The greatest “super-group” of them all: The Travelling Wilburys in June 1987.
A NOTE: I ORIGINALLY POSTED THESE 100+ SONG ENTRIES ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE EVERY 2-4 DAYS, BEGINNING ON JANUARY 1, 2018. BECAUSE I COMPOSED AND THEN PUBLISHED THEM AS 2018 PROGRESSED, THE MOST RECENT ENTRIES ARE FROM DECEMBER, WHILE THE FIRST ENTRY OF THE YEAR, WHICH I POSTED ON 1/1/2018, IS LISTED LAST HERE.
“High School USA, Tommy Facenda, 1958. Were we once this innocent? The ultimate novelty song, “High School USA” was released 60 years ago this December, when it cracked the Billboard Top 20 on Christmas Day. Tommy Facenda eventually recorded more than two-dozen “regional versions” of this single, focusing on the high schools in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia. A go-to dance song at hops across the nation throughout the 1958-59 academic year, “High School USA” has probably not been played at any dance since. Ultimately, it defines the notion of a lost 45. Because I am Boston-born and raised, here’s “our version” – with the mispronunciations of Roslindale, Wellesley, and Haverhill making it even more memorable
“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Al Green, 1978. Working with his longtime collaborator Willie Mitchell, the Rev pours his milk-like soul into this standard, which features haunting strings, (who doesn’t love that moment when his band tries to match the feeling of a light wind just after Al sings, “I can still feel the breeze”?), a rolling organ line, and superbly utilized background singers. Through it all, Al sounds like he’s on his last legs, near defeat but with that small sliver of hope in his soul that’s keeping him crawling forward. A nearly flawless cover version of the old Brothers Gibbs classic.
“Time Passages,” Al Stewart, 1978. One of Al Stewart’s many strengths as an artist was the incandescence of his supporting band. As was the case in “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border,” the guitar, violin, and saxophone work on “Time Passages” seamlessly support Stewart’s wondrous keyboard output. And, then, of course, there’s the lyrics – “Well I’m not the kind to live in the past/The years run too short and the days too fast/The things you lean on are the things that don’t last/Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these/Time passages/There’s something back here that you left behind/Oh time passages/Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight.” 40 years ago this Christmas season, “Time Passages” was the number 8 song in the US Billboard Top 100.
“It Doesn’t Have to be This Way,” Jim Croce, 1972. “Regrets are as personal as fingerprints,” sighed Hemingway after he was informed of the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this nugget released 46 years ago this fall by the late great Jim Croce, an old lover wishes to get back together with his “beloved,” at this, the most personal of seasons, Christmas. Somehow, Jim pulls it off here in three minutes of regret, anguish, and humility. To anyone who has experienced this kind of deep love, keep your hope alive. After all, the best things in life are those that are unexpected.
“Every Night I Pray,” The Chantels, 1958. Early rock and roll girl groups have always gotten short-changed, none more so than the Chantels, whose vocal prowess was so pronounced that when their microphones didn’t work one night in a concert in Chicago, they sang wireless and still blew the audience away. I was incredibly fortunate to see them in person years later at a Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revival at the old Boston Garden. In the early days of the Beatles, this number was eventually performed by the Fab Four in a plethora of different venues around Liverpool and the environs with John singing the lead and Paul and George as the doo-wop backups. Such expressive ballads remind me of Maya Angelou’s famous quote: “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
“Things I’d Like to Say,” New Colony Six, 1968. Recorded and released in the fall of ’68, this heartfelt tune made it to the Billboard Top 20 during that December, peaking at #16. This single is for all those who ever lost at love and still carried the torch many years after, especially to those who remain tortured by the dream of what could have been, should have been, but was somehow mysteriously prevented from happening. The resolute sadness of this melody prevails, despite the uplifting string variation suggesting there is still hope for the broken couple, only to return to a somber reality and the unique and haunting piano ending. A stunningly beautiful love song from the quartet from Chicago, this is the kind of lost 45, which makes you say, “They just don’t make music like this anymore.”
“Since I Don’t Have You,” The Skyliners, 1958. The number 2 song in the US 60 years ago this December, this is nothing less than the perfect blend of doo-wop sensibility and romanticism to satisfy both young and old alike. I wonder how many proms the following spring used this as its closing number? Thanks to George Lucas and American Graffiti, “Since I Don’t Have You” had a revival and entered the Top 40 once again in January 1974! The backstory is plausible: The composer of the song – with the improbable name of Joe Rock – wrote most of the lyrics while sitting in his car between stoplights. There’s no one who has ever sung the word, you, with such longing and sorrow than vocalist Skyliners’ Jimmy Beaumont, especially in the last stanza of the ballad. It might have been 1958, but love hurt just as much back then as it does today.
“Motorcycle Mama,” Neil Young and Nicolette Larson, 1978. One of my favorite Neil Young tunes ever, this roller-coaster-ride of a rocker features the transcendent harmonies of the late, great Nicolette Larson, who hijacks the tune, much to Neil’s delight. From his 1978 acoustic masterwork, Comes a Time, Mr. Young veers from the soft rock that framed the album and produces a scorching rocker that became a staple at concerts after that. If you’ve never listened to this tune, do yourself a favor.
“Fire,” The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, 1968. Growing up in England after World War II, Arthur Brown spent time around people whose lives were destroyed by the war, many of whom were suffering from PTSD. When he started making music, instead of writing about girls or surfboards, Brown came up with a concept of an inner journey, developing a story about a man who faces his demons, heading into an authentic fire. Along the journey, he encounters the “God of Hellfire,” who shows up in “Prelude/Nightmare,” the first track on The Crazy World of Arthur Brown concept album. As he falls into an abyss, the character returns, telling him: “I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you…fire.” Running at 2:52 with the ear-catching spoken intro, “Fire” was a tasty, digestible slice of a much more complicated, troublesome work. Sadly, this proved to be Arthur Brown’s one foray into stardom. By 1976, he had left the music business entirely. Still, this memorable single, which was produced by the Who’s Pete Townsend, is one of those songs that not only resonates but can bring back a time and place with aplomb.
“Whenever I Call You Friend,” Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks, 1978. Kenny Loggins, of Loggins and Messina fame, actually co-wrote this with Melissa Manchester, but he ended up singing it with the dexterous Stevie Nicks. Loggins had the good fortune of serving as Fleetwood Mac’s opening act for 18 months while they were touring behind their iconic Rumours album, which gave Kenny a lot of exposure as a solo artist to the general public. It’s also how he got to know Stevie Nicks, who didn’t get official credit as the song’s co-vocalist until the album was reissued in 1997. During Thanksgiving Week of ’78, this made it to the number 3 position on the Billboard Top 100.
“Come On, Everybody!” Eddie Cochran, 1958. Released as a single 60 years ago this November, this revved-up number seamlessly combined elements of R&B, country, swing, and rockabilly to make it one of the most influential singles of the 1950s. “Come On, Everybody,” (and not the much more celebrated “Summertime Blues”,) turned out to be Cochran’s most revered hit among rockers before he was killed by a speeding English taxi driver on the A-4 near Heathrow Airport in 1960. The grandfather of punk and heavy metal, Eddie Cochran was also an enormous influence on the Beatles, who saw the American rocker perform live in Liverpool back in 1958. In his short life, he toured with everyone from Buddy Holly to Sam Cooke to Chuck Berry to Gene Vincent. In every way, Eddie Cochran was a Rock and Roll Founding Father.
“Be Thankful,” Natalie Cole, 1977. Singer Natalie Cole had just reached the top 10 on the album chart for the first time in 1977 with Unpredictable when she followed it with the album Thankful late in the same year. It included the top 10 pop hit single, “Our Love,” as well as the upbeat, “Be Thankful,” which encourages everyone to be grateful for what they have. Amen. This is one of my favorites from a singer who should have taken more bows than she did in her shortened life. A Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
“Albatross,” Fleetwood Mac,” 1968. Released 50 years ago this fall, and featuring the brilliant work of the legendary Peter Green on lead guitarist and Mick Fleetwood on percussion, “Albatross” proved to be the largest selling instrumental in the history of the UK Top 40. Green always claimed that his original tune here was inspired by the Beatles’ “Sun King,” from Abbey Road. I have long felt that a Chuck Berry instrumental from 1957, “Deep Feeling,” had many of the same compositional elements that Fleetwood Mac used on “Albatross,” including a riveting call-response style of guitar playing and an enduring bass line in the background. Mr. Berry, of course, was a significant influence on a kaleidoscope of British rock ‘n rollers. As I have come to learn in more than a half-century of close listening, even the most original of songs are hybrids.
