From January 1, 2020 to December 31, I posted the following musical sketches on my Facebook page. As always, it was music that got us through such perilous times. The King of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, once wrote in Rolling Stone: “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” These particular tunes, which I focused on here gave me more fuel throughout this momentous, disturbing, and tragic year. Maybe they will for you as well.
“Feeling Good,” Nina Simone, 1965. Initially written for the Broadway musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, this uplifting tune became Nina Simone’s when she recorded it on her 1965 album, I Put a Spell on You. At the time of the album’s release, “Feeling Good” wasn’t put out as a single. When the song was used in the UK for a fabric softener advertisement in 1987, however, it became well known and was subsequently released as a single, which reached number 40 on the UK charts. Hearing the words: “It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life for me/I’m feelin’ good,” in Simone’s legendary croon is enough to get off the couch and do something you’ve always wanted to do in life. Happy New Year’s Day 2020, everyone!
“Save Me,” Fleetwood Mac, 1990. The last single that the supergroup ever had that made the Billboard Top 40, this was the feature song of their 1990 album, Behind the Mask. A Christine McVie-penned ballad, it followed the model of both their Fleetwood Mac and Rumours releases, with a California-pop sensibility, searing lyrics, and a truly infectious hook. While Lindsey Buckingham had left the band by then, their crisp musicianship was still very much in evidence. Although their 16-year reign as the kings and queens of pop, nevertheless, among Fleetwood Mac fans, this is one of their favorites. Incredibly, I don’t think I’ve heard it on any radio in nearly 20 years. Still, “Save Me” reminds us all how brilliant a songwriter Christine McVie was in her prime.
“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” B. J. Thomas, 1970. The number one song in the US and Canada on January 7, 1970, Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote this much-beloved ballad for the film Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, starring the late Paul Newman and his buddy, Robert Redford. The first million-seller for the iconic songwriters, it was Dionne Warwick who suggested to Bacharach and David that they have B. J. Thomas record it. “It needs a strong male voice, and B. J. would do a fabulous job with it,” she told Burt Bacharach at the time. What Warwick didn’t know then was that Bob Dylan and Ray Stevens had already turned down the song, and, so, Thomas quickly flew to Los Angeles to put it on wax. Ultimately, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” won the Oscar as Best Song at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony.
“Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Rupert Holmes, 1980. Rupert Holmes has written several Broadway plays, including Say Goodnight, Gracie and The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. He has also composed ballads that have been performed by Barbra Streisand, Judy Collins, and Britney Spears. He created a television series called Remember WENN and even authored a well-received novel, Where The Truth Lies. Ultimately, his works have won Tonys, Emmys, and Edgars. Despite all this, Rupert Holmes is best known for this singular novelty tune, which was the number one song in the US and Canada four decades ago this January. As he said in a New York Times article a few years ago, “If the worst thing that can be said about me is that I am a failed Renaissance Man, then my life has been a success.” Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
“Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” Derek and the Dominoes, 1970. Eric Clapton’s pulsating string work is matched by Duane Allman’s seamless slide work in one of the more underrated pieces of a nearly perfect album. An original Clapton composition (composed with the vastly talented Bobby Womack), “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” was Clapton’s at his best, an artist whose talents finally reached the potential that he had shown previously as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream. Incredibly, though, his work is overshadowed here by Duanne Allman, who steals the tune like a thief in the night. As always, genius is talent sent on fire.
“Mr. Blue,” The Fleetwoods, 1960. The follow-up to the high school trio’s “Come Softly to Me,” “Mr. Blue” was a Top 5 hit in January 1960. To the overproduced music of the twenty-first century, this is quite a contrast to the purposeful flat response sounds. Why drench the vocals in reverb when it can sound this clear? Stll, it’a a musical fossil from a different time. By the way, one of our neighbors had a 1958 Chevy Impala, which was a deep-seated blue. Yes, he called it, “Mr. Blue.” This song harkens back to a simpler, optimistic, more scrubbed-up time. Of course, our parents had experienced sixteen years of stress between the Great Depression and World War II, so they were more than allowed to put their collective heads in the sand for a spell. After all, it felt good.
“Boomerang,” T-Bone Burnett, 1980. The lead song from one of the truly underrated LP’s of the 1980’s, T-Bone Burnett’s Truth Decay, “Boomerang” should have catapulted the veteran singer-songwriter-producer to Top 10 status, but sadly, the single fell flat at the time. A single in the best Sun Records tradition, guitarist Billy Swan rocks here while T-Bone’s vocals sound as if Bob Dylan had just inhaled helium. The bridge here contains one of the great hooks of 1980. For real.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel, 1990. While Billy Joel once described this unique number-one song as “terrible musically – it’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head” – “We Didn’t Start the Fire” still made it to the #1 position in the US charts 30 years ago this January. The lyrics, of course, are a stream of consciousness list of events that the Piano Man felt his generation was not responsible for at the time. A lot of the references are to the Cold War – a problem that his generation inherited. Joel composed the song after a conversation with John Lennon’s son, Sean, and then wrote out the list in a rat-ta-tat style similar to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I am one of perhaps 100,000 history teachers who have used Billy’s lyrics from “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to teach twentieth-century American history. His allusions, by the way, are both broad and brilliant: “Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac/Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, Bridge on the River Kwai…” It should be noted that in concert, Joel began to tinker with some of the names and events in updated versions. For instance, he replaced “payola and Kennedy” with “payola and Perry Smith” because, after all, JFK was mentioned later on. (For the uninformed, Perry Smith was the central killer of the Clutter family of In Cold Blood fame). “We Didn’t Start the Fire” became a go-to song for Joel whenever he toured thereafter.
