31 March 2010

Ultimate Singles Jukebox [Slot 115]

The Fever
Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes
Written by Bruce Springsteen
Produced by "Miami" Steve Van Zandt
Epic Records
Released 1976

"The Fever" is a story of the mystery and mythology of rock and roll. And of local musicians and fans who at one time could define an entire area of the United States. And of the charm of independent radio and its enduring relationship with its listeners.

A young New Jersey native named Bruce Springsteen authored the song in question, some say as early as 1971. Of course, Springsteen would be "discovered" by impresario John Hammond (who had also brought Billie Hollday and Bob Dylan, among others, to Columbia Records) and his first album would be released in early 1973: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. was met mostly with shrugs. [Indeed, in retrospect, critic Lester Bangs stated that the consensus at the time was "many of us dismissed it: he wrote like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, sang like Van Morrison and Robbie Robertson, and led a band that sounded like Van Morrison's."] "The Fever" wasn't on Greetings' track listing.

That summer, the E Streeters would go back in the studio and come out with a critical masterpiece. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle further increased their growing fan base, but did not make much noise on the commercial charts. It is said that during these sessions, the song first identified as "(I Got The Fever) For The Girl" (because of the singer's literal lament heading into the initial chorus) was recorded. Springsteen's manager at the time, Mike Appel, apparently sent out a special pressing of the song to a few select independent (or "underground") FM radio stations as a means of priming the pump for The Boss' third 33" LP that would shoot for the stars.

Now, let me just say that the paragraph immediately above is hearsay. Although it might be reliable hearsay, The Night Owl's first encounter with "The Fever" was simply by word of mouth from college students originally hailing from the Philadelphia and South Jersey areas who had seen the marathon live act of Springsteen and his band at clubs like The Main Line or The Stone Pony.

But when Bruce Springsteen landed on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the triumphant glow of that third album, Born To Run, in 1975, any leak of unreleased songs only added to the growing myth of The Boss. There are few songwriters - Dylan, Lennon & McCartney - that are prolific enough to contribute first rate tunes to other artists. But Springsteen has been able to do so time and again. "The Fever" is a prime example.

"Southside" Johnny Lyon had been a member of the Jersey Shore bar band scene since the early 1970s, playing in various bands with interchangeable members, including Springsteen, "Miami" Steve Van Zandt, Garry W. Tallent, David Sancious and Danny Federici, all of whom would be members of The E Street Band in future years. While Van Zandt would join Springsteen on the Born To Run tour and Lyon formed The Asbury Jukes, "Miami" Steve would maintain his association by producing a four-song EP for the band. It was pitched to Columbia subsidiary Epic, and The Jukes went into the studio in 1976 to record what would become I Don't Want To Go Home. With Van Zandt producing and contributing lead guitar, the album proved to be a paean to classic rhythm and blues, featuring not only Van Zandt's vocals and harmonica playing, but duets with soul giants Ronnie Spector and Lee Dorsey.

While the title track would prove to be song that the band would use as their closer for years to come, the true highlight of the debut was "The Fever." Listen to the original studio version here.
The faint organ rumbling summons up the middle of the night. Then Southside enters dramatically. His vocal has a swagger, but it's tempered by the humbling of the experience of yearning for his girl (. The call and response chorus, the blues harp, and The Miami Horns' blaring chart all result in a Stax-like explosion of soul revue heaven.

Springsteen would pull out "The Fever" on occasion in concerts over the years to come. It would be a song that Bruceologists would note with glee like some of the other hits he would pen for others ("Because The Night" or "Fire") or the covers he would throw in from time to time as a tribute to his personal heroes ("Quarter To Three" or "Twist and Shout"). The Boss' version would be a bit bluesier, as one can hear in this performance at Winterland in San Francisco in 1978. [The studio recording of "The Fever" would finally be released in the compilation Tracks 20 years later. The delay was probably a nod to the fact that Bruce knew that Southside had made "The Fever" his own. And The Boss, no doubt, was pleased that he helped make that happen for a Jersey compadre.]

While the memories of "lost" tracks make for good stories, there are certainly advantages to the new age of information technology. One of them is this film of Southside Johnny and Bruce sharing vocals on "The Fever." Backed by Clarence Clemmons on background vocal, Steve Van Zandt on lead, and The Miami Horns, the perfomance is from the Agora Club in Cleveland on August 31, 1978.

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