“Madame George,” Van Morrison, 1968. The most ambitious ballad on Astral Weeks, which was released 50 years ago today on November 17, 1968, “Madame George,” is nothing less than a nine-minute excursion into the life of a Belfast boy who soaked up a wellspring of images growing up and who attempts to make sense of it all, including the people he observed along the way who had marked his individual passage in time. In an album dominated by stream-of-consciousness lyrics, this ballad is the most impressionistic and emotional of all eight musical numbers. Heartbreaking and evocative, “Madame George” remains the personal favorite for many devotees of Astral Weeks. Morrison’s masterpiece. The rawness of the tune is so over-the-top that it is almost voyeuristic. Indeed, Coldplay’s Chris Martin recently admitted: “A few years ago, I was going through some personal shit, and I put Astral Weeks on, and it just tore right through me, especially ‘Madame George.’ I had to stop – turn it off. Of course, I’d heard it before, but this time it just hit me deep. I can’t remember ever having a reaction quite like that to an album. I haven’t listened to it since. I almost have a few times, but I felt oddly afraid of it.”
“Snow Queen,” The City, Featuring Carole King, 1968. The same magical team that created Tapestry three years later first got together in the fall of 1968, not long after Carole King moved from her native Brooklyn to the West Coast and began to collaborate with LA producer Lou Adler – he of both Sam Cooke and the Mamas and Papas fame. When the veteran producer suggested that Carole form a band around her emerging talents as a performer, King was soon joined by legendary session player Danny Kortchmar on guitar & vocals, her future husband, Charlie Larkey (The Fugs) on bass, and the vastly underrated Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominoes) on drums. They called their group, The City, mainly because all four performers hailed from the New York City metropolitan region. The gemstone of the album turned out to be “Snow Queen,” a somewhat jazzy, gloriously melodic pop-rock tune with an inspired lead vocal from Carole as well as luminous harmonies by the other three members of the band. Composed by King with her lyricist and former husband, Gerry Goffin, “Snow Queen” is truly one of the most underappreciated singles of King’s astonishing career. When I sent Carole a tweet a few years ago and commented to her that I thought that “Snow Queen” sounded like the forerunner to the 1970’s version of Fleetwood Mac, she immediately tweeted back to me, “You just made my day, Shaun!” As usual, Miss King will make your day here as well if you give it a listen!
“Come On, Let’s Go,” Ritchie Valens, 1958. One of his more palpable hits before his incredibly untimely death at just 17, this is one of those numbers, which reminds us all what we lost when he died along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper 60 years ago this coming February 3. For you Bostonians out there, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg broke this single into the Boston market on the old WMEX 1510 AM the night before Thanksgiving 1958. Poor Ritchie – he was still in high school when he perished in a plane in an Iowa cornfield in February 1959. Oh, the talent we lost that night!
“Forever Autumn,” Justin Hayward, 1978. Originally featured as the lead single in Jeff Wayne’s rock opera, War of the Worlds, based on H. G. Wells’ novel, this evocative single turned out to be a top ten hit for Hayward and the Moody Blues, the band that he had fronted for more than a decade at that time. Since it was first released 40 years ago this fall, “Forever Autumn” has remained one of my favorite ballads ever recorded about this most melancholic of all seasons. It reminds you that the fall carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons combined. To call this tune hauntingly beautiful doesn’t do it justice.
“Unwanted Number,” Elvis Costello, 2018. The former Declan Patrick MacManus has returned after a 13-year hiatus from producing original music and has produced a masterwork in the process. His new release, Look Now and Then, has already started to appear on critics’ “Best Album of 2018” lists! Given that it was released just two weeks ago, that is really saying something. Here is a stellar representative-number from the LP, “Unwanted Number,” originally composed 22 years ago, which here gets a kick-ass treatment by his band, The Imposters, featuring former Attractions keyboardist extraordinaire, Steve Nieve. As usual, Elvis Costello’s’ quirky and brilliant lyrics provide the backdrop to a single that is both catchy and seductive. A sublime and most-welcomed comeback.
The 50th-anniversary release of The White Album is simply crazy-good. Giles Martin, the son of legendary producer George Martin, has truly done it again as he did for 2017’s fiftieth-anniversary release of Sergeant Pepper. For Martin, who has now remixed three of the Beatles’ most beloved works, his main objective was to give listeners a peek into its creation via the outtakes included in the deluxe set. “There’s a poignancy to when you have a take with a single voice on it,” Martin explains. “They’re such a great vocal band, as we all know. With the early take of ‘Glass Onion,’ for instance, we tried to push up the acoustic guitar as much as possible because John is singing along with his acoustic guitar with George and Paul fully supporting him on their electric guitars and, of course, Ringo, whose playing throughout is stellar.” From this lens, it sounds awesome; at the zenith of their career, its the Beatles live and unfettered, without any overdubbing whatsoever. It’s “the paint is still drying” approach that makes each number sound brand new. Martin’s use of surround-sound crystallizes each sound on all 30 songs are so powerful that you start to listen to things like Paul’s bass playing or George’s riffing and realize how tight they really were and what magic was unfolding that was beyond even what they thought they could produce at the time. In 1969, James Taylor put in all into perspective: “For $7.99, I can’t think of a better investment of that kind of cash than buying The White Album!”
One more example – this time on the take that the band actually used on the original album. It sounds utterly brand new here.
“It’s All in the Game,” Tommy Edwards, 1958. This vintage early rock ballad was based on an early 20th-century classical violin and orchestra piece called “Melody in A Major,” which was written by a fledgling composer named Charles Dawes, who later who later became an American Vice President under Calvin Coolidge! 26 years later. Songwriter Carl Sigman penned lyrics to the melody and changed the song’s name to “It’s All in the Game” by borrowing the phrase from another song he was working on at the time. Tommy Edwards, an accomplished singer, pianist, and songwriter recorded his first version that same year – in 1951. Seven years later, as an MGM recording artist by that time, Edwards re-recorded the song in an updated “symphonic pop” version. Incredibly, it reached #1 in both the US and Great Britain the same year and sold more than 3,000,000 copies! The template for future love ballads in the 1960’s, this now beloved standard has been a revered classic since it was first released 60 years ago this October.
“Spooky,” The Classics IV, 1968. One of those semi-novelty songs released around Halloween that eventually became a top ten hit, “Spooky” featured the smoky voice of the late Dennis Yost and the sprite saxophone work of veteran band member Mike Shapiro. Kudos to the legendary Mussel Shoals Band for making this beloved single even sound like late October! 50 years ago this week, “Spooky” was the fourth most played song on America’s AM radio stations. “In the cool of the evening and everything’s gettin’ kind of groovy…” You had to have been there but “Spooky” really was very groovy at the time!
“Reminiscing,” Little River Band,” 1978. Expressive lyrics, a soothing melody, and superb musicianship are guaranteed to produce an instant musical classic, which occurred for the Little River Band 40 years ago this October when this Beatlesque single zoomed to number one. Unlike many bands in the late seventies, the Little River Band’s members actually played on their singles and sang flawless harmony as well. Consequently, the band from Australia was a veritable throwback to the kind of attributes that defined most British Invasion groups ten years previously. These days, “Reminiscing” is one of those songs that doesn’t just remind you of love; it makes you young once again. After all, nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.
“For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder, 1968. Originally, this was a tune that Stevie expressively composed for Frank Sinatra to record, but his demo proved to be so good that Motown ultimately releasing it as on their own. The Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary band, backed up Stevie so flawlessly here that “even Nelson Riddle couldn’t have touched it,” according to keyboardist Ivory Joe Hunter. Interestingly, if you were to chart out Stevie’s career from beginning to end, this effervescent single proved to be the dividing line between Little Stevie Wonder and Stevie Wonder. The number 1 song in the US 50 years ago this September, “For Once in My Life” is one of those timeless ballads that sounds as fresh today as it was the day it was first released. Joyous.
“M.T.A.” The Kingston Trio, 1958. Recorded 60 years ago this September, “M. T. A.” was a classic novelty song, which turned out to be the quirky but delightful follow-up to “(Hang Down Your Head), Tom Dooley,” and brought the Trio considerable airplay as a result. Not surprisingly, this ballad has become so entrenched in Boston lore that the Boston-area transit authority named its electronic card-based fare collection system the “CharlieCard” in tribute to this classic. The transit organization, now called the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), held a dedication ceremony for the card system in 2004 that featured a performance of the number by the Kingston Trio, attended by then-governor Mitt Romney. By the way, you literally can’t go to the Kendall Square Station and change for Jamaica Plain, but who cares about the details? This single still induces both smiles and tapping feet all these years later.
