The Fab Four play their own version of “Up On the Roof” on January 28, 1969 – fifty years ago this year. (It was actually “One After 909.”)
A NOTE: I ORIGINALLY POSTED THESE 100+ SONG ENTRIES ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE EVERY 2-4 DAYS, BEGINNING ON JANUARY 1, 2019. BECAUSE I COMPOSED AND THEN PUBLISHED THEM AS THE YEAR PROGRESSED, THE MOST RECENT ENTRIES ARE FROM DECEMBER, WHILE THE FIRST ENTRY OF THE YEAR, WHICH I POSTED ON 1/1/2019, IS LISTED LAST HERE.
“That’s The Way Love Is,” Marvin Gaye, 1969. A Top Ten hit 50 years ago this December, this is a seamless recording, from the production to the groove foundation of the Funk Brothers amplified by James Jamerson’s bass work, Motown’s incomparable background vocalists, and, most of all, the way Marvin delivers the lyrics with his one-of-kind voice. You truly believe he is singing just to you, and you alone. It’s as if he’s right next to you comforting you after a break-up. The Prince of Soul, indeed.
“House of Mirrors,” T-Bone Burnett, 1980. Recorded 40 years ago this December and released during the second week of January in 1980, T-Bone Burnett’s “House of Mirrors” is one of the savviest and most distinctive songs released in the past half-century. Like Bill Parson’s 1950’s classic, “The All-American Boy,” “House of Mirrors” is recorded in spoken-song-style, with a stand-up bass and lead acoustic supported by a head-banging drummer. The allegoric song, like its twin, Burnett’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” is filled with intrigue and pathos. The “House of Mirror’s” closing phrase, “And eventually like Napoleon – he attacked Russia,” is both unexpected and brilliant.
“Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969. While most felt this was just another anti-Vietnam War anthem, Army reservists John Fogerty and Doug Clifford composed the number as a paean to class warfare. “The rich -ala Donald Trump – were getting out of being drafted. The poor and the middle class had little or no pull whatsoever,” said Fogerty in 2018. “If you walked down the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the vast majority of names are the sons and daughters of the have-nots. It was that kind of war.” Like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” is one of the most misinterpreted songs in rock ‘n roll history. The rockabilly chords coupled with the Dave Clark-like percussion tom-toms, though, make it a grade A class rocker beyond the lyrics. Like many CCR fans, this has remained one of my two or three favorite tunes they recorded throughout their meteoric career as a rock and roll band.
“Pink Champagne,” Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers, 1949. It’s almost a joke that most history textbooks proclaim that the Rock Era supposedly commenced in 1955 with the release of Bill Haley and the Comets’ single, “Rock Around the Clock.” After all, African-American radio stations had been spinning early rock classics such as this for at least a decade before ‘55. Rhythm and blues, of course, was an offshoot of swing; it was the next venue that jazz performers who had been swing bands ventured to as a matter of progression. I first heard this song as a Georgie Fame cover. Joe Liggins’ songs were mostly a blend of jump blues and mainstream R&B. Liggins was hardly a matinee idol — balding, bespectacled, and heavy-set in his 30’s — yet the California-based pianist and composer was innovative, developing an accessible, jumping big-band sound with a smaller combo. His recordings were widely covered, and he remained an active recording and performing artist well into the 1980’s.
“Don’t Know Much,” Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville, 1990. Imagine two of the most iconic American singers combining their sublime talents to produce something that transcends time. That is what you have with Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Nelville’s single, “Don’t Know Much,” which dominated the airwaves 30 years ago this December. A few weeks after it hit number one they sang their much-admired duet live at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Neither artist needed studio trickery to make them sound good – they already had it in spades. What you might not remember is that “Don’t Know Much” was actually a cover. Ten years previously, the acclaimed Brill Building husband-and-wife songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil composed this for Mann’s self-titled 1979 album. Bill Medley and Bette Midler later recorded versions of it, but it was Ronstadt and Neville who catapulted it to the heavens.
“Rain,” the Beatles, 1966. Recorded in two separate sessions between April 14 and 16, 1966 in Abbey Road Studio Number 3, “Rain,” a John Lennon number, was supposed to be the B-side to Paul McCartney’s “Paperback Writer.” For many Beatles fans, however, “Rain” was the A-side in every way, an energetic rocker from the old days that had an additional, neo-psychedelic quality to it. In most of John Lennon compositions, there was a decidedly connected quality that was difficult to miss. Three years earlier, in the first verse of his “There’s A Place,” Lennon sang, “There’s place/Where I can go/Where I feel low/ When I feel blue/ And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone…” Now, at the height of Beatlemania, John Lennon, in particular, began to experiment both musically and socially to such a degree that in “Rain,” he extends the thought process beyond the borders of one’s own life. In this new world, the good and the bad happened regularly; it is up to the individual to rise above the daily circumstances of one’s existence in order to be free of such restrictions. John, who had come to serve one of the spiritual guides of his generation, ended up guaranteeing in the ballad that “…it’s just a state of mind.” After all, he promised,”…I will show you.” As in much of their later work, there were several production-studio tricks integrated into “Rain.” Because they were now the most renowned band in the world, they became indifferent to booking expensive studio time. Indeed, if the Beatles wanted to record in one of the three Abbey Road studios, they would block-book it – and not fret about the cost. This allowed them to dabble as novice producers with the unsung George Martin graciously providing a wellspring of sagacity along the way. As a result of such heady collaboration, “Rain” was recorded at a slightly faster tempo at Martin’s suggestion. John slowed the track down “slightly” by hand in order to give it a clanging feel. The band also decided to amplify Paul’s bass, which served as the lead instrument. Ringo’s superb backbeat skills were also at full throttle throughout the number, creating a density of sound that sounds almost improvisational at first listen. The coup de grace, of course, turned out to be Lennon’s decision to spool the opening lines of the song backward – and use it instead as the inimitable closing of the number: “Sdaeh rieht edih dna nur yeht semoc niar eht fi…” When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher formally introduced Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” to us by printing out the lyrics to both “I am a Walrus” as well as the last stanza of “Rain.” When she played the ending of each in class, she asked somewhat mockingly, “So what is John really saying here?” It is that Lennonesque blend of nonsense and perception that continue to delight and fascinate even the most casual of listeners. Ultimately, “Rain” turned out to be the Beatles’ first stab at suggesting a weighty, transcendental state of consciousness. In 1963’s “There’s a Place,” John sang through the prism of a dull-grey world. Three years later, “Rain” was shaded in dazzling technicolor.
“Still,” The Commodores, 1979. When he was asked about this Top 5 hit from December 1979, Lionel Richie stunned critics by admitting, “It was written for a couple I knew and loved – and who had decided to end their marriage in order to save their friendship. Interestingly, I tried to vocally channel the late Jim Croce as much as I could on it. It was my love letter to him – a truly great songwriter and singer.” Right before he left the Commodores to become a solo artist, Richie was at the height of his artistic powers when the band appeared on Soul Train and recorded this stellar version live.
“Never Goin’ Back,” The Lovin’ Spoonful, 1969. Originally composed by John Stewart who then recorded it in 1968, the Lovin’ Spoonful ultimately cranked out a cover version of it a few months later in the winter of ’69 that was both sublime and understated – and proved to be their last top 40 hit before they officially broke up. A deep cut from a band whose influence remained steadfast in the burgeoning country-rock genre of the 1970’s, the introduction of the tune proved to be the template for Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” reminding us all that no good number in rock is ever wasted. “Never Goin’ Back” is one of those tunes that has aged well over the years.
“You’ve Got What it Takes,” Marv Johnson, 1959. The first artist to be signed by Berry Gordy for Tamla Records, which later became known as Motown, Marv Johnson was a highly influential R&B singer who enjoyed a string of hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s with “You’ve Got What it Takes” being his most prominent single. Like many early soul singers, Johnson’s popularity was more considerable in both England and Australia, where he enjoyed sustained support through the mid-1970s. When Johnson died in 1993, his widow put the moniker, “Pioneer of Motown,” on his tombstone in his home city of Detroit. Ultimately, Marv Johnson was a significant influence of such revered figures as David Ruffin and Levi Stubbs. Some of you might remember that this was a rollicking 1967 number covered by the Dave Clark Five, where it made it to the top 10 in the spring of that memorable musical year.
“You Should Have Been There,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1989. One of my favorite Marshall Crenshaw singles; sadly, though, it was a little blip-on-the-musical-screen when it was released 30 years ago this winter. Why Crenshaw never became a major rock and roll star has always been a genuine wonder to me. With his Beatlesque sensibility and his passion for coy lyrics and deft musicianship, he should have been a revered figure in the genre. I have a few friends who put him in the same conversation as Marshall Crenshaw is on the same level as Buddy Holly, the Beatles, and Crowded House. I do think that Crenshaw, who played Holly to a T in the movie, La Bamba, and who played John on Broadway in Beatlemania, produced the kind of music that Buddy Holly might well have generated if he hadn’t died so young.
“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” Frank Sinatra, 1961. To conclude his initial Reprise album release, Ring-A-Ding-Ding, Francis Albert Sinatra is still happily grounded in his distilling Capitol Records voice. With Johnny Mandel doing his best Count Basie imitation as both arranger and orchestral leader here on this spirited Irving Berlin number, what’s not to love? When I listed this as one of my top-ten favorite Sinatra favorites on the Chairman of the Board website, I received a wellspring of positive feedback, and a score of “YES” responses! May you all have the best of Christmases – and God bless us, everyone!
“Soul Deep,” The Box Tops, 1969. The late Alex Chilton, the lead singer of the Box Tops, was barely 16-years-old when the band recorded their masterpiece, “The Letter.” Two years later, “Soul Deep” was written, recorded, and released by the group, which once again featured Chilton’s intense vocals. While it didn’t receive the enormous airplay that their first single did; nevertheless, “Soul Deep” deservedly entered the Billboard Top Ten 50 years ago this December. Happily, the newly enhanced version, which came out last year, is the result of some stellar engineering and fiddling around with the original master. In the end, it sounds better than it ever did before! As an aside, one of my friends had “Soul Deep” on an eight-track tape during our high school days. Like most music connoisseurs, I converted from records to cassettes to CD’s, but I never dabbled in eight-tracks after one of my music teachers, Mr. Dan Riley, proclaimed that they were… “the Warsaw Pact versions of cassettes.”
“This Time of the Year,” Brook Benton, 1959. As good a holiday ballad as written and recorded and produced in the 1950s, this terrific Christmas recording by the great Brook Benton – sounding so much like the great Nat Cole – was a top ten hit in both the United States and Canada 60 years ago this week. Not surprisingly, it has now become a staple on Sirius X’s Christmas station. Truthfully, I hadn’t heard it for decades until I heard it one day driving to the market. From this lens, “This Time of the Year” should be placed under the category of “great holiday fireplace music.”
“Up on Cripple Creek,” The Band, 1969. “Up on Cripple Creek” is, of course, one of the Band’s most beloved songs, but inexplicably, it only reached number 25 on the US Billboard Top forty 50 years ago this fall. Interestingly, the five members of the group thought the now revered number was the proverbial toss-off song. “It took a long time for that tune to seep into us,” said Levon Helm to Rolling Stone magazine in 2003. “It was like it had to simmer with everybody awhile. We cut it two or three times, but nobody really liked it. It wasn’t quite fun. But we fooled around with it, and finally one night, we just got a hold of it, doubled up a couple of chorus parts and harmony parts, and that was it.” Like most of the ballads, “Up on Cripple Creek” has only grown in both stature and popularity over time.
“Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” Paul Anka, 1959. Paul Anka was just 18-years-old when he wrote and recorded this standard in the fall of ‘59. By early December, it had reached # 2 on the Billboard Top 40. As he explained years later, “Put your head on my shoulder… that was your objective that weekend if you were a teenager like me in the late ’50’s. To get her to get the head on the shoulder, maybe get a kiss and get your hand in her blouse. All that I understood – and I wrote it after one rather glum Saturday night.” Given that this was his breakout hit internationally, there weren’t many dour evenings for the native of Ottawa from then on. While Anka composed, “My Way,” Frank Sinatra a decade later, it was his instrumental version of Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show Theme,” which ultimately made him a multimillionaire because of the ASCAP rights, which kicked in every time it was played by Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra each night for 31 years.
“Baby, It’s You,” A Group Called Smith, 1969. At the time, we adolescent boys not only thought that lead singer, Gayle McCormick, was hot, but that she was some kind of a California-hippie version of Petula Clark on birth control. That Gayle turned out to be a slightly conventional Midwesterner from St. Louis who then spent her entire adult life in Missouri as a mother and wife only adds to the luster at the time. (Sadly, Ms. McCormick died of cancer three years ago). While A Group Called Smith also enjoyed some proceeds from the Band’s “The Weight,” a tune, which was featured on the Easy Rider soundtrack; it was this Jefferson Airplane-like version of the Burt Bacharach single first made famous by the Shirelles (and then the Beatles) that captured our hearts a half-a-century ago this fall.
“Synchronicity II,” The Police, 1983. Working-class angst from one of the great British bands of their age is made complete with the most searing refrain they ever sang: “Many miles away/something crawls from the slime/at the bottom of a dark Scottish lake.”) Ironically, in the concept album, Synchronicity, this was part of a narrative of the life of a dissatisfied bloke who had to put up with the BS and day-to-day drudgery in order to survive. Like many of the Sting’s original songs,” Synchronicity II” is seemingly harmonious and happy, all the while conveying a dark undercurrent of despair and a Jungian reference by Sting, a former English teacher. Kudos as well Stewart Copeland’s crash roll, playing to Andy Summer’s riff at 3:46 of the tune. Ultimately, “Synchronicity II” is one of the most underrated singles released in the 1980’s. From my vantage point, the Police are up there with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream in the Everest of three-member rock bands.
“Leavin’ on a Jet Plane,” Peter, Paul, and Mary, 1969. The number one song in the US and Canada fifty years ago this fall, very few of us knew it back then that this classic American ballad was composed by John Denver, who was then a nascent soloist looking for the next big break. When Denver first recorded it the year he composed “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” 1967, he was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio. Spanky and Our Gang recorded it the next year, and when Paul Stookey heard their cover, he said to the group’s manager, Albert Grossman, “We can do better with that. This is a potential hit!” At the time “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” went to number one, there were thousands of young men who heard this wistful cover before they left for Vietnam. In retrospect, this is one of Mary Travers’ vocal masterworks. Her enriched alto, clipped phrasing, and earnest tone all drive the bus here, and it makes you well-up listening to her all these years later. Of course, Paul Stookey’s production is both timeless and understated. Ultimately, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was the last song Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded in the 1960s, saying au revoir to a decade where they had generated 11 top ten songs and seven best-selling albums.
