters to come out of the '70s, Springsteen and Warren Zevon were old friends. Zevon took a title Springsteen had been struggling with and fashioned it into 1980's "Jeannie Needs a Shooter." Later that year, Zevon, while performing in New Jersey, gave a savage rendition of "Cadillac Ranch." His death on Sept. 7, 2003, prompted Springsteen to begin his concert at Toronto's SkyDome with the title track to Zevon's 2002 album. Springsteen even honored the gallows humor that was his friend's trademark by picking a song about death.
At the 2003 Grammys, two months after the sudden death of Joe Strummer, Springsteen was part of an all-star tribute to the Clash frontman. He, Steven Van Zandt, Elvis Costello and Dave Grohl traded vocals on a cathartic, searing version of "London Calling." Tony Kanal, of No Doubt, and Pete Thomas, Costello's drummer, provided the rhythm section. Strummer and Springsteen were huge admirers of each other, with Strummer writing a letter in praise of Springsteen for Mojo in 1995.
Springsteen's week of holiday charity concerts in Asbury Park, N.J., took place shortly after George Harrison's death on Nov. 29, 2001. He opened up the first show with Harrison's classics "Something" and "My Sweet Lord." Later that night, and over the next three shows, Jersey Shore veteran Bobby Bandiera, the former lead guitarist for Southside Johnny's band, performed "Here Comes the Sun." For the last night, with Bandiera unavailable, Nils Lofgren played the Harrison song that opened side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road.
The day after John Lennon was murdered, Springsteen began his concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia by talking about the tragedy. "It's a hard night to come out and play tonight when so much has been lost," he said. "The first record that I ever learned was a record called ‘Twist and Shout,’ and if it wasn't for John Lennon, we'd all be in some place very different tonight. It's an unreasonable world and you get asked to live with a lot of things that are just unliveable, and it's a hard thing to come out and play, but there's just nothing else you can do." He then launched into "Born to Run," and the evening closed with "Twist and Shout," a song he's performed more than 350 times in his career, but rarely more appropriate than on that night.