“Nite Owl,” Tony Allen and the Champs, 1955. This doo-wop classic is tough as nails –the fool has become wise, oh, those heartbreaks in the night, and then there’s a flip of the finger. The “strolling” vibe is used as a reversal against the nite owl– yeah?? Why keep comin’ home late?? Well, seeya, “So long, call me maybe.” To complete this little gem, the chorus mocks Tony Allen by sounding like, well, owls. The wonderful irony here is that as New York City tough as Tony Allen and the Champs sound, they hailed from Southern California and were nothing like our heroes here. While “Nite Owl” was a Top 20 hit 65 years ago this winter, I have never heard it play on any oldies stations but Sirius 50’s in recent years. As the late Kookie Byrnes would say, “It’s the ginchiest!”
“Remember,” Free, 1970. The legendary English blues-rockers were the musical comets of a generation. They only released three albums and were really only together for four years until they disbanded and formed two other groups, Bad Company and Back Street Crawler. Still, the next time you’re taking the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recall that Paul Rodgers, one of the greatest pure singers in rock history, is not there. Paul Kossoff’s killer lead-guitar playing, and the vastly underrated bassist Andy Fraser fierce underpinnings, brilliantly frame Rodgers’ searing vocals. In retrospect, “All Right Now” gave Free a hit for the ages. “Remember,” a more sedate follow-up, proved worthy in every way. Released 50 years ago this January, the number would ultimately be featured by the band at the legendary Isle of Wight Concert later on in the summer of 1970.
“Monday Morning Rock,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1983. Crenshaw famously portrayed Buddy Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba, but he has more in common with the ’50s rock and roll legend than just the glasses and handsome but boyish face. If Holly had not died tragically in one of the music’s most infamous air disasters and had continued to develop his career through the ’60s, it’s easy to imagine that his work might have sounded like this rollicking, guitar-rich tune, which would undoubtedly be a major hit if it was released in, let’s say, 1966. Nor surprisingly, Crenshaw’s vocal style soars in an organic fashion similar to Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” If you haven’t heard this number before, do yourself a favor.
“One More Time,” Sam Cooke, 1960. On what would be his 89th birthday, here’s a somewhat obscure Sam Cooke single, which didn’t do that well when it was released 60 years ago today, January 22, 1960, and yet has aged, like so many of his recordings, like fine wine. A voice made from silk and velvet, Sam’s earnestness moves this tune into the realm of soul, a genre that he helped to invent. Aretha Franklin once called him the most handsome man she ever knew, and an individual worthy of a voice that only God could create. That’s all you need to know about Sam Cooke.
“The Story in Your Eyes,” the Moody Blues, 1970. One of the most underrated bands in rock history with one of the truly great singer-songwriter-guitarists at the helm, Justin Hayward, wrote, played the lead guitar, and sang the lead vocals on this track from the exceptional album, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. If you take the time to listen to it, you will note the layers of instruments, the layers of backing harmony vocals, the overlapping complementary tones, the infectious melody, and the overall propelling quality of the composition. Not surprisingly, the listener’s attention is never on one instrument for more than 8-10 seconds, and can quickly be drawn away to at least two other layers. Music is not made this way anymore because artists are specialists; it took an “everyman” such as Justin Hayward to construct anything this elaborate and creative. Like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Moody’s ended up producing seven amazing albums in five years (from 1967-72) – and then crashed and burned. However, they did regroup and produced three more solid albums over the next decade. Here’s one longtime Moodies’ fan who loves “The Story in Your Eyes” as much today as when it was first recorded a half-century ago!
“Flip, Flop, and Fly,” Big Joe Turner, 1955. It’s always crazy when you discover a song recorded on the day you were born, and so here’s mine! A few years ago, I was informed by a longtime music pal that the revered R&B rock pioneer, Big Joe Turner, recorded one of his more famous hits at the legendary Atlantic Studio, which was then situated at 234 West 56th Street on the afternoon of January 28, 1955 – my birthdate. A walking, singing antidepressant, Big Joe could coax away any stormcloud with his heady combination of swing, R&B, and rock and stomp. I was fortunate enough to see him perform live at a Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revival concert at the old Boston Garden in 1972. He was introduced by Bo Diddley and was followed up by Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Shirelles, the Coasters, the Five Satins, the Drifters, and Chuck Berry. It was like a Founding Fathers Convention minus Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley.
“Children of the Night,” Richard Marx, 1990. Richard Marx wrote this song after learning about the Children Of The Night Foundation, which works to help victims of sex trafficking and to save children forced into prostitution. Privately funded, it was started by the sociologist Dr. Lois Lee, who took action after seeing kids on the streets of Hollywood who had been left behind. Proceeds from this song helped fund the Children Of The Night Home, opened in Van Nuys, California in 1992. To this day, the shelter provides schooling in addition to shelter and other services for kids age 11-17 who were forced into prostitution. Dr. Lois Lee, the founder of the foundation, said recently in a recent LATimes interview: “Thousands of children have Richard Marx embedded in their hearts and their memories because of his generous gift that helped build the Children Of The Night Home where over 3,000 children to date have lived. Many of the children still talk about Richard and their experience in the studio singing with him on the ‘Children Of The Night’ song.” As someone who knows and relishes the width and breadth of twentieth-century music, I have long known that there are very few mediums, such as music, which can bring a spotlight to injustice. I wish more twenty-first century artists would take note on issues such as bigotry, intelligence, global warming, and economic inequality. Not surprisingly, “Children of the Night” turned out to be a prodigious single for Richard Marx 30 years ago this winter.