“I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For,” Bing Crosby with the Bob Crosby Orchestra, 1942. One of the truly great songs that framed Irving Berlin’s masterwork, Holiday Inn, this celebratory ballad to Thanksgiving rings true after all of these years. The Broadway sensibility, the snappy swing band orchestration, the coy lyrics, and Bing’s unique phrasing and smooth-as-butter tenor make this the perfect holiday treat. Happy Thanksgiving 2019, my friends!
“One After 909,” The Beatles, 1963, Version 1. On July 6, 1957, John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time at a late afternoon concert at the Woolton County Fair in which Lennon’s band, the Quarrymen, played. At the time, Lennon was 16; Paul a year younger. A few days later, at John’s invitation, McCartney had joined the group. The Quarrymen then began rehearsing with their new bandmate by playing the usual standard fare at the time for most British rock groups – a Chuck Berry tune here, a Little Richard number there, with a smattering Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins mixed in like beef stew. At the first rehearsal, Paul introduced to the group a piece that he had just written; a lingering ballad entitled “In Spite of all the Danger,” which the band then dutifully recorded on a pal’s tape deck. Not to be outdone, John countered Paul’s composition a week later with an original of his own, the effervescent, “One After 909.” Based on Lonnie Donegan’s 1955 hit, “Rock Island Line,” a British skiffle rendition of the traditional American ballad first popularized by Leadbelly, “One After 909” was “the first tune I ever wrote on me own,” Lennon told television host Tom Snyder in 1975. In the early years of the Beatles, it was a standard that would often be played “to rev the audience up – we played it with the same pattering style as Lonnie Donegan had on ‘Rock Island Line,’ but our guitar work in the very early days was pure Carl Perkins – all rockabilly,” Lennon told Snyder on NBC’s Tomorrow Show. On March 5, 1963, the Beatles recorded “One After 909” at Abbey Road Studio Number One, but it… “just didn’t seem right – and we argued over it after recording three or four takes of it,” Lennon admitted. The problem was that the composition sounded downright mechanical mostly because they played it in the characteristically rhythmic style of the early rockers. Even though they recorded two alternate takes of “One After 909,” by day’s end, the band ended up shelving the number.
“One After 909,” The Beatles, 1969, Version 2. Fast forward to the Let It Be sessions six years later. The Beatles, who had just completed the mesmerizing but polarizing White Album four months previously, were brought back together in January, 1969, by Paul McCartney, who believed that the band needed to play in front of a live audience once again in order to remind each Beatle of the camaraderie that had always served them in years past. The group began rehearsing some of the old songs from their Hamburg days while interspersing their playlist with hot-off-the-press originals. During one lingering session in Abbey Road Studio #2, John impulsively broke into “One After 909,” and the rest of the band instinctively began to support him. “Even after all those years, we still could play that number in our sleep,” said Ringo in The Beatles Anthology. However, George, who had been hanging around Eric Clapton throughout much of that winter, mischievously commenced playing the lead guitar as Clapton would have – unfettered, resourceful, and bluesy. On a famed Let it Be bootleg, George can be heard saying, “Here’s how Eric would play it…” “That’s it! That’s it!” John shouted, “We’ve got something here now!” In subsequent rehearsals, they added the keyboard work of Billy Preston, who added a jazzy trill to the entire affair. On the afternoon of January 28, 1969, the Beatles, plus Preston, ended up performing their new version of “One After 909” on top of the Abbey Road Studios in what would become their legendary rooftop concert. (I happened to turn fourteen that day). Ultimately, the band was able to capture the fizz of their Cavern Club days in the early ’60’s before they were famous and updated it to make it sound as if it had just been written. Where once the number had sounded both confining and perfunctory, it now had an exhilarating, spontaneous feel to it. I have never tired of hearing the apparent joie de vivre the group felt as they finally got “One After 909” right twelve years after it was first written. They just “let it fly” that chilly day in January more than a half-century ago. Like an old friend, the song has never failed to boost my spirits.
“The Logical Song,” Supertramp, 1979. The refrain of modern-day students for the past 60 years – why are we learning this shit when we could change the world and learn things that would make a difference? – is lucidly posed in this popular single by Supertramp 40 years ago this fall. Like all of their songs, “The Logical Song” is laced with faultless and inspired musicianship coupled with a keen eye for the lyrical ear. As someone who has taught hundreds and hundreds of middle schoolers over the past four decades, their angst could be summed up in the ballad’s refrain: “There are times when all the world’s asleep. The questions run too deep for such a simple man. Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned. I know it sounds absurd. But please tell me who I am?“
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” The Rolling Stones, 1969. On the final track of their last album of the ’60’s, the Glimmer Twins kicked the can on the ultimate realistic theme: Everything is possible in life, but it all came at a price. Even as they were prepared to take over the mantle from the Beatles, who were in the midst of a bitter divorce, they had problems with drug addiction and replacing their own Arthurian figure, Brian Jones, who was now dead and buried.” You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was “basically all Mick,” Richards admitted. It was he who came up with the idea of the London Bach Choir, arranged by Jack Nitzsche, who famously backed up the Stones on this single. Guest pianist Al Kooper’s potent contribution on the French horn and Stones’ producer Jimmy Miller percussional work can’t be underestimated here either. “It was,” Keith Richards proclaimed, “a beautiful juxtaposition.” Yes, it damn well was.
“Mr. Blue,” The Fleetwoods, 1959. On November 16, 1959, “Mr. Blue” was the number 1 song in both the US and Canada. Consisting of high school friends Barbara Ellis Gretchen Christopher, and Gary Troxel from Olympia Washington, The Fleetwoods turned out to be the real deal. That lead singer Gary Troxel looked an even sounded like Chet Baker was readily apparent, even back then. The trio who had such hits as “Come Softly to Me,” “Tragedy,” and “Goodnight My Love,” influenced a fledgling songwriter from Hawthorne, California. When that young man, Brian Wilson was asked in 1963 what groups influenced him as a musician, he listed the Fleetwoods, mainly on their ability to harmonize with aplomb. In every way, this is a classic Eisenhower-era single to the tenth degree.
“Brass in Pocket,” The Pretenders, 1979. “I never thought it was that great,” Chrissie Hynde says today of her now iconic, “Brass In Pocket” As Hynde remembered in a recent Rolling Stone interview: “I mean, a lot of our friends asked, was it pop? Motown? Rock? It didn’t seem to know what it was. I used to cringe when I heard my voice on those early Pretenders recordings, and then that fucker went to number one! I remember walking around Oxford Circus hearing it blasting out of people’s radios. I was mortified.” For all Hynde’s doubts about the song, the public bought “Brass in Pocket” and made it number one in the UK. It also received significant airplay on American FM radio stations. I, for one, found Chrissie Hynde’s cheeky, American-tinged portrayal of a girl who didn’t suffer fools well, irresistible. Forty years ago this autumn, “Brass in Pocket” was recorded in a North London studio. That doesn’t seem possible.
“You Made Me So Very Happy,” Blood, Sweat, and Tears, 1969. Initially composed by Motown’s Brenda Holloway, Frank Wilson, and Berry Gordy in 1967, “You Made Me So Very Happy” turned out to be a relatively popular R&B single in the summer of 1967 for Brenda Holloway on the Tamla label. Two years later, however, the jazz-fused rock band, Blood, Sweat, and Tears completely altered it and took their cover version to #1 on the pop charts 50 years ago this week! As with virtually every BS&T song, vocalist David Clayton Thomas uses his growling singing voice as an instrument, blending seamlessly with a group of musicians known for their superb instrumentation. Ultimately, Blood, Sweat, and Tears formed the middle of a musical pop-jazz renaissance that commenced with the Buckinghams and ended with Chicago. In retrospect, it’s astonishing that the group and Thomas didn’t have a longer shelf life. 50 years ago this month, however, no band was hotter in America than BS&T. As the Romans used to say, gloria fluxa.
“It’s Just a Matter of Time,” Brook Benton, 1959. For a decade, Brook Benton was a significantly popular recording artist, with a vocal range from mid-tenor to tessitura bass. Formerly a member of the popular gospel quintet, The Sandmen, Benton began dabbling in pop, first as a songwriter – he composed “A Lover’s Question” for Clyde McPhatter – before launching his solo career in the late 1950s. Benton eventually charted a total of 49 singles on the Billboard Top 40, with other songs charting on Billboard′s rhythm and blues, easy listening, and Christmas music charts. Brook eventually produced a series of astonishing duets with the late Dinah Washington, which resulted in three, million-disc sellers. Benton’s central vocal influence, Billy Eckstine, is readily apparent in this seamless performance, which entered the Top 10 sixty years ago this November.
“When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” Van Morrison, 1999. One of the balladeer’s most gentle and evocative ballads, the subject is less about autumn, his favorite season, than it is about growing old with someone you love. In Van theMan’s web of artistry, the leaves themselves become a metaphor – one green and immortal – they then fall slowly to the ground, old, fragile, Nevertheless, if they fall with others who care, then the long day’s journey into night is well worth the ride. Van Morrison is one individual I know who has adeptly turned his wounds into wisdom.
“Time is Tight,” Booker T and the MG’s, 1969. Cropper, Dunn, Jackson, and Jones of Stax were the instrumental counterparts of Motown’s Funk Brothers – Jamerson, Benjamin, Van Dyke, and White. For the uninformed, Booker T. & the MG’s were the house band for Memphis’s Stax Records, but they released some albums under their own name. “Time is Tight” is driven by the Hammond B-3 organ played by the incomparable Booker T. Jones. He played guitar, saxophone and a variety of other instruments when he joined Stax Records, but the organ is where Booker T. truly made his mark. This single by the MG’s one of their best – and one of their last. Unlike the Funk Brothers, Booker T and the MG’s got their props in real-time. One of the great instrumental singles released in the 1960s, “Time is Tight” was a Top 10 hit for Booker T and his band fifty years ago this October. It remains one of the enduring instrumentals of the era.
“Everybody’s Talkin’,” Harry Nilsson, 1969. Writer David Hertzberg was 12 years old when this astonishing tune was released 50 years ago this month. Hertzberg later commented when the official video was rereleased of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” last year: “Thank you for uploading this great footage… the black background, with the feeling of vast, empty space, is a touch of genius. I remember, vividly, hearing this song on the radio for the first time when I was 12 years old, living in Southern California. On the cusp of adolescence, all my senses were highly attuned… listening to the words; I remember feeling dizzy, even though the hot wind was blowing in my face as I peered out the window as if the car I was in had suddenly been emptied of oxygen. I was too young to know exactly what the words meant, but their impact, reinforced by Nilsson’s voice and the stunning chromatic harmonies, was palpable… today I sit and listen and an almost imperceptible evanescence of the vertigo returns, along with the smells and images — and even the Southern California heat — from that time. I think that this is, for me, the most evocative composition ever, even more so than Mozart’s Requiem. And to see Nilsson perform it — as though I am in the audience — is, well, simply incredible.” A half-century ago, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the opening ballad to one of the most popular movies of 1969, Midnight Cowboy, was the number one song in the US and Canada. It remains one of my very favorites from an extraordinary musical year.
“Love Potion Number Nine,” The Clovers, 1959. Written by the legendary Brill Building team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the acclaimed doo-wop group, the Clovers, ended up recording it sixty years ago this August. By October 1959, it had made it to the top 10 in both the US and Canada. As you probably know, Leiber and Stoller wrote many songs such as “Hound Dog” and “Charlie Brown” with witty and even goofy lyrics. The composers also left open the option of a sequel when they included the following words that concluded the tune: “I had so much fun that I’m going back again! I wonder what happens with Love Potion #10!” While the British Invasion band, The Searchers, had a number 3 hit with this in 1965, I’ve always preferred the Clovers more stylized version. After all, the original recipe is usually the best.
Dim All the Nights, Sweet Darlin’ (‘Cuz Tonight It’s All the Way),” Donna Summer, 1979. I know that my Grateful Dead and Steely Dan friends snarfed at me for liking Donna Summer, but singles like “Dim All the Lights” were nothing more than disco updates of the kind of soul-swing-songs that James Brown recorded in the mid-sixties. Interestingly, Summer originally wrote this for Rod Stewart but decided to record it herself and snuck it on her 1978 hit album, Bad Girls. (The song also contains the longest-held note by any female vocalist to make both the US and UK Top 40 at 16 seconds). Incredibly, Donna Summer generated 32 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100, 14 of those reaching the top 10 and five at number 1, including this number, which made it to the top of the charts 40 years ago this September. By the way, can we now agree that not only were Donna’s songs great to dance to but her vocals were nearly always impeccable? What a shame that it took her early and untimely death to cancer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to finally vote her in.
“For No One,” The Beatles, 1966. written by Sir Paul in the bathroom at the Swiss ski resort at Klosters in March 1966, “For No One” turned out to be one of his McCartney’s most evocative songs. A ballad based on a once-passionate relationship between two lovers, written through a series of flashbacks of their lives, the vocalist realizes that the love that had once united them both is now gone. At the time, Paul was in the final stages of a three-year relationship with Jane Asher, a ravishing, red-headed beauty who had been a renowned child actress in Britain. Asher ended up serving as the muse for such classics as “Things We Said Today,” “And I Love Her,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Here, There, Everywhere,” and Keith Richards’ “Lady Jane.” While Paul and Jane would not break up until a year later, John Lennon always claimed that “For No One” was a subliminal foreshadowing of what was to come for McCartney. As both a human being and as an artist, Paul could be incredibly coy. His decided ambivalence – an almost existential acceptance of the inevitable – contrasted exquisitely against the backdrop of John’s quirky temperament. Thus, in “For No One,” McCartney ends up focusing on a partner whose love had finally ebbed – and the effect it had on the cohort. In a clinical, detached way, Paul writes, “And in her eyes, you see nothing/No sign of love behind the tears/Cried for no one…” The only real sentiment that frames the number comes in the last line – “A love that should have lasted years!” As Beatle historian, Ian MacDonald, wrote, “‘ For No One’ is one of McCartney’s most faultless pieces, a tune constructed with the author’s customary logic that methodically moved through its classical steps like a chess player.” It is one of those rare Beatles’ songs that feel as if the songwriter and vocalist are leading the rest of the band, a virtuoso conductor who knows what moves he wants his group to make. Here, McCartney creates a lush, divergent melody that is so interesting that I have never tired of listening to it. While John Lennon was a pure rock and roller, Paul McCartney often produced his most substantial numbers outside the margins of the genre.
