Who broke Bruce in Philly?
That is, which deejay at Philadelphia rock station WMMR (93.3-FM) in the early 1970s was most responsible for igniting the career of nascent songwriter and bandleader Bruce Springsteen, the guy whose new memoir Born To Run, will bring him to the Free Library of Philadelphia for a meet and greet event with fans today. (Read my review of the book here.)
The rock jock most often given credit as being the Boss’ biggest booster is Ed Sciaky, the 'MMR legend who died in 2004. In Born To Run, Springsteen gives props to Sciaky, but remembers the main man as being David Dye, the then-'MMR deejay, now the host of World Cafe, the WXPN (88.5-FM) show syndicated around the U.S.
Describing a period in his career in which the struggling band dearly needed a shot in the arm, Springsteen writes in a section of the book subheadlined ‘A Deejay Saved My Life’:
"We were playing an empty house gig at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania when in walked David Dye. He was a DJ over at WMMR, Philly’s local FM station. He watched us play to thirty people, approached us and said, 'I love your band.' That night we heard 'Greetings From Asbury Park' being spun to music loving insomniacs as we drove out of town in our tour bus.”
To get his reaction, I emailed Dye down under in Australia, where the World Cafe was recording the latest installment in its Sense Of Place series. He was flattered by the attention, but not sure that he deserved all the credit bestowed upon him.
“This is really awkward,” he said. “I believe in his rush to give props Bruce has conflated two stories.”
Dye was an early supporter of Springsteen for sure, but the only show at the Main Point that he recalls drawing a mere 30 people would have been when Springsteen and band opened for musical-comedy duo Travis Shook & the Club Wow in January 1973. “I did not see that show,” he said. “Nor did I do the overnight show. Awkward to question Bruce’s memory, awkward to make myself look less cool.”
Dye has plenty of other super-cool early Springsteen memories, though. Talking with Springsteen and band downstairs at the Main Point - where Springsteen and the E Streeters played a mind boggling 18 times in 1973, according to the Brucebase web site - and then walking upstairs to see Tom Waits alone playing the piano. Interviewing Springsteen twice on 'MMR. “I taped neither. Idiot.... I remember he was extremely shy, played guest DJ - played 'Stay,' by Maurice Williams.”
Many of the Main Point shows were closed with “Thundercrack,” a fan favorite rarity which was included in Springsteen’s set at Citizens Bank Park earlier this month. It was written for the Boss’ girlfriend at the time.
Dye remembers dancing to the song with her while Springsteen played it. “‘Out on the floor there ain't nobody cleaner,’” he recalls, reciting the lyrics. “‘She does this thing she calls the jump back jack.’ I remember thinking that was pretty cool. She used to talk about domestic stuff, about getting Bruce to clean the apartment while dancing around with a broom to Van Morrison. She also recounted this argument where she accused him tearfully of loving his band more than he loved her. Got that right.”
Legend has it that one night at the Main Point, when Dye wasn’t in attendance, Springsteen improvised a song with lyrics “David Dye, he’s a nice guy.”
Years later, when Dye was living in Maine, Springsteen played the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, the same venue where Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston had fought for the heavyweight crown in 1965. “I went to see him and was put off that the loose, rag-tag Bruce I remembered was wearing make-up and hitting lighting cues. Afterwards, I explained myself to the tour manager and said I wanted to say 'Hi.' He just pointed me backstage. I found Bruce's dressing room and surprised him coming out of the shower. ... Writing this down, I don’t believe it all happened either.”
If it wasn’t Dye that told the in-need-of-a-hug Boss that he really, really liked him, who could it have been? Dye suggests three possibilities: well known MMR jocks Jonathan Takiff or Michael Tearson, or perhaps a lesser known vinyl spinner named Alan Ani, who did do the overnight shift the night of that first show.
So was it Takiff, the then 'MMR jock and Daily News music critic now known as the Gizmo Guy here at the Inquirer and Daily News.
“I didn't say that,” Takiff says. He did, however, review the show - actually one of four consecutive nights of shows - when Springsteen opened up for Travis Shook & Club Wow. “My Daily News review suggested Springsteen was a riveting street urchin who mixed aspects of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison - both of whom I loved - but also took it to another level. This was months before Jon Landau's famous 'I've seen the future of Rock and Roll' review in Boston.”
“A week or so prior to the Main Point debut, Michael Tearson and I were first in town - and maybe the country - to jump the gun on Greetings from Asbury Park at WMMR,” Takiff says. “Happened on a Saturday night after the Friday when advance copies showed up in our music library cubbies. ... Killed me when Michael Tearson scooped me - we were very competitive - by two hours with 'Growing Up.' But then I opened my show at midnight with 'Spirit in the Night' followed by a live cut of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin singing 'Spirit in the Dark.'"
So if the MMR deejay who walked up to Springsteen at the Main Point wasn’t Dye or Takiff, was it Sciaky?
Couldn’t have been, according to Takiff. “Ed Sciaky didn't really get on board until Bruce's second album, The Wild, the Innocent & the Street Shuffle, but then, with [his] wife Judy, became totally obsessed. Ed played Springsteen songs virtually every day, trailed Bruce from show to show and town to town like a puppy dog, picked him up at the Trailways bus station when the guy was dead broke and put him up on his couch, introduced him to Billy Joel and Barry Manilow and David Bowie. And Sciaky ate a lot of the band's backstage catering food, which was why Bruce referred to him on stage as 'Hungry Ed.' "
With those three down, that leaves another prominent ‘70s MMR jock in Tearson. Was it him?
No, though he does verify the claim to fame that Takiff makes for him. “I played most of the album that Saturday night, and Jonathan Takiff played a lot more of it in his show which followed. What I found out much later was that that was the first airplay that Greetings got. So, I was the first one to play Bruce Springsteen on radio.”
So though Springsteen gives credit mainly to Dye, Tearson argues that it wasn’t just one deejay that saved Springsteen’s life.
“WMMR was the station from which Springsteen first broke out,” Tearson says, scoffing at New York station WNEW-FM's later attempt to take credit. “And it was a total team effort in getting behind him.”