“Psychedelic Shack,” The Temptations, 1970. When you think about it, the Temptations were one of the most socially-conscious bands of the mid-to-late 1960s groups. Their care and empathy rang true in all of their music, which was inevitably both enthralling and evocative. In retrospect, “Psychedelic Shack” could be seen as a unification anthem, welcoming all people in this all-encompassing, welcoming place where you can free your mind and be accepted for who you are. The band’s composers at the time, the underappreciated Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, composed the ballad for the Temps, and purposely got at least one line of lead vocals for each of the band members, including the Temps’ revered bassman, Melvin Franklin, who appropriately sang the “so low you can’t get under it” riff. And, yes, this single, which stalled at number 2 fifty-years-ago this week, became the inspiration for the B-52s “Love Shack,” a little more than 19 years later.
“The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” Spoon, 2005. Despite hailing from Austin, Texas, Spoon’s sound has always been decidedly British New Wave – ala Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and The Squeeze. Some critics compared the sound to the Beatles’ “Glass Onion,” from The White Album – a deft comparison, especially in the tune’s psychedelic bridge, which sounds right out of the Lennon/McCartney and George Martin playbook. Interestingly, Spoon’s emerged from the long-term aesthetic partnership between the lead singer and songwriter Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, in whose Austin studio the band rehearsed and prepared most of their numbers. From this lens, this is rock ‘n roll at its finest.
“Hey Bulldog,” The Beatles, 1968. Because of the simultaneous demands of a musical soundtrack, a movie that was in post-production, and the fact that the Beatles needed a B-Side to “Lady Madonna,” the band spent ten hours on February 11, 1968, composing and recording one of their more unheralded numbers, “Hey Bulldog,” a filler that turned out to be something much more. Because they were clearly under the gun, the recording was a joint effort between John and Paul, based on a lick that Lennon had previously worked on but hadn’t completed entitled, “Hey Bullfrog.” The songwriters ended up consciously writing it in the style of Barrett Strong’s legendary 1960 soul twisting, “Money,” famously covered by Lennon in a kick-ass Beatles recording five years before. “We wanted to rock out on that track as we had in Hamburg and at the Cavern Club. We wanted to blow out a tune; no holds barred,” Lennon told journalist Lester Bangs years later. To further emphasize the casual ambiance of the song, John scribbled down some lyrics while Paul furiously worked on the remaining musical chords. At the beginning of the session, when Paul played a Paul Jones’ rocker to John called “The Dog Presides,” which featured a series of dogs barking, McCartney began to howl playfully as well. Lennon liked it so much that they changed the title and then added the yelping at the end of the number. “The producers of Yellow Submarine were clamoring to finish the song in order to put it on that album, plus we wanted to get ‘Lady Madonna’ out as a single, so we were in a full-out sprint that day,” McCartney admitted in The Beatles Anthology. For one line in “Hey Bullfrog,” Lennon had scribbled, “Some solitude is measured out in news.” When they sang from the lyrics’ sheet as they recorded the tune, the band misread John’s chicken-scratch as “some kind of solitude is measured out in you.” Because they were working against the clock, they kept the mistake in the final version, much to the delight of Lennon, who loved the unintentional error. “Paul’s bass line on ‘Hey Bullfrog’ was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was well played. Harrison’s solo was sparkling, too – one of the few times that he nailed it right away. His amp was turned up loud, and he used one of his new fuzz boxes, which made his guitar absolutely scream,” wrote the late Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ longtime engineer in a memoir written four decades after the group had disbanded. Ultimately, they had patch-worked a tune that reminded us all that they could still rock with the best bands on the planet. “Hey Bulldog” would be a precursor to the heavy rock they would produce in both the Let it Be and Abbey Road sessions. As Mick Jagger later exclaimed, “When we first heard the song, I thought, ‘That’s a record that we would have made.’” For any other band this would be their most famous song. For the Beatles, it’s a throwaway filler for a cartoon.
“Send One Your Love,” Stevie Wonder, 1980. Stevland Hardaway Morris entered the decade of the ‘80’s with this faultless recording, which was the number one song in the US and Canada 40 years ago this February. Like so many of his soul classics, this one unfolds musically, lyrically, and spiritually. The ultimate optimist, Stevie once said, “Being blind, you don’t judge books by their covers. You go through relatively insignificant things, and you pick out the more important things.” Berry Gordy, who worked with Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross, once professed, “Stevie was the most innovative person that I’ve ever known. But also unique with his tones and his voice quality. He cannot be duplicated.” When all is said and done, his canon of music will be compared to Berlin, Porter, Ellington, and Ray Charles.
“You’ve Got What It Takes,” Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, 1960. The initial collaboration of two iconic early figures in rock history, this infectious single, released 60 years ago this winter, launched a side-career for both soloists, who would subsequently release more than 15 songs together until Washington’s untimely death in December 1963 (Washington was married to NFL great, Dick “Night Train” Lane at the time). Please note that at the 2:00 mark of “You’ve Got What it Takes” – after the end of a bridge lyric that Brook sang – he comes in on Dinah’s line. Benton then makes a funny comment, and she keeps singing! After completing the line, she states, “Now, it’s you.” They both assumed the sound engineer would erase this, but veteran producer Clyde Otis liked the ad-libbed byplay, and it became part of the released version. Marvin Gaye later said that Washington and Benton’s teaming inspired Marvin and Tammi Terrell to record soul-inspired duet hits together in the mid-to-late 1960s. Talk about the ultimate compliment!
