George Theiss — an important figure in the early days of Bruce Springsteen’s career— has died, according to posts by several of his friends on Facebook. He had been living in Salisbury, N.C., and battling lung cancer since 2016. He was 68.
Theiss and Springsteen performed together in the band The Castiles from 1965 to 1968. Later, Theiss was in groups such as Cahoots and his own George Theiss Band.
“Baby I,” a Castiles song that Theiss and Springsteen wrote together, was included on Chapter and Verse, the companion CD to Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography, “Born to Run.” It is the earliest original Springsteen song to be widely available to his fans.
Theiss, who was born in Newark but grew up mostly in Freehold, originally got to know Springsteen by dating his sister, Virginia.
“I was sitting in my South Street home one afternoon when a knock came at our front door,” Springsteen wrote in “Born to Run.” “It was George Theiss, a local guitarist and singer who’d heard through my sister that I played the guitar. I’d seen George around the Elks. He told me there was a band forming and they were looking for a lead guitarist. While I hesitated to call myself a lead guitarist, I had been hard at it for a while and worked up some very rudimentary ‘chops.’ We walked across town to Center Street and into a little half-shotgun house fifty feet up the block from where the metal-on-metal war of the rug mill spilled out open factory windows onto the streets of Texas. In Texas I’d slip on my guitar and join my first real band.”
In the book, Springsteen also wrote that Theiss “bore a resemblance to both Elvis and Paul McCartney (the King AND a Beatle, the true double whammy!), was our resident lothario and did pretty well for himself.”
The band, named after the band of soap that Theiss used, practiced at the home of their manager, Tex Vinyard. They performed frequently in Freehold and nearby towns, as well as at Cafe Wha? in New York. Theiss, not Springsteen, usually sang lead.
“George was the best vocalist we had,” wrote Springsteen. “He had a real voice and charisma and did the job well. I was considered toxic in front of a microphone, my voice the butt of many of Tex’s jokes, and years later, after selling millions of records, I would visit Tex and he would take grand pleasure in sneering at me, ‘You still can’t sing. George is the singer.’ ”
After The Castiles broke up, Theiss worked as a carpenter, in addition to playing in bands. In 1986, he contributed — along with Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Max Weinberg, Bobby Bandiera and many others — to a charity single, “We’ve Got the Love,” by the all-star charity group, Jersey Artists for Mankind. In 2008, he was selected for inclusion on a plaque on the Asbury Park boardwalk, honoring some of the city’s legendary’s musicians.
According to an article that was published this January in the Salisbury Post, Springsteen attended Theiss’ wedding, in 1969, and invited him and his wife Diana to attend a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony with him, in 1989. In 2002, Springsteen and Theiss both attended a ceremony honoring Vinyard in Freehold.
Springsteen and Theiss have also “stayed in touch” in recent years, according to the Salisbury Post article, and Springsteen attended a birthday party for Theiss’ mother in New Jersey, last year.
In a 1985 Rolling Stone cover story about Springsteen’s early days, Theiss talked about the tensions between him and Springsteen, toward the end of their years together in The Castiles. But he also talked about the ties that still bound them together.
“We were the only five freaks in Monmouth County,” he said in that article. “And at that time, you had short hair, and were an American, or you didn’t, and weren’t.”
Here is the recording of The Castiles performing “Baby I.”