“Stardust,” Willie Nelson, 1978. 40 years ago, I was obsessed with both this legendary Hoagy Carmichael song and Willie Nelson’s triumphant homily to the Great American Songbook in his album by the same name, Stardust. Composed in 1927 by one of America’s most revered songwriters, “Stardust” was written by Hoagy while he was on the campus of his alma mater, Indiana University. Carmichael began whistling the tune, then rushed to the Book Nook, a popular student hangout, and started composing. He worked to refine the melody over the course of the next several months, likely in Bloomington and later in Indianapolis. Ultimately, it became the most recorded song of the twentieth century with over 1,500 versions released, an average of 21 “Stardust” covers a year! While everyone from Satchmo to Lady Ella to Ol’ Blue Eyes to DerBing recorded the tune, Willie Nelson’s sparse and reverent version remains the very best. For my dear friend, Steve Piscatelli.
“La La Means I Love You,” Laura Nyro, 1994. While she was primarily known as a prodigious composer – Nyro wrote twelve Top 20 songs between 1967-72 for other artists – she was also a luminous interpreter of other performers’ works as well. When she was a teenager growing up in the Bronx, Laura would venture down to the Fordham Road Subway Stop and join African-American doo-wop groups to harmonize during her free time. In 1971, after she became an iconic rock figure, Nyro eventually recorded a spotless album of such tunes with Patti Labelle and her backup group, LaBelle. 23 years later, Laura recorded “La La Means I Love You,” the Delfonics 1968 classic R&B hit, which Rolling Stone later called Nyro’s version, “one of the great cover songs ever recorded, period.” Laura Nyro, who died much too young of ovarian cancer at 49, was indeed one of a kind, and a well-deserved member of both the Rock and Rock and Songwriter Hall of Fames.
“Handle With Care,” The Travelling Wilburys, 1988. While working on his comeback album, Cloud Nine, George Harrison called on a few pals to help come up with a B-side to his single, “This Is Love.” He was joined by Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan at Dylan’s home studio in Malibu, where they recorded “Handle With Care.” When the powers-that-be at Warner Brothers Records heard the number, they knew it was too good for a B-side and suggested a larger collaborative project. The makeshift band took on fictitious names in a group initially called the Trembling Wilburys. There have been many supergroups formed throughout the 64-year history of rock ‘n roll, but the Travelling Wilburys were, from this lens, the very best. Thankfully, they ended up producing two stellar albums over a three-year period. It’s mind-numbing to realize that another Wilbury member, Tom Petty, died a year ago this month (Orbison passed in 1989; George Harrison in 2002). What remains, of course, are such infectious and affirming ballads as “Handle With Care,” which was released 30 years ago this fall!
“Tears on My Pillow,” Little Anthony and the Imperials, 1958. The doo-wop group’s first and best-selling single, they ended up using the same backing tracks as the Penguins’ classic, “Earth Angel.” This was done as an economy move as the record company barely had enough money for the session tape. (Listen to both songs and compare – and you will most assuredly smile). After a somewhat up-and-down career, Jerome “Little Anthony” Gourdine and the Imperials were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. What’s not to like here?
“Little Green Apples,” O. C. Smith, 1968. Originally recorded by country artist Roger Miller who was given the tune by legendary songwriter Bobby Russell, it reached number 18 on the country charts in the winter of ‘68. However, when soul singer O. C. Smith rerecorded it later that year, “Little Green Apples” took off like a bullet and ended up with Grammy nomination for Best Song of the Year after selling more than three-million copies. At a Boston supper club in 1982, I gallivanted up to Smith one evening in 1982 and told him, “I always imagined that you channeled Nat Cole when you recorded, ‘Little Green Apples’!” He beamed brightly and replied, “I would like to think that I did! Thanks, my man, for the ultimate compliment!” “Little Green Apples” and its follow-up, “The Son of Hickory Hollow’s Tramp,” enabled Smith to have a flourishing career on the tour circuit until he died at 79 in late 2001. For those of us old enough to remember, this little gemstone went to number 1 on the Billboard Top 40 a half-century ago this September.
(“I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1978. After My Aim is True, Costello assembled the Attractions to be his backup band and recorded, This Year’s Model. ‘(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea’ is its standout. Ultimately, it proved to be a potent combination of chaos and skill, featuring Bruce Thomas’ propulsive bass, Steve Nieve’s Vox Continental organ fills, and Pete Thomas clattering away behind the drums as Elvis plays the jagged riff on his trademark Fender Jazzmaster. Ultimately, only a handful of rock musicians produced such luminous work in their first 12 years in the recording studio as the great Elvis Costello did from 1976-88.
“I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round),” Alicia Bridges, 1978. This fetching disco classic, which was released 40 years ago this fall, centers on a woman who has better things to do than listen to her man’s empty platitudes. She tells him to kiss off, and that she’s going to get some “action” at the disco, where she can boogie all night. Ah, the Disco Era! The irony, of course, was that Bridges detested the genre and refused to record an album ladened with dance songs. Not surprisingly, then, her follow-up single, “Body Heat,” was much more in the rock/R&B mold and topped out at #86 on the US Billboard charts. “I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round)” remained her only top 40 single and put Alicia Bridges squarely in the one-hit category. We should all be so fortunate.
“Fallin’,” Alicia Keys, 1998. First and foremost, “Fallin’” is the very epitome of a timeless ballad. In three minutes-and-40-seconds, Keys creates a soul-classic worthy of Roberta Flack or Gladys Knight. What is not well-known is that she studied artists such as Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart when she was an emerging pianist in her early teens. Thus it is not surprising then that Alicia riffs a musical phrase from Chopin in “Fallin’,” which provides the centerpiece for the music to follow. She then soars on the refrain and takes us on a beautiful ride to Loveland. The ultimate joy ride.
“Hush,” Deep Purple, 1968. Interestingly, while this has always been thought of as a classic English blues number, “Hush” was originally written as a country song by Joe South, who also wrote “Down in the Boondocks,” “Games People Play,” and “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” By the time that Deep Purple recorded it, however, the band had literally transformed it from the original and made it all their own. Of course, Richie Blackmore was one of the guitar greats in rock history, but Deep Purple would have never been the group it was without Jon Lord’s incandescent organ playing. His choice of the organ rather than the piano or synthesizer was unique and had the advantage of being amplified, which meant that his keyboard produced as much power and volume as anyone. I once chatted with a young Vietnam veteran in a classroom who was visiting my Humanities class in Wellesley (MA) High School back in 1972 who recalled hearing “Hush” blast out from a receiver on Armed Forces Radio while his swift boat cruised along the Mekong Delta. His name? Future Massachusetts Senator and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon, 1978. 40 years ago this September, this now iconic song was released without much fanfare. It would make Warren Zevon a rich man by the time he died a quarter-of-a-century later. According to legend, Zevon wrote it with legendary session strummer Robert “Waddy” Wachtel, Linda Ronstadt’s longtime lead guitarist. Back in the late 1970’s, when Zevon was working with the Everly Brothers, he hired Wachtel to play in their backing band. At one point, Phil Everly asked them to write a dance song for the Everly Brothers called “Werewolves Of London.” Wachtel and Zevon were good friends and were tuning guitars when someone asked what they were about to play. Zevon impulsively replied, “Werewolves Of London,” and Wachtel started howling. Zevon then came up with the line, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,” and they traded lyrics back and forth until they had their song. As Bruce Springsteen once wrote, “From small things, big things one day come…” When I taught at TASIS England in 1982, my seniors and juniors in the dorm would venture into London with me, and we’d sing “Werewolves of London” as we strutted across Westminster Bridge. At that moment, we were fab in every way.
“Those Were the Days,” Mary Hopkin, 1968. Often compared to Gale Garnett’s wistful ballad, “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” this old-fashioned English pub song, produced by Paul McCartney for the newly-formed Apple Records, proved to be an unexpected giant hit for the fledgling singer from Wales who went to number 2 on the US charts with it a half-century ago this September. Of course, in the press releases at the time, we all learned that the ballad was based on a Russian-Georgian folk tune initially written in 1925. We also were also informed that the versatile McCartney played the acoustic guitar, banjo, and drums on the recording and that it was recorded in Abbey Road Studio Number 2. While she never had another hit again, Mary Hopkin has made a career on this one ballad, traveling the four corners of the earth to sing it each year at various oldies’ concerts. This song has been played at countless funerals ever since.
