Jan. 5, 1973 — 50 years ago this week — marks a landmark in Bruce Springsteen history. That was the day his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., was released.
In a couple of years, Springsteen would be a star. But on that day, there was little fanfare. Springsteen was booked into the 300-capacity Main Point coffeehouse in Bryn Mawr, Pa. (a suburb of Philadelphia), with a four-piece version of the E Street Band (Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Vini Lopez and Garry Tallent). It was second day of a four-night, Thursday-to-Sunday stand opening shows for the duo Travis, Shook & the Club Wow.
Springsteen had not played The Main Point before, though he would go on to book about 20 more two-shows-a-night dates there in 1973 and 1974. Travis, Shook & the Club Wow, who were based in Boston, had been there before, though this was their first time headlining.
Chandler Travis and Steve Shook, who formed the duo, included a lot of comedic bantering between their songs. “The reviews would always say we were like ‘a hippie Smothers Brothers’ or something,” said Shook.
Shook said that on Jan. 4, “I tuned in on (Springsteen’s) first set, just for a few songs, and I admit I’m sometimes slow on the draw. I said, ‘Ah, ok … a Dylan-esque delivery … a Van Morrison-y thing. Band’s nice.’ But I remember, the second night, he was doing ‘Rosalita’ and that’s when I went, ‘Holy Mother of God,’ because of all the time changes, and telling the story. It just kind of blew my mind.
“I caught all the rest of the sets. I remember calling my wife that night or the next day and saying, ‘So this guy we’re playing with, he’s absolutely amazing. Mark my words, within the next year, you’re gonna see him on the cover of Time magazine.’ ”
As it turned out, Springsteen did make the cover of Time — and of Newsweek, too — but it was more than two and a half years later.
“There was just kind of an energy, it was palpable,” said Shook. “There was pretty much no one there the first night, and it got fuller each night. And it wasn’t to see us.”
Travis puts it this way: “He was quite unknown at the time, so there weren’t any full houses.”
Yet Travis, too, was impressed by Springsteen’s talent. “He was obviously a striking performer,” he said. “I liked that he frequently started out with something … I think at least on two of those nights, he started either solo or maybe with just the piano player, but he would start with something kind of slow and quiet, and build up. I enjoyed that.”
“I think on the fourth night,” Shook said, “Bruce brought us up to play maracas on a tune or two, just to hang out, because he was that kind of guy, and that was fun.”
“I remember playing harmonica on ‘Rosalita,’ which I loved,” said Travis.
Shook also said of the band that “their sense of purpose and dedication was very strong.” Travis added that “I remember (Springsteen) was writing another song that week. He partied a little less than the other guys, as far as we could tell. So while we’d be smoking pot and drinking, he would be off working on a song.”
While they were aware of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., coming out, they don’t remember Springsteen and the band making a big deal about that. “I don’t recall them talking about the album in particular or even about what they were doing (in their career),” Shook said. “It was more like, the hanging out was just kind of small talk.”
After those Main Point shows, the two groups never did any more gigs together. But they did stay in touch for a few years.
“When he came to Boston, we would stop in,” Shook said. “He played small places for a while. But it wasn’t long before he was playing at, I think it’s the Wang Center now, but I forget what it was called then. But he hooked us up with some tickets.” (Springsteen played at the Music Hall in Boston, now known as the 3,500-capacity Wang Theatre, 10 times between 1974 and 1978).
Then there was the time that Travis, Shook & the Club Wow was opening for George Carlin (they worked with him a lot in those days) at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, Calif., in 1975.
“There was a knock on the (dressing room) door,” said Shook. “Bruce was in town visiting his parents” — who had moved to nearby San Mateo — “and he saw that we were playing, and came back to say hi and hang out.”
Travis and Shook both said Springsteen sang some backing vocals at the show, but they remember different songs. Travis said it was “Bad Boy,” by Clarence Palmer & the Jive Bombers. Shook said it was a Christmas song.
They both remember giving Springsteen a ride home after the show, though.
“It happened to be right around the week when he turned up on Time and Newsweek — both those covers, out of nowhere — and he was very, sort of, embarrassed about it,” said Travis. “It seemed like it confused him a little bit. When we gave him a ride home, he was talking about that like, ‘I’m not really sure what’s going on here, exactly,’ you know. Maybe he was just being modest.”
In the ’80s, Travis, Shook & the Club Wow morphed into another group, The Incredible Casuals. Shook is now out of the music business, but Travis remains active (he’s a “lifer,” Shook said). You can check out his current projects at chandlertravis.com.
They fell out of touch with Springsteen and the E Streeters a long time ago, now.
“After he started playing the bigger places, we didn’t really see him but just observed his career,” said Shook.
But there are no hard feelings.
“Of course, it’s been a fun story to tell,” Travis said.
“I certainly don’t lead with that,” said Shook. “But every once in a while, if that comes up at a party, it’s still a good story.”
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.