Three Minute Record: Chuck Willis, "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes"

rock and roll is here to stay.

Three Minute Record: Chuck Willis, "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes"

Welcome to Three Minute Record, the offshoot where I write about songs Bruce Springsteen has covered. You can read more about this project and why it exists here.

On November 22, 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed the last show of the Working On A Dream tour in Buffalo, NY. As last shows go, it was pretty epic, but I am not here today to talk to you about that show. I am here to talk to you about one of the requests that got played that night.

It was the moment in the show at which Bruce Springsteen asked for people who brought signs making requests for songs -- it was ostensibly characterized as “stump the band” -- and this being the last show of the tour, when the call went out, the audience looked like this.

there are some great suggestions here, there are also some of the dumbest requests ever made. photo by yours truly, who was not risking the GA lottery for the last show

The band played “Green Onions” while Bruce and Steve surveyed the array before them. Then Bruce took one sign and held it up.

“I don't know if we know this one... there's these guys, Cicco and Cicco - I would call them my stalkers - are you guys from Italy? You've gotta be from Italy. They come up with these very interesting requests as the tour goes on. I've seen them across-- all seven seas. And so we're going to see what happens.

Any luck? Alright, we're going to try this. It sort of -- captures the theme of our feelings for the evening.
Cicco, you guys gotta come up with the lyrics next time. We don't know the fucking words! What am I, a fucking mind reader? We don't know the fucking words.”1

When the camera cut back to show us the sign, I thought I was going to lose my mind. “No…he’s NOT going to do that. He is just fucking with us. He is NOT going to play it,” is what I wrote about that moment at the time. There was then a lot of discussion onstage about what key it’s in, and what key Bruce needs it to be in in order to sing it.

Which he then proceeds to do.


Friends, it was like having an out-of-body experience. Have you ever been so happy and excited that your entire being just went into overdrive? I know this song by heart and yet I could not manage to get the words out in a coherent fashion. My cells were vibrating at such a high rate I could literally feel them individually moving.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when publishedTHEY SAY THAT ROCK AND ROLL SOON WILL FADE AWAY I DON’T CARE WHAT THEY SAY, ROCK AND ROLL IS HERE TO STAY

I didn’t ever think I’d get to yell that line along with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Listening to it again now, 14 years later, it is a bit of a mess but it also does not matter. The best part about this rendition is Roy Bittan’s keyboard work during the verses. His solo is fine, but it’s in the background on the verses that he shines, the knowledge and enthusiasm of the expert and the devotee.

Every single person sitting near me and my friend thought we were insane. To be fair, as noted above, I probably was clinically insane at that moment. Because this was a cover that I was never expecting to hear. Ever. Wouldn’t have thought of asking for it, accepted it was a one-off, ancient stardust, not ever gonna happen again, have a long list of other things that seemed more probable if I was going to be in the business of bringing signs to shows for songs.

That’s because prior to this 2009 Buffalo show, Springsteen had played this cover exactly twice that we know of. Once in 1987 at the Stone Pony at one of those surprise Sunday night gigs. The other time was on the Darkness tour in Saginaw, Michigan, on a bootleg recorded by my late friend, Jared Houser, colloquially known as “The One With The Guy Yelling Requests.” Jared was not a bootlegger, he shared his tapes freely, but that also meant they could end up in the hands of people who did make bootlegs for profit, which is what happened here.

Back in the day, some time after the 1978 tour when there were so many great shows happening and so many great shows on the radio, some enterprising individual made a bootleg record of Bruce’s cover songs going back to 1974. It’s where I first heard his versions of “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” “When You Walk Into The Room” and “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck.” I walked into a record store and they were playing the vinyl version of this. I was flipping through the crates until I realized, “This is definitely Bruce Springsteen singing” and gathering my courage, I sidled up to the counter and asked what the record was.

It was out of my budget at the time, but now I knew it existed, and eventually got it in a tape trade. I generally do not like my music to be out of context like this -- it was just a collection of covers from various shows -- but I also could not afford too many Bruce Springsteen bootlegs which generally went for about $75 each because they were always triple discs because they had to be because the shows were long!