“Buddy Holly,” Weezer, 1995. I have always loved this upbeat tribute song to Buddy Holly and the era of the 1950s, composed and recorded 36 years after his tragic demise by the LA-based pop band Weezer. This heralded video of the song spliced footage from the 1970s television sitcom Happy Days with Weezer performing in a remade “Arnold’s Drive-In.” The video achieved heavy rotation on MTV and went on to win four MTV Video Music Awards, including Breakthrough Video and Best Alternative Music Video, and two Billboard Music Video Awards. The video was also featured on the companion CD for the Microsoft Windows 95 computer operating system! Not surprisingly, Bill Gates was a huge Buddy Holly fan growing up in the late 1950s.
“Handyman,” Jimmy Jones, 1960. While many people think that James Taylor first sang this infectious number originally, it was actually Jimmy Jones, a veteran R&B singer who first had a hit with it 60 years ago this month. If you take the time to listen to Jones’ seamless version, you will note that he sang “Handyman” in a smooth yet soulful falsetto modeled on the likes of Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke. Interestingly, Jones composed “Handyman” in 1955 and recorded it back then to very little acclaim. As he joked later on, “I had to make a cover of my own song for it to gain any attention.” Jone’s new version went to number #2 on the US charts, and his follow-up single, “Good Timin’,” went to #3. Seventeen years after Jone’s falsetto classic, James Taylor took his more sensuous version of the song all the way to number 1.
“Crazy Thing Called Love,” Queen, 1980. Freddie Mercury reportedly wrote this single during a 10-minute flash of inspiration. John Lennon said that hearing “Crazy Thing” on the radio in his New York City apartment inspired him to get back to writing and recording. Mercury, using his self-described, limited guitar-playing abilities ended up crafting a fantastic rockabilly number worthy of Elvis Presley himself. Given his prodigious talent, Freddie plays the role of “the King” to the fullest vocally as well, crooning in a low register so playful you can practically see the curled lip and slicked-back hair. As an added attraction, he coaxed his Queen band members to sound like the Jordanaires as a reassuring backdrop. I love that Freddie insisted on having this hit single recorded in 1950’s mono. How apropos!
“Sixteen Reasons,” Connie Stevens, 1960. The desire of countless teenage boys while she played Cricket Black on the popular television detective series, Hawaiian Eye, Connie Stevens had a side music career as well, where she had four Top 10 hits in 1960-62. “Sixteen Reasons,” her best-selling-hit, which reached number 3 on the Billboard Top 40 sixty years ago this winter, was typical fare for the times – teenage angst coupled with the bookends of fantasy and desire. Her breathy voice was intentional and probably caused another 100,000 people to buy this 45/single. To her enormous credit, because of her All-American sexuality, Stevens became a regular performer on subsequent Bob Hope USO Shows. Ultimately, Connie came to briefly symbolize …“the girl back home.”
“(I Wanna) Rock With You,” Michael Jackson, 1980. A teenaged Michael Jackson at the start of his out-of-space-and-time solo career, “Rock With You” was his second short film, filmed in 1979 for the second No. 1 hit single from Off the Wall. The Bruce Gowers-directed short film, featuring Michael dancing in a sequined jumpsuit and matching boots against a set of shimmering lasers, was ranked No. 6 on a list of Michael’s 20 greatest videos by Rolling Stone Magazine. In February 1980, there was simply not another song in existence that was played more around the world than this one.
“Box of Rain,” The Grateful Dead, 1970. Because Phil Lesh was at his very best vocally even as the Dead is at its height musically, it is no wonder, then, that this country-folk tune has withstood the clutches of time. 50 years ago this month, Lesh’s father was dying of cancer, and he yearned to write a song for him before he died. After composing the musical part of the ballad, he gave it to Dead wordsmith Robert Hunter, who then added the lyrics. Happy, Phil was able to perform it live to his Dad in his hospital room. “His smile was as big as the room itself,” Lesh remembered later. While we all seem to reside in a box of rain these days, we still provide the sun and the moon amidst such capriciousness.
“Tonight I Fell in Love,” The Tokens, 1960. The legendary doo-wop group was initially known as the Linc-Tones when they formed in 1955 at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, which also included the likes of fellow students Neil Sedaka and Carole Klein (AKA Carole King). By 1960, newly formed, the Tokens were signed by Warwick Records, where they then recorded “Tonight I Fell in Love.” This sugary single was recorded 60 years ago this winter, but it took several months for it to garner national attention, reaching the Top 10 that fall. Over the next seven years, the Tokens would have nine more top 20 hits, including their beloved, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but it was this quintessential soul-tinged number that launched the group’s popularity as a national vocal quartet. This is one of those songs that remind us all how very different music was in pre-Beatles America. It is also a ballad that should now be considered a classic.
