Interview with Bruce Jackson, Sonic Genius (1949-2011) by Shawn Poole

By: Shawn Poole
Source: Backstreets Magazine
June 13, 2021

Bruce Jackson was an Australian audio legend and his star-studded live mixing credits have include such names as Elvis Presley (1971-1977), Bruce Springsteen (1978-1988), Barbra Streisand, Dianna Ross, Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and the Faces, Barry White, Jefferson Airplane, Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath), Jackson 5, Cat Stevens, Art Garfunkel and Lou Reid ... just to name a few.

Elvis introduced Bruce many times by name on stage and he can be seen briefly at the control board in the 1977 'CBS Special'. In fact towards the end of Elvis' very last concert on June 26, 1977, Elvis thanked, Bruce 'I would like to thank my sound engineer, Bruce Jackson, from Australia'.

Following is an excerpt from an interview (Containing all that is to do with Elvis) with Bruce Jackson by Shawn Poole - From Backstreets Magazine. Backstreets magazine has been covering the music of Bruce Springsteen and for more than 30 years.

Tragically, just a day after this interview was concluded, Bruce Jackson was killed when the single-engine plane that he loved to pilot crashed during a solo evening flight near Death Valley National Park.

Bruce Jackson, Sonic Genius (1949-2011)

In Thom Zimny's documentary The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen noted that more than anything else, he wanted to be great. Of course, Springsteen set that high standard for himself not just in the studio, but on the concert stage as well. The 1978 Darkness tour would pose new and especially difficult challenges for him and his organization. For the first time ever, the majority of his shows would have to be performed in the larger arenas he once swore off (after a brief experience as opening act for the band Chicago in 1973). Clearly, some help was going to be needed in an adventure that must have been more than a bit intimidating.

Luckily, Bruce Jackson was available. Jackson entered Springsteen's circle as an already-established 'superstar' himself, in terms of his reputation and experience in the world of professional concert audio. On more than one occasion, Jackson was at the center of historic breakthroughs in the industry. For example, he co-invented the foldout mixing console, which became standard sound equipment for many years at virtually every live entertainment event, until its replacement by yet another Jackson innovation. He was so down-to-earth, however, that it was surprising to learn that Jackson was born into a very wealthy family in his native Australia; in fact, the house he grew up in later set an Australian record for the most expensive home ever sold.

Like Phil Spector, one of Springsteen's main musical inspirations, Bruce Jackson began to forge his reputation as a sonic genius while still a teenager. In 1967, he and one of his school chums, a fellow 'eager electronics enthusiast' named Phil Storey, founded Jands, the premier Australian concert-audio, lighting and staging company. ('Jands' was an abbreviation of 'Jackson and Storey.') Three years later, Jackson sold his interest in Jands to work in the U.S. with Pennsylvania-based Clair Brothers Audio, which quickly was developing its own reputation for excellence and innovation in the rapidly evolving concert-sound industry.

When Elvis Presley began supplementing his Las Vegas shows with concert tours of the U.S., Clair Brothers Audio was contracted to do the sound, and Bruce Jackson quickly became Presley's personal concert sound designer, monitor engineer, and occasional house engineer on the road from 1971 until Elvis' death in 1977. Jackson was setting up the sound for Presley's next concert when he got the news.

Bruce Springsteen's concert sound engineer

Just months after Elvis died, Jackson was approached by the Springsteen organization. In short order, he became Bruce Springsteen's concert sound engineer and remained so for the next decade, from the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour through the end of the Tunnel of Love Express Tour. After their professional association ended, Jackson remained a famous and respected innovator in the field of electronic audio and continued to work with many other big names in entertainment, but he always held the time he spent working with 'the other Bruce' in very high regard. Jackson's and Springsteen's efforts raised the bar immensely, truly revolutionizing the level of sound quality that audiences could expect to hear at large-scale concerts.

The Two Bruces — 'B.J.' and 'The Boss' — sharing a laugh and a quick break from one of their legendary soundcheck walks at Madison Square Garden in August 1978. Photograph courtesy of Bruce Jackson.
The Two Bruces — 'B.J.' and 'The Boss' — sharing a laugh and a quick break from one of their legendary soundcheck walks at Madison Square Garden in August 1978. Photograph courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

Backstreets contributor Shawn Poole tracked down Bruce Jackson in late 2010 at the Australian offices of Dolby Laboratories, where he served as Dolby's Vice President of Professional Live Sound Products. Shortly thereafter, while on vacation in the U.S. at his California home, Bruce granted his first-ever interview with Backstreets. The interview is extensive and constitutes Jackson's first published interview to cover his work with Bruce Springsteen in such detail. Tragically, just a day after this interview was concluded, Bruce Jackson was killed when the single-engine plane that he loved to pilot crashed during a solo evening flight near Death Valley National Park. Backstreets is honored to publish this interview as a lasting tribute to a man whose amazing life story became a very important part of the history of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.

The Backstreets Interview with Bruce Jackson, Sonic Genius (1949-2011)

Shawn Poole: Let's start with how and when you began working with Bruce Springsteen.

I had been working with Elvis Presley, and he had died. Bruce had plans to come out on tour [in 1978]; he was getting going again. They were having some problems [with sound] out on the road… and so I was asked if I would go out there and basically just lend a hand, just to kind of get things sorted out. There was no intention to stay on, but just to go and help.

Shawn Poole: How much did you know about Springsteen's music at that point?