“Take The ‘A Train,’” Duke Ellington and His Band, 1941. Could it be that this American classic was the number one song in the US 78 years ago this fall? In the end, “Take the ‘A’ Train” was written by the great Billy Strayhorn, who was the arranger for Duke Ellington’s band. In a 1959 interview in Downbeat, he claimed that the music and lyrics for the standard were originally recorded on February 15, 1941, by Ellington for Victor Records, came more quickly than the subject of the song itself – the New York subway line to the Sugar Hill district of Harlem. It was so easy for him; he said it was “like writing a letter to a friend.” The tune became Ellington’s theme song and an undisputed standard that has been performed by countless high school bands ever since. No one, of course, could do it better than the legendary Sir Duke and his orchestra. On March 8, 1974, Jacksonville University’s then Dean of Fine Arts, Frances Kinney, booked Duke Ellington and his band at JU for a concert, which I thankfully attended. It turned out to be his last public performance. The great Duke Ellington died a month later in his beloved New York City.
New York Tendaberry,” Laura Nyro, 1969. The late great singer-songwriter described the title track of her third studio album as having emerged during a “very wild time of exploration.” Accordingly, the ballad, “New York Tendaberry” had a profoundly emotive arrangement, with moments of unfettered silence, braced against a piano as the sole accompaniment to Nyro’s soothing vocal harmonies that carried a lyrical portrait of city life: “Sweet kids in hunger slums / Firecrackers break / And they cross / And they dust / And they skate / And the night comes.” On what would be her 72nd birthday, Laura Nyro’s music sounds as effervescent now as it did a half-century ago when this exquisite song was released
“After the Love Has Gone,” Earth, Wind, and Fire, 1979. Forty years ago this fall, the late Maurice White and Earth, Wind, and Fire had the number 1 hit in North America with this phenomenal single, which combined a luscious melody, compelling lyrics, and first-rate harmonies and orchestration. Musically, this song stands out because of its distinct progression, according to co-writer Bill Champlin. “After The Love Has Gone,” that’s not a progression you’re going to hear on 25 songs next week. “From letter B of “After The Love Has Gone” to letter C, to the chorus, is unbelievable,” he said. “That’s what sold that record. And David Foster, who wrote the music for the piece, came up with a really cool move that changed it up. It’s almost got two choruses in that song.” In my mind, the famed crescendo of the ballad, which occurs around the 3-minute mark, makes it an all-timer; the saxophone solo at the end of the ballad by Don Myrick puts an emphatic exclamation mark on a flawless song. When a flawless musical tract and an exceptional band intersects, such a perfect storm invariably creates a timeless, beloved recording.
“Someone to Watch Over Me,” Amy Winehouse, 2009. Amy takes this Gershwin masterpiece and transforms it into something almost ethereal. In retrospect, it’s a damned shame that there was no one to watch over Miss Winehouse. A once-in-a-generation talent, she was already evolving into her generation’s Billie Holiday when she suddenly died at 27. What most fans don’t know is that Amy revered such musical icons as Lady Ella, Satchmo, Sarah Vaughan, Ol’ Blue Eyes, Nat King Cole, and Lady Day. Of course, Winehouse’s knowledge of jazz recordings was encyclopedic. She knew who had played bass on a Holiday recording from 1954 and could debate whether that bassist was more suitable than another bassist who had recorded the same piece a week later. As Tony Bennett stated later on, “Amy was the best student I ever had. She gobbled up every piece of information as if it was the oxygen that kept her going.”
“In the Court of the Crimson King,” King Crimson, 1969. From their epic 1969 LP that might just be the earliest “progressive rock” album ever released, the title song here, which was released as a single 50 years ago this fall, remains both undaunted and unrepeatable. An Atlantic Records advert at the time of the album’s release claimed it featured “the heaviest” riffs on record since Mahler’s 8th Symphony! Produced by the great Tony Clarke (of Moody Blues fame), and featuring the genius of the late Greg Lake on lead vocals and bass guitar and Robert Fripp on lead guitar, the Who’s Pete Townshend called this number “an uncanny masterpiece.” I agree. And, oh, what an album cover!
“Steady On,” Shawn Colvin, 1989. When Shawn Colvin was on, she was most definitely on. Not only is the video production here as seamless as the musicianship, but the lyrics are also up to the task, with lines such as…” we are in the nuclear winter of another love affair.” Thirty years ago this fall, this was a top-10-song for the Carbondale, Illinois native. At 63, Shawn Colvin is happily still recording and touring.
“He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brother,” The Hollies, 1969. This emblematic ballad, which ultimately became a clarion call for Vietnam War veterans and others under fire, was a top 10 hit in the States and Canada 50 years ago this October. Lead guitarist Tony Hicks remembers how the Hollies came across this ultra-American song, initially dedicated to Nebraska’s Boys’ Town. “In the 1960s, when we were short of songs I used to root around publishers in Denmark Street. One afternoon, I’d been there ages and wanted to get going, but this bloke said: ‘Well there’s one more song. It’s probably not for you.’ He played me the demo by the writers, Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. It sounded like a 45 rpm played at 33 rpm; the singer was slurring, like he was drunk. But it had something about it. There were frowns when I took it to the band, but we speeded it up and added an orchestra. The only things left recognizable were the lyrics. There’d been this old film called Boys Town about a children’s home in America, and the statue outside showed a child being carried aloft and the motto, ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.’ Bob Russell had been dying of cancer while writing it. We never got or asked for royalties. Elton John – who was still called Reg at the time – played piano on it and got paid 12 quid. It ended up being a worldwide hit in two different decades.” In this stellar live performance of the hit song on German TV, lead singer Allan Clarke is at his very best here in a reverent performance that does justice to both the words and the music.
“If I Could Turn Back Time,” Cher, 1989. Composed by veteran songwriter Diane Warren, who wrote “Because You Loved Me” for Celine Dion, this pulsating R&B rocker proved to be the first number-one single for Cher in fifteen years when it was released thirty years ago this fall. The Award-winning video filmed on board the USS Missouri at the Long Beach (CA) Shipyard. The ever-youthful Cher later said, “The song isn’t about turning back time. It’s really about the here and now and how you’re now better than you were back in ‘the good old days.” Amen.
“Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly),” Sammy Turner, 1959. I will confess, I don’t remember this single when it dominated the airwaves in both the US and Canada 60 years ago this week, but I did fall in love with it when I began to hear it as an oldie, most notably on the Sirius 50’s Radio Channel. In the end, the great Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller produced it (the tune was an old English folk song that was 300 years old at the time); Phil Spector played lead guitar on it; Stan Applebaum arranged it, and bluesman Sammy Turner gave it his all singing it. It turned out to be a miracle that Turner turned a folk standard composed decades before the birth of Mozart and reformed it as a modern American R&B classic. How incredible that Sammy Turner is still around these days, alive and well at 87.
Fifty years ago, The Beatles returned to the EMI Recording Studios (later renamed Abbey Road) and made their last album together. To celebrate this milestone, Abbey Road has been remixed and newly released in a remarkable box set, with alternate takes, demo recordings and surround-sound mixes, all done by producer Giles Martin and engineer Sam Okell. Here is their first video release from the project, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” I promise that it will bring tears and smiles together as close as they can ever be, And the remix? Wondrous.
“Get Together,” The Youngbloods, 1969. This clarion call for peace, love, and understanding turned out to be one the defining songs of the ’60’s. Ultimately, “Get Together” became a staple anthem at anti-war protests beginning in September of 1969, when it finally became a significant hit. What most people don’t realize, however, was that “Get Together” was first recorded in 1964 by the Kingston Trio and then re-recorded in ’65 by the We Five (of “You Were on My Mind” fame). When Jesse Colin Young and the Youngbloods covered it two years later, it turned barely was a blip on the screen during the Summer of Love – 1967. Because so many fans said that they loved the tune, however, RCA released it during the weekend of the legendary Woodstock Festival. “Get Together” ultimately made it to number one in September 1969. Given its association with those times, some of the lyrics are zen: “We are but a moment’s sunlight; Fading in the grass…” But the chorus is very clear in its message: “Come on, people now/Smile on your brother/ Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now.” Fifty years ago today, September 26, when “Get Together” became the #1 song on the Billboard Top 40, we now view the ballad as an iconic anthem, which came to represent an entire era.
“Nothing But a Miracle,” Diane Birch, 2009. The number one song worldwide ten years ago this September, the best thing I can say about this masterly release is that it sounds as if it could have been recorded during the height of soul music’s extraordinary run (1964-77). As one of my musician friends said to me one time about “Nothing But a Miracle,” it is the kind of ballad that you dream of both composing and recording. According to Birch herself, the song dealt with her apprehension about relationships and was inspired by a dead-end one that she spent around nine months in. “I’ve definitely been in a relationship where you’re kind of going through the emotions,” she said. “It’s something that a lot of people can relate to in life.”
“My Cherie Amour,” Stevie Wonder, 1969. Stevie actually composed this classic hit in 1967 when he was a student at Michigan School for the Blind, recorded a rough cut, and then inserted it into his trusty “tape box,” where he kept his song ideas preserved. At the time, Wonder had written the tune for his girlfriend, Marcia, so the song was initially entitled, “Oh, My Marcia.” By the time he recorded the ballad two years later, Marcia was in the rear-view mirror, so Stevie changed the title to “My Cherie Amour.” Given his reality, I have pondered how a man who is blind compose songs like this with such prescient vision. In Stevie’s astonishing canon of music, of course, this beloved chestnut from September ’69 has to be way up there! Hosannas as well to Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers for providing such a phenomenal musical backdrop for the singer/keyboardist extraordinaire.
“The Sea of Love,” Phil Phillips, 1959. Set against one of the most absurd vocal backups in rock and roll history, featuring former NOLA bellhop Phil Phillips’ bizarrely bel canto voice, this was the number 2 hit in the US 60 years ago this week. In retrospect, a follow-up to this smash is absolutely inconceivable.
“Rock and Roll High School,” The Ramones, 1979. The late Johnny and Joey Ramone composed this song for the movie Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, which is about a student who leads a rock rebellion against the school administration. In the film, the student, Riff Randell, played by P. J. Soles, writes the song in her songwriting class and plays it to her receptive classmates during gym class. It ends up being a searing anthem for that high school – and, of course, for the greater audience who saw it in droves in theaters across the US four decades ago. One year before I entered “the other side” and became a teacher, I still felt as if I was a misunderstood student. I think I’ve spent an entire career now trying “to understand” those who feel misconstrued as this song does so vividly here.
“Ticket to Ride,” The Beatles, 1965. John Lennon, the chief composer of this classic song from the movie, Help, long claimed that “A Ticket to Ride” was “one of the earliest heavy metal records ever made.” Although they were actually trumped by the Kinks, who, a year previously had come out with Ray Davies infectious, “You Really Got Me,” the group’s recording of “Ticket to Ride,” according to musicologist Steve Turner “was the first Beatles’ track to feature an insistent, clanking riff underpinned by a heavy drum beat while using a fade-out with an altered melody.” While most English fans at the time assumed that the ballad referred to a Brit Rail ticket to the town of Ryde on the Isle of Wight, John Lennon had a quirkier response, according to Don Short, a London journalist who traveled extensively with the band throughout their Beatlemania days. A play on words – one of John’s favorite literary tricks – lay in the cornerstone of “Ticket to Ride.” As Short later remembered three decades later, “John told me that the phrase referred to the girls who were working the streets of Hamburg, who had a clean bill of health when the Beatles worked there. Thus, the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. John told me that he coined the phrase, ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe those cards!” The sexual connotation notwithstanding, what is known is that on February 15, 1965, the Beatles met at Abbey Road Studio Number 2 in order to work on the soundtrack of their latest movie project, Help! During the afternoon, they ended up recording “Ticket to Ride.” A mid-tempo rumba whose music was punched out rather than played, it was the first single by the band not to make it to number one immediately. Instead, it would be the Beach Boys sprite, “Help Me Rhonda,” which would hold off the Beatles’ juggernaut until the single would ultimately make it to the top spot in both the US and the UK. Given “Ticket to Ride’s” pronounced amplification that lay within the context of a mid-tempo ditty, the avant-garde single directly influenced rock ‘n roll after that, particularly the enlarged guitar sound of the Yardbirds, whose band members included Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. When I recently checked the number of times that my iPod had played the Beatles’ song catalog, it was “Ticket to Ride” that had the most plays. 54 years after it was first recorded, this vastly underrated single remains an enduring masterpiece.
“Closer to Fine,” The Indigo Girls, 1989. For three decades, I have always loved the message of this song, which resonates as much today as it did when it was first released thirty years ago today. While there’s a melodic hook to the piece, it’s the Indigo Girls’ lyrics here that take center-stage: “Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable/And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear/I wrap my fear around me like a blanket/I sailed my ship of safety ’til I sank it/I’m crawling on your shores”). No matter how far, how long or how deep you search for a definitive meaning in life, you’ll end up right back to where you started. The irony though is that accepting existential defeat might actually facilitate authentic happiness. Such sagacity from one of the truly underrated groups of the 1980’s!