“I Can’t Tell You Why,” The Eagles, Live – 1980. On July 15, 1982, I attended a Jimmy Buffet summer outdoor concert on Boston Common. An hour into the show, Buffett introduced his bass player that evening, Timothy B. Schmit. The former Eagles bassist then performed a seamless version of “I Can’t Tell You Why,” which he had composed and also then sang lead vocals on the single two years previously. Before computers made music by algorithm, songs were composed by the human heart. On this exquisite love-sonnet, Schmit’s quivering vocals tug at the soul while Glenn Frey’s swirling guitar solo puts a bow tie on the entire affair. To Jimmy Buffet’s everlasting credit, he stood in the background while Schmidt took over that night for this one breathtaking ballad. When I heard it performed live on historic Boston Common, I wish it could have lasted forever.
“No Time,” The Guess Who, 1970. Composed by the Guess Who’s famed lead guitarist, Randy Bachman, & featuring lead singer Burton Cumming’s mournful-tenor voice, “No Time” was a Top Ten hit for one of Canada’s more prominent bands 50 years ago this February. Ultimately, this ballad served as a kind of mini- epitaph to the 1960s, a tune about moving on and finding one’s true calling. Originally inspired by the Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman” and “Hung Upside Down,” the lick to “No Time” later became the inspiration for the theme song of TV’s Law and Order! (Yes, Bachman received partial writing credits for the theme). As Randy Bachman stated years later, “Music is all about sharing and then creating your corner of such a world.”
“Harbour Lights,” The Platters, 1960. No doo-wop group did covers better than the incomparable Platters, one of the mosy beloved doo-wop groups of the Eisenhower Years. In “Harbor Lights,” they took this 1937 standard first recorded by Frances Langford and created an entirely different song. From this lens, it was Tony Williams’ aptitude as a crooner who drives the bus here, but the orchestration by the then-fledgling Wrecking Crew adds the essential ingredient here that makes this number a veritable classic. (Not a bad day for the Wrecking Crew. After they cut “Harbour Lights,” the session-musician band then backed up Sam Cooke on “Wonderful World” two hours later!)
“Smooth,” Rob Thomas with Carlos Santana, 2000. Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur specifically wrote this for Carlos Santana, thinking that the late George Michael would be the tune’s lead vocalist. As fate would have it, however, Thomas decided to record his vocals as a demo with Satana’s distinctive guitar riffs providing the framework to a single that was the number one song worldwide twenty years ago this month. The ultimate irony is that the vocals don’t sound like Thomas at all. He was imitating how he thought Michael would have sung it had he provided the lead. While this was Santana’s first number one song in more than a decade, it turned out to be a career-maker for Rob Thomas, whose solo career then took off after the release of “Smooth.” By the way, George Michael was flattered by Thomas’s “imitation” and thought that it was “truly brilliant.”
“Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time,” The Delfonics, 1970. Written and produced by legendary producer, composer, and arranger, Thom Bell, and his musical partner, William Hart, this 1970 soul hit is the quintessential example of the Philly Sound, which was embodied in Bell’s groups, the Delfonics, the Stylistics, the Soul Survivors, and LaBelle, featuring Patti Labelle. In this 1971 Soul Train appearance by the Delfonics, their TV version here captures the majesty of the ballad, especially in the vocal performance of William Hart, a performer who also had a hand in the careers of other Philly artists from Billy Paul to Hall and Oates. (Yes, he lip-syncs, but they all did on Soul Train.) I once heard Laura Nyro do this number live – and I thought I had gone to heaven. Of course, if I had had the privilege of seeing the Delfonics perform it in person, I would have been in the upper reaches of nirvana. In every conceivable way, “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” is a consummate single.
“Little Jeannie,” Elton John, 1980. Released 40 years ago this March, “Little Jeannie” was one of the few Elton John megahits that he didn’t compose with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. The lyrics came from his friend, songwriter Gary Osborne. In 1978, Elton wrote the songs for his LP, A Single Man with Osborne, while Bernie Taupin worked on the Alice Cooper album, From The Inside. Elton’s 21 At 33 record contained tracks from both Osborne and Taupin, and most of Elton’s subsequent output would have words by Bernie. Looking back at his time away from Taupin, Elton said that while there was some friction between them, it was not a breakup, but more of a sabbatical, as John was in London and Bernie was residing in Los Angeles at the time. From the great groove Sir Elton concocted here, he added a heady mix of acoustic and lead electric guitars, a tenor sax, three trumpets, and a Moog synthesizer to the entire affair! A seamless production from an artist on top of his game.
“Pennies From Heaven,” The Skyliners, 1960. Take a standard big band song, rev it up to a rock and roll beat accompanied by a group who was the forerunner of the Manhattan Transfer; insist that one of the most underrated vocalists of early rock, Jimmy Beaumont, sing it; make Lou Adler the song’s producer; ask LA’s Wrecking Crew to provide the orchestral accompaniment, and you have musical magic in every way. While this number was a Top Ten hit 60 years ago this year, “Pennies From Heaven” has recently received significant airplay on Sirius ’50’s over the past few years. In retrospect, you have to ask yourself, “Why didn’t this song make it to number one?”
“Who’ll Stop the Rain?” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970. John Fogerty composed this much-admired ballad, which, for an entire generation, was interpreted as a protest song against the Vietnam War. Given the decidedly apocalyptic lyrics, this assumption was understandable. However, 40 years after the tune was recorded, Fogerty told interviewers that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” was actually about Woodstock! An attendee who also performed at the legendary music festival in August 1969, Fogerty watched the festival-goers dance in the rain, muddy, naked, cold, huddling together as the rain “kept on pouring down.” Consequently, when Fogerty arrived back home in California after that weekend, he sat down and composed, “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” making it not a Vietnam protest at all, but the recounting of the Woodstock Festival experience that Creedence performed so brilliantly five decades ago last August!