Very little. In fact, I was pretty much a neophyte. I'd heard a little bit about Time and Newsweek and the 'new Dylan' kind of stuff, but I wasn't really that familiar at all, so it was fun to go out there and discover him. And so I went out there, and it turns out I was able to offer a lot of help in a lot of different areas. Bruce and I got along really well, because we're just about the same age. So it extended: I ended up staying, and that became my career, as his concert engineer, for the next ten years. And then later I came and gave some advice when he was touring Europe. I took my daughter Alex along; we went to Switzerland and some other places, just to add some help.

Shawn Poole: One of the innovations you first developed during your tenure with Elvis Presley, and that continued with Springsteen in the arenas, is the elevation of speaker cabinets and other sound equipment at live concerts. Audiences benefit from this in two ways: it helps to improve the projection of the sound throughout the venue and it creates better sight lines towards the stage. Can you tell us how this innovation came about?

Elvis was selling out large sports arenas, and the way things worked back then was that the speakers were all stacked on each side of the stage. This was a horrible thing from a sound-coverage point of view. When everything's down on the ground, you kill the people in the front rows and the people in the back can't hear, whereas if you hang it up high, you get much more even coverage between the front and the back. Today, it's become super-sophisticated, with these new line-array systems that let you very carefully control the sound much better.

But the biggest issue then, from 'Colonel' Tom Parker's point of view, was that it blocked lots and lots of seats that he couldn't sell. So he told us we needed to get the sound up, which the ice shows [Ice Capades, Ice Follies, etc.] were doing already with a very basic rig, much smaller than ours.

At the time, generally things weren't done on a national or international basis. One sound company didn't usually set up sound equipment for the same band all around the world. Acts usually had their own mixer, and they'd come into a region and use whatever sound company was available in that region. Showco did the Texas-area shows, McCune did Northern California, etc. And so all of these companies were being forced to try and hang the sound, and there were all of these very questionable, dangerous kinds of rigs that they had.

For example, at Madison Square Garden, they had a block-and-fall [hand-held pulley system] where the crew was pulling up these platforms with the sound on it, and they were tilting and going up and down; the whole thing was very, very scary.

So I led the innovation of using a chain motor to hang this stuff. At the time, we had just one chain motor for hanging our custom sound rig from the center above the stage; that was the first use of a chain motor in rock 'n' roll. Now, a typical show will have 150 or so chain motors, all rigged for usage on a daily basis. So we pioneered that hanging, but it wasn't for sound quality, originally. It was to sell more seats and make more money.

Shawn Poole: I also understand that because of your connections to Elvis Presley, you once were able to take Bruce Springsteen on his first official visit to Graceland, shortly after Elvis' death.

Yeah. It was on the Darkness tour; I don't recall the exact date. (NOTE: The Darkness tour had a stop in Memphis, Tennessee on July 19, 1978, followed by a show in Nashville on July 21, so the visit most likely occurred on July 20). I took him there, and he was shown all around the place. We spent some time with Vernon Presley, Elvis' father, who still was living at Graceland at the time, chatting. I did the introductions. I think Bruce got a real big kick out of, you know, going around, seeing the Jungle Room and all of the stuff you'd hear about. Here he was, after jumping the wall and all of that previously, finally having an official visit, with the help of Elvis' sound guy.

Shawn Poole: And this actually was before Graceland was turned into a museum.

Oh, yeah — it was nothing like what it is now. And now the Lisa Marie plane, complete with my [sound system] installation, is right across the street from Graceland.

What happened was, I got a call at, like, two o'clock in the morning. 'The boss wants to see you.' So I put my jeans and T-shirt on, go up to Graceland, and there's Elvis sitting in bed with his karate jacket on and his gold-plated gun beside him. He said, 'Bruce, the goddamned sound system on the goddamned plane is all fucked up! I don't care what it costs — fix it, or I'm gonna shoot the goddamned thing out!'

Everyone was nervous, because they knew that if he didn't like anyone on TV, he'd actually shoot the TV. The consequences of shooting in a plane, obviously, can be more dire than shooting at a TV set.

It's funny, because Elvis was kind of threatened, I think, by a lot of the more recent artists at the time. People think he'd be listening to other people's music, but he'd often be watching Monty Python or stuff that people just wouldn't expect.

When I was working at Clair Brothers Audio, I lived out in Lititz, PA, where I got into flying at Lancaster Airport. So with my girlfriend at the time, I flew the Lisa Marie from Memphis down to Miami and put in ten big JBL speakers, and SA power amplifiers, and put this big sound-system on it. Until I'd done that, everyone stayed a little nervous.

Interview By Shawn Poole - From Backstreets Magazine (Printed with permission).

Read the full interview at New page link Backstreets Magazine

Relevent Links

Interviews with or about Elvis Presley Interview Bruce Jackson, Elvis Presley Sound Engineer

Articles about Elvis Presley The Night Springsteen Jumped the Fence at Graceland
Articles about Elvis Presley Behind the Button: Elvis Presley's 'Cameo' on Born to Run
Interviews with or about Elvis Presley Bruce Springsteen Talks and Sings about Elvis
Articles about Elvis Presley Elvis Presley’s influence on Bruce Springsteen
Articles about Elvis Presley Bruce Springsteen’s Top 12 Elvis Presley covers
Articles about Elvis Presley Didn't Have To Die : Speculative fiction article : What if Bruce did meet Elvis?
Elvis Presley Video Bruce Springsteen Praises Elvis in Keynote Address
Articles about Elvis Presley Elvis and Bruce : Special Feature in Backstreets : The Boss Magazine

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