“Echo Park,” Keith Barbour, 1969. One of the most desolate ballads ever composed about the aftermath of war, this underrated single barely made it to the Billboard Top 20 fifty years ago this week. Given the theme, vocals, orchestration, and tone, it should have been a Top 5 hit at least. Composed by Buzz Clifford who also wrote “Milk and Honey,” for Judy Collins, “Echo Park” was recorded by the former lead singer of the New Christy Minstrels, Keith Barbour (he of the husky voice refrain, “Green, green/it’s green they say/On the far side of the hill”). Fortuitously, “Echo Park” was backed up by LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew, who lay down a seamless musical tract worthy of Sinatra in The September of My Years. The story-line of the ballad, of course, is wrenching. It concerns an elderly father who continually walks in Los Angeles’ famed Echo Park for hours upon hours each day because his son was killed in action in Korea several years before. At the end of the song, the narrator poignantly asks, “Do you measure life in years, or is one day all you’ll ever know?” What a line. Not surprisingly, the great John Prine has long claimed that he wrote his classic, “Hello in There,” after hearing “Echo Park” on the radio during the fall of 1969. As you will discover, Keith Barbour’s version here is truly exemplary. The beauty is in the bite of his vocals even as his tone is ladened with utter fidelity. Sadly, Barbour never had another significant hit afterward. I guess that most of us are one-hit wonders anyway.
“Lovers Never Say Goodbye,” The Flamingos, 1959. Universally hailed as one of the most influential vocal groups in pop music history, the Flamingos defined doo-wop at its most elegant and sophisticated. The follow up to their number-one classic, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” the emotive “Lovers Never Say Goodbye,” turned out to be a top-ten-hit sixty years ago this September. Some of you might remember that he rock ‘n roll revival performers, Sha Na Na, used to perform “Lovers Never Say Goodbye” as their closing song a generation later. Nearly nine years after its release, Boston’s revered deejay, Arnie Ginsburg of WMEX fame, played the single twice and dedicated it to Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the day he was assassinated. Et vita brevior.
“Rockin’ in the Free World,” Neil Young, 1989. Similar to The Boss’s “Born in the USA,” Neil’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” is empirically confrontational. The tune was composed in February 1989, as the Canadian-American rocker toured the Pacific Northwest. The Ayatollah Khomeini had just issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie because of his controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, and Russia had recently withdrawn its forces from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Neil and his guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, were musing on global events as they traveled to Portland. When Sampedro said to Young, “Well, I guess we’re rockin’ in the free world today,” Neil liked the line so much that he wrote the song in a Warsaw hotel room. Given the age we live in these days, I would also say that the ballad is much more relevant today than it was in 1989. Ultimately, this is one of Neil Young’s best anthems.
“Janine,” David Bowie, 1969. Although Bowie’s first self-titled album was released in 1967, his second in 1969 attracted more attention. It spawned his much-beloved single, “Space Oddity,” as well as the lesser-known “Memory of a Free Festival,” but “Janine” stands out as one of the album’s most substantive entries. “Janine,” of course, is a traditional folk song with upbeat guitars as its primary instrumentation and some clapping as percussion. It is also one of the singer/songwriter’s more infectious songs, especially for his early recording years. Unlike some performers who came of age in the 1960’s, David Bowie’s music stands up incredibly well over time.
“Baby, Come Back,” The Equals, 1968. The Equals, who were the first fully integrated British rock band, featured the extraordinary talents of a young Eddy Grant, who is on prominent display here in their most sustaining release. When I purchased this throbbing single, which was a Top 10 hit in the US fifty-one summers ago, I had to buy another copy of the 45 a decade later at an oldies store because I had simply worn out my original one! The sound quality and footage here are vraiment magnifique. You will play it more than once. I promise.
“The Three Bells,” The Browns, 1959. This revered ballad was based on the 1945 French language song, “Les Trois Cloches,” and was composed by Jean Villard Gilles. The English lyrics were penned by Bert Reisfeld and first recorded by the Melody Maids in 1948. The song was a major 1952–53 hit by the legendary Édith Piaf. When the American vocal group, the Browns, recorded it six years later, they had no idea that it would surge to the top of the Billboard Top 40 in September 1959. Ironically, the Browns’ male vocalist, Jim Ed Brown, coincidentally had the same name as the song’s character. Sixty years ago, I vividly recall hearing this song on my grandfather’s rickety old clock-radio in our old Cape Cod kitchen just as we were packing up our things to return to Wellesley for my first formal schooling experience. It seems like a different lifetime ago. I guess the great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.
“Good Morning, Starshine,” Oliver, 1969. Another superb cover song from the Broadway musical, Hair, this lilting version ended up dominating the AM airwaves 50 years ago this summer. Nominated for a Grammy “Song of the Year” award, “Good Morning, Starshine’s” buoyant optimism and guileless sense of wonder that framed the Age of Aquarius makes it a veritable cultural fossil. One of my teaching colleagues recalled hearing the single on Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam in ’69. “The time and place made the song even more surreal to me at the time,” he admitted to me not long ago. The artist singing this celebrated version of “Good Morning, Starshine,” was none other than William “Oliver” Swofford from Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Unfortunately, Oliver was a flash in the pan, although he received enthusiastic audiences for his live performances throughout the 1970’s. Eventually, though, he left show business for good in 1980. Oliver then secured a job in the pharmaceutical industry in Shreveport, Louisiana and eventually became a devoted husband and father. Tragically, he died of cancer in 2000 at the age of 54. Thankfully, Oliver’s music lives on.
“Up the Junction,” Squeeze, 1979. On so many tangible levels, this single, which was one of the more significant hits in the UK 40 years ago this August, was unusual in that it has no chorus – and the title appears only in the last line. As usual, Squeeze guitarist Chris Difford composed the lyrics here; he got the idea to write in this style from the 1972 Roxy Music song “Virginia Plain,” as well as some of the more obscure Bob Dylan songs, “Who Killed Davey Moore?” When Difford wrote it, the song had about 16 verses, but he pared it down to 5. For those of us who lived in England in the early 1980’s, there was no band more revered in the UK at the time than the Squeeze. And, yes, I did make a pilgrimage to Clapham and went out on the Common, but I never found the girl. And so it goes.
“Easy to be Hard,” Three Dog Night, 1969. While there were five singles, which were released in the summer of 1969 from the Broadway musical, Hair, none were as evocative than this inspired version by the American band, Three Dog Night. Vocalist Chuck Negron is absolutely stellar here, especially in his plaintive ending. Like the Dave Clark Five, Three Dog Night has been somewhat passed by in rock annals, and, yet, at the time, they were huge – and for good reason. In every way, this is an impeccable single and an authentic sunbeam leftover from the Woodstock Era.
“Tiger,” Fabian, 1959. One of the most popular hits from the summer of ‘59, “Tiger” was Fabian’s emphatic answer to Elvis’s “Hound Dog.” Who cares if he couldn’t really sing? We thought he sounded great at the time. By the way, the same musicians who backed Connie Francis on her string of hits do so in “Tiger” for a far less-talented Fabian. And the lyrics? “I’m feelin’ stronger than a grizzly bear; Soarin’ like an eagle flyin’ through the air; When I get you in my arms, you’d better beware. I go insane ’cause I can’t be tamed!” Finally, how about a nod to songwriter Ollie Jones, who ended up writing a string of Elvis’s B sides for his movie songs in the late ’50’s and also composed “Send for Me” for the great Nat King Cole! In a musical career whose timeline was exceedingly short, Fabian had five, top-twenty hits. This was his best.
“In the Year 2525,” Zager and Evans, 1969. It’s been a half-century since this apocalyptic ballad first entered our consciousness, and it still sadly rings true today. In the end, “In the Year 2525″ stayed at number 1 for six weeks, which was longer than any other song that year and earned it the distinction as the bestselling single of ’69. The ballad reflected the apprehension of that year even as it waxes poetic on the wonder of technology. That it was the bestselling hit worldwide on the day of the Apollo II moon-landing all the way to the original Woodstock was no accident. Here we are in 2019, and most of the stuff described in this song is already occurring on some form. I guess we don’t have to wait for 2525. Ugh.
”The Tracks of My Tears,” Aretha Franklin, 1969. What was a midnight slow jam in Atlantic Records’ New York recording studio turned into one of Aretha’s best ballads after Jerry Wexler decided to release it on wax. Over the years, however, the song has become lost in the shuffle among Franklin’s bigger hits. Although “Track of My Tears” was not a big hit on the charts (No. 72 Hot 100 in 1969), it is a ballad that many R&B fans need to seek out and listen to and be reminded once again that there was no one like Aretha Franklin. She’s been gone for a year now this August, but her music is very much alive.
“Heartbreaker,” Pat Benatar, 1979. A top-ten song 40 years ago this July, this rocker sounds as provocative and essential as it did back in ’79. Simply put, Pat Benatar nails it in “Heartbreaker.” Of course, she is backed up by her superb band, led by her husband, Neil Giraldo, who is the lead guitarist here, Scott St. Clair Sheets on rhythm guitar, Roger Capps on bass, and Glen Alexander Hamilton on drums. They were as tight a band as there was on the planet four decades ago – and fronted by a gifted lead female guitarist and vocalist. In so many ways, Pat Benatar was a harbinger of things to come.
“Marrakesh Express,” Crosby, Stills, and Nash, 1969. One of the reasons that Graham Nash left the Hollies to form Crosby, Stills, and Nash was because his former band refused to record this remarkable single, which CSN then recorded and featured as the second song on its superb debut album. The novel lyrics and supported by impeccable harmonies and Stills’ guitar arrangement on this piece, which turned out to be perfect for Nash’s innovative concept. “Marrakesh Express” was so original that there has literally been no follow-up to it since it entered the US Top 10 fifty years ago this summer. Joni Mitchell once called it, “…the most original song that Graham ever composed.” Listening to it five decades ago, I wanted to be on that ride. Time and perspective have not changed my mind all these years later.
“Beyond the Sea,” Bobby Darin, 1959. The backstory is that Sinatra was going to record this first, but he decided to shelve it after hearing Bobby Darin’s seamless version on the radio 60 years ago this week. “I can’t make it any better than that kid did. He’s fabulous,” Old Blue Eyes admitted to talk-show host Jack Paar at the time. When I hear “Beyond the Sea” these days, I immediately conjure up a shimmering beach, Coppertone sunscreen, and bikini-clad teenagers surfing in the relentless waves of the North Atlantic.
“Crystal Blue Persuasion,” Tommy James and the Shondells, 1969. One of the most beloved singles that emerged from the remarkable Summer of ‘69, Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion” remained in the Billboard Top 20 from late June to mid-September. In my mind, this faultless ballad would have been a conspicuous highlight if they had performed it at Woodstock; after all, the single was peaking on the charts at the time of the famous festival. The Shondells were formally invited to appear, but as Tommy James later explained: “Like utter dopes, we turned it down. We thought it would be a failure. Stupid us.” What is left all of these years later is great harmonies, searing lyrics; exemplary orchestration; a haunting melody – “Crystal Blue Persuasion” had it all. Over time, the ballad has become an iconic representation of the Summer of Woodstock. “It’s a new vibration,” indeed.
“On the Run,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1989. The ultimate summer song by one of the most underrated rockers in the last four decades, this infectious single made nary a blip on the screen when it was released 30 years ago this week. However, for Crenshaw’s loyal followers, and his legion were many, this was just another one of those MC “sing-along” tunes that he cranked out like Necco Wafers throughout the 1980’s. Interestingly, Marshall Crenshaw is the only artist I’ve ever seen perform live in concert in London, Boston, and New York City. If you haven’t checked out Marshall Crenshaw’s remarkable catalog of songs, make sure you do so sometime. He’s incredible.
“Long, Long, Long,” The Beatles, 1968. Recorded between October 7 and October 9, 1968, “Long, Long, Long,” one of the most undervalued and sustaining of all Beatles’ songs, was recorded at Abbey Road Studio Number 1. In its final form, the track originally concluded Side 3 of the Beatles’ magnum opus, The White Album. After one listen it is obvious that this haunting, affecting tune is pure George Harrison, an emerging composer who was finally developing into such an accomplished songwriter that his forthcoming songs would actually surpass John’s and Paul’s work during the next half-decade.A searing, poetic confession, “Long, Long, Long” is nothing more than a draining, heartfelt reconciliation with God, which is matched by a “sighing, self-annihilating coda,” according to author Ian MacDonald. The accompanying musical ambiance emits a blanketing fog of redemptive longing throughout the piece – an impressionistic painting in musical form. Harrison, a longtime Dylan aficionado, borrows the chords from “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” turns it down a notch to 2/4 time, sprinkles in a recognizable chord change from “A Hard Day’s Night,” and ends up creating an ingenious, inspiring work. In retrospect, most Beatle fans point the ending of the number as the track’s haunting centerpiece – and it all happened purely by accident. As the group recorded the original conclusion of “Long, Long, Long,” Paul McCartney, who was playing the band’s customized Hammond organ, hit a bottom G, which caused a sudden vibration in the empty bottle of wine that had been standing carelessly on the top of the instrument’s cabinet. Listening to the instantaneous, eerie rattling of the bottle on his headset, Paul immediately turned the sound of his organ into a ghostlike C minor; Ringo instinctively began a prolonged drum roll; George intuitively changed his chord to something mirroring “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1⁄4 time, and John commenced emitting a plaintive vocal wail – all completely spontaneous and unrehearsed. Of all the songs on that unparalleled double album, “Long, Long, Long” is the one that I continue to play for its ambiguity, its profundity, and its resonance.
“Don’t Bring Me Down,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1979. Let ELO’s Jeff Lynne tell the story: “This one I made up in the studio, and I play all the instruments. It starts with a drum loop from another song that I sped up. I then compressed the shit out of it. This was the first song I did without any strings. It was exciting to work with them when we started, but after six albums, I got fed up with them. Thus, this was our band without all of the bark.” One of the more substantial hits from the summer of 1979, Lynne and company often began their concerts with “Don’t Bring Me Down” after that. Makes perfect sense.
“Good Old Rock and Roll,” Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, 1969. During the month of the legendary Woodstock ’69 Festival, a group called Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys engineered an unforgettable medley to the 1950s era of early rock that became one of the more endearing songs of that August. “Good Old Rock’ n’ Roll” included cover versions of “Sweet Little Sixteen” by Chuck Berry, “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, “Chantilly Lace” by The Big Bopper, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins and “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox. The late, great Boston deejay, Bud Ballou, even created an 11:22 long single of the recording in which he spliced the original tapes with Cat Mother’s cover versions. Jimi Hendrix, who produced the song at his new Wonderland Studio in New York City, asked them to open for him during his extended 1969 concert tour. By the way, one of the guitarists for Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, Jay Unger, would later become an acclaimed fiddle player for his own string band and the composer of “Ashokan Farewell,” the haunting ballad for Ken Burns Civil War Series on PBS.