Longtime music fans might recall that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” was actually the B Side to the great rocker, “Travellin’ Band,” which contained one of my favorite lines in rock history: “Listen to the radio/Talkin’ ’bout the last show/Someone got excited/Had to call the state militia.” Ah, double-sided hits. They were like baseball doubleheaders when you paid for a single admission ticket – welcomed pleasures.
“Nice and Easy,” Frank Sinatra, 1960. Recorded on March 12, 1960, this was another seamless collaboration between The Voice and his bandleader extraordinaire, Nelson Riddle. Sinatra’s understated vocals here contrast magically to the pulsating score, deftly arranged by Riddle. Like so many great Sintra songs, there is an effervescence – a passion here – that is both light and “gay” (in the old sense). “Nice and Easy’s” subtle shading of darkness is also there to remind listeners that the ride is never permanent – so enjoy it while you can. Even on a rainy March day, this one will make you beam like a summer moon.
“Morning Morgantown,” Joni Mitchell, 1970. The opening salvo from her groundbreaking 1970 recording, Ladies of the Canyon, “Morning Morgantown” is a paean to everyone’s hometown, a nursery-like dirge to the comings and goings of a community at the rise of day. Joni Mitchell never lived in Morgantown, West Virginia – so let’s put that to rest. (In the end, it’s much more about her hometown – North Battleford, Saskatchewan). Like the impressionistic songwriter she was at the time, Joni’s sonnet reminds us all that you cannot find peace by avoiding life. While Ladies of the Canyon was released 50 years ago this winter and included such masterworks as “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” and “The Circle Game,” I have always thought that this vivid and enchanting hymn was the perfect launch to an extraordinary album.
“Cathy’s Clown,” The Everly Brothers, 1960. While many remember their near-two decade split, the music remains. In 2004, Phil Everly said famously, “Don and I are infamous for our split, but we’re closer than most brothers. Harmony singing requires that you enlarge yourself, not use any kind of suppression. Harmony is the ultimate expression of love.” In that vein, “Cathy’s Clown” is indicative of the Brothers Everly’s timeless entries; there are memorable melodic hooks, impeccable harmonies, and spotless musical accompaniment. Of course, Phil and Don Everly were admired by everyone from Buddy Holly to Sam Cooke, and their Nashville-tinged productions proved to be the launching point for country rock. 60 years this April after this infectious single hit number one on the Billboard Top 40, the Everly Brothers still rock!
“Danny Boy,” Eva Cassidy, 1990. Take an old Irish standard, which had been covered by more than 1000 artists, record it for your parents on St. Patrick’s Day at a local Maryland recording studio in 1992, and scratch out a cover, which no artist before or since has ever surpassed. Ultimately, Eva Cassidy was an authentic songbird. When you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, lift a cold one up to Eva Cassidy. In every way, she was an Amhrán Éireannach.
“Please Let Me Wonder,” The Beach Boys, 1965. Fifty-five years ago today, on March 19, 1965, this exquisite Beach Boys ballad was released by Capitol Records as an A-Side.. While its accompanying single, “Help Me, Rhonda,” far outsold it, nevertheless, this remains one of Brian Wilson’s most beguiling tunes. “Please Let Me Wonder” not only spotlights Brian’s seamless composing abilities, but it also highlights his astonishing vocal range as well. In a 2011 interview, Brian recalled: “I wrote this at my apartment in West Hollywood. As soon as I finished, I felt I had to record it, so I called up my engineer, Chuck Britz, and woke him up. ‘Please Let Me Wonder’ was then recorded at 3:30 in the morning. I drove to the studio in the middle of the night and recorded it. That song was done as a tribute to Phil Spector’s music. It definitely has an excellent straight-ahead feel to it. I knew I loved that song from the moment it was finished, and I’ve loved it ever since.” So have many others.
“What I Like About You,” The Romantics, 1980. This retro song was released 40 years ago this spring and ended up being played continually throughout the spring – mostly on FM stations at the time – who adored its undertones. An authentic attention grabber, “What I Like About You” could well have been recorded by the Kinks or the Zombies 15 years previously. Given that the Knack had just touched on the same ground months earlier, a lot thought that it was a Knack release at the time, but to the Romantics’ credit, they do a stellar job here, especially lead singer and drummer Jimmy Marinos, who gave his best Ray Davies impersonation.