There’s also a whole generation of Bruce fans that know “Rock and Roll Shoes” because it was a bonus track on the Crystal Cat2 Roxy Night bootleg. And there are definitely other instances of this particular cut being included randomly, including folks who just hated to waste tape, who would have another 20 minutes left on a Maxell XL-II and think, “Let me fill the space with some cool things” and might remember to document it on the J-card and might not. And even if they did remember, it might not get transferred to the next person.3

Let’s go back to Saginaw. It’s a fantastic show which gets overlooked because the 1978 tour was an embarrassment of riches, great shows happening all the time, and on top of that there are no less than five different radio broadcasts you could easily get your hands on. An audience boot from a show up in the Mitten’s Crease that, to be fair, has a lot more audience noise than you normally got on one of Jared’s recordings wasn’t going to get your attention unless you were there or were particularly diligent. I got a copy of Saginaw when I met Jared, when he was the co-publisher of a Who fanzine I was a subscriber of. (I will write about this some day, I swear.) I know I didn’t ask for it specifically but I sent him a box of blank tapes and when it came back, that was one of the shows. I have been a fierce advocate of it ever since, because it is a severely underrated show and it is absolutely outstanding. The energy is off of the charts on the stage and in the crowd.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published“How many of you guys were in Detroit the other night? How many were not in Detroit the other night? About half and half. Okay. What should we start with?”

Choose your fighter:

“Well have you heard the news? There’s good rockin’ tonight!”

During the Darkness tour, there was a rotating roster of 50’s oldies that would sometimes appear in the leadoff spot: “Summertime Blues,” “High School Confidential,” “Rave On,” “Lucille,” “Oh Boy!,” “Ready Teddy” showed up once. One of the best oldies that we know of (remember, we don’t know everything) is a rockabilly song by Billy Lee Riley called “Is That All To The Ball, Mr Hall?” We know this song was run through twice at the soundcheck for the opening show in Buffalo on 5-23-78 because there’s a circulating tape of the soundcheck. We don’t know what other oldies were considered for the roster or what the inspiration for this set of songs was. I mean, I can sit here and riff on why, but we don’t know.

In Saginaw, the band has just finished “Sherry Darling” and Bruce has run into some guitar trouble. He’s trying to tune the guitar and talk to the audience, and is not doing well at either. “I can never do this under the pressure of performance,” he jokes. The audience takes the opportunity to yell requests, as well as questions and suggestions. “I’m doing the best I can…’Let the roadie do it!’ - the band is shouting that,” he continues to joke, sounding a little stressed.

Finally, he says, with a tone of voice that’s definitely a little abashed,“I’m going to take a little walk to the back of the stage for a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”

The audience cheers both supportively and sarcastically, if that’s possible.

He comes back, clearly sans guitar, and says, “It’s nice out tonight!” Then, in what is clearly a response to someone in the audience, he says, “Oh, Detroit, Detroit was great!”

Lighted applause sign - back lit sign for home decor - wood frame

“I got one we’ll do while my guitar’s resting. Guitar has to rest every few songs. (responding to someone from the audience) Great, great. I saw Bob last night, Bob Seger, he was terrific.”

(This is about two and a half minutes of dead air onstage. That’s a lot!)

And then Bruce Springsteen says the magic words: “Let’s do that one we practiced this afternoon.”

He sings the first line acapella in case there’s some confusion about which one, and then, with an audible eye roll, continues: “We got a special surprise for you; we’ll be surprised if we can play it to the end.”

Despite the farting around onstage, despite the technical difficulties -- or maybe, because of all of those things, and because we’re in the middle of the Darkness tour where the band just manages to surpass themselves from night to night -- Bruce is instantly on, goes from 0 to 60 in a second, from sheepish giggling and small talk to 100% firepower.

Despite the disclaimer, this is an outstanding rendition of this song. He absolutely knows the words, and he is in character as a 50’s rock and roll matinee idol, which is a place he borrows from -- it’s the thing this particular house is built on, after all -- but Bruce’s heroes from that era weren’t ever holding back, they were leaving it all on the stage, there was sweat and heat and joy and sex and jubilation and rebellion.

Miami Steve takes the guitar solo, because the whole reason we’re even here is because the Boss doesn’t have an axe. “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” is a short song -- the original clocks in at only 2:18. And while the band may have rehearsed it, they may have not conclusively decided how they would end it. So it falls apart a little bit towards the key change at the end, but Bruce guides them through it, calling out key changes and directions.

