Updated: Nov 6
July 26, 2023
It ain't no secret - especially around these parts - that as a songwriter, Bruce Springsteen often has served to reveal and explore many important truths, plumbing the depths of individual and shared memories and experiences. But apparently if you ever get the guy to speak publicly about the first vinyl record that he bought, the truth of that particular matter suddenly becomes a bit more elusive. Not that I believe that Bruce ever actually has lied whenever he's been asked about it, mind you. It's just that he seems to have not quite recalled all of the details correctly. It certainly would be understandable if that is indeed the case, given that now more than 65 years have passed since he bought his first record.
The first time I encountered Springsteen discussing his first-purchased record was back in the late nineties. It was in an interview with Patrick Humphries that was first published in the February 1999 issue (issue # 234) of the long-running London-based magazine Record Collector. (Copies of that back-issue are no longer available through Record Collector's website. Most of Humphries' interview later got republished in Chris Phillips' and Louis P. Masur's excellent anthology Talk About A Dream: The Essential Interviews Of Bruce Springsteen, though the first-purchased-record question and Springsteen's answer, which ran as a sidebar in Record Collector, were not included in the republished version.)
"The first record I actually bought," Springsteen told Humphries, "was by a guy named Dusty Rhodes. It was an EP, four tracks, and he did a cover version of 'Jailhouse Rock,' and a few other things - covers of hits of the day. And that was the first record - outside of your Peter Pan records when you were a kid. It was an EP, and cheaper than getting the original record. It was a pretty good record, but I don't know what happened to Dusty Rhodes."
In 2011, Bruce again publicly discussed the first record he bought, this time telling Stevie Van Zandt about it in a special two-part edition of Stevie's weekly Underground Garage syndicated terrestrial-radio show dubbed "The Bruce and Stevie Show, Parts 1 and 2," which remains essential listening. "The first record I bought was Dusty Rhodes," he told Stevie early on in Part 1, "who was... Remember in those days they would make EPs of four top singles... and you would go out and you'd buy them for, like, 59 cents instead of 99 cents, and you'd get four songs instead of two... And so I think one of the first records I bought was an EP of somebody covering four Elvis songs." Stevie, who either forgot or never knew about the popularity of such cover-version EPs, just laughed and replied, "That's really weird."
But Bruce definitely was right about the proliferation and popularity of knockoff versions of the popular records of the day issued by "cheapo labels." (Until a few years ago, there used to be a wonderful Yahoo! "cheapo_labels" group with an online focus on the records issued by such lesser-light labels, though unfortunately it since has folded along with the rest of Yahoo! Groups.) They appealed especially to kids like young Bruce Springsteen, whose family didn't have much money to spend on relative luxuries like records. These cheapo-label recordings could be found easily in the records/music departments of discount stores like Woolworth's, Murphy's, and McCrory's, which were the Targets and Walmarts of their day. (Incidentally, one of these now-extinct stores later got name-checked in this line from "Rosalita"'s lyrics: "Little Gun's downtown in front of Woolworth's...") Several famous musicians, including Elton John, Dolly Parton, and Lou Reed, recorded singles, EPs, and/or albums for such "dime store labels" in the years before they achieved stardom. Like all of the musicians who worked on records like these, the overwhelming majority of whom never achieved any kind of popularity or stardom, usually they were credited under pseudonyms if they were credited at all on these "budget" recordings.
What Bruce seems to have misremembered slightly, however, is the credited name(s) on the first record he bought. More than a few musicians have performed under the name "Dusty Rhodes" over the years. Probably the two most famous are the late steel-guitarist who worked with country-music legend Buck Owens and the late fiddle-player who recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s with his brothers Slim and Speck Rhodes. The fiddle-player (who coincidentally once performed onstage with the E Street Band's Garry Tallent at two 2001 Asbury Park benefit concerts saluting Sun Records) obviously had the stronger connection to Sun Records labelmate Elvis Presley (who actually performed early on with The Rhodes Family Band and was briefly considered for possible membership in the band,) but after extensive research I've never come across any recording of "Jailhouse Rock" in any format by any artist performing under the name "Dusty Rhodes."