“Love Shack,” The B-52’s, 1989. Imagine being a visiting observer at The Greenwich Country Day School in 2003 and you enter a classroom where the teacher is in a conga-line dancing to the B-52’s “Love Shack,” with his Honors English class of 15 is trailing after him. Imagine being that teacher! Don’t fear; I came up with some convincing explanation right on the spot – with the kids entirely backing me up. John Lennon always claimed that the B-52’s were the Plastic Ono Band’s offspring. Thanks to the propulsive production by dance-rock master Don Was, the band here slapped smiles and Dixie New Wave glitter all over this bouncing beauty of a song.
“Delta Lady,” Joe Cocker, 1969. Written by Joe’s future touring partner, the great Leon Russell, who said that it was a sonnet to his love at the time, Rita Coolidge. Russell ultimately gave it to Cocker, and the ballad eventually took flight with the legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Cocker’s raucous, rock-and-soul consortium, which also included several future members of Derek and the Dominoes. By the time they had nailed down “Delta Lady” on their legendary summer of ’69 tour, it had become a searing cry for love — and one of Joe’s more memorable live TV performances. Of course, who but Joe Cocker could wear bell-bottoms that are both pink and way-too-short – and still be utterly hip?
“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” McFadden and Whitehead, 1979. A classic disco tune, which dominated the airwaves 40 years ago this July, this beloved Philly Sound single was the only significant hit for two veterans of the music industry. At the time, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead were songwriters and producers at Philadelphia International Records, where they worked on many of the tracks that helped define the Philadelphia Soul sound. By the late ’70’s, McFadden and Whitehead were pining to record their own material and convinced their record company to give it a go. Exhilarated by the opportunity, they thought, “Ain’t no stopping us now!” and subsequently composed this motivational song on a lark. The song went to #1 on the R&B charts and also found a home on Top-40 radio. Given its unfailing message, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” has remained a staple on oldies stations ever since.
“Watching and Waiting,” The Moody Blues, 1969. Written out of the same pocket of dreams as “Nights in White Satin,” this nostalgic and yet haunting tune is one of the most revered ballads in that larger-than-expected network known as MoodyHeads. The concluding song from their highly underrated disc, To Our Children’s Children’s Children, an album devoted entirely to the Apollo II moon landing that summer, here a pensive Justin Hayward ponders the meaning of life given our newfound status as space travelers. Given how spiritual many of their songs were, you could make a case that “Watching and Waiting” is on top of the pile under the classification of “heartfelt and transcendent.” As usual, Hayward is radiant on every note here, both as the song’s lead guitarist and vocalist. And when he speculates on landing on an alien planet, well, his extraterrestrial plunge into speculation is inspired: ‘Cause here – there’s a lot of room for doing/The things you’ve always been denied/So look – and gather all you want to/There’s no one here to stop you – trying.”
“Chelsea Morning,” Joni Mitchell, 1969. The irrepressible, translucent guitar accompaniment coupled with Joni’s then lilting, mostly cigarette-free lyrical voice brings a sun-splotched morning in Chelsea, her New York neighborhood to life in this masterwork, which was released 50 years ago this July. Of course, “Chelsea Morning,” describes a series of seamless moments caught unawares, a snapshot of Mitchell’s ability to freeze time and paint with sound. Joni Mitchell, a now-celebrated abstract painter, perfectly combines two of her artistic skills here and creates a still life set to sound. Throughout the teeming summer of ’69, you would often hear this tune in shops, cafes, and on sidewalk stoops through the din of humming traffic.
“Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” Van Morrison, 1989. Recorded 30 years ago on July 15, 1989, this is one of those timeless numbers, which will be played long, long after all of us are gone. While a slew of artists – including Rod Stewart – have recorded this nugget over the years, the fidelity and passion of Van’s original recording keep any other rendition at bay. After re-listening to this musical sonnet, I am reminded that being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone genuinely gives you courage. Thank you for this treasure, Van.
“Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969. According to the great John Fogerty, the singer-guitarist-songwriter composed this rock anthem immediately after viewing the Inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon on January 20, 1969. “I had a really bad feeling as I turned off my TV, and I ended up writing ‘Rising’ in about 20 minutes. ‘There’s a bad moon on the rise’ proved sadly to be true,” said Fogerty to journalist Dave Marsh years later. This superb version was recorded live on the Johnny Cash Show on July 10, 1969, just as the rock anthem hit number one on the Billboard charts. Tom Petty astutely commented on his Sirius radio show a few years ago that you could hear the influence of Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore, on Fogerty as he played through on the solo. After viewing the clip, I came away thinking once again that Doug Gifford was one of the cooler drummers who played back in that era.
“I Only Have Eyes for You,” The Flamingos, 1959. While there had been scores of soloists and bands who have made their own versions of this 1930’s ballad by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, it was the Flamingos, a revered doo-wop group from Chicago, which made it into a classic 25 years after it was first written. With the Flamingos’ unheralded tenor, the late Nate Nelson, singing the lead, and the supporting vocals of the other four members of the group, most especially the repeated refrain of the “shibushibu, “all combine to frame the unique sound of the Flamingos cover. This record is so beautifully produced; the singers’ pitch is perfect in every way. The number one song in the US and Canada 60 years ago this summer, “I Only Have Eyes for You” was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a single 30 years to the day after that it was first released.
“This Land is Your Land,” Los Lobos with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, 1989. This rambling version of the iconic Woody Guthrie song was performed July 22, 1989 backstage at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin between sets on that summer’s Los Lobos/Grateful Dead tour. One of my favorite versions of this classic Americana song. It’s one of those versions you can play proudly every Fourth of July.
“Bad Girls,” Donna Summer, 1979. People sometimes forget how truly hot Donna Summer was 40 years ago this summer when she racked up 4 number one songs in twenty weeks, but her music has had a deserved revival recently. Friends of mine used to point out that there were usually hidden treasures in her lyrics that belied the pulsating and hypnotic rhythm sections that drove each of her songs. My dear friend, Jim Simpson, who was a larger-than-life figure in Boston’s gay community at the time, loved the lyric from “Bad Girls” that Donna sang so reverently: “If you had your life to live over – would you change it?” What a time it was.
“Come and Sing a Simple Song of Freedom,” Tim Hardin, 1969. At the very end of the 1960s, “Simple Song of Freedom,” a neglected but irresistible protest song, became a minor hit in the last summer of the decade. In every way, it was spirited, coy, and persuasive – a foot-tapper with a message. (It’s funny how music works. Bobby Darin, of all people, wrote this peace anthem, and Tim Hardin had a hit with it. Three years previously, Harden composed, “If I Were a Carpenter,” and Bobby Darin had a hit with that incandescent tune). A half a century later, “Come and Sing a Simple Song of Freedom” still resonates, especially with its opening stanza: “Come and sing a simple song of freedom/ Sing it like you’ve never sung before/ Let it fill the air/ Tell the people everywhere /That we, the people here don’t want war.” Amen.
“All I’ve Got to Do,” The Beatles, 1963. on the afternoon of September 11, 1963 at Abbey Road Studio Number 2, “All I Got to Do” was a song that John Lennon had composed back in the summer of 1961, which the boys had then performed live hundreds of times to audiences both at the Cavern Club in Liverpool and at scores of venues across Great Britain – from Plymouth to Leeds to Newcastle. “Because we could play the ballad in our sleep, it actually took about 15 takes for us to get the right sound. We were really tweaking it that day in the studio,” recalled John years later. After extensive experimentation with time and chord changes throughout the three-hour session, the band, according to commentator Ian MacDonald “…was very pleased when they heard the final product – with its downbeat atmosphere, and the hurt, halting mood of its nervy, rhythmic interplay of damped guitar chords and hi-hat strokes.” Unlike the other two relatively dated, forgettable songs that the Beatles recorded that afternoon in London – “Little Child,” and “I Wanna Be Your Man,” – “All I’ve Got to Do” is a lingering plea to an unidentified woman – most probably Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. In the end, it is a 3:00 am kind of song in which regrets can be as personal as fingerprints. “I had a Smokey Robinson fetish at the time; I idolized him – still do,” the composer admitted a few weeks before his death. Ultimately, “All I’ve Got to Do” was John Lennon’s attempt to write and record the kind of susceptible, beseeching ballad that Smokey would have written and performed for and with his group, the Miracles, back then. Of course, most listeners had no idea about that at the time. All they knew was that John Lennon seemed to bare his brittle soul for the entire world to hear. I have always felt that “All I’ve Got to Do” could well have been included on Rubber Soul. It was that good.
“Polk Salad Annie,” Tony Joe White, 1969. This white swamp classic – written, performed, and produced by the late Tony Joe White – was one of the more beloved singles from the summer of ’69. Recorded at RCA Victor Studios in Nashville, “Polk Salad Annie” was produced by Billy Swan, who had a #1 hit as a solo artist in 1974 with “I Can Help.” When Tony Joe White came to England to perform it on the BBC that fall, one of the Beeb’s producers remarked, “Man, I thought you were black.” White, who was actually a 26-year-old Southern Caucasian part-time truck driver at the time, took that as the ultimate compliment.
“I Drove All Night,” Cyndi Lauper, 1989. Cyndi’s version, released 30 years ago this June, left Celine Dion’s more popular version in the dusk, mostly because of her eclectic mix of diverse sound and style, idiosyncratic lyrics, and, of course, her characteristic joie de vivre. Cyndi originally wrote the song back in 1988 for Roy Orbison, who loved it and recorded it just before he died. Lauper’s manager ultimately sold the song to Celine Dion, who subsequently had a number one single with it. Lauper’s version, while a demo still rings true all these years later.
“Evil Ways,” Santana, 1969. This beloved jewel turned out to be Santana’s first international hit, a classic that was carved into stone like a commandment in the minds of anyone under 30 back then as a result of his memorable live performance of it at Woodstock. In reality, Santana’s “Evil Ways,” was actually a cover that was originally written and recorded by percussionist Willie Bobo in 1967. For two years, it had been a relatively obscure number in jazz circles before Santana transformed it into a monster hit complete with room-shaking organ and ninety-second guitar solos. Gregg Rolie, who would form the band, Journey, four years later, provided the vocal lead on Carlos’s version. Not surprisingly, “Evil Ways” is one of those timely and timeless musical excursions.
“Chuck E’s in Love,” Rickie Lee Jones, 1979. This irresistible tune, from Rickie Lee Jones, turned out to be a massive hit from one of the most auspicious debut albums in rock history, which was released 40 years ago this June. According to singer-songwriter, Rickie Lee and her then lover and fellow musician, Tom Waits, spent a lot of time hanging out with their friend Chuck E. Weiss at the rundown Tropicana Motel in LA. Eventually Weiss, affectionately referred to as “Chuck E.,” vanished – and the couple became concerned A few weeks later, Weiss phoned Waits and explained that he was now situated in Denver and that he had moved there because he had fallen in love with a cousin in Colorado. When Waits hung up, he bellowed out to Jones: “Chuck E.’s in love.” Rickie Lee liked the sound of the sentence and immediately composed a song around it. Four decades later, she still ends most of her concerts by playing “Chuck E.’s in Love.” A toss-off line became a lifeline to sustained success.
“Like, I Love You” Edd Byrnes and Connie Stevens, 1959. On so many levels, this cultural fossil seems almost like a parody of a hip 1950s song. Of course, that’s what it was supposed to be when it was released in late May 1959. When I played it to my students one time in class, they thought that it was some kind of an unearthly outtake from Grease. Needless to say, Ed “Kookie” Byrnes was the epitome of swagger on 77 Sunset Strip while Connie Stevens was the flavor of the month for many American male teenagers at the time. If you have never listened to this minor hit, which was a Top 40 hit 60 years ago this summer, you are in for an experience. The “cool, baby” vernacular is worth the ride, so strap in tight.
“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), Sly and the Family Stone, 1969. Funk on top of funk with inch-thick icing. That’s Sly Stone in a nutshell, and that’s why this tune is still regularly played on the radio 50 years to the day, June 16, after it was first released in the US. In this live not-to-be-believed Soul Train version, you can see and hear why both fans and musicians revered Sly and his decidedly integrated band at the time. (Thank you, Don Cornelius, for keeping the masters of such recordings in a bank vault for more than three decades until he dumped them on YouTube.) You can also see why this unique band so galvanized Prince as a boy growing up in Minneapolis. This is both a vocal and visual tour de force.
“Dream Lover,” Bobby Darin, 1959. The number two song in the US and Canada 60 years ago this May, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” would remain in the Billboard Top 20 through July of 1959. This was the second-to-last “teen single” that Bobby would have – “Splish Splash” would be the last – before he ventured into adult waters with such classic numbers as “Behind the Sea” and “Mack the Knife.” As versatile and talented a performer as any who came out of the early rock era, Darin’s genius was that he couldn’t be framed into one particular genre. He could do it all.
“Sacrifice,” Elton John, 1969. Not many American fans would know that “Sacrifice” was Sir Elton’s first number one single in the UK a year before he struck gold in the US with “Your Song.” Interestingly, Elton and Bernie Taupin have long described this number as the bookend to it. Taupin, who has also called it, “the best tune we ever wrote together,” a ballad that described a breakup of marriage where the loss of the relationship was “no sacrifice.” The video of “Sacrifice” was filmed 20 years after the song was first released, and featured both Yasmeen Ghauri and Chris Isaak.
“There Goes My Baby,” The Drifters, 1959. One of the incongruent and yet most breathtaking productions in rock and roll history, this number was a profound soul milestone, although it was more urbane and filled with Latin inflections and off-tune tympani than the standard fare back then. This caused Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler to threaten to throw the master single out the window and onto Broadway itself, because he didn’t like the unsyncopated sound. Thank God he didn’t. There’s no denying the dizzying romantic swell of the Drifters’ orchestration, which drove Wexler crazy, might be a distraction – but a lovely one. Of course, such over-the-top instrumental orchestration would then guide singer Ben E. King through his solo career when he left the Drifters later on that year.
