Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen | Credit: Kevin Kane/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Stories Behind the Covers on Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Only the Strong Survive’

What beloved tracks did you listen to driving around in your first car? What would you settle on for a covers album? What were the first songs that you knew all the lyrics to, or the first ones you learned how to play on guitar?

Bruce Springsteen is heading back out on tour come 2023, and before that the Boss has put together his 21st studio album, Only The Strong Survive. It’s a collection of soul and great American songbook covers, lovingly arranged and passionately performed.

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Nightshift’

The LP is brimming with classics from Jimmy Ruffin, Diana Ross, The Four Tops – songs that the now 73-year-old Bruce might have fallen in love with over the car radio in those formative years.

“My goal is for the modern audience to experience its beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it,” Springsteen has said of the project. “I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”

Here are some top tracks to dive into that The Boss picked for the record. If they’re songs that Bruce Springsteen thinks are worth turning back the clock for, we’re inclined to listen.

What Becomes of the Brokenhearted

(Written by James Dean, Paul Riser, and William Weatherspoon)

This vocally driven track was first performed by Jimmy Ruffin, and later recorded by Paul Young and Joan Osborne. “Energy” is one of the first words that the original performance brings to mind, and you can imagine the attraction for a fist-pumping cover.

The Paul Young version has a more karaoke feel than the original, but still strives at the earnest atmosphere captured by Ruffin. That may be inspired by a spoken-word intro included on only some versions of the track:

  • A world filled with love is a wonderful sight
  • Being in love is one’s heart’s delight
  • But that look of love isn’t on my face
  • That enchanted feeling has been replaced

It’s heavy going for a relatively upbeat song, but these words only add depth to the lyric. It’s not hard to see why this classic has been covered so often.

Don’t Play That Song

(Written by Ahmet Ertegun and Betty Nelson)

On the chorus to this heartbreaker, each call of, “You know that you lied!” is followed by a, “Darling, I love you” from the backing singers. It’s a breakup song, one of the classics, and there’s a burning vocal take on the original Ben E. King version.

Best known for ‘Stand by Me’, King puts just as much passion into ‘Don’t Play That Song’. Covers of the track run all the way from Aretha Franklin to Mariah Carey, and now to Springsteen. It might be that the pain of a broken relationship is universal, or it might just be an irresistible tune.

7-Rooms of Gloom

(Written by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Edward Holland)

The Four Tops are classic Motown, and ‘7-Rooms of Gloom’ is classic Four Tops. Surprisingly, the group themselves preferred not to perform the song, and reportedly had little affection for it.

That might have to do with the gloomy mood hanging over the song. The tempo is faster than your standard Motown track, and the production choices together give the whole song a foreboding feel.

There’s no denying the impact of the lyrics, and the lack of glitz to dress up the heartbreak makes the song a standout among The Four Tops deep discography. It’s a fine reminder of the passion that so many Motown songs can stir.

The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore

(Written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio)

Another slightly dark choice for a cover – see the line, “Loneliness is the coat you wear” – but the dreariness of the lyrics in this Frankie Valli hit is ultimately overcome by the soaring instrumental. A Frankie Valli hit later made more famous by The Walker Brothers, that is. And then covered by Cher. And then Keane. Springsteen has some competition on this one.

Strings and bells take over in the chorus, and a bit of old-time grain on the vocal makes this feel like a sunny 1960s afternoon despite the lonesome scene painted by the lyrics.


(Written by Francine Golde, Dennis Lambert, and Walter Orange)

‘Nightshift’ is the soul and R&B version of ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ by the Righteous Brothers. The lyrics imagine Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson keeping the tunes coming in the afterlife, a comforting thought brought to life by the Commodores in 1985.

Songwriter Franne Golde came up with the title after seeing the Ron Howard-directed, Michael Keaton film Night Shift, which is definitely as close as either of those two stars will ever get to an ounce of R&B influence.

The track replaced ‘Missing You’ by Diana Ross at #1 on the US R&B chart, a song that was coincidentally also a tribute to Marvin Gaye. ‘Nightshift’ is as smooth and vocally satisfying as the Commodores get, and they never managed to notch another major hit after it. Musically and as a contribution to the lore of soul music though, it’s not a bad way to go out.

Only the Strong Survive

(Written by Jerry Butler, Kenneth Gamble, and Leon Huff)

You might know the song, but might not guess that it first featured on a 1968 album titled The Ice Man Cometh. Jerry Butler was tagged with this nickname by Philadelphia DJ Georgie Woods for his “cool” sound.

Butler further cashed in on the title with his albums Ice on Ice and Ice ‘N Hot, but is perhaps better known for leading R&B group The Impressions before departing in 1960.

The title track for this album of covers by The Boss is a staple that’s also been covered by Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart, among others. The attraction could be the upbeat and optimistic lyrics or the propulsive bass line that drives the instrumental. Whatever the reason, the song has had legs since its release in 1969, and is a highlight no matter the artist.

Further Reading

Bruce Springsteen Says He’ll Never Retire

Bruce Springsteen Releases Cover Of The Commodores’ ‘Nightshift’

Watch Bruce Springsteen Join The Killers During Madison Square Garden Show

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