What I did eventually find, however, are some copies of what I believe is most likely to be the first record that Bruce Springsteen ever bought. It's a 1957 four-track "cheapo label" EP, originally priced at only 49 cents in its 45RPM version (pictured above,) which is even a bit cheaper than the 59-cents price that Bruce recalled when talking to Stevie about it back in 2011. The EP contains a version of "Jailhouse Rock" performed by a singer credited not as "Dusty Rhodes," but as "Dusty Glass." None of the remaining tracks feature Dusty Glass, nor are they knockoffs of any other "Elvis songs," despite what Bruce told Stevie just over a decade ago. They are, however, as Bruce told Patrick Humphries back in the late nineties, "other...covers of hits of the day:" specifically "Wake Up, Little Susie" (original hit version recorded by The Everly Brothers, covered here by "Andy Bennett and The Toppers,") "Silhouettes" (original hit version recorded by The Rays, covered here by "Pat Greene and The Toppers,") and "Melodie D'Amour" (original hit version recorded by The Ames Brothers, covered here by "Pat Greene and The Toppers," as well.)
The EP was issued in a 45RPM format and a 78RPM format, both of which were still popular vinyl formats in 1957. Over the years I've managed to track down and purchase hard-to-find vinyl copies in each format, but fortunately now everyone can hear this record much more easily, thanks to the fine folks at the Internet Archive website. The site has posted digitized versions of the complete EP (using a 78RPM copy as its source) for your streaming, downloading, and listening pleasure. Click here to hear the A-side, and click here to hear the B-side.
If this EP indeed represents young Bruce Springsteen's first purchased recording, the track lineup connects strongly with much of Springsteen's own career as a professional recording and performing musician/songwriter, in obvious and also some less obvious ways. The strongest connections, of course, can be found in "Jailhouse Rock" and "Wake Up, Little Susie," both classic and widely known servings of the musical stew called rock-n-roll that inspired much of the best music that Springsteen has made throughout his career. Those two songs also feature the same kind of vividly memorable characters with class- and age-based situations that came to populate so many of Springsteen's own songs. There's some clever humor to be found there, too. "Silhouettes" shared many of these same qualities, as well, though it was much more of a novelty than a true classic. Nevertheless it still offered up a doo-wop/pop hybrid that helped to set the stage for the truly groundbreaking singles later recorded by The Drifters, which had an enormous influence on the music of Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt, and Southside Johnny. (Incidentally, The Rays' version of "Silhouettes" was co-produced by Bob Crewe, who also co-wrote the song. Crewe went on to produce many of the best records by The Four Seasons, a lot of which featured spectacular arrangements by Charles Calello, who also arranged the strings on Born To Run's closing track "Jungleland.") And even the most whitebread, non-rock-and-roll fifties pop hit here, "Melodie D'Amour," has an interesting if offbeat Springsteen connection... One of his greatest latter-day musical heroes, Pete Seeger (the only artist to date for whom Bruce Springsteen has recorded an entire album of his own "covers" in tribute,) recorded an instrumental version of "Melodie D'Amour" on his 1967 album Waist Deep In The Big Muddy and Other Love Songs, produced by the late, legendary John Hammond, who signed Springsteen (and Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin, etc.) to Columbia Records.
One credit that does not appear on this EP is that of its producer, who was the late Dave Pell. Pell was a highly respected musician with strong ties to the big-band and California jazz circles of the forties and fifties. He also did a lot of production work for the Tops "cheapo label" (including what is now considered an exotica/lounge classic: Robert Drasnin's 1959 Voodoo! LP.) Fortunately, before Pell passed in 2017, I had gotten to ask him about the EP by "Dusty Glass," et al. Pell distinctly recalled his production work on the 1957 EP, and added that he was "thrilled" that it just might be the first record that Bruce Springsteen bought. "I used to produce every six weeks a note for note copy of all the upcoming hits," he continued. "These were the best-selling records we [at Tops] released. I had my local pros in L.A. do it. I cast the sessions with great singers who could mimic the records that would possibly be hits in six weeks. I made up fictitious names...very vanilla names that sounded real. I can't remember who I used [for the Dusty Glass et al. EP,] but I did this kind of recording every six weeks...a long time ago...fun..."
So there you have it; mystery mostly solved, apparently. All that's missing, of course, is some kind of official confirmation. If and when that happens, I gladly will donate at least one of my copies of the 1957 Dusty Glass et al. EP to The Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music at Monmouth University. After all, as noted (and New-Jersey-born-and-bred) archaeologist Dr. Indiana Jones would've said, "that belongs in a museum."
Special thanks to Robert Drasnin (RIP,) Terry Gordon, Skip Heller, Pasi Koskela, Dave Pell (RIP,) and Val Shively for their assistance over the years in the completion of this long-gestating article.