“Grazing in the Grass,” The Friends of Distinction, 1969. The number two song in the US top 40 fifty years ago this May, the Friends of Distinction’s version of Hugh Masekela’s instrumental classic added inspired words, including the irresistible refrain, “The sun beaming down between the leaves.” Has any single so brilliantly captured the end of spring and the beginning of summer like this one? As some of you might know, the Friends of Distinction were discovered by pro football immortal, Jimmy Brown, when they were playing at a local nightclub in LA. He connected them to some friends in the music business, and the band signed a record contract as a result. While the group had two other notable hits, “Going in Circles,” and “Check it Out,” this candied cover turned out the be the Friends of Distinction most popular single. My college friends might remember that this single used to be a staple in my Oldies Shows at the legendary Rathskeller. Dance on.
Refugee,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1979. Released 40 years ago this May, “Refugee” is the Heartbreakers at their finest, with Mike Campbell’s economic phrasing, Benmont Tench’s soulful organ playing, the lockstep rhythm section of Stan Lynch and original bassist Ron Blair and Tom Petty’s gritty, passionate vocals. As with many of the defiant lyrics on his groundbreaking album, Damn the Torpedoes, “Refugee” was inspired in part by a feud Petty was having with his label and cloaked his anger in relationship metaphors. Today, of course, “Refugee” is known for being one of the most revered rockers from the late 1970s. Thanks to the daily replays of his old Sirius Show which has lived on after his death, Tom Petty’s Buried Treasures, I still check in with Tom many times each week. It’s a way you can think of him delightfully in the present tense.
“This I Swear,” The Skyliners, 1959. While this barely made it on the Billboard Top 20 sixty years ago this spring, nevertheless, it is now considered one of the most superlative singles that the Skyliners, the wildly popular doo-wop group from Pittsburgh, ever produced. It’s unfettered romantic tones – sung by one of the most underrated vocalists of the 50’s, Jimmy Beaumont, makes “This I Swear” one of those singles that you listen to over and over again. As Karen Carpenter once sang, “Every sha-la-la-la/Every wo-o-wo-o, still shines/Every shing-a-ling-a-ling/that they’re startin’ to sing’s, so fine.”
“Last Soldier,” Pearl Jam, 2001. Memorial Day is the day we remember our fallen soldiers—the ones who bravely and selflessly lost their lives in service to their country. Here is a phenomenal Pearl Jam number, which honors such heroes reverently. We can never thank them enough.
“Veronica,” Elvis Costello, 1989. The best song on dementia that’s ever been produced in the rock era, Elvis and his lustrous band, The Attractions, reverently pays dutiful homage to all of those who are still here but have left us to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Sadly, while we have made enormous progress on a host of fronts medically since 1989, dementia is still on ongoing heartbreak. “Well, she used to have a carefree mind of her own/And a delicate look in her eye/These days I’m afraid she’s not even sure/If her name is Veronica.”
“I Got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night, Doris Day, Vocals – with Les Brown and his Band of Renown, 1946. While people are rightfully recalling Doris Day’s luminous work in the 1950s and ’60s as a result of her passing, her underrated work in the ’40s as a fledgling singer for Les Brown and his orchestra was simply outstanding. In this Greatest Generation classic, 23-year-old Doris Day sings the most effervescent version possible from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. This is is like early summer sunshine – it will chase any dark cloud away. Rest in peace, Doris – and thank you.
“Baby, I’m for Real,” The Originals, 1969. We took soul music like this for granted 50 years ago when gems like this were released, but these days, we know better. We now realize that such magic is not commonplace but absolutely unique. The Originals, often called “Motown’s best-kept secret,” recorded two albums and several singles but only this and “The Bells” made to the Billboard Top 10. Of course, the group was produced by the legendary Marvin Gaye and featured original songs by Smokey Robinson and the iconic Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland, including, “Baby, I’m for Real.” While it was largely ignored when it was released, it has become a staple on Sirius Radio’s Soul Town station.
“Pistachio,” Lisa Hannigan, 2009. The vastly underrated Irish singer, songwriter, and performer came out with her first solo album ten years ago this April, and “Pistachio” was one of the feature numbers and was later included in the Fargo TV series. Lilting, searing, and ethereal, Lisa’s songs are the kind that still lingers well into the night. This is a ballad from a world filled with both magic and wonder. Not a bad place to be.
“Cruisin’,” Smokey Robinson, 1979. One of Smokey’s later hits that turned out to be as smooth as a baby blanket, this was a later significant hit for the great singer-songwriter extraordinaire. Bob Dylan once pronounced him, “America’s greatest living poet.” When Smokey wrote the song, his guitarist, Marv Tarplin, had already written the music years previously. As Robinson said years later: “Marv put it on cassette and gave it to me to write the lyric. As it turned out, it took me five years to write. I had the music, and that music is so intimate and sensual, but I couldn’t get the words. Then one day I got: ‘You’re gonna fly away and I’m glad you’re coming my way.’ And then I was driving my car down Sunset Boulevard and I heard that song by the Rascals, ‘Groovin,’ and I thought, ‘That’s it! Grooving.’ But then, no, it wasn’t intimate enough, it wasn’t sensual enough for the music, and that’s when I thought of ‘cruisin.’ You’d be surprised by how many people speculate on what Cruisin’ means, ‘Cruisin” is a word that I leave up to the listener. When you’re with the person you’re with, and you feel you’re cruisin’, it’s whatever you want it to be.” As a singer, Smokey Robinson could evoke joy, sadness and their bittersweet combination with his velvety high tenor. In the end, you can’t beat this sound or that voice.
“Love Can Make You Happy,” Mercy, 1969. 50 years ago this spring, Mercy’s “Love Can Make You Happy” entered the Billboard Top 10 in late April where it remained entrenched until mid-June. This anthem to love has long been cherished by those who remember hearing it as children and teenagers for obvious reasons. Like “Get Together” and “Precious and Few,” “Love Can Make You Happy” was all about peace and understanding. However, because of problems related to copyright laws and conflicting lawsuits, the ballad has never been a major staple on oldies’ stations. In an uncertain and precarious time, this pop classic reminded us that love was always, always the answer.
“Reunited,” Peaches and Herb, 1979. While soul music has a back shelf life by 1979, ballads such as this paved the way for a revival by such newcomers as Anita Baker and Luther Vandross. That the rock and soul veterans, Peaches and Herb (as in “Love is Strange”), would have a number one hit with this song 40 years ago this spring after having not been in the Top 40 for a decade proved to be the proverbial icing on the cake. Musicians on this song included Bob “Boogie” Bowles and Melvin “Wah Wah” Ragin on guitar, Scott Edwards on bass, and James Gadson on drums. These were some of the top studio musicians of the era, and as Edwards said later on: “Most of the hits were stuff that we came up with ourselves. We’d have a basic chord chart, because at the time the people who were arranging had good ideas for the strings and horns. But as far as the rhythm section, most people, if they were smart, they left the rhythm section alone. That’s what happened with ‘Reunited’.”
“See Me, Feel Me,” The Who, 1969. In retrospect, this culminating closing track from the musical, Tommy, released five decades ago this year, might very well sum up the magic and feeling of the 1960s better than any other song out there. The ultimate adrenaline rush, the Who’s performance of this at Woodstock turned out to be a revelation. When I once played it for my class, one of the students blurted out, “Is this for real?” She could not believe that the bookends of passion and innocence could be so profound. A time it was…and what a time it was.
“(A Fool) Such As I,” Elvis Presley, 1959. 60 years ago this April, “The King” returned from Germany on leave from the Army for two weeks and hardly skipped a beat, singing this Leiber and Stoller classic at RCA’s famed Studio B in Nashville in just four takes. Initially released as the B-side to “I Need Your Love Tonight,” “A Fool Such as I” turned out to be an even bigger hit, reaching number one in the UK and number two in the United States, where it went platinum. “(A Fool) Such as I” featured the luminous guitar work of Scotty Moore, Chet Atkins, and Presley, percussionist D. J. Fontana rum-tum-drum work, brilliant keyboarding by the great Floyd Cramer, and the ever-loyal Jordanaires singing the backup musical accompaniment. When Elvis was on top of his game, there was no one better.
“I Won’t Back Down,” Tom Petty, 1989. Recorded 30 years ago this spring, “I Won’t Back Down,” turned out to be the first of three top ten singles released from Petty’s biggest-selling album, Full Moon Fever, a brilliant solo album that the Heartbreakers provided the musical backdrop (except for longtime drummer Stan Lynch). Apart from this densely layered Jeff Lynne production, it all felt like a Heartbreakers record, especially on the first single, which finds Petty in a particularly defiant mood. The backstory is especially disturbing: Before recording Full Moon Fever, an arsonist burned down Tom Petty’s house while he was in it with his family and their housekeeper. They escaped and spent much of the next few months driving between hotel rooms and a rented house, but Petty was severely shaken. It was on these drives that he came up with many of the songs for the album, and the fire was a huge influence, especially on this song. Petty felt grateful to be alive but also traumatized – understandable since someone had tried to kill him. Like all great music, it still rings true after all of these years.
“King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” The Band, 1969. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” The Band, 1969. The Band faced a lot of pressure to top 1968’s Music From Big Pink, but just a year later, they released another seamless disc, unambiguously named The Band. This masterwork, which is now a half-century old, concludes with “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” the poignant lament of a farmer facing a nightmare of a year. “It was the harvest time of year when Woodstock was very impressive,” said Robbie Robertson in a Rolling Stone interview years later. “Everything turned red and orange, and it just made you realize that this was the culmination of the year for so many people. That’s when it all came down, whether the year worked or not. Ultimately, when The Band goes timeless, they turn into accomplished novelists.
“That’s Why I Love You So,” Jackie Wilson, 1959. Released 60 years ago this April, this rock-soul classic, written by a then unknown Berry Gordy and performed by the great Jackie Wilson, eventually went to number 2 on the Billboard charts later on that spring. Like so many of Jackie’s soul-rock numbers, it’s impossible not to dance when a song such as “That’s Why I Love You So” is played (preferably on a jukebox).
“It’s Your Thing,” The Isley Brothers, 1969. After nine years of recording for Berry Gordy at Motown Records, the Isleys fled the record label in early 1969 and revived their own T-Neck Records, where they unleashed the free-will funk of “It’s Your Thing.” Their biggest hit, it earned a lawsuit from Gordy, who claimed he owned the song. It came out in court that it was all about hurt feelings. Ronald Isley, who wrote most of the song, liked the double-meaning of these lines, which made the song risqué and radio-friendly at the same time. In a year of great soul music, this single, which topped the charts 50 years ago this March, might very well be at the top.
“Tragedy,” Thomas Wayne and the Delons, 1959. Written by Elvis’s lead guitarist, Scotty Moore, “Tragedy” was a hit for Thomas Wayne and the Delons, when it reached number 9 in the Billboard Top 40 sixty years ago this winter. Two years later, the more popular Fleetwoods would take the tune to number one on the charts. In the end, one of the many reasons that I still love “the old songs” is that they were framed in soulful innocence. Still, there is a haunting quality to this version, which cries for it to be featured in a future Quentin Tarantino movie Scotty Moore, the song’s composer, later claimed that the residuals from the song enabled him to pay for his kids’ college educations. “Working for Elvis built our house. Writing ‘Tragedy’ provided my kids with a future.” We should all be that lucky – and that talented.
“Body and Soul,” Coleman Hawkins, 1939. The number one song in the US 80 years ago this March, no one ever recorded a better version of this revered standard than the venerable jazz legend. After one listen of this, it’s evident where the Bird got his style, tone, and phrasing from – the indomitable Mr. Hawkins. My music professor in college, Dr. Bill Davis, once claimed that Hawkins’ version of “Body and Soul marked the first time jazz players actually played the scales in the chord changes. While the public adored him, Coleman Hawkins is even more revered by jazz musicians around the globe as a Founding Father.
“Will You Be Staying After Sunday?” The Peppermint Rainbow, 1969. Ah, yes, when sunshiny-pop groups yearned to sound like Spanky and Our Gang or the Mama’s and the Papa’s – and actually came up with a Top 20 hit in the process! Thus was the case for a band from Baltimore originally named The New York Times, who signed a record deal, ventured to New York, and tried to sound as California Poppy as possible. While the band turned out to be the proverbial one-hit wonder, nevertheless, this infectious single was the #17 song in the US Billboard Top 40 for the week of March 15, 1969.
Little Queenie,” Chuck Berry and Keith Richards Live in London, 1979. With a guitar intro that amplifies, “Johnny B. Goode”,” Chuck’s “Little Queenie” – released 60 years ago this April as single by the legendary Leonard Chess of Chess Records – shows how deftly Berry could make a variation on the theme, since he sings the second verse (“Meanwhile, I was thinkin’/If she’s in the mood no need to break it”) with a brand-new swagger. In his autobiography, Chuck wrote that the song was a fair depiction of how he was as a teenager. “That was typical of me in high school, to stand around thinking instead of acting during occasions when I’d have the opportunity to get next to a girl by dancing,” he wrote. “It’s just like me even today to wait around until it’s too late to latch on to the chance to meet a person I favor.” It went on to become one of the Chuckster’s most covered songs – everyone from the Beatles and Stones to Bruce Springsteen and the Velvet Underground – took a stab at it. In this incredible live version, Berry is backed by Keith Richards of the Stones, who play reverently behind him. I am incredibly thankful that I saw the Chuck perform this twice in person – at the old Boston Garden and the Cape Cod Coliseum. Hail, hail rock ‘n roll!
“More Today Than Yesterday,” The Spiral Starecase, 1969. The proverbial one-hit wonders, Sacramento, California’s Spiral Staircase released one album and a couple more singles before poor management and squabbles over finances caused the group to splinter by 1969. Still, 50 years ago this winter, this classic single made it to number 12 on the Billboard Top 40. A few years later, it became a “go-to” single that I played regularly at my Saturday night oldies’ dances in college. Featuring singer/guitarist Pat Upton on vocals and a Buckinghams-like horn section lead by saxophonist Dick Lopes, “More Today Than Yesterday” is still a staple on the Sirius 60’s station a half-century later.
“Rollin’ Rock,” The Tielman Brothers, 1960. Imagine how quickly American rock ‘n roll shaped the sound to young people around the world. Here, the Tielman Brothers, the first Dutch East Indies band to successfully venture into the international music scene in the 1950s, performs their classic on live television – and those who have seen it have never been the same. Obviously, they were one of the pioneers of rock in The Netherlands, later becoming famous in Europe for playing a kind of rock and roll later called Indorock, a fusion of Indonesian and Western music. If this jaw-dropping live performance could be properly placed in the Rock Bible, then it would be firmly ensconced in the Book of Genesis. Not surprisingly, when I showed it to one of my English classes recently, their collective jaws literally dropped to the floor.