“Girl,” the Beatles, 1965.On November 11, 1965, the Beatles laid down the last track of arguably their best album, Rubber Soul, with John’s emphatic answer to Paul’s “Michele,” a brazen forerunner to the 1980s Europop style entitled simply, “Girl.” Until he met Yoko Ono, John’s dream girl was distinctly German, working-class, and resembled the very real Astrid Kirchherr, a doe-like, flaxen-colored beauty from Hamburg who, during the band’s time in Hamburg, had not only helped the Beatles with their image but pushed them into such previously unexplored areas as existentialism. A photographer by trade, Kirchherr stumbled upon the Beatles one spring night in the spring of 1960 – when they were performing as the house band at the Kaiserkeller Club – and became immediately smitten by “their talent, humor, and intelligence.” Within a month, Astrid began dating Stuart Sutcliffe, John’s best friend from Liverpool Art College, who had joined the group as its bassist three months previously. By necessity, the Beatles had let their hair out – they were continually in short supply of cash overseas – so Astrid decided to give them stylized cuts, which shaped their unwieldy manes into mop-like locks. Thus, the legendary Beatle hairstyle began in Hamburg in 1960 because of the artistic flair of Astrid Kirchherr. Over the years, Beatle fans have pointed out that both Cynthia Powell and Patti Boyd, John Lennon and George Harrison’s first wives, eerily reassembled Astrid, who ended up living with Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg, until he tragically died of a blood clot a year after the Beatles returned to England for good. “All of us liked Astrid – and were in love with her as well,” admitted George Harrison three decades later. Musically, there’s a lot to love about “Girl.” The tune moves from a C minor verse to an A major chorus, with a whiff of an accordion provided by the irreplaceable George Martin. The ballad almost sounds like a waltz – it had a quality to it that harkens back to the band’s fifteen months that they spent in Germany in the early sixties. The “tit tit tit” vocals that frame each bridge in “Girl” are decidedly sophomoric and teasing. “We were just trying to see how far we could go to pull another fast one on the censors at the time, and the song was about a girl after all,” Harrison admitted in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview. However, the girl that John sings about turns out to be intelligent, in control and is both elusive and confounding. Because Lennon’s untamed mother, Julia, and his steadfast Aunt Mimi, were the two most significant female figures growing up and were also exact opposites, the female species, in general, remained mysterious to him. Ending up with someone as paradoxical as Yoko Ono, then, was actually no surprise. “It was as if you put Julia and Mimi in a blender, it came out as Yoko,” McCartney once commented. Of course, John and Paul have a particularly inspired duet on the refrain of “Girl, “which is accompanied by a series of audible intakes. There is a story there. According to John, Astrid used to shampoo her hair using strawberry extract, a forerunner to the fruit-scented shampoos that would come out on the market a generation later. John so loved the aroma that whenever he saw Kirchherr, he would race up to her and begin impulsively smelling her blonde locks. John later claimed that “Girl,” a haunting ode to an unknown woman, was his subconscious reminding him that there was a female out there who would one day match the object of desire he sang so reverently about. Incredibly, John would meet that individual, Yoko Ono, a year to the day that this ballad was recorded. One final moving note – on September 22, 1980, at the Hit Factory Studios in Midtown Manhattan, a follow-up to the tune entitled “Woman,” an elegy to the girl who had grown up was recorded. It would be the second-to-last song that John Lennon would produce before he was assassinated. When John airmailed the final outtake to Paul in England, McCartney reportedly burst into tears, especially when he heard the Beatlesque underpinnings that framed that song. (How ironic that I posted this on Facebook just hours before it was announced that Astrid Kirchherr had died in Hamburg at the age of 82. RIP to the Fab Four’s “Girl.”)
“Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison, 1970. One of Van’s most unwavering ballads, “Into the Mystic” an Otis Redding-style reverie with acoustic guitar and horns, was featured on his epic 1970 album, Moondance. While this is supposedly about a sailor yearning to come home to land to his beloved, “Into the Mystic,” in a metaphoric sense, expresses the notion that life is infinite. Accordingly, the acceptance of that is inevitable, especially if love has been your clarion call all alone. Thus, there is nothing to fear. Van recently said that as he was writing this, he changed the line from “Into the Mist” to “Into the Mystic.” It’s the little things that makeup a masterpiece.
“Theme from A Summer Place,” Percy Faith and His Orchestra, 1960. Old folks like me will remember that “Theme From A Summer Place” was actually a hit in the late winter and early spring of ‘60, with the co-release of the movie by the same name. The irony, of course, is that in the minds of those Americans who remember, this melodic, saccharine instrumental embodied everything good about the 1950s. As the legendary writer-historian, David Halberstam, pointed out, however, below its placid surface, there was a palpable social ferment occurring in the 1950s, from the civil rights movement through the sexual revolution to the rise of rock-and-roll and the beatnik generation (which begot the 1960s hippies). Still, as long as America’s grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in charge, the hamburgers were on the grill, the Oldsmobile was warming up in the driveway, and it was time to take Johnny to his Little League game and Suzy to her Brownies’ meeting.
“United Together,” Aretha Franklin, 1980. Forty years ago this April, amidst languishing record sales, Aretha left Atlantic for Clive Davis’s Arista Records with the desire to revive her commercial fortunes. Her first single under the Arista label was “United Together,” a poignant and searing ballad, which reached No. 3 on the R&B charts in the fall of 1980. These days, outside of her legion of fans, “United Together” is vastly underrated. That is a travesty because this is a ballad that will warm your heart in every way! Happy 78th birthday to the late Queen of Soul.
“Sink The Bismarck,” Johnny Horton, 1960. Sixty years ago this April, the late Johnny Horton’s ballad, “Sink The Bismarck,” which was the title song hit by the movie of the same name was a top ten hit in both the US and Canada. As a five-year-old at the time, I was entranced by this single – from the repeated, big-gun-sound to Johnny Horton’s Elvis-like snarl. The historical narrative of the tune was my first foray into the genre: “In May of 1941, the war had just begun; The Germans had the biggest ship, they had the biggest guns; The Bismarck was the fastest ship that ever sailed the sea; On her deck were guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees.” Sadly, Horton, who had already enjoyed two international hits with “The Battle of New Orleans” and “North to Alaska,” would be dead just six months after “Sink The Bismarck” was released in a collision with a truck near Shreveport, Louisiana. He left three children and his widow, Billie Jean Jones, the widow of Hank Williams, Sr. Johnny Horton was just 35 years old when he died on November 11, 1960.
