Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

Prince to Springsteen: six of the greatest backing bands behind the stars

From the E Street Band to The Wailers, the biggest stars made it with a little help

Bruce Springsteen's success partly down to his backing group, The E Street Band. Pictured here are Nils Lofgren (left) and Steven Van Zandt (right). EPA
Bruce Springsteen's success partly down to his backing group, The E Street Band. Pictured here are Nils Lofgren (left) and Steven Van Zandt (right). EPA

On June 9, 1972 opening notes for one of rock music’s most famous bands were strummed.

Almost half a century ago, US singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen signed with Columbia Records and immediately set to work on his classic 1972 album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.

That meant he needed to assemble a band to match his ambition.

But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Setting up the right group is more than simply looking for the finest musicians available.

It is more about finding that rare alchemy of talent and humility that would, in turn, create a musical shorthand, allowing both leader and group to be in sync on stage and record.

Here are six examples of artists at one with their band:

1. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band

Springsteen's band was named after the street in New Jersey where he assembled the original quintet from players in the neighbourhood.

The success of Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, and subsequent records Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River are a showcase of the group's influence on The Boss's sound. From the saxophone playing of the late Clarence Clemons, to the sturdy riffs of Steven Van Zandt, the line up provided the fire and drama to Springsteen's chronicles of life in small town America.

The fact that The E Street Band remains synonymous with Springsteen’s celebrated body of work is an example of how, in popular music, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

2. Bob Marley and The Wailers

Originally beginning as a partnership between singer Peter Tosh, percussionist Bunny Wailer and Bob Marley on guitar, the latter took over the group when relationships between the trio soured.

With Aston "Family Man" Barrett (bass) and Carlton Barrett (drums) recruited to form reggae music's greatest ever rhythm section, The Wailers went on to back many of Marley's life-affirming hits, including Get Up, Stand Up, Exodus and Three Little Birds.

3. James Brown and The JB’s

One of the tightest bands in funk music, period. After all, James Brown expected nothing less. As the proclaimed "hardest man in show business," Brown ensured his musicians were on point at all times, largely due to his habit of fining members for every bum note.

But in the end, it seems that tough love approach probably helped the band's members, such as saxophonist Maceo Parker and bassist Bootsy Collins. Both went on to have successful solo careers of their own.

4. Prince and The Revolution

One of the toughest gigs in the business. Such was Prince's restless creative spirit, that he formed and disbanded groups with relative frequency.

But The Revolution will always go down as the Purple One's premier backing group for their work on three essential albums, 1984's Purple Rain, 1985's Around the World and their final outing for 1986's Parade.

5. Joan Jett and The Blackhearts

As a keen rocker, Joan Jett always wanted her own band. Hence, she ignored her label’s requests to go solo and placed an advertisement in a Los Angeles paper in the late 1970s requesting "three good men." Not long after The Blackhearts were formed, for the past thirty years they have supported Jett on tour and on classic singles I Love Rock'n'Roll and Crimson and Clover.

6. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

Arguably the greatest living backing ensemble working today. Since 1983, this Australian collective of experimental musicians has provided various soundscapes – from the thunderous and the nightmarish to desolate beauty – for singer and poet Nick Cave to impart his personal lyricism. Simply put, there would be no Nick Cave without The Bad Seeds.

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Updated: June 10, 2020 11:47 AM

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