“The Hammond Song,” The Roches, 1979. Produced by Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame, this impeccable single, which was released 40 years ago this year, sounds like a ballad sung at a campfire in New Hampshire back in the early ‘60’s and sung by a group of talented counselors to a cabin full of girls. In my mind, “The Hammond Song” is perhaps the most inimitable ballad recorded over the past four decades. Even the Roches didn’t dare do a follow-up to it. To add to the luster, Robert Fripp’s electric fillers fit both the time and the style of this decidedly unique recording. How truly sad that Maggie Roche, who composed the tune, died much too young of cancer two years ago. In every way, this is a must-listen.
“Peel Me a Grape,” Diana Krall, 1999. Canada’s First Lady of Jazz takes on Anita O’Day’s veritable standard and breathes such rarefied air into it that it ends up taking us all into the outer atmosphere. Sultry, steamy, and oh so sublime. The Berklee School of Music graduate is the only jazz singer to have eight albums debuting at the top of the Billboard Jazz Album Chart. That Diana Krall is also happily married with twin boys to the great Elvis Costello only seals the deal for me.
“London Calling,” The Clash, 1979. Named after the call signal of the BBC’s World Service broadcasts, the title alarm of The Clash’s third album was an SOS from the heart of darkness. When they recorded the song, The Clash — British punk’s most political and uncompromising band — were without management and sinking in debt. Their plight mirrored their country at the time, especially among a generation, which seemed to feel as they had little future. What the band ended up producing was the equivalent of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses became an anthem to a generation both in England and across the globe. Released 40 years ago this month, the single, “London Calling,” still sounds as desperate, kinetic, and fresh as it did in ‘79.
“Heat Wave,” Ella Fitzgerald, 1959. From her legendary Verve Record release, The Irving Berlin Songbook, Lady Ella adds a sense of class and pizzazz to this old Berlin standard first recorded by Bing Crosby while claiming it as her own. Conducted and arranged by Paul Weston (who wrote “Day By Day”), the disc ended up being nominated as the Album of the Year at the 1959 Grammy Awards. This is another example of Ella working as hard as she could to make a song sound effortless to sing. You can listen to it in the dead of winter and think that its a hot August day. As Frank Sinatra once said, “Ella never made a cover song. She literally reinvented it and breathed new life into whatever she was recording at the time.” As usual, Old Blue Eyes has bingo.
“Atlantis,” Donovan, 1969. Released 50 years ago this March, any comment to this Donovan single would not do it any justice. It is meant to be taken in like a tidal wave or a sudden ray of the sun hidden long hidden behind a cloud. Indeed, when one of my friends called Donovan, “downright weird,” I responded by saying, “Yes, and that’s his point!” After all, any songwriter who gives birth to a song entitled, “First There Is a Mountain, Then There Is No Mountain, Then There Is,” is going to be decidedly peculiar. In terms of “Atlantis,” the rumor has long been that Paul McCartney sang one of the backups here, and he’s never denied it (which Sir Paul tends to do when you get the facts wrong). Ultimately, “Atlantis” is so beyond parody that it creeps into the terrain of magnificence.
“Here Comes the Moon,” George Harrison, 1979. The most delicious nugget from George Harrison’s vastly underrated self-titled album released 40 years ago this spring, “Here Comes the Moon” evokes an elongated Hawaiian night during “waipuna manawa.” A photo from the tune’s bedroom writing session sums it all up: George, shirtless with his acoustic guitar firmly in his long-fingered hands, and friend Stevie Nicks, pig-tailed and pensive, composing lyrics to George’s lullaby-like melody. According to Harrison, they stayed up all night to compose a “little prayer for a God-given little brother to the Sun.” A decade previously, George composed, “Here Comes the Sun.” after an all-nighter with buddy Eric Clapton in England, and now here he was exactly ten years later, doing the same thing with Stevie Nicks in far-off Hawaii. In both cases, the art and the moment sparked like a thousand suns.
“Mannish Boy,” Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter Live, 1979. There are a myriad of versions of Muddy playing his iconic ballad on his own, or supported by such alpha-stars as Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, B. B. King, The Band, Keith Richards, Son House, and Jeff Beck, but there is nothing comparable to this live recording with the great Johnny Winter and his band recorded 40 years ago this winter. It encapsulates the blues, Americana, and life itself in six glorious minutes. On a personal note, I played this opening number and the entire live album incessantly during a ten-week summer teaching experience in Lugano, Switzerland in 1983. Amidst the glory of the foothills to the Alps, it reminded this expatriate at the time of the best of the country I was born and raised in. Don’t let any political party or individual tell you that this country is homogeneous. We are a mosaic, and each part has the potential to bringing out the best in others if we just tuned in.
“When I Die,” Motherlode, 1969. Motherlode was a Canadian pop-rock group formed in 1969 in London, Ontario. The group scored tangible success in the US with their single, “When I Die.” While it is somewhat of a Lost 45 in the States these days, it is still a revered standard in Canada – thank goodness. You could easily place it on a song-list of infectious, harmonic love songs that framed the 1960s musical world. One of my old friends once thought that it was a song that came from the musical, Hair. Not a bad bit of speculation. “When I Die” would have fit in neatly near the end of the second act.
“Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Bruce Cockburn, 1979. 40 years ago today, when I first heard this single from Bruce Cockburn played on WBCN/Boston by Mark Parenteau, I nearly drove off of Route 9. I still can’t figure out why, but it touched me to my core. Like James Taylor’s “Copperline,” there was something here as outlined by the Ottawa native that touched the hemline of both childhood and eternity. Its innocence cannot be underestimated. Ultimately, we are all children hiding in adult bodies.
“Both Sides Now,” Joni Mitchell, 1969. When musicologists look back on 1969, it will be this surreal ballad that might find its way on top of the musical pyramid in the end. While her lyrics here have been called the soundtrack of an entire generation, let’s go behind the usual and go to the more unexpected pleasures – Joni’s unusual phrasing. Anyway you look at it, “Both Sides Now” is a devilishly hard song to cover because her vocal so often seems as if it’s ‘out of time’ with the guitar; with words coming late on the beat, or hanging on too long, But then she lands on the sweet spot, and it all makes beautiful sense, exactly how Joni intends you to understand the subtlety of the lyric. It’s not just about the words, sublime as they are, it’s about how she SINGS the words here. In an entirely different genre, Sinatra had the same rare gift. If and when Joni Mitchell wins a Nobel Prize for Literature, “Both Sides Now” will be one of her siren songs that will be played in celebration that day in Oslo.
“Venus,” Frankie Avalon, 1959. I don’t care if you call this ballad a schleppy, bobbysoxing, Eisenhower-era bag of smaltz, I will defend it to the day I die. The number one tune in the US 60 years ago this winter, “Venus” is still considered a prototypical early rock song. “I still remember it so vividly,” Frankie Avalon told The Toronto Star in 2013. “I’ll never forget it. The minute I heard ‘Venus,’ I fell in love with it, and we decided to go to New York right away to record it. I sat in the back seat of the car with Bob, rehearsing the arrangement he had done on the guitar. We walked into Bell Sound in New York. We had a 7 PM recording date. It was all one track then, the band was there with you, and they played, and you sang, and that was it, buddy. No mixing and fixing like today. Back then, they pressed the acetate recording right away. I waited for it to be done until 4:00 AM. I took it back to Philly with me like it was gold. I had a little victrola, and I played it over and over again. I just knew it was going to be a smash.” It was.
“Everyday People,” Sly and the Family Stone, 1969. Goodness, what a song, and while Sly has been somewhat marginalized lately, he will always be an authentic American Master to me. This late ‘60’s anthem takes some inspiration from, of all things, Mother Goose, adding a twist to the traditional nursery rhyme “Rub-a-dub-dub.” The familiar three men in a tub – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker – become the butcher, the banker, the drummer, and, in the spirit of the song’s message of solidarity among all people, Stone adds: “makes no difference what group I’m in.” In a modern world where exceptionalism is rampant, I always loved that Sly viewed himself as just one of us- a regular person with real-life struggles. Given his multi-ethnic band, Sly didn’t just talk it, he lived it and really did try to bring all of us together through the most universal of venues – music.
“Kathy’s Song,” Eva Cassidy, 1993. On St. Patrick’s Day, why not post a rare recording of one of the great Irish-American voices in the past 100 years, the incomparable Eva Cassidy. It is easy to tell that she just loved to sing. I love that Cassidy performed as if she had nothing to prove, no statement to make, and never an attempt to show you “what I can do.” On this version of “Kathy’s Song,” Eva’s impeccable prowess on the acoustic guitar serves as a backdrop for her soaring vocals of this melancholic Paul Simon tune, an ode to his old girlfriend, Kathy Chitty, whom he had left behind in England.
“The Sultans of Swing,” Dire Straits, 1979. There are a few occasions when I hear a song for the first time and screech, “Oh, my God!” Not surprisingly, “The Sultans of Swing” was one such occasion. At the time, I thought that Lou Reed and Bob Dylan had somehow morphed into one human being in the form of Mark Knopfler. In reality, I was not too far off there – at least for a spell. Interestingly, Knopfler got the idea for the single from watching a wretched club band perform one dreary evening in Ipswich, England. According to legend, he ducked into a bar where the local bar band was closing out the night to an audience that was maybe four or five drunks unaware of their surroundings. The hapless group ended their set with the lead singer announcing, with no apparent irony, “Goodnight and thank you. We are the sultans of swing!” Said Knopfler: “When the guys said that there was something really funny about it to me because Sultans – they absolutely weren’t. You know they were rather tired little blokes in pullovers.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Time of the Season,” The Zombies, 1969. This is quintessential Zombies – haunting vocals; impeccable musicianship; melodic hooks; and surprising lyrical twists. Built around the bassline heard in the intro, this song has some very effective and unusual structural components that helped it endure. The bass riff is punctuated with a hand clap and the breathy “ahhhh” vocal. These elements add sonic texture during the verses, and also show up in the two interludes. And while most hit tunes beat you into submission with a prevailing chorus, this one doesn’t. The full chorus – “It’s the time of the season for loving…” takes just eight seconds and is repeated three times. The number 3 song in the US fifty years ago this March, I wish I could somehow venture back in a time machine and personally convince the Zombies not to break up after this single was released. After all, they were just getting started.
“Come Softly to Me,” The Fleetwoods, 1959. Fleetwood members Gary Troxel and Gretchen Christopher were waiting for a lift home from high school in Olympia, Washington by her mother one day in the spring of 1958. Impulsively, Troxel started humming, “Dom dom, dom domby doo wha…” and Gretchen noticed that it was the same chord progression that she used in a song that she had just finished writing, “Come Softly.” She asked him to slow his tempo, then sang her song atop Troxel’s humming. Its nursery-rhyme-like veneer was downright hypnotic, and the melodies oh, so soothing. It took the fledgling group six months to ultimately record it, but it was well worth it. Sixty years ago this winter, it was the number one song in the US and Canada. “Come Softly to Me” still works its magical charm on most listeners all these years later.
“Lotta Love,” Nicolette Larson, 1979. Cancer is a bitch, and Nicolette Larson should still be here manufacturing great singles such as this gem, which was released 40 years ago this February. That she has been dead for over 21 years now is simply unacceptable. This live version of the Neil Young classic from Comes a Time is superb in every way. Yes, Young and Larson were a couple briefly while this song was both composed and then recorded. Her stellar work on Neil’s Comes a Time garnered her a recording contract with Warner Brothers, and while she never had another significant solo hit after “Lotta Love,” she was still a revered artist in the genre because of her prodigious pipes.
“Try a Little Tenderness,” Three Dog Night, Live, 1969. Most bands realized that they wouldn’t dare do a cover of the great Otis Redding’s 1965 signature song. Four years later, however, Cory Wells, the lead singer of Three Dog Night, finally mustered the gumption to take one of soul music’s most iconic ballads straight-on. The band also had the gall to sound like the Funk Brothers on speed and support Wells’ singing as if their lives depended upon it. This electric cover not only became a staple for Three Dog Night in their concerts over the next decade, but they then released it as a single 50 years ago, where it entered the Billboard Top 40. As the great Sam Moore – of Sam and Dave fame – commented at the time, “Otis would not only have approved their interpretation, he would have dug it.”
“Blue in Green,” Miles Davis, 1959. From his masterpiece, Kind of Blue, “Blue in Green” was recorded on March 2nd, 1959, in New York City at The Church, the legendary CBS Recording Studio on 30th Street. Wild Bill Evans, who starts the tune on the piano and ends it, and with Miles and John Coltrane and the bass up under it, played this circular movement inside of arrangement. Miles’ tone throughout is both classical and rhapsodic through the mute he has on his horn. Miles said later that the aching loneliness throughout the song tries to capture the back road of his childhood in the rural South, a dusty, dusky place in Arkansas when Miles and his cousins walked in the darkness of a woody area. All of those memories that he had inside of him surfaced like a spring bulb in “Blue in Green.”
“Hello, It’s Me,” Nazz, 1969. This heartfelt single, released in mid-December 1968, had become a popular single by February of ’69, where it had grooved itself into the consciousness of the American youth psyche. Todd Rundgren’s vocals and guitar work were impeccable; his supporting cast also rose to the occasion. Of course, Todd also composed the song, which takes us through a phone call where the singer breaks up with a girl. It’s a remarkably realistic account, devoid of sweeping metaphors typically found in “breakup songs.” In this instance, we hear the one side of the phone call, which starts with the familiar greeting, indicating they’ve been together a while. Then they have “the talk,” where he hashes out why they can’t be together and lets her know that she should have her freedom. As what has happened to us all in real life, all he can ask in the end is that she thinks of him every now and then. Like many at the time, I thought that “Hello, It’s Me” was a single by the Association. When Rundgren was apprised of this by fans, later on, he took it as the ultimate compliment.
“Scar Tissue,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1999. Released 20 years ago this February, “Scar Tissue” was the first single released by the then newly formed Red Hot Chili Peppers. From its impeccable guitar work to its infectious rhythm section to the hypnotic lyrics, this number proved to be an exemplary introduction by a most important band of the present millennium. The video of the single shows the band driving through a desert and was directed by French director Stephane Sednaoui. As you will see, the band’s members are all battered and bruised and the neck of John Frusciante’s guitar is broken, a metaphor for the song itself.
