Scialfa, Patti (Contemporary Musicians)
Known to the world as the wife of American rock music icon Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa had begun a musical career of her own before she joined Springsteen's E Street Band and became romantically involved with the performer rock fans know as "the Boss." Amidst the crush of publicity that accompanied her marriage to Springsteen and later the demands of raising a family with him, her own career developed slowly. In 2004, however, she followed up her debut album, 1993's Rumble Doll, with the critically acclaimed 23rd Street Lullaby. Like Springsteen, Scialfa wrote most of her own material and was a rock singer in the classic mode. She was no Springsteen clone, however, and her songs were personal and distinctive.
Vivienne Patricia Scialfa (pronounced SKAL-fah) was born in 1953 in Oakhurst, New Jersey, not far from Springsteen's home town of Asbury Park. Her father was an engineer and appliance store owner of Sicilian ancestry, and her mother was the daughter of an Irish immigrant songwriter who sat Scialfa down next to him on the piano bench when she was a toddler. When Scialfa was eight, she heard the Chiffons' "He's so Fine" on the radio and was impressed. Girl-group music would stamp her own style, and, she told England's Observer newspaper, "Sicilian families are very male-based. To hear a woman singing on the radio, I started to realize that there are a lot of choices out there beyond the confines of my own hometown and people."
Studied at University of Miami
Scialfa's older brother Michael, a guitarist, was another role model, and she began to sing in school musicals and to play the guitar. By the time she was fourteen, she had put together a band of her own. "She was always with her guitar," classmate Marie McLoughlin Cascone told People. After graduating from Asbury Park High School, Scialfa studied music at the University of Miami. Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny lived in her dorm, and Scialfa performed with a wide variety of musicians. Singing with predominantly male band members, Scialfa developed a reputation as someone with a capacity for friendships with men that didn't necessarily entail a romantic component.
Scialfa moved to New York after her junior year, receiving a bachelor's degree from New York University. She moved into an apartment in Manhattan with a friend in 1975, and for the next decade she lived the life of the struggling young New York musician. She sang in bars, performing music ranging from punk to country, circulated demo tapes, worked as a receptionist at a record label, and sat in cafes reading poetry and classic literature. But she felt unfulfilled. "I pretended to be this bohemian pure artist but in actuality I was just scared of getting myself and my music out there. I seemed exciting and romantic but as I got older it appeared increasingly suspect," she told the Melbourne, Australia Herald Sun. "I realized I couldn't hold down a relationship either."
From time to time, Scialfa returned to New Jersey to visit her family. In the late 1970s she sang backup with the New Jersey rock band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and she sometimes performed at Asbury Park's influential Stone Pony club. It was there, in 1982, that Springsteen introduced himself to her after her set one evening. The two became friends, and sometimes Springsteen drove the car-less New Yorker back to her family's house at the end of the night.
Joined E Street Band
In 1984, at perhaps the high point of his fame, Springsteen asked Scialfa to try singing backup with his E Street Band. Neither was sure it would work out; Scialfa was to be the group's first female member, and the perfectionist Springsteen was difficult to please. Things clicked in rehearsals, though. "I only thought it was going to be for one day and I was stuck there for three days in one pair of jeans and a Hanes T-shirt," Scialfa recalled to England's Observer newspaper. Scialfa was introduced to the world during the Born in the U.S.A. tour, but any romantic hopes she might have entertained were dashed by Springsteen's marriage to model Julianne Phillips in 1985.
Scialfa turned back to her own music, and in 1986 she seemed ready to take her career to the next stage. She was signed to the Columbia label and began to work with top roots-rock producer Pete Anderson on some of the tracks that would eventually be included on Rumble Doll. The needs of the Boss intervened for a time, however, as Springsteen's marriage began to flounder and he increasingly sought out Scialfa as a confidante. Press rumors about the two began to swirl during Springsteen's Tunnel of Love tour, and Springsteen and Scialfa were married on June 8, 1991 in the gardens of Springsteen's $14 million estate in Beverly Hills, California.
The Rumble Doll project resurfaced in 1993. Scialfa had worked on it on and off for several years, bringing on a new producer, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, in the process. The album, which in Billboard 's words "features updated girl-group melodies with Scialfa's shimmering vocals cascading over imagery-laden tales of love's foibles," won generally positive reviews. Scialfa took pains to distance herself from the idea that she was riding Springsteen's coattails. He appeared on the album only on keyboards, and Scialfa avoided releasing a single that depicted a romantic triangle and might have referred to the history of her relationship with Springsteen. Rumble Doll had only modest commercial success, for in the midst of raising her two children, and with a third on the way, Scialfa didn't have much of a chance to tour in support of it.
Combined Touring and Parenting
Family responsibilities likewise delayed Scialfa's return to the studio for her sophomore release. The couple's three children, Evan, Jessica, and Sam, made demands on Scialfa's time and energy. In conversation with the Observer she recalled an incident from an early 1990s tour with Springsteen: "Onstage on one side, Bruce was beckoning 'Come on!' because he'd already introduced me and it was a big venue, and offstage on the other side my son is going 'No, Mommy, come here!' with his arms out and I just thought: this is it. This is the complete cartoonish encapsulation of what I am going to be feeling for the rest of my life!"
Scialfa never gave up her musical activities, though. She toured with the reunited E Street Band in the late 1990s and appeared prominently in the Springsteen concerts that followed the release of the album The Rising, which addressed the events of September 11, 2001. Finally, eleven years after Rumble Doll, Scialfa's 23rd Street Lullaby was released in June of 2004.
The album's title, and its contents, reflected Scialfa's pre-Springsteen life as a struggling New York songwriter and referred to the address of one of her living spaces. Other songs on the album were portraits of ordinary New Yorkers. Thom Jurek of All Music Guide called 23rd Street Lullaby "a love letter to the fun and excess of youth, but also a look at how original aspirations play out in life." Springsteen added guitar solos to three tracks and argued for the album title New York Lullaby, a suggestion Scialfa rejected. Despite the slenderness of her output, she seemed to be on her way toward carving out a space in the rock history books independently of her famous husband.
Rumble Doll, Columbia, 1993.
23rd Street Lullaby, Columbia, 2004.
Billboard, August 7, 1993, p. 10.
Boston Herald, August 26, 1999, p. 60.
Entertainment Weekly, July 9, 2004, p. 88.
Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia), August 8, 1993.
Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland), July 2, 2004, Arts section, p. 14.
Observer (London, England), June 13, 2004, Review Pages, p. 7.
People, October 10, 1988, p. 124; June 24, 1991, p. 34; July 26, 2004, p. 44.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 27, 1993, Weekend Magazine, p. 18.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), June 28, 2004, p. 15.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 24, 2004.
Toronto Sun, December 6, 2002, p. E2.
USA Today, July 20, 1993, p. D6.
Washington Post, June 20, 2004, p. N1.
"Patti Scialfa," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 30, 2004).
Patti Scialfa Official Website, http://www.pattiscialfa.net (August 30, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from an interview with Patti Scialfa on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, July 28, 2004.
ames M. Manheim