“(Where are You) Little Star?” The Elegants, 1958. The veteran doo-wop group from Staten Island, New York hit paydirt 60 years ago this summer when they hit the number one spot on the Billboard Top 40. How appropriate of the Elegants to list Mozart as one of the songwriters of the tune, especially given the fact that ol’ Wolfgang wasn’t a member of ASCAP! (I wonder if they shared any residuals with his ancestors?) I agree with Miami Steve Van Zandt, who once said that every time he hears this classic doo-wop ballad, he fancies himself in a Ford convertible with the roof down and the stars above impossibly bright. When you listen to this early rock classic six decades later, there’s an unmistakable innocence throughout the number that was eventually lost at the corner of Elm Street and Houston in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Thus, “Little Star,” is a rear-view-mirror kind of ballad, which embodies an exceedingly different time in an America that is almost unrecognizable today.
“Light My Fire,” Jose Feliciano, 1968. One of the two or three greatest cover versions of any song in the rock ‘n roll era, period, Jose Feliciano’s “Light My Fire” reached #3 in the US exactly one year to the day that the Doors’ original version hit number 1 in 1967. That both versions became dominant singles one summer apart speaks to the potency of both cuts. A lot of younger rock listeners at the time didn’t know how to react at first when a cover for “Light My Fire” by newcomer Feliciano hit the airwaves and jukeboxes, but after just one listen of the singer/guitarist’s immaculate interpretation, we were left with a heady sense of awe, admiration, and surreal delight. In a list of the most underrated classics of the 1960’s, Jose’s cover of “Light My Fire” would be near the very top.
“Count on Me,” The Jefferson Starship, 1978. The late Marty Balin, the co-lead singer of the Jefferson Starship, could write and sing melodious, memorable tracks as he did with his songwriting partner, Jesse Barish, on “Miracles,” “With Your Love,” and here with “Count on Me.” Elton John, who was visiting the Starship’s recording studio when they were recording the single, volunteered to play the keyboards on it. The exuberance of his play provides the frosting on the cupcake here. As always, Paul Kantor’s guitar work is a revelation. A marvelous single in every way.
“You’re All I Need to Get By,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1968. Despite the tragic arch of both of their lives that cut them down at their pinnacle, when these two Motown legends sang together, the earth stood still and everything was seemingly possible. Gaye’s and Terrell’s seventh and last duet-hit in 21 months, it was assumed that the two would sing together for the next 30 years. Instead. Marvin sang this acapella at Tammi’s funeral just two years later after she succumbed to a brain tumor at the age of 24. A classic Motown composition by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, this song also features the legendary Funk Brothers who revel in the magic chemistry that Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell obviously had. “There’s no, no looking back for us/We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough/You’re all, You’re all I need to get by…” Truer words were never sung with so much conviction.
“Midnight Confessions,” 1968. A top five hit 50 years ago this August; the Grassroots were in the midst of a three-year hot streak that would see them become an internationally beloved band who churned out hit after hit. The late Rob Grill’s most fulfilling hit, this ballad is not only the group’s most polished, but it was later nominated for Song of the Year at the 1968 Grammy’s. Mick Jagger later said famously that he thematically based his classic, “You Can’t Get What You Want,” on “Midnight Confessions.” Like many LA-based bands, the Grassroots used the Wrecking Crew for their musical accompaniment. A nod here to the incomparable Carol Kaye for producing one of the great bass lines-and-fills on wax. In retrospect, the Grassroots were a sure-fire guilty pleasure, a blissful package of pure pop.
”Rave On,” Buddy Holly and the Crickets, 1958. Sonny West, a childhood friend of Buddy’s and fellow recording artist, wrote this single and gave it to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who scheduled the Fireballs to record it. Buddy Holly knew how good the tune was and said, “No way, Norman, I’ve got to have this song!” His intuition paved off. 60 years ago this summer, “Rave On” was the number one single on the Billboard Top 40 for the week of August 21. A few years ago, when Bob Dylan played the number on his Sirius radio show, he exclaimed, “Buddy Holly’s version of ‘Rave On’ is the epitome of rock and roll.” Yes, Bob – you’re right.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Vanilla Fudge, 1968. Take a Motown hit composed by Holland, Dozier, and Holland and originally recorded by the Supremes, combine Garageband sensibilities with psychedelic overtones, and you’ve got Vanilla Fudge’s remake of “You Keep Me Hangin On.” The band’s drummer, Carmine Appice, recalls: “In 1966, when I joined the band, there was a thing going around the New York area and Long Island that was basically slowing songs down, making production numbers out of them and putting emotion into them. The Vagrants were doing it, they had Leslie West in the band. The Hassles were doing it, they had Billy Joel. It all started with The Young Rascals. We were all looking for songs back then that were hits and could be slowed down with emotion put into them. ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ lyrically was a-hurtin’ kind of song, and when The Supremes did it, it was like this happy song. We tried to slow down the song and put the emotion the song should have into it with the hurtin’ kind of feeling the song should have. We then made it sound like Procol Harum. It obviously worked – and we sold a million copies of it!” By mid ‘68, the Vanilla Fudge’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” had morphed into the quintessential “makeout” song. Whatever. Being fourteen forever sounded good until you really thought about it. Then it didn’t seem like such a great prospect.
“Love Will Find a Way,” Pablo Cruise, 1978. As we have all learned over time some songs frame our summers, and Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way” is one of those ballads that unequivocally captures the essence for those of us who were young and impressionable 40 years ago. Not to be confused by the rock anthem by Yes with the same title, Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way” not only has gorgeous hooks, but the musicians here, especially bass player Bruce Day and lead guitarist David Jenkins, drive this number to the moon. To hear David Jenkins croon, “Once you get past the pain…” is to remember that time in dreams remains frozen forever. Ultimately, this memorable number proved to be one of those freeze-frames, which came to define the summer of 1978 for us all.
“Summertime, Summertime,” The Jamies, 1958. 60 years ago this July, virtually every jukebox in America was playing this hit novelty song, a tune where doo-wop met kitsch. Personally, it conjures listening to it blaring from a rickety transistor radio on Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach in Orleans as the smell of onion rings and fried clams came wafting upon us from the legendary eatery, Philbrick’s Snack Shack. It’s hard to believe it, but it’s true – the Boston Red Sox legendary public address announcer, the late Sherm Feller, wrote “Summertime, Summertime,” and made a small fortune off of it!
“The Look of Love,” Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. First of all, there’s that unique arrangement, which made this underappreciated group so memorable to those of us who listened to pop music back then. From the get-go, Sergio Mendes’ music was “easy listening personified” and combined such disparate sounds as psychedelic pop, light jazz, and bossa nova. Brasil ’66 (which featured Mendes on keyboards and a revolving cast of two female vocalists, bass, guitar, drums, and percussion) never sounded better than here on this Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic, first made famous by the immortal Dusty Springfield. Of course, this version of “The Look of Love” remains one of the greatest cover recordings of the 1960s. As Professor Dumbledore exclaimed to Harry Potter in The Goblet of Fire, “‘Ah, music, a magic beyond all we do here!”
“Wavelength,” Van Morrison, 1978. This ode to early American rock ‘n roll proves to be both kinetic and emotive. In the title track of a highly underrated album, which was released 40 years ago this June. From the Smokey Robinson prelude to the Eddie Cochran-inspired chorus, Van pays homage here to the music that literally saved him physically and spiritually throughout his Northern Ireland upbringing. As he later admitted on an extended in-studio interview on WBCN Boston, “Everything I learned about music came from the radio, and everything that truly mattered to me came from listening to American rhythm and blues songs. That music saved me.” As the Irish Bard sings in the song: “When I’m down you always comfort me/When I’m lonely you see about me/You are everywhere you’re ‘sposed to be/And I can get your station/When I need rejuvenation – Wavelength!”
“Classical Gas,” Mason Williams, 1968. If you asked the legendary Wrecking Crew members if they had a number one hit on their own – they ended up having 41 number-one hits with artists as disparate as Sam Cooke, Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Ronettes, Lou Rawls, the Mamas & the Papas, Nat Cole, and the Righteous Brothers – they would unanimously respond, “‘Classical Gas’.” While acoustic guitarist extraordinaire Mason Williams fronted them on this recording, Williams had long been a member of the Wrecking Crew. Some of the luminaries who support him here include drummer Hal Blaine, bass player Carol Kaye, rhythm guitarist Glen Campbell, and pianist Leon Russell. Ultimately, 13 members of the most significant instrumental group of the rock era produced a neo-pop-classical masterpiece, which soared to number one during the summer of ’68. Later on, it was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys the following winter.
