When you mention the name Bruce Springsteen, the first place that comes to mind is New Jersey. But before Springsteen exploded nationally with the release of 1975’s Born to Run, the young singer/songwriter was a star in Phoenix, Arizona, where he sold out the Celebrity Theatre while supporting his second album in 1974, the critically lauded but commercially disappointing The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
In advance of Springsteen’s show Thursday, March 10, at Talking Stick Resort Arena, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that Phoenix “got Bruce Springsteen long before lots of bigger, presumably hipper cities,” as critic Dave Walker wrote for Arizona Republic in 1999.
And Springsteen got Phoenix.
“I used to come here when a tour was over and stay at the Holiday Inn by the airport,” Springsteen said in concert in Glendale in 2012. “I’d get a room on the second floor and look out over Camelback Mountain.”
“Phoenix was the first town outside of the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia-Boston region where Springsteen became popular,” wrote Dave Marsh for a Rolling Stone cover story in 1978, quoting the late E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici: "This is the first place I ever felt like a star.”
Following the Celebrity Theatre show — a sell-out when the Boss wasn’t selling anywhere outside of his home base — reporters from New Times and Arizona State University’s State Press gathered backstage to interview the Boss.
“A reception like that? Forget it,” Springsteen told one of them — heard on this muffled but excellent interview available via SoundCloud. “That just doesn’t happen.”
Peter Ames Carlin’s excellent book, Bruce, features another telling excerpt, in which the Boss marvels at his Phoenix audience.
“I have no idea why we became so popular in this particular spot. We don’t sell out a place that size, ever,” Springsteen says. “I don’t know what’s goin’ on down here.”
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What was "goin' on" was constant airplay on Phoenix freeform station KDKB, an upstart FM station staffed mostly by disc jockeys who’d previously been heard on the mythic KCAC. They brought with them the wild, anything goes formatting of the previous station, and Springsteen, with his street poet rambles and soul-influenced rock, quickly found a home on the dial in Phoenix.
“The old KDKB started playing him on his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park,” says longtime Valley concert promotor Danny Zelisko, who booked Springsteen in town throughout the ‘80s. “Bill Compton and everybody at KDKB just absolutely idolized him. They had this radio station that at will could make stars out of people like Jerry Jeff Walker, Jackson Browne, Jerry Riopelle, and Billy Joel. They played a lot of Bruce music; they played the shit out of Bruce. It was really infectious.”
Springsteen continued to make his Arizona dates memorable. At Gammage Auditorium in Tempe in 1975, the crowd got so into the E Street Band’s set that their bouncing caused the middle balcony at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed concert hall to sway (he returned to Gammage in the '90s for a much calmer Ghost of Tom Joad set, joined by Scottsdale-based E Streeter Nils Lofgren, himself subject of a New Times cover story in 2014). Then there was Springsteen's rowdy set at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in 1978, where a group of excitable women rushed the stage.
In 1980, hot off releasing his double album The River, Springsteen returned to Tempe to perform at the ASU Activity Center on Wednesday, November 5. The blistering performance — during which Springsteen reflected darkly on the fresh election of Ronald Reagan — was filmed and included on the 2015 boxset, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection. Its ferocity and political intensity makes it an essential Springsteen live document.
But despite all the essential Phoenix/Tempe Boss performances we’ve mentioned — just a few of many — Zelisko is still hung up on the Springsteen show that didn't happen in Tempe. In 1985, Zelikso had the chance to book Springsteen at Sun Devil Stadium, but ASU declined the booking.
“So, they tell me, and this is the God’s honest truth: 'You can’t do the show because it’s going to upset the night class students,'” Zelisko says. “I go…'Not that I want to minimize the importance of somebody’s education, but this is an iconic event. This will generate tax dollars, income and jobs for how many people, not the mention the legendary good time that the people of Phoenix, who have been so instrumental in this guy’s career.'”
Local KUPD DJ Dave “The Morning Mayor” Pratt got wind of Zelisko’s struggle. In his 2008 book, Behind The Mic: 30 Years in Radio he writes about it: “Unfortunately, at that time Sun Devil Stadium was the only large stadium in the Metro Phoenix area and the only venue large enough to hold a 60,000-plus concert....I asked our listeners to rally! We moved our entire morning broadcast to the well exposed rooftop of the Alpha Episilon Pi fraternity house across from the stadium and easily visible from Scottsdale Road, Manzanita Hall, and the ASU campus.”
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Pratt broadcasted live in protest for 10 days, collecting over 75,000 signatures from fans in favor of the show. “Our battle cry was ‘On Top For the Boss,’” Pratt says via email. “This was back in the day when a local rock station actually had balls.”
“[Eventually] the TV news gets ahold of it and suddenly I’m being interviewed by them,” Zelisko says. “I went on the air and I said, ‘They let the Pope — God bless, I’m Catholic — [but] they let the Pope come into the stadium on a school night. This is the pope of rock ’n’ roll! Why won’t they let him in? We’ll give tickets to all the night students. Give them the night off of class. This is a historic event. Let them be a part of it.’”
ASU “refused, refused, refused,” Zelisko laments.
Though the show didn’t happen, Springsteen personally phoned Pratt to thank him for the support. “Springsteen personally called our morning show to say ‘thank you,’” Pratt writes. “He had no doubt that Arizona loved him.”