At the end of the song, everyone applauds enthusiastically, and by that they mean that they’re clapping and cheering so loud they could hear them in Detroit. But Bruce isn’t done. He comes back to the mic, and speaks conversationally: “Some people say, rock and roll will fade away. But I don’t give a damn--”


It isn’t just a statement, it is a declaration, it is prophecy. The E Street Band slides back into a reprise of the chorus. The guy shouting requests yells “LONG LIVE ROCK.” Bruce ends the song with a mischievous, “Just messing with you now.” You can hear the twinkle in his eye.

Chuck Willis, who wrote “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” was a fairly prolific and well-known songwriter and entertainer in the 1950’s, writing hits for Columbia/Okeh and then Atlantic. (He also happens to be the songwriter behind “CC Rider,” another song that would become large in the Springsteen legend.) He wore a turban onstage because he was losing his hair and disliked wearing a toupee onstage. He became known as “The Sheik of the Blues” because he had (according to the liner notes on his first album) a collection of 54 turbans. He made sure that they matched his onstage regalia. Willis died in 1958 at the age of 30, and “Rock and Roll Shoes” was the b-side of his last single, “What Am I Living For,” which was released before he passed. It was one of those weird eerie rock and roll premonitions.

Chuck Willis - Wikipedia
Chuck Willis, The Sheik.

But why did this song come out in Saginaw? There’s a suggestion over at Brucebase that it was inspired by Bruce’s meeting with Bob Seger the night before, and I’m guessing whoever wrote that made that connection because Bruce mentions his meeting with Bob at Pine Knob4 — where Seger was on night four of seven nights at the amphitheater — before he plays the song. There’s also a statement there that the two of them sang oldies together, but I cannot find anything anywhere that confirms that. Bruce mentioning that he met Seger the night before is just… making small talk with a Michigan audience. And even if they did sing oldies, correlation does not imply causation. Especially when there are many other plausible theories. 

[It goes without saying that if you have documentation that can back this up, please send it along! There’s a great 10 minute podcast that talks about the meeting between the two and how it happened, thanks to veteran Motor City music scribe Gary Graff, but there is no mention of an impromptu sing-along.]

We know why this song showed up in the middle of the set -- there were technical difficulties. We know from Bruce’s own words that they’d rehearsed it in soundcheck, we know they rehearsed at least one other oldie at another soundcheck, and we know that there was a veritable carousel of rock and roll classics from the 1957-58 era that they were regularly drawing from on this tour. Maybe somebody bought a tape at a truck stop. Maybe someone was listening to oldies radio on the bus.

But given the nuclear level performance -- to the point that independent fans and bootleggers pulled it out and excerpted it it for years -- why did this piece of white-hot goodness not join the roster of set-opening oldies? My theory is that it didn’t re-emerge because the dynamic is wrong -- it’s not a set opener, it’s a set closer -- and the pause/reprise in the Saginaw version proves that they weren’t just playing songs for fun, they were working out how they wanted to perform it. And Bruce was clearly looking for something to add to the encore because the Detroit Medley -- including CC Rider, another Chuck Willis composition, but that’s probably a coincidence -- enters the picture just a week later in Cincinnati.

Finally, the last thing Bruce Springsteen wanted to be known for in 1978, after being called a has-been and appearing in all of the WHERE ARE THEY NOW? lists in 1976 and 1977 -- the lawsuit wasn’t public knowledge, all anyone knew was that the guy who had been on the cover of Time and Newsweek hadn’t had a new record since Born To Run -- was someone singing a song about hanging up his rock and roll shoes. It was maybe a little too much on the nose at the time, but 30 years later, thanks to some Italian fans, it fit perfectly into the set. Grazie mille!

  1. If you don’t already know, the way that Bruce and E Street were able to play all of these random requests was because Bruce would gather up the signs, make his decisions, and then Kevin Buell, Bruce’s guitar tech, would find the lyrics on the internet and get them up on Bruce’s Teleprompter. If you have the official recording of this show, you will hear Bruce’s panicked “BACK BACK BACK BACK” because the Teleprompter operator is scrolling too quickly.

  2. (a notable for-profit Springsteen bootlegger)

  3. (This is why when you listen to live shows on E Street Radio and there’s a random couple of songs at the end that are clearly not from the same tour, even, it will show a song as belonging to a show it absolutely does not belong to. This could be fixed if someone cared.)

  4. (the outdoor amphitheater that’s outside of Detroit. it’s address is 33 Bob Seger Drive)