“One Summer Night,” The Danleers, 1958. This doo-wop quartet from Brooklyn released this timeless song six decades ago this summer where it soared to the number three spot on the Billboard Top 40. The ballad’s sanguine premise was that the warmest of seasons automatically triggered a semblance of romance. Who didn’t want to fall in love during the summer – especially back then? And why wouldn’t you listen to these sweet harmonies as you readied yourself for your first kiss, listening to the Danleers’ lead singer Jimmy Weston croon: “You kissed me, oh, so tenderly/and I knew this was love/and I as held you, oh so close/I knew no one could ever take your place, ohhhh.” I have to admit, that “ohhh” at the end gets me every time. Ultimately, this exquisite single conjures up an image of a ‘57 Convertible under the blazing street light at a local filling station framed by such 1950’s artifacts as hoop skirts, saddle shoes, duck-tails, and penny loafers.
“Eternal Flame, “The Bangles, 1988. The Bangles were not known for emotional depth, but this plaintive ballad from the girl group’s 1988 album, Everything, takes the bop out of their usual teenybopper sound, leaving only a piercing distillation of self-absorbed, teenage angst. If love does burn here like the sun, it is set against the storm of “a whole life so lonely.” And the girlish tremble of Susanna Hoffs’ immaculate vocals, which flip into a vulnerable head voice for most of the higher notes, poignantly embodies the song’s yearning for security above anything else.
“Begin the Beguine,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, 1938. I once heard Jonathan Schwartz introduce this American Songbook standard by calling this famed cover of “Begin the Beguine, “A perfect offering, which reminds us all when swing was really swing.” Of course, Artie Shaw’s instrumental version of “Begin the Beguine” utterly dominated the airwaves in prewar America when this single was released 80 years ago over the Fourth of July weekend. The Connecticut native and his legendary arranger, Jerry Gray, spent two mind-numbing weeks arranging the classic Cole Porter standard and ended up producing a cover in “four-four time that ‘bended’ the Charleston,” (vernacular for making it danceable). I concur with the late jazz critic, Leonard Feather, who once said famously that while Benny Goodman was clearly the better bandleader, Artie Shaw was the greatest jazz clarinetist of all time, surpassing Goodman and everyone else.
“Changing of the Guards,” Bob Dylan, 1978. What is there to say about this hypnotic, puzzling, pulsating song except to say that it’s quintessential Bob Dylan. The opening number to Street Legal, we find our hero here with patches of lyrics that he throws against the wall in order to see if they might stick. Like “All Along the Watchtower,” Dylan is stuck in the Middle Ages here, which makes it even more enthralling for the listener. As critic Tony Atwood writes, “Bob’s lingering fascination with all the possibilities of rhyme at this time, and that quite possibly is the heart of the matter – the song is about rhymes and how they can be manipulated in a five line poem. The music is the same for each verse, but what happens in the lyrics changes, changes and changes again just like that half-remembered dream.” In such a scenario, the lyrics don’t really matter, what matters is the feel, and feel is what we get layered on with the sax and the chorus repeating certain words as we go along, for reasons that will never become clear. Needless to say, this is Mystery Bob doing his best to push the envelope as he has done throughout his nearly 60-year public career.
“Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream, 1968. Released as a single 50 years ago this June, bassist Jack Bruce and Pete Brown came up with “Sunshine of Your Love” toward the end of an all-night session, which inspired the opening line: “It’s getting near dawn/When lights close their tired eyes.” The killer riff was inspired by none other than Mr. James Hendrix, who was fiddling around with Eric Clapton one day and started playing the chord as a backdrop to Clapton’s improvisation at the time. Eric later added the memorable chorus hook while drummer Ginger Baker laid down a gargantuan, tom-tom heavy beat to complete the sound with panache. For those of us who remember, “Sunshine of Your Love” was popular just when rock began to feel its oats and break out of its own shell into something close to a revelation. Tom Petty once claimed that this number launched the concept of the genre that became known as “classic rock.”
“Racing in the Streets,” Bruce Springsteen, 1978. Forty years ago this summer, I was obsessed not only with Darkness on the Edge of Town, but, most especially, this heartrending ballad, which ended the first side of the album like a cry in the night. At the time, two years before I became a teacher and in-between jobs, fearful that I was caught in the clutches of waiting to die – just like the protagonist in “Racing in the Streets” – this ballad bore through me like a power drill. In retrospect, what always grabbed me about this tune was the last two minutes following from the defiant last verse, where pianist Danny Federici and Bruce let the music continue to tell the story without even saying a word. It always came off as sad but hopeful, “like they ain’t done yet.” When I hear it these days well into my sixties, it makes me miss my old friends from high school when we used to listen to Bruce, drink beer, and have a good time, hanging out and hanging on to one another for dear life.
“Roll With It,” Steve Winwood, 1988. Because he was in his 25th year as a recording artist – and barely 40 at the time – Stevie could still dial it up with the best of them. Here, he pulls off a rarity – by paying homage to the old Motown Sound through the lens of a very techno eighties feel. This single dominated the airwaves throughout the late spring of 1988; for goodness sakes, it even sounds like that time of year! Interestingly “Roll With It” holds the distinction of being the last number one song of the late Casey Kasem’s 18-year-run as host of the weekly radio show, The American Top 40. That seems very appropriate – given the song and the artist.
“Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” Frank Sinatra, 1958. This searing ballad has become one of Sinatra’s most enduring numbers since it was recorded 50 years ago this May. While he was known as “One-take Frank” in the movie business, his fastidiousness when making music was legendary. “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” took almost a day of precise outtakes to get it right, according to chronicler Will Friedwald. As he did on all 12 tracks of his masterwork, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, Sinatra would inevitably enter the studio; greet the musicians individually; saunter up to the front of the room; make notations on the sheet music, and then patiently walk through what he wanted to hear from each musician. “Every time you saw him enter the studio to record, it became a workshop into how to make a textbook record,” Quincy Jones said near the end of Sinatra’s career. There are mythical bootlegs of Sinatra’s precise directions to his supporting musicians in scores of sessions out on YouTube. Like an experienced traffic controller, you hear him patiently walking his band through a maze of notes that eventually evolves into a highly imaginative, intuitive sound. When I first heard such outtakes, it reminded me of Leonard Bernstein’s sagacious entries that framed his epic Young People’s Concerts Series back in the sixties. In “Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” the orchestra and the singer create a symmetry that is indistinguishable, two forces of nature that have merged seamlessly. As with every ballad on this album, the storyline means everything here. Sinatra is a chronicler weaving out a story that grips your heart and hurls it into the abyss. It all leads to a Casablanca-like ending: “’Yes’ – somebody said/ ‘Just forget about her’/So I gave that treatment a try/And strangely enough/I got along without her/Then one day/She passed me right by/Oh, well…..” When the tune ends, you feel as if the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock has just gone out for the last time.
“Last Dance,” Donna Summer, 1978. Roxbury, Massachusetts’ own Donna Summer was the number one act in the world 40 years ago, a period in which she had twelve top ten hits over a span of three-and-a-half years. This infectious number-one tune from the late spring of 1978 was arguably the best of the bunch, a disco tour de force, which is one of the few singles of the genre to be later inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In every way, “Last Dance” remains a terrific song!
“The Flame,” Cheap Trick, 1988. In a decade dominated by anthems – a harbinger of American Idol and all that was to come – Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” was the kind of song that you could hold up to the window as archetypal of the kind of overblown but seductive music that dominated the airwaves three decades ago. Given the time period, then, it was not at all surprising that this was the number one song in the US 30 years ago this May. It still drives a potent engine all these years later.
“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” Meatloaf, 1978. Described as a “beefy loser” at the time, a marketing ploy that ended up working brilliantly for the former Marvin Lee Aday, who, in reality, had a drop-dead gorgeous wife by his side, Meatloaf ended up taking this affecting song to the top of the singles chart 40 years ago this spring. To his enormous credit, the singer-songwriter’s sense of urgency is evident throughout here. With Todd Rundgren in the producer’s chair, coupled with a string of evocative chord changes and an infectious melody, what’s not to like here? Of course, any song that contains the line, “But there ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box,” has my total attention – if not my profound admiration.
