Classic Track: Rick Springfield, "Jessie's Girl"

Jun 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Barbara Schultz


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Rick Springfield Working Class Dog album cover

Onstage at the Hollywood Palladium last winter, Dave Grohl and his Sound City Players performed with a handful of the artists who appear on the soundtrack to Grohl’s Sound City documentary. Rick Springfield had barely started his last number when the crowd began to roar and Grohl interrupted the proceedings to make a point: “Three f—king chords, and you already know! Congratulations, Rick Springfield for writing a song that they only need to hear one f—king second of to know what it is! How do the other four minutes go?” Cue the sing-along: “Jessie is a friend…”

Springfield—an Australian-born musician/songwriter/actor whose given name is Richard Springthorpe—has been singing “Jessie’s Girl” to adoring fans since he recorded the hit at Sound City Studios in 1981. His signature song exploded at the height of his music and acting career, making it seem like the performer was an overnight success—a by-product of effective marketing and the fact that the then-new MTV format rewarded beauty at least as much as talent.

But Springfield had been playing in struggling bands in Australia since the ’60s. Between 1969 and 1971, he put out a few singles on Australian labels with a band called Zoot and as a solo artist. His debut album, Beginnings, was released in Australia just before he moved to the U.S. in 1972. A single off of Beginnings, “Speak to the Sky,” was picked up by Capitol Records and became a Number 14 hit for Springfield, who sang lead and played guitar, keyboards and banjo on the bouncy, folky arrangement. Beginnings then cracked the U.S. Top 40 as well.

Springfield is a strong writer and a multi-instrumentalist—not just a pretty face. But he definitely had that really pretty face. Beginning with his second album, Comic Book Heroes (Columbia, 1973), he was promoted as a teen heartthrob, which proved to be a blessing and a curse to him. On the downside, few critics took his recordings very seriously, and many in the industry believed it when rumors circulated that his label paid fans to buy up his records to jack up his sales numbers.

On the upside? Springfield became massively popular, playing to hordes of screaming girls and garnering him an acting role as the 1980s version of “Dr. McDreamy”: Dr. Noah Drake on the ABC daytime soap opera General Hospital.

By the time Springfield joined the cast of GH, he had signed with manager/promoter Joe Gottfried, a partner in Sound City Studios. Springfield began his third album, Working Class Dog, in Sound City with staff engineer/producer Bill Drescher. Sessions were productive and going well, but Gottfried also asked Keith Olsen—a frequent presence at Sound City whose credits include massive hits with Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Santana, Foreigner and others—to produce a couple of tracks for the album.

“Rick and I got together and I picked a couple of songs,” Olsen recalls. “I said I would pick one of his and I’d like to bring one in. I probably didn’t need to do it, but there was this song that I had in my back pocket that I wanted to cut with somebody really soon, and that was Sammy Hagar’s ‘I’ve Done Everything for You (You’ve Done Nothing for Me).’ And then I said I really want to do ‘Jessie’s Girl.’ The story just nailed me. Because being a guy, we’ve all been through this: Every guy everywhere has a friend, and he meets his friend’s girlfriend, and we fall, for a moment, in love with that girlfriend. If you ever run into a guy who says, ‘Nope, that never happened to me,’ he’s lying.”

In a 2008 interview on the Oprah show, Springfield said that “Jessie’s Girl” was written about a girl he barely knew. He said he was taking a stained glass-making class with a friend (named Gary, not Jessie) and the friend’s girlfriend, and found himself attracted to the girlfriend. They didn’t interact much, but the experience suggested the scenario in the song. Springfield said that he doesn’t even remember the girlfriend’s name. He changed “Gary” to “Jessie” after seeing that name on the back of another girl’s softball jersey; the name just sounded right to him.

Olsen and Springfield fit the sessions for “Jessie’s Girl” and “I’ve Done Everything for You” into gaps in Springfield’s GH shooting schedule. Manning the famed Neve 8028 console at Sound City was engineer Chris Minto (Kiss, Santana, Pat Benatar, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Quiet Riot, and more), an independent engineer who came up in San Francisco, working for Wally Heider and then at The Automatt, where he originally met Olsen.

“Keith asked me to join him in L.A. to work on his projects,” Minto says. “As a fan of his work, I jumped at the opportunity and moved to L.A. in 1980. When Keith got the call to work with Rick Springfield [in 1981], we had been doing Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion together, and Keith pulled Neil Giraldo [Benatar’s guitarist and husband] in to play guitars and bass on Springfield’s session.”

In the Sound City documentary, Springfield feigns having been miffed that Olsen hired a lead guitarist, but Minto says, “I never got the impression that Rick was egotistical at all. He was always very easy to work with. He just wanted whatever would benefit the record.”

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