Pre-Glory Days: The Earliest Live Springsteen Recordings
September 16, 2004
Back in 1967, an Episcopal priest named Father Fred Coleman set up a tape recorder at a little church-owned teen center in Freehold, New Jersey. The young cleric wanted to capture the music of a popular local high school band as they played for opening night at the center. That tape turned out to be the first live recording of Bruce Springsteen.
WKSU's Mark Urycki Reports:
|The Castiles in 1965. From left to right, Frank Marziotti, Bruce Springsteen, George Theiss, Paul Popkin and Bart Haynes.
/ Windows Media
Springsteen was just 17 years old when his band, The Castiles, helped open The Left Foot Teen Club in his hometown of Freehold. Charles Cross, the author of the Springsteen book Backstreets, says just about every concert Springsteen has performed in the last 20 years has been taped by someone but that this is a bit unusual. "In the early '60s and mid '60s, that was pretty darn rare, and for the fact that there is a recording of this, it's very important simply for historical reasons," says Cross.
The Castiles were a popular enough band that Father Coleman wanted them to open the church-owned Left Foot Teen Club. Coleman says the kids did all the decorating for the small place on Throckmorton Street. "They repainted the interior, " says Coleman. "They hung a fishnet on the ceiling, which was a very popular thing to do in those days, you know, with dance clubs and teen clubs, built the bandstand out of wood donated by one of the local contractors, telephone cable reel served as tables."
When the band started, George Thiess was the boss
The young Father Coleman used a Sony stereo reel-to-reel tape deck and set the microphones on the floor, so the drums tend to overpower the vocals. The quarter-track machine recorded on both sides of the tape. Because he was afraid the reels would run out, Coleman would stop the machine in the middle of several songs - waiting to hear one he really liked. His machine could record as slowly as 1 7/8 inches per second but Coleman chose the fastest speed. Coleman says "Fortunately, I taped these tapes at seven-and-a-half inches per second, so good quality, but it meant I had less tape, and in a way if I had taped them at three-and-three-quarter, we would have much more than these eighty minutes we've got."
In 1967, The Castiles included Vinny Maniello on drums, Curt Fluhr on bass, Bobby Alfano on organ, and Paul Popkin on tambourine. George Theiss sang and played guitar. Springsteen played lead guitar, but by this time he was getting more lead vocals as heard in the band's cover that night of Donovan's "Catch the Wind". At the time of this show at The Left Foot, The Castiles had already recorded a 45. A year earlier, The Castiles recorded two songs in a studio. Theiss remembers writing the two originals with Springsteen in the car on the way to the studio.
The songs, entitled "Baby I" and "That's What You'll Get", were cut on to acetate. About five copies were made and they never went anywhere. Back in those early days, says Charles Cross, the band wore uniforms. "I am lucky enough to own a copy of the very original promo photo that they shot, and it's really remarkable to look at," says Cross. "They're wearing these little vests and white shirts, and they look just like Jerry and the Pacemakers. They don't look hip."
The Castiles were guided by their manager, Tex Vinyard. He and his wife Marion became surrogate parents for the band, allowing them to practice at their house.
"Tex was always putting out money for strings and gas and everything else, and we never really, it never really clicked in our heads, you know what I mean, that he was paying for all this stuff, and when we get paid, we look for money, and he'd give most of it to us, " says Theiss. "So it was a losing situation for him, financially, but I mean, we made maybe ten bucks or something, It was very little."
Organist Alafano adds, "If we made 20, 24 dollars, at 15, 16 years old, that was decent money, you know, for having fun, a couple nights a week, you know, on the weekends."
Springsteen mentioned Tex and Marion Vinyard in his song "In Freehold" in 1996. He played a concert at his former elementary school where it was taped by an audience member.
|Father Coleman with the two tapes of the 1967 concert
Tex Vinyard himself was captured on tape in the 1967 show introducing the band as they opened their second set.
The author of an upcoming book on Jersey shore bands and former education director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bob Santelli was himself in a high school rock band in New Jersey at the time. He remembers The Castiles had a reputation for talent and keeping up with the musical upheaval of those days.