“What a Fool Believes,” The Doobie Brothers, 1979. Kenny Loggins co-wrote this with the Doobies’ lead singer Michael McDonald in the winter of 1978. Loggins eventually put his version on his album, Nightwatch, which was released in July 1978, five months before they included it on their Minute by Minute disk. Loggins’ version was never released as a single; the Doobies’ version went to number one. By the way, Michael Jackson added some background vocals on this song. Ultimately, this was the 500th number one song of the rock era, which began in 1955 when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” soared to the top of the charts 24 years previously. From the first day I heard these lyrics – “He came from somewhere back in her long ago; the sentimental fool don’t see tryin’ hard to recreate; what had yet to be created once in her life; she musters a smile for his nostalgic tale; never comin’ near what he wanted to say; only to realize it never really was” – I nearly plotzed.
“Reflections of My Life,” The Marmalade, 1969. A top-five song 50 years ago, this Beatlesque number with John Lennon-like lyrics (“the changing of sunlight to moonlight; reflections of my life…”); a McCartney-like melody from his Revolver period; and a Harrison guitar riff, which sounded right out of Abbey Road. Even the drums sound like Ringo! All in all, “Reflections of My Life” proved to be the high-point for the group from Glasgow who never had another substantial hit thereafter. Given how good this single was, maybe that was enough. One thing’s for sure – you hardly ever hear a song like this nowadays – and that’s a bloody shame. (RIP to lead singer, Dean Ford, who died on January 2, 2019, in Los Angeles at the age of 72).
“Hold the Line,” Toto, 1979. Raise your hand if you thought that this song was written and recorded by ELO? I thought so for weeks when it was released until I heard that Toto recorded it. Given their prowess in songs such as “Africa,” and “Rosanna,” this great single was also top ten hit for the band from Southern California 40 years ago this February. From this lens, Toto was made up of six enormously talented musicians who had backed up such legends as Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Jackson Browne in the 1970s, but it was their vocal work that came to define them as a band in the subsequent decade.
“Dazed and Confused,” Led Zeppelin, 1969. American balladeer Jake Holmes may not have gotten credit for inspiring Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” until 2012 when it all spilled out, but without his original trippy folk song, this Zeppelin mega-hit would not have existed. Holmes wrote a very different version of this song for his 1967 solo record, The Above Ground Sound. Jimmy Page heard it while Holmes opened for The Yardbirds and then later took his psychedelic interpretation to Led Zeppelin, which featured his iconic guitar bowing and wild instrumental breakdowns. In doing so, Page and his band refitted it and made it brand new. These days, of course, “Dazed and Confused” is a deserved rock staple.
“Take Me To The River,” Talking Heads, 1979. Apart from this being a brilliant piece of music, “Take Me to the River” is one of the most wonderfully inventive interpretations of an original song, up there with Devo’s version of The Stone’s “Satisfaction” and Nazareth’s cover of “This Flight Tonight” by Joni Mitchell. Like many Talking Head songs, it is the rhythm section that makes this song a much-deserved classic. In every way, this version is both timely and timeless.
“Nothing But a Heartache,” The Flirtations, 1969. Even though “Nothing But a Heartache” made it to only number 34 in the Billboard Top 40 fifty years ago this February, its popularity as an oldie has made it one of the more popular singles from the 1960’s era. Formerly known as the Gypsies, a girl-group from South Carolina, they reformed in London and became known as the Flirtations after that. Impeccably produced by British musical mogul, Wayne Bickerton, this earth-shattering single later became a staple at dance clubs in both Europe and the US. Hearing it these days, most assume the Supremes performed it. Sorry, folks, it’s the Flirtations!
“She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” The Diamonds, 1959. Ultimately, I have never outgrown doo-wop music; it is as enchanting to me now as it was when I first heard this exquisite single as a four-year-old back in the winter of ‘59. This number turned out to be Barry Mann’s first top ten single for the Brill Building musical phenom. According to the singer-songwriter himself, an even younger Carole King – then known as Carol Klein – helped Mann compose the bridge. Thankfully, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom),” was then given to one of the greatest doo-wop groups in history, the Diamonds, who made it into a Top 20 hit sixty years ago this winter.
“A Tribute to Buddy Holly,” Mike Berry and the Outlaws, 1961. When 22-year-old Buddy Holly perished in the crash of a private plane outside of Clear Lake, Iowa on February 3, 1959, more than 40 tribute songs to him were recorded over the years, including Don Mclean’s “American Pie.” Two years after Holly died, Mike Berry, a fledgling skiffle player from Northampton, England, wrote and recorded this poignant tribute, which remains the best song to Holly’s memory. According to Berry, the bridge refrain he croons… “was channeled right from Buddy. It almost sounds corny, but it came to me in a dream.” (Kudos to drummer Carl Betz for mirroring Jerry Allison by duplicating the “Peggy Sue” tat-at-tat-tat percussion). I agree with the late George Harrison: “A Tribute to Buddy Holly” captures the essence of his music, his death, and his legacy. Of course, Buddy Holly lives on in his music as this singe emphatically implies.
“Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell, 1969. An absolutely seamless production from composer Jimmy Webb, vocalist and guitarist Glen Campbell, and LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew, who provided the brilliant orchestration – especially the string section – which were arranged by the incomparable Quincy Jones. Because of the neo-mystic quality of the number, it was not a surprise that it ended up being the best-selling single released during the winter of 1969. Given the somewhat quirky subject, the backstory of “Wichita Lineman” is just as absorbing. According to Jimmy Webb, he was driving along the Kansas-Oklahoma border during the summer of 1968 when he saw a lonesome telephone lineman working atop a telephone pole. This incident gave him the idea for the ballad. That evening, he composed it in a hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then called his buddy, Glen Campbell, “Glen,” exclaimed Webb, “I’ve got your next number one song!” Finally, “Wichita Lineman” contains one of my favorite lines in the entire rock and roll canon – “And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time…” As a lyricist, you dream or writing a line so prescient.
“Moonlight Serenade,” Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, 1939. This dreamy ballad was Glenn Miller’s breakout hit, but it was actually years in the making. Miller wrote the melody in 1935 when he was a trombone player in Ray Noble’s band. When he finally assembled his band, Glenn and his orchestra famously recorded it. “Moonlight Serenade” made it to number 1 on the US Billboard charts 80 years ago this January, and it stayed there until mid-spring. (This, of course, comes on the heels on the news that Glenn Miller’s long-lost plane might well have been discovered off the English coast.) In late November 2005, as my mother lay dying, I played “some of the old songs” for her in her hospital room. When this familiar tune came on, she said, almost by association, “Before the war…the Outer Beach in Chatham….visits to the Totem Pole at Norumbega Park in Auburndale with your Dad…when life seemed both simple and good.” Yup, you’re right, Mum.
“Yeah, Man,” Sam Cooke, 1964. In the last year of his life, the King of Soul fearlessly experimented with soulful R&B and rock, a heady mix that wouldn’t clearly emerge until a decade later with the Tower of Power. Here is one of the last records he recorded, “Yeah, Man,” which Arthur Conley later used in 1967 as the template for “Sweet Soul Music.” All of Cooke’s “regulars” backed him here, including his soundman, Sonny Bono, and producer Lou Adler, along with the incomparable Wrecking Crew. Sam Cooke was not only a brilliant singer and songwriter but an authentic visionary as well. On what would be his 89th birthday, Sam is still The Man.
“You Should Have Been There,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1989. One of my favorite Marshall Crenshaw singles ever, sadly, “You Should Have Been There” turned out to be a little blip on the musical screen when it was released 30 years ago this winter. I always believed that if Crenshaw had released his singles in the 1960s, he would have been a gigantic star, but timing in life is everything, isn’t it? With his Beatlesque sensibility and his passion for coy lyrics and deft musicianship, ala Buddy Holly, no wonder he is a revered musician among pop veterans. I do think that Crenshaw, who played Holly in the movie, La Bamba, and who played John Lennon on Broadway in Beatlemania, produced the kind of music that Holly might well have generated if he had not died so young.
“Love is Strange,” Buddy Holly, 1959. Originally recorded on Holly’s brand-new Ampex tape recorder in his Greenwich Village apartment 60 years ago today on January 19, 1959, Buddy’s longtime producer, Norman Petty, later added the orchestration supporting his acoustic guitar after he died in a tragic plane crash on February 3, 1959. Of course, “Love is Strange” was a crossover hit by American rhythm and blues duet Mickey & Sylvia, which was released in late November 1956 by the Groove record label. The tune was based on a guitar riff by the legendary Bo Diddley, which Holly duplicated here. Sadly, it was the last song that Buddy ever recorded, which is why Norman Petty reverently included the eerie organ background, performed by his musician wife, Vi. Holly’s mother, Ella, later said that it sounded as if her son was singing to her from heaven. If you haven’t ever heard this incredible record, you will notice that Buddy plays the song at 2/4 time, a radical departure from the original rockabilly tune that Diddley had originally written it in a few years previously. When Paul McCartney hosted a Sirius show on Holly’s memory a few years ago, he played “Love is Strange,” and remarked, “It’s almost as if Buddy knew something was going to happen.”
“Someday,” Sugar Ray, 1999. When I first heard “Someday,” it sounded like a 1960s AM single; melodic; wistful lyrics, crisp phrasing; and sound musicianship. I later learned that the band, Sugar Ray, who hailed from Newport Beach, California, intentionally copied the ethos the 1960s Californian Pop Sound, so it all made sense then. Released 20 years ago this year, “Someday” is one of those songs” that instantaneously brings a smile to my face. Perhaps it’s because that my two sons asked me to turn up the radio when it came on one morning when we were driving off to another hockey game that they would then play at the outdoor Greenwich, Connecticut Skating Rink! In retrospect. I would give anything to go back to those fleeting times. Ultimately, of course, music is the enduring window to the past.
“Touch Me,” The Doors, 1969. From their underrated album, The Soft Parade, this unique single was composed by Robby Krieger, and its riff, according to Krieger, was influenced by, of all things, the Four Seasons’ “C’mon Marianne!” The tune became notable for its extensive usage of brass and string instruments to accent Jim Morrison’s vocals, including three measures of the lead singer’s crooning like Sinatra, and a powerful solo by saxophonist Curtis Amy, who put a bow on the entire proceedings. Ultimately, “Touch Me” reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 in the Cashbox Top 100 in January 1969 (the band’s third American number-one release). Here in this incredible live TV performance in 1969, Jim Morrison starts with the proceedings with a visionary poem, and then plays it straight, much to the relief of the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, who backed up the Doors on this Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour appearance. For real.
“Lonely Teardrops,” Jackie Wilson, 1959. After listening to this mesmerizing original recording, Elvis Presley supposedly said to Wilson: “I have no idea why they call me, ‘The King.’ You are.” (Years later, this anecdote became the basis of Van Morrison’s iconic rocker, “Jackie Wilson Said.”). Sixty years ago this January, this early soul classic was the number 1 song in America. “Lonely Teardrops,” which was written and produced by a young Berry Gordy, was used as the proceeds to launch Motown Records as a corporate entity in 1960. In September 1975, when Jackie Wilson was performing at the Latin Casino in New Jersey, he collapsed from a combined heart attack and stroke smack dab in the middle of a rendition of “Lonely Teardrops.” Wilson never recovered and remained in a coma for eight more years until his death on January 21, 1984. What tragic irony that the last words Jackie sang before collapsing were, “My heart is crying, crying!” The audience at first thought that his fall on stage was part of the act and they started to wildly cheer him. Soon, however, It became evident that something was terribly wrong. Upon his death, Stevie Wonder said famously, “Before there was Marvin Gaye, there was Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.”
30 years after Jackie came out with “Lonely Teardrops,” actor/musician Howard Huntsberry paid homage to the essence of Jackie Wilson in his brilliant portrayal of him in the Ritchie Valens’ biopic, La Bamba. This is simply mesmerizing!
“Another Brick in the Wall, Part II,” Pink Floyd, 1979. A few years ago, the song’s lyricist, Roger Waters, admitted in an interview in The London Times, “You couldn’t find anybody on the planet more pro-education than me. It is the air I breathe. But the education I experienced in an English boys’ grammar school in the 1950s was exceedingly controlling – and, in my mind, that demanded rebellion. The song is meant to be a rebellion against an errant government, against people who have power over you, who are wrong. Ten it absolutely demands that you rebel against it.” As an educator for nearly four decades, I have never thought that “The Wall” was never about education or bad teachers. It was always about authority and mind control in a world dominated by an explosion of jingoistic language, thoughtlessness, and collective sociopathy. If “The Wall” were to be updated in 2019, its laser beam might well be shining on Fox News.
“Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake, 1969. The archetypal musical cult figure, Nick Drake produced just three solo albums in his tragically compressed life, and yet he is revered in his native UK and behind for producing music that is continually stripped bare, honest, soul-to-soul. As we all have discovered over time, life is a heavy emotional burden for many of us. Those who feel deeply, see deeply, need deeply. Nick was one of the burdened. This single, which was released 50 years ago today on January 4, 1969, reminds us that life is fleeting.”Time has told me/You’re a rare, rare find/A troubled cure/For a troubled mind/And time has told me/Not to ask for more/For someday our ocean/Will find its shore…” While he died much too young in 1974, Nick Drake’s music has been rediscovered and is played regularly, especially in Europe, where he is now an iconic musical figure.
“Giving You the Best That I Got,” Anita Baker, 1989. The Queen of Smooth Soul retired a few years ago, but the great Anita Baker ended up leaving an impeccable legacy. Three decades ago, the joy that wrapped around each of her ballads was like an unexpected warm sunny day in the midst of a wintery cold front. Ultimately, “Giving You the Best That I’ve Got” turned out to be Anita’s biggest-selling hit, scoring #1 on both the Adult Contemporary and R&B charts, and number 2 on the American Top 40. Composed by the legendary Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dizier, and Holland, Baker took it and added some detail at the beginning and had the tempo sped up, producing a peppier version. A quintessential crossover song, this tune ended up becoming a staple of jazz, pop, and light rock stations thereafter. Happy 2019, everybody!