“Twilight Time,” The Platters, 1958. “Twilight Time,” one of the most revered doo-wop tunes in early rock history was actually composed in 1944 by songwriter Buck Ram and was then recorded by The Three Suns. Originally released three days before D-Day, the original version of the song went to #8 on the US Billboard Top 40 as the Allies marched into Paris that summer. Irving Berlin once stated famously, “Every great song has a second shelf life,” and such was the case for “Twilight Time.” 14 years later, the classic doo-wop quintet, the Platters, rerecorded it, and, because of the exemplary quality of both the production and the group, it soared to #1 in June, 1958. Former opera singer Tony Williams sang the lead on the updated version of “Twilight Time” (he also soloed on “My Prayer) and provided the essential ingredients to make a lovely ballad even more sustaining. In 1998, the Platters’ “Twilight Time” was formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the song category.
“Dressed Up Like Nebraska,” Josh Rouse, 1998. This turned out to be the first essential hit for one of my favorite contemporary singer-songwriters, the vastly underappreciated Josh Roush. Like everything that he has produced after this initial single, the musicianship is well-crafted, scrubbed-up, and exhilarating. Indeed, Roush has always sounded as if he came out of the same can of hash as Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and the late Jim Croce. Some critics have chastised him for that, but why lash him to the pole if he was born 30 years too late? After all, Rouse’s best album, 1972, essentially said the same thing in 12 memorable songs.
“Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Little Richard, 1958. 60 years ago this May – just when school was about to be out for the summer – this Book of Genesis rocker was released as a single by Specialty Records in LA. In every way, it was most assuredly “the devil’s music,” something that Little Richard knew, ran away from, and finally embraced after he impulsively retired from music for a spell a year later. Of course, when this iconic recording was released, white kids all over the country laughed to themselves that the decidedly unhip and racist white sensors were clueless that he was singing, “Good Golly, Miss Molly – sure like to ball!” You could well argue that the ensuing generational gap began right then and there. Don’t think that people like Paul McCartney, Sly Stone, and Prince weren’t listening to this. They were. For them, it proved to be a revelation.
“Lovely Day,” Bill Withers, 1978. Sun, rain or hurricane, it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, you need to check out this classic nugget from revered soul man, Bill Withers, and you’ll agree that it is indeed a lovely day. Near the end of this original tune, “Still Bill” holds a single note for 18 seconds, which is purportedly the most extended note in a U.S. Top 40 single in history. I presume that the ballad’s unflappable buoyancy is what energized him to such accomplish such an epic feat! Happy 80th birthday today to one of the greats, the incomparable Bill Withers.
“The Lonely Sea,” The Beach Boys, 1962. The common misconceptions of those skeptical of the artistic value of The Beach Boys’ music is that the group didn’t show signs of progress until Pet Sounds. This is emphatically not true; some of their best work was written and recorded between 1962-65, including my favorite Boys’ LP, Little Deuce Coupe, which contained 12 cloying songs about girls, cars, and the summer. “The Lonely Sea,” recorded when Brian Wilson was just 19, has an arrangement that is as sparse as could be – some lightly brushed drums, an almost apologetic bass, and a gently picked, heavily-tremeloed lead guitar – that ultimately supports Brian’s evocative lead vocal and his brothers/cousins’ impeccable backups. While summertime has long been about collegiality and impetuousness, lonely souls such as Brian Wilson occasionally remind us that all of that might ring hollow. This is the flip side to all of those happy-go-lucky summer surfing songs that Wilson and the Boys became famous for in the early 1960’s.
“For Your Precious Love,” Jerry Butler, and the Impressions 1958. The spiritual tone of the vocals came from the Impressions’ church roots in the South Side of Chicago. At the beginning of their professional careers, both Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield had sung together in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Eventually, the Impressions became an offshoot of their church male choir. Interestingly, the lyrics were drawn verbatim from a poem Butler had written in high school and then immortally incorporated into this R&B classic, which was later recorded by the great Otis Redding. While Mayfield has always gotten his just due, Jerry Butler has somewhat flown under the radar screen over the years. In retrospect, he should be recognized as one of early rock’s genuine immortals. One of the iconic soul performances of the 1950s, Butler’s version of “For Your Precious Love” was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a single in 1998.
“Miss You,” The Rolling Stones, 1978. The Stones were in Toronto jamming with Beatles-blues legend Billy Preston when they came up with this infectious riff that had been inspired by a harmonica player they had just heard “in a Paris bar about three in the morning.” In the end, the Glimmer Twins had their first number one song in five years. The disco riffs’ notwithstanding, this is the group at its very best.
“Stupid Cupid,” Connie Francis, 1958. Recorded 60 years ago in April, this Neil Sedaka & Howie Greenfield number was given to Connie Francis, despite the fact that the then 19-year-old Sedaka felt that the ballad was much too juvenile for the sultry Francis. Actually, Connie ended up having a ball recording it and toyed with the vocals to such an extent that she eventually asked Sedaka to consider writing a sequel. One of the most playful singles of the era, Francis felt that this ballad was a career saver – “Everyone thought I could only sing stuff like ‘Who’s Sorry Now,’ but ‘Stupid Cupid’ proved them all wrong.”
“Sugar Mountain,” Neil Young, 1968. When Joni Mitchell heard the rough cut of this early masterwork from fellow Canadian Neil Young, she instantaneously composed, “The Circle Game,” as an artistic response. For that alone, this ode to childhood and impending lost innocence should be heralded by any serious music lover. 50 years after it was first recorded, its colors still light up the sky: “Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain/With the barkers and the colored balloons/You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain/Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon/You’re leaving too soon…” Indeed, there is no modern popular songwriter who has done more great things with the notion of the passage of time than Neil Young. Long may he run.
“If I Can Dream,” Elvis Presley, 1968. Recorded 50 years ago this April for The King’s legendary comeback special, Presley never sounded or looked better in his lifetime. It would be a long, agonizing decline downhill over the next nine years, but for this one evening, Elvis was on top of his game, reverently singing a ballad about hope, perseverance, and wonder. In a fascinating, what-if, moment, when the Beatles watched this performance on the telly back in England, they immediately contacted Colonel Parker with the hope of composing an album of songs for Elvis, who they would then back up at the Abbey Road Studios. Parker, one of the true villains in rock and roll history, said no. Can you imagine if the Beatles had coaxed Elvis into the Abbey Road studios to record an album of original Lennon-McCartney music? Good God.
“Baker Street,” Gerry Rafferty, 1978. 40 years ago this spring the late Gerry Rafferty’s iconic, “Baker Street” became a top-five hit in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom – and for a good reason. If there were an official anthem for loneliness, it might well be “Baker Street.” First and foremost, there was the hypnotic saxophone refrain of the late Raphael Ravenscroft who provided a brushstroke of pathos to the entire affair, and then there were Rafferty’s quivering vocals singing lyrics that seemed to draw blood. When I later lived in London and frequented Baker Street on occasion, the Bogartesque mystery I had imagined was largely missing. I realized then that the number was entirely internal and left open to the imagination of each person. In other words, pure art.
“Reach Out of the Darkness,” Friend and Lover, 1968. Anytime the word, groovy, turns out to be the centerpiece to the opening phrase of a song, it is an instant attention-grabber. That “Reach Out of the Darkness” entered the Billboard Top 10 a half-century ago seems utterly incomprehensible. It seems like yesterday to many of us, of course, but in an era of peace, love, and understanding, it was evident that we needed music like this ethereal anthem that spring. After all, Martin Luther King had died in early April and Bobby Kennedy would perish the week that “Reach Out of The Darkness” reached its zenith on the charts. Two months later, our politics ended up spilling out onto the streets of Chicago.
“The Weight,” The Band, 1968. The Band’s reputation as underground legends was already intact before their debut album even came out. After all, they had backed Bob Dylan during his confrontational 1966 British tour and recorded a bunch of classics with him at their house in Woodstock, New York. Just like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, released in late 1967, The Band’s Music From Big Pink is covered in rustic Americana with a heap of hippie sprinkle dust on top. ‘The Weight,’ the album’s timeless classic, is still reinvented by new generations of artists a half-century later. Songwriter Robbie Robertson has long claimed that “The Weight,” one of the few Band numbers in which Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel all take turns singing lead, is about the impossibility of sainthood. As music critic Tom Moon wrote recently, “Sounding less like a polished choir than a wandering militia, they appear displaced, out of time. They might as well be selling elixirs from the back of a horse-drawn rig, moving at the slow, deliberate pace of backroads rural America in the days before [farm-to-table] artisan shallots.” No wonder Music from the Big Pink was named by the Smithsonian as one of the 100 best albums of the twentieth century.
“Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman, 1988. How can something so simple scrape to the bottom of one’s heart so quickly and profoundly? There’s genuine magic in this great ballad, which was released 30 years ago this year. From this vantage point, it has the same feeling that Springsteen emitted a few years previously, “Now I work at the carwash/where all it ever does is rain.” And to think that Tracy got her start in the Harvard Square T Station with an open guitar case and a stack of pitched quarters – her take-home-pay for the day. I remember her clearly during those fledgling days, and I am glad that I invariably threw a quarter into her guitar case every time I passed by. Tracy always threw me a smile. Always.
“MacArthur Park,” Richard Harris, 1968. Here are seven “weird facts” to help you put this incomparable song in its proper context: Weird Fact 1 – yes, this was the future Albus Dumbledore singing the most unlikely pop song of the 1960s. Weird Fact 2 – yes, this was composed by the eccentric but truly gifted Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “Wichita Lineman,” “Up Up and Away,” and “For All We Know.” Weird Fact 3 – the ballad, which was once called by legendary rock critic, Greil Marcus, as ”the worst song ever composed,” was written as part of a cantata. Ultimately, “MacArthur Park” was one of the few pop songs ever produced that followed a classically structured style. Weird Fact 4 – Jimmy Webb has always claimed that the ballad’s lyrics were not an ode to psychedelia. As he exclaimed to Terry Gross of NPR in 2014, “Everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park. … Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.” Weird Fact 5 – yes, that is actually Richard Harris hitting that final falsetto note in which he bellows, “Oh, no!” Weird Fact 6 – this is the longest number one song in pop history at 7:20. “Hey, Jude” is second at 7:11. Finally, Weird Fact 7 – has anyone in history ever left the cake out in the rain?
“With a Little Luck,” Wings, 1978. 40 years ago this spring, this was the number one song in the US. Paul’s songs after his Fab Four days could be annoyingly infectious; you’d have the tune in your head for the rest of the day and plead for an exorcism, but nothing worked. It was entrenched. Of course, my friend, Howie Edelstein, would argue that it’s Sir Paul’s genius as a “melodic savant” that was behind it all. Try to get this out of your head: “With a little luck we can help it out/We can make this whole damn thing work out/With a little love we can lay it down/Can’t you feel the town exploding?” What then follows is a luscious orchestral follow-up that you can’t help but love. As a lifelong John person, I often rolled my eyes and then ended up admiring Paul’s fetching duality.
“Chanson d’Amour,” Art and Dotty Todd, 1958. This most unlikely married singing duo from Baltimore had an enormous hit on their hands six decades ago with a song written by composer Wayne Shanklin (“The Big Hurt,” “Primrose Lane,” and “Jezebel”). Shanklin ended up giving it to the couple when they were performing at the Chapman Park Hotel in Los Angeles. Before they knew it, they were singing it live on the Dick Clark Show. As one of my buddies once said to me, this was the kind of number that young adolescents danced the foxtrot to during late 50’s at school-sponsored get-togethers.
“Stormy Weather,” Lena Horne, 1943. 75 years ago, this iconic single was released in conjunction with the film of the same name. Originally written in 1935, everyone from Astaire to Bessie Smith to Sinatra to Fitzgerald to Armstrong ended up recording it. However, it has always been “Lena’s Song.” As an aside, I recently played “Blue Skies” by Bing Crosby and Lena’s version of “Stormy Weather” as cultural flipsides. The buoyancy of 1925’s “Blue Skies,” was cast aside by the enduring gloom that prevails in 1935’s “Stormy Weather.” I’ve invariably found it exhilarating to teach history to teens through the lens of art. It works like a charm.
“Don’t,” Elvis Presley, 1958. Phil Everly once stated that this was his favorite Elvis recording, and there have been more than a few Elvis fans over the years who have said the same thing to me. Because the oldies stations have largely ignored it, this Leiber and Stoller classic sounds as fresh and impassioned as it did when it was released as a single 60 years ago this March. Ultimately, there was only one Elvis.
When the Leiber and Stoller Broadway review came out in 1995, I ended up seeing it twice during its debut year. One of the reasons was the steamy take on Elvis’s “Love Me” and “Don’t,” featuring the incredible vocal performances of Adrian Bailey and the late, great Pattie Darcy Jones.
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye, 1968. Legendary Motown producer Norman Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number of Berry Gordy’s acts, changing the arrangement and the timing in order to make it “sound brand new.” This annoyed many of the label’s artists, especially such acclaimed songwriters as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye, but in this case, Gaye thankfully acquiesced. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” a major hit in 1967 for Gladys Knight and the Pips was given to Marvin to redo. Whitfield and co-writer Barrett Strong set the track in a slower, more mysterious tempo, which enabled this version to become the best-selling Motown single of the 1960’s. On Rolling Stone’s list of all-time greatest singles in the rock era, Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is number 81. Not bad for a “cover.”
“Win Your Love for Me,” Sam Cooke, 1958. Sam Cooke reached down deep into the depths and brought up pure soul for all of us to love for the rest of time. He had a rare ability to do gospel – his original musical genre, which made him a star, the way it’s supposed to be — authentic, clean, straightforward. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. Like the legendary Nat Cole, Cooke had an incomparable voice. Ultimately, Sam could sing anything and make it work. As the late Lester Bangs once wrote in Crawdaddy, “It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing, which made him immortal.” 60 years ago this winter, Cooke came out his follow up to “You Send Me,” the vastly underrated, “Win Your Love for Me.” Of course, Sam Cooke could have sung out the names of the street signs in Boston, and it would have sounded great.
“The Sky’s the Limit,” The Duprees, 1968. Amidst the avalanche of psychedelia, soul, funk, and guitar-driven hard rock of 1968, the Duprees, an incredibly successful Doo-Wop group from Jersey City, released this incredible throwback just as Jimi Hendrix was putting the finishing touches on a Band of Gypsys. When I first heard it 50 years ago this March, I thought that it was a lost 45 from 1958. It might as well have been.
“26 Miles (Across the Sea),” The Four Preps, 1958. A memorable Spring Break Song emerging from the depths of ’58, replete with four-part harmonies, white-frat-boy voices, and inconvenient getaways. For an often snowbound New England youngster, this song always conjured up all of the bright-light-heat images of California in one fell swoop for me. Given the production team, and the time period, it is not surprising that this proverbial nugget turned out to be the number 1 song in the US and Canada 60 years ago this winter. Ah, such innocence!
“Good Kisser,” Lake Street Dive, 2018. In 2009, four New England Conservatory grads get together to form a band. Four highly received albums later (and with a fifth about to be released), they are still going strong, mainly because of the vocal prowess of the group’s lead singer, the incandescent Racheal Price. That each of their songs has a heady combination of economy and soul just adds to the luster. As one of my friends said to me recently, “Lake Street Dive produces the kind of music we listened to when we grew up in the sixties.” I would take that as a supreme compliment.
“Shame, Shame,” The Magic Lanterns, 1968. I wonder how many of you remember this quintessential 1960’s song, which you could certainly call a cultural fossil? A hint – it was recorded by a one-hit-wonder group from England, where it reached #21 on the Billboard Top 40 fifty years ago this February. “Shame, Shame” possesses all of the ingredients of the kind of song that dominated popular music back then – an infectious melody; inspired melodies, clean musicianship, and an emphasis on harmony. If you don’t know this single, do yourself a favor and check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
“Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1978. Can we all agree that ELO was way, way ahead of its time? That Jeff Lynne understood that gorgeous melodies, infectious harmonies, pulsating rhythms, and interesting lyrics could produce something sustaining? No wonder the Electric Light Orchestra invariably recorded in Abbey Road Studio Number 2. For a spell, their productions were worthy of Lennon, McCartney, and George Martin.
“Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin, 1968. 50 years ago this February, soul music was at its zenith and Aretha was The Queen. Here, she performs her smash hit, “Chain of Fools” live in a London television studio, which included a worshipful Mick Jagger who came to personally pay homage to her. As Jon Landau later wrote in Rolling Stone, “The sign of Aretha Franklin’s artistry is that she always leaves her mark – first – on the music – and then on us.”
“Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy, 1958. From his vintage LP, Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel, this top ten hit reached its peak 60 years ago this February. I would describe this instrumental as a seamless mesh of time, place, and circumstance. By the way, George Harrison, who was born 76 years ago, always claimed that this was the first song he ever performed publicly to an audience with as a member of the Fab Four. “I was up there on stage in Liverpool doing my Wayne Eddy thing as a 15-year-old, trying not to look at John, who was 17 at the time, and so much more hip than I was at that moment.”
“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” John Prine, 1978. From his incandescent album, Bruised Orange, John Prine provides an unforgettable mixture of humor and pathos into the real-life “Elephant Boy,” an actor from India who starred in British adventure films of the ’30s and ’40s. Ultimately, this song turned out to be one of Prine’s most existential and yet hysterical ballads that he ever recorded. This Byzantine number imagines the decline of the actor’s fortunes as times change around him, leaving him not fighting obsolescence, but rather riding its inevitable slide into a dusty descent in the “jungles” of America. Finally, the ballad also contains the single most absurd refrain in modern recorded music: “Hey, look Ma– here comes the Elephant Boy/bundled all up in his corduroy/headed down south towards Illinois/from the jungles of East St. Paul.” In every way, John Prine remains a national treasure.
“Tomorrow,” The Strawberry Alarm Clock, 1968. Even though this was the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s obligatory follow-up to their 1967 smash, “Incense and Peppermint,” I’ve always felt that this song was an infinitely superior tune. Sadly, it only made a slight blip on the screen when it was released a half-century ago this January, ultimately becoming the proverbial “Lost 45.” How can a psychedelic tune with lots of major 7th chords not be enduring? Historically, of course, “Tomorrow” foreshadowed Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525″ by a year-and-a-half. By the way, the Strawberry Alarm Clock was right about 2018 at least. These days, we do indeed live…” in a world of carnivals and clowns.”
“Native New Yorker,” Odyssey, 1978. With a Love Unlimited Orchestra-like opening, an irresistible melodic hook, a pulsating disco beat, culminating in a paean to the City at the height of the Studio 54 days, what could go wrong? At the time, I hardly knew New York City. While this was recorded and released in December 1977, it literally took off as the winter of 1978 commenced, where it was a top ten hit through mid-March. After having lived in the NYC metropolitan area for three decades, however, I now get why there’s no place like it.
“Reelin’ and a-Rockin’,” Chuck Berry, 1958. Released 60 years this January, this beloved early rock classic was actually the flip side to “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and while I always adored that exemplary single, I played the B-Side of the 45, even more, growing up. 13 years after the eminent Leonard Chess released the double-sided hit on his record label, Berry’s 1971 live version of “Reelin and a-Rockin’” on The London Berry Sessions sold more than a million copies worldwide based on the reinvented lyrics that played havoc with American censors at the time. (“Well, I looked at my watch, and it was quarter to ten/you know she turned me round/and we had me do it again!”) Still, it was the original version that I still cherish all these years later.
“I Wish It Would Rain,” The Temptations, 1968. A number 1 song in the US 50 years ago this winter, the lyrics of this harrowing song about a heartbroken man whose woman had just left him were penned by Motown staff writer Roger Penzabene. The lyricist had just learned that his wife was cheating on him, and in his lingering sorrow, Penzabene wrote both this and its follow-up, “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You).” Tragically, the bereft Penzabene committed suicide barely a week after the single’s release. David Ruffin, who sang the mournful lead here, called this ballad, “The best thing we ever did as a group together.” I agree. One of my dearest friends refused to listen to this ballad after her mother died in February 1968 because the song and the tragedy were intertwined. The power of music once again.
“Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne, 1978. The opening cut, title-track and first single from Browne’s live concept album turn out to be a perfect metaphor for both the LP and Jackson’s increasingly demanding life on the road at the time. It’s one of his most autobiographical songs — check out the years and ages he runs through in the ballad — are a harbinger of things to come for all of us. “I don’t know where I’m running now/I’m just running on” turns out to be a whole lot of truth.
“I Second That Emotion,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 1968. One of my all-time favorite Smokey songs, and the number one song in the US 50 years ago this January, this riveting number gets the short shrift by most musicologists when they review Robinson’s scintillating career. In songwriting circles, this one is often studied for its use of secondary rhymes and melodic intricacy. Smokey sprinkled in words like “notion” and “devotion” to compliment the title, all while rhyming verses with phrases like “kisses sweet” and “no repeat.” The guitar line also perfectly accents the vocal. Smokey has always credited Motown founder Berry Gordy for his songwriting evolution. FYI, Gordy was a songwriter before he started the legendary record label – he was Jackie Wilson’s chief composer in the ‘50’s – and Berry taught Robinson how to write sophisticated yet accessible tunes.
“It’s Only Make Believe,” Robert Gordon, 1978. Featuring the legendary rockabilly guitarist, Link Wray, the early rock revivalist Robert Gordon completely outdoes Conway Twitty’s original, belting out this quintessential 1950’s ballad with such reverence that you swear it must have been recorded in the Sun Records Recording Studios in Memphis with Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and the Jordanaires. Want to go back in time? Check this out, pronto.
“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” Jimmie Rodgers, 1958. Jimmie Rodgers took an old Weaver’s’ standard, updated it, and made it to number one 60 years ago today. Of course, Jimmie Rodgers acoustic folk ballads in the 1950s turned out to be a foreshadow of the folkies who came to dominate the ensuing decade. Here was a man before his time – whose singles such as “Honeycomb,” “Secretly,” and this one – made him a rich man by 1960. (By the way, I love this particular YouTube version on a fan’s old record player. As Ringo once stated, “If it doesn’t have a scratch in it, then I don’t trust it.”)
“The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Joni Mitchell, 1971. From her masterpiece, Blue, Joni ended the album with this heartrending ode that turns out to be a perfect storm of lyrics, vocals, and musicianship. While we did not know it at the time, it was actually a sonnet to her old boyfriend, Graham Nash, who, ironically, had just written his classic, “Our House,” in honor of Joni. As usual, her highly crafted lines are sung in a voice that is lilting, uncompromising, elegant, and heartbreaking. “I gave up hiding behind bottles in dark cafes a few years ago now. Was told too many Lies. I grew my gorgeous wings and flew away…” From this lens, Joni Mitchell is a Nobel Prize for Literature waiting to happen.
“Honky Tonkin’,” Hank Williams, 1948. Could it be that this Hank classic was recorded 70 years ago this year? As Hank said famously at the time, “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” His tragic death at the age of 29 on January 1, 1953, still leaves one in wonder at the breadth of music he wrote, published, and recorded in a very short lifetime. In the same interview, Hank exclaimed, “I was a pretty good imitator of Roy Acuff, but then I found out they already had a Roy Acuff, so I started singing like myself.” And that’s the key to success in life. Be yourself.
“Everything That Touches You,” The Association, 1968. The Association attempted to compose an anthem of love, peace, and understanding – and succeeded with aplomb – only to be ignored by a weary teenage population that was growing ever more cynical due to the raging Tet Offensive that dominated the news a half-century ago this January. That this incandescent ballad hit its zenith at number 11 on the Billboard Top 40 just months before both Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered says a lot about the troublesome days and nights we experienced back then. Still, if you lift the covers of history and just focus on the music, there’s so much to relish here. Luminous harmonies, deft lyrics, superb musicianship (thanks to LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew), and a production that was worthy of Sir George Martin, all combine to generate the Association’s most underrated classic. Sadly, it was also the band’s last substantial hit.
“Too Much of Nothing,” Peter, Paul, and Mary, 1968. A supposed throwaway song that Bob Dylan originally composed during his hiatus with the Band in 1967, this ballad found legs when Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, shared it with one of his other clients, Mary Travers. Within a few months, Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded their version of “Too Much of Nothing,” which turned out to be a top ten hit for them 50 years ago in January 1968. I have long felt that this is one of the group’s more radiant interpretations of Dylan’s music, especially in the haunting, three-part-harmony refrain: “Say hello to Valerie/Say hello to Vivian/Give them all my salary/On the waters of oblivion.”
“Smile Please,” Stevie Wonder, 1974. Yes, there is so much that has occurred over the past year, 2017, which would make us all permanently downcast, like a perpetual shroud of pea soup fog blocking the sun. As an eternal optimist, however, I chose to believe that somehow the best days are ahead of us. Whenever I am down, I go to my default artist, Stevie Wonder, who continually reminds us that even in the darkness, we can see the stars. Thus, let’s start 2018 right with a song, which proclaims, “They’re brighter days ahead!” As always, thank you, Stevie, for your voice, vision, and eternal presence. Happy New Year, 2018, everybody!