"You know, you're going from playing The Animals in 1966, to Hendrix in 1967, and there's a long distance between what The Animals were doing, and a year later, what Hendrix was doing," says Santelli. "The best thing about The Castiles was that they had good players, and Bruce was really one of the kingpins there. He picked up this music really quickly. In 1967, to play 'Purple Haze', for instance, required a degree of astuteness on your guitar if it was gonna sound pretty good. And Springsteen had it back then, as did George Theiss and the others. It was a good band. It was a solid band musically."
All the band members contributed ideas for songs and The Castiles repertoire ranged from Hendrix to Leonard Cohen, from The Beatles to Moby Grape. The band was trying to please their fans but Bob Alfano recalls there was a split among the Jersey shore audiences, one side liking Beach Boys-type pop and the other wanting blues-based music. "Back then there was a definite line between what we used to call 'rah-rahs' or 'collegiates,' and then 'soul music' and 'greasers'," says Alfano. " We tried to please everybody I guess, you know, do a little bit of everything, because we wanted to work, and then we had our own stuff that we wanted to play also."
Charles Cross says for a high school cover band in 1967, The Castiles showed good taste. "They weren't playing the sort of crappy pop that was at the top of the charts," says Cross. "They were picking primarily British bands, which is interesting, because we rarely think of Springsteen as having much exposure to the British Invasion. He was a huge fan of The Animals, though. I think they were one of the first bands that really greatly influenced him."
Well Tex rest in peace...
And Marion gave us a hand in Freehold
Georgie... We started up a rock n roll band in Freehold
Well we learned really quick how to rock it...
I'll never forget the feeling of that first 5 bucks in my pocket,
That I earned in Freehold...
While the second show was being recorded at The Left Foot (on September 30, 1967), The Beatles were in the studio working on their Magical Mystery Tour album. Three days later, Woody Guthrie died. Three months later, The Castiles first drummer Bart Haynes was killed in Viet Nam. Six months later, The Castiles broke up. Both Bob Alfano and George Theiss thought music would be their careers. "Oh yeah, there was no doubt, you know it was like, what are you gonna do?", says Theiss. "It was like, this is what I'm gonna do. This is what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna play, I'm gonna be a rock star"
"Oh, it's a long story what happened," says Alfano. "I guess, you know, kind of got sidetracked with the marriage and another career, driving a truck. I became a teamster, and you know, took a different path."
Cross says Bruce Springsteen never held a day job. And Santelli agrees that The Boss was singularly focused on making music. "This guy just lived, breathed music, and absorbed everything around him, everything he heard on records," says Santelli. " He was out every night listening to bands, playing whenever he could. He was consumed by it."
Castiles members Curt Fluhr and Paul Popkin have died, but all the surviving Castiles still live near the Jersey shore and keep in touch. They're all protective of Marion Vinyard. They're not jealous of Springsteen, and even help guard his privacy. Theiss became a carpenter but continued to work in rock bands and never gave up on playing music. "Get up, go to work, bring my clothes with me, go from wherever I was working to wherever the equipment was, the guys were always late, so I would load my truck up with all the equipment, drive to Asbury Park or wherever it was, and then 9, 10 o'clock, start playing until like 2 o'clock or whatever, then pack everything up, come home, drop off the equipment, and get home 4, 4:30, then get back up and do it again," says Theiss.
And keyboard player Alfano is still writing music. "That's why I'm going in the studio with my brother-in-law," says Alfano. "I want to put down some tracks and maybe call other people in, possibly George, and I don't know who I'm going to use for a drummer, but I just got a lot of stuff I've got to get out."
Bruce Springsteen often covers old rock songs today but he's apparently never revisited any of the old Castiles repertoire. But Charles Cross says what he took from The Castiles was how to please an audience. "I think that's really what The Castiles taught him more than anything else, was entertaining that crowd, and keeping them focused on what you were doing onstage, as the main ingredient of being a compelling live performer," says Cross. "And Springsteen, throughout his career, has always been somebody that once he's onstage, you can't take your eyes off him."
Fred Coleman, now retired in Akron, has kept the tapes in their original boxes. Someone copied them years ago and those ended up as bootleg albums in Europe. Coleman would like to send a good copy to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is trying to contact Springsteen. "I think he might very much like to have these early tapes and that would be fine by me," says Coleman.
The site of The Left Foot Teen Club in downtown Freehold, New Jersey, is being used in a way that Springsteen would appreciate - it's a food bank - the kind of charity he's been known to support around the country.
Hank Spicer and Mike Beder contributed to this story.
|Local newspapers report the opening of the new teen club