Every holiday season there are certain Christmas songs that get played on a constant loop. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band’s version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" is one of them. However, not that many people may realize it was recorded on Long Island. This year marks the 45th anniversary of The Boss' performance, which was captured live from C.W. Post College (now LIU Post) in Brookville on Dec. 12, 1975.
"Everybody knows the song, but nobody knows it’s from C.W. Post in 1975 unless you happened to be there," says Scott Perschke, 65, of Farmingdale, who was a sophomore at the college when he attended the concert. "In fact, most people that went to Post, don’t even know."
ON THE RISE
In 1975, Springsteen was on tour for his breakthrough third album, "Born to Run." In August, he had sold out a string of showcase concerts at Manhattan's buzziest venue, The Bottom Line, and in the same late October week, he appeared on the covers of both Newsweek and Time.
"Bruce was the act to see," says Steve Prisco, 65, of East Northport, who was at the Post show. "He was ramping up then. The hype machine was definitely in full force and he was starting to climb."
Perschke adds, "A lot of people hadn’t heard of him yet. He was still a local Northeast artist with pocket fanbases in Arizona and Philadelphia. But, the Post show was completely sold out."
The concert took place in the building that preceded the current Tilles Center for the Performing Arts. The venue was called the Concert Hall, nicknamed the Dome because of the circular-shaped ceiling.
"Very few people are even aware of the Dome and the number of rock concerts that happened on campus," says Bob Goida, who was an A-V tech at the Concert Hall and eventually went on to become Tilles Center’s Director of Facility Operations. "The Dome, originally called the Concert Hall and then the Bush-Brown Concert Hall, had The Allman Brothers Band, Jerry Garcia, George Burns, Joe Walsh, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna. Bruce was a new artist with a bit of buzz."
The day of the show a massive snowstorm hit Long Island with the temperature dropping to 12 degrees.
"We waited on line starting at 1 p.m. for an 8 p.m. show," says Perschke. "We spent eight hours drinking peppermint schnapps just to keep warm."
The weather caused the show to be delayed for an hour.
"The snow was so bad, they made an announcement that Bruce was going to be late," says concert attendee Wayne Belfer, 63, who grew up in New Hyde Park. "Northern Boulevard and Glen Cove Road hadn’t even been plowed yet."
The seats for the show were all on a first-come, first-served basis. When the doors opened there was a mad rush to get inside.
"We got lifted off our feet and pushed toward the fence that was serving as the barrier before you got into the Dome," says Perschke. "It was very scary."
The performance of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" came as the second song of the encore and took the crowd by surprise.
"Nobody knew it was coming," says Perschke. "This was before the days of the internet so the only ones that knew it was part of his setlist would be the handful of people who were at the show before that."
Joseph Kivak, who was in the crowd at Post, went to see Springsteen the night before at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ, where the band pulled out the Christmas classic.
"The performance at Seton Hall wasn’t as good. The version at Post was much more interesting," says Kivak, 67, of Elizabeth, NJ. "It was sort of a novelty at the time. People were wondering what he was doing."
In fact, Kivak caught on that the song was being recorded.
"I knew they were taping because there was a recording truck outside in the back," he says. "They had these big cables running out the door."
The song features one of Springsteen’s storytelling raps at the beginning as sleigh bells jingle in the background mixed with seasonal sounds of singular piano notes.
"It’s everything you want from The E Street Band — it’s got playfulness, a killer sax solo and the arrangement totally rocks," says Prisco. "Bruce always had a comedy element to his shows making jokes with saxophonist Clarence Clemons and the rest of the band. You can see he was excited to pull the song off."
Belfer adds, "They began by laughing then everyone started to get into it by singing along. Bruce and Clarence were hamming it up on stage. It was a joyous moment."
Springsteen’s rendition was based on the arrangement producer Phil Spector had the Crystals record on his 1963 holiday album, "A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector."
"Bruce completely reworked that song. He made it swing and rock," says Darren Gallagher, 55, of West Islip, who runs a Springsteen tribute band called Badlands that plays the song live and even recorded it. "Sometimes when you hear a remake it sounds just like every other version of the song. This particular one sounds undeniably like Bruce Springsteen."
When former Newsday pop music critic Wayne Robins reviewed the show, he wrote that the song "caused pandemonium" and described Springsteen as "more mensch than macho."
"It was the time of the macho rock star — Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith," says Robins, who will be inducted in the Long Island Music Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021. "Bruce came on like he was your neighbor."
STRAIGHT TO RADIO
The song was initially released to FM radio stations in 1976 and instantly went into heavy rotation every holiday season. But it wasn’t sold in stores at first.
"You had to listen for it and try to tape it off the radio," recalls Perschke, who was a DJ at WCWP (88.1 FM) — the campus station.
In 1981, "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" ended up on the Christmas compilation, "In Harmony 2" and was released as a 45 single. In 1985, the song was rereleased as the b-side to Springsteen’s hit, "My Hometown."
"Most Christmas songs you hear are really old. It was exciting that an artist from my generation could put one into the library of true holiday classics. Not many people have done that," says Prisco. "Every time that song comes on the radio I can say, ‘Yeah, I was there in the crowd cheering along!’ "
SPRINGSTEEN COMES TO ROSLYN
Bruce Springsteen’s first shows on Long Island took place at My Father’s Place in Roslyn where he was scheduled to be the opening act for Paul Winter Consort in January 1973.
“A bus pulled up with all these people from Asbury Park, NJ. The whole band comes out with these kids. They started setting up and sound checking,” says club owner Michael “Eppy” Epstein. “Paul Winter Consort came up to me and said, ‘They will not open for us. We will open for them.’ ”
Heather Schoen, 71, of Fort Lauderdale, who worked as a content programmer for WLIR, was taken by Springsteen’s performance.
“I could not believe his energy,” she says. “Bruce took my breath away with his attitude and playfulness. He’d go into the crowd, sit on someone’s lap and give them a kiss. I never saw that before.”
Springsteen returned in the summer of 1973 for a string of shows including a live radio broadcast for WLIR on July 31 in which Columbia Records gave out free tickets at Record World.
“Bruce was terrified performing live on the radio. He was very nervous about the broadcast. I think it humbled him,” says Epstein. “I had to push him on stage because he wasn’t going on.”
Wayne Belfer, 63, who grew up in New Hyde Park, was only 15 years-old but he took his father’s car and a bouncer friend snuck him into the club on July 31 to catch Springsteen.
“It was so cool because I got to see The E Street Band with keyboardist David Sancious and drummer Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez,” says Belfer. “They played the songs longer because they had less material to work with. It was more of a jammin’ vibe.” - DAVID J. CRIBLEZ