Day 6

After 48 years, Bruce Springsteen has finally released the song that launched his career

In 1972, Bruce Springsteen's original manager Mike Appel talked his way into a meeting with legendary record producer John Hammond. Springsteen played If I Was The Priest and the rest is history.

'He never is in a rush. He's got the rest of his life to make this all work out,' says manager Mike Appel

Bruce Springsteen's latest album, Letter To You, includes some of his earliest written songs. (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science)

By Brent Bambury. Originally published Nov. 13, 2020.

When he released his new album, Letter to You, Bruce Sprinsteen became the only artist in the world to have a top-five album in each of the last six decades — a legacy dating back to Born To Run in 1975.

Three of the songs on the new record are even older than that, written by Springsteen years before his career went supernova.

One of them, If I Was the Priest, was the song that helped launch The Boss, as he's known, into the stratosphere when he played it for legendary CBS record producer John Hammond.

On May 2, 1972, a skinny, 23-year-old Bruce Springsteen appeared before John Hammond with an acoustic guitar. He was, as Bob Dylan would say, a complete unknown. 

Hammond was a giant in the music business. From the 1930s through to the 1960s he had promoted Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holliday and Aretha Franklin.

In 1961, he signed Bob Dylan to Columbia and helped produce his early recordings. Later he would help sign Leonard Cohen, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Bruce Springsteen pictured in the U.K. circa 1975. (John Minihan/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Getting in the door

"Bare guitar in my hands, Mike and I walked into John Hammond's office and came face-to-face with the grey crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses, huge smile, grey suit and tie of my music business hero," Springsteen wrote in his autobiography Born to Run.

Mike is Mike Appel, Springsteen's recently-signed manager at the time who finagled the appointment with Hammond.

"When John Hammond came in and saw our names in his datebook, he asked Elizabeth, his secretary, 'Who are these birds?'" Appel said in an interview on Day 6. 

"And she said, 'I don't know. But it just seemed like I had to take the appointment for you.'"

LISTEN | The first song Bruce Springsteen played for John Hammond

In his autobiography, Springsteen writes that Mike Appel gave Hammond a spiel.

"Straightaway, with no discernible self-consciousness and before I'd played a note, he told John Hammond of Columbia Records I was perhaps the second coming of Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha and he'd brought me there to see if Hammond's discovery of Dylan was a fluke or if he really had ears."

"Exactly correct," Appel told me. "That is exactly what I said. And he waved me to sit down."

"John later told me he was poised and ready to hate us," Springsteen wrote. "But he just leaned back, slipped his hands together behind his head and, smiling, said, 'Play me something.'"

So Springsteen slung his guitar in place and sang It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City for John Hammond.

The words and the writer

Mike Appel says he had no doubt that Springsteen had the talent and potential to rival Hammond's earlier protege Bob Dylan. 

"I knew it. I knew it instantly," he said. "When he sang certain lyrics, I asked him to repeat them. And I'm sitting right in front of them and he's enunciating perfectly. And I said, 'Could you repeat that so that I can understand what you actually said?' And he went right ahead and went right through it again."

With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet

Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat

When I strut down the street I could feel its heartbeat.

"Jesus, a Harley in heat," Appel said. "I never heard anybody say something like that. That is not a Bob Dylan — that's too emotional." 

"He's absolutely magical and still alive, and it's so fresh. And I've never been in the presence of somebody like this."

Springsteen finished playing It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City and looked up at Hammond.

"That smile was still there and I heard him say, 'You've got to be on Columbia Records.' One song — that's what it took," Springsteen writes. 

Springsteen recalls following It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City with Growin' Up, and then the song he would hold off recording for 48 years. 

"Bruce goes right to If I Was The Priest." Appel said. "In the middle of the song, maybe not even that far in, Bruce is starting to say things, you know?"

If Jesus was a sheriff and I were a priest

If my lady was an heiress and my Mama was a thief

And Papa rode shotgun on the Fargo line

There's still too many outlaws trying to work the same line.

"Bruce, of course, is cutting right through Catholicism with a switchblade and with no regard with how that switchblade goes," Appel said. "And of course, if the Pope had heard Bruce, he would have excommunicated him immediately."

"And Hammond was laughing and laughing and laughing when the storm was finally done. He just turned to me and he said, 'You were right.' Just like that. He just said it straight out. He didn't mince his words for a second."

"We got lucky," Appel said. "We just totally got lucky there."

By the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen had cemented his status as a rock superstar. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

New album looks back on life

Springsteen remembers the elation as he and Mike Appel left Hammond's office back in 1972. 

"We'd climbed to the heavens and spoken to the gods who told us we were spitting thunder and throwing lightning bolts. It was on. It was all on."

In the next few years, Springsteen's fame would detonate. He would be on the covers of Time and Newsweek. 

His business relationship with Appel would blow up after the recording of Born to Run and bitter litigation would follow. Eventually they reconciled. 

"The fact is, right now we're best buddies and it'll be that way till the day we both drop dead," Appel said.

Letter to You is a meditation on life and loss and friendship. Those themes suggest why 48 years after he auditioned the song for John Hammond, Springsteen would release If I Was The Priest to the world.

"Mike Appel is in a rush, but not Bruce Springsteen," Appel said. "He's got the rest of his life to make this all work out right. He's in no rush. Hey. So he takes his time and makes sure it's right."

Produced by Pedro Sanchez.

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