“Call Me,” Blondie, 1980. Written for the film, American Gigolo, this became the all-time bestselling single for Debbie Harry and Blondie, reaching number one in the US 40 years ago this spring. While the song is about a prostitute, it summons images of a six-lane highway, an open convertible, and a-Debbie-Harry-like woman behind the wheel. Some musicologists have called it the last authentic single of the disco era.
“A Rainy Night in Georgia,” Brook Benton, 1970. Written by the late Tony Joe White of “Polk Salad Annie” fame, this soul classic proved to be a powerful comeback for Brook Benton. At the time, he had been a significant soloist in the late ’50s and early ’60s but hadn’t had a Top 40 hit in more than six years until he released this single 50 years ago this spring. Brook’s impeccable interpretation of the lyrics here is such that you actually feel the wet and cold in his voice. “A Rainy Night in Georgia” is an underrated masterpiece in every way.
“Frenesi,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, 1940. “Frenesi,” which was the number one song in the US 80 years ago on April 10, 1940, where it remained like a fixed star at that position until mid-June. I’ve had more than a few musical friends say to me that while Benny Goodman played music, Artie Shaw played the clarinet. While I think that they were both geniuses, Shaw, in my mind, was the best jazz clarinetist thus far. Not long before my mother died in 2005, she recalled seeing Shaw and his Orchestra performing this in concert at the legendary Totem Pole at the old Norumbega Park in Auburndale, MA. “That music was all so sublime,” she sighed. Yes, Mum, it was.
“That Girl Could Sing,” Jackson Browne, 1980. Released 40 years ago this spring, this vastly underestimated rocker turned out to be Brown’s emotive dirge to a former girlfriend, the legendary singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro. While Nyro was typically silent about their 1970 relationship, Jackson ended up paying tribute to her a decade after their romance had ended.“Talk about celestial bodies/And your angels on the wing/She wasn’t much good at stickin’ around/ but boy she could sing.” Two shimmering talents who found a planet to share for a spell
“The City of New Orleans, Steve Goodman, 1970. The late great John Prince once called Steve Goodman’s, “The City of New Orleans”… “the best damn train song ever written,” and I would emphatically agree. The astonishing thing is that the singer/songwriter from Chicago was just 22 when he composed it and featured it on his first solo LP when it was released 50 years ago this spring. While another buddy, Arlo Guthrie, enjoyed a significant cover of it two years after Steve came out with the original, there is an unmistakable fidelity here, which makes Goodman’s version even better. According to legend, Steve scribbled the lyrics on a sketch pad after his wife fell asleep on the Illinois Central train, where they were going to visit his spouse’s grandmother. Goodman wrote about what he saw looking out the windows of the train and playing cards in the club car. After he returned home, the young songwriter heard that the train was scheduled to be decommissioned due to a lack of passengers. He was encouraged to use this song to save the train, so he retouched the lyrics and released it on his much-admired debut album. Sadly, Steve Goodman, who battled cancer on and off for much of his short life, died of leukemia 12 years after he recorded this unqualified masterpiece.
“Stuck On You,” Elvis Presley, 1960. The first single that The King recorded after he left the Army for good, “Stuck on You,” was recorded on March 2, 1960, and rocketed to #1 just six weeks later. Featuring the legendary great Scotty Moore on lead guitar, the reliable D. J. Fontana on the drums, and the vastly underrated Floyd Cramer on the keyboards, “Stuck On You” was recorded at RCA’s Nashville Studios and produced by the brilliant Steve Sholes. Six decades later, “Stuck on You” remains my favorite Elvis song ever – and that’s saying a hell of a lot. After all, how can you beat the King crooning, ”A team of wild horses couldn’t tear us apart”? Ultimately, Mr. Presley’s maple-syrup-baritone sounds so good here that you swear that it was recorded at the Sun Records Studio in Memphis by Sam Phillips. As one of my friends once said, “‘Stuck On You’ would have fallen flat with nearly every singer out there. It turned out to be great because only Elvis knew how to sing such a song with such constancy.”
“Color Him Father,” The Winstons, 1970. Fifty years ago, “Color Him Father” was a top-ten hit in both the US and Canada, a searing ballad to both fatherhood and the notion of “doing it right.” Produced by the Winstons, an integrated rock-soul-funk group from Washington, DC, “Color Him Father” featured the combined tenor saxophone and vocals’ prowess of Richard Lewis Spencer, who once was a member of The Impressions and later backed up Otis Redding. Five decades later, “Color Him Father” has happily become a staple on the Sirius Soul Town Sirius Channel!
“Sara,” Fleetwood Mac, 1980. One of Ms. Nicks’ most beguiling songs, metaphorically, this ballad is like a crowded, messy attic that Stevie has thrown all of the stuff that had consumed her life the previous decade – unexpected fame, the failed love affair with Lindsey Buckingham, her aborted child with Don Henley, a love triangle relationship with Mick Fleetwood and his wife, Sara Recor, and her emerging cocaine addiction all rolled into one. The brilliance of her poetry is at work here – Nicks has long called “Sara,” her alter ego – was so captivating to her loyal fanbase that it remains her most cherished ballad among them. Ultimately, “Sara” was 16-minutes long when Nicks wrote it. They had to edit it down to under five minutes for the album, but Stevie claimed the “real version” has about nine more verses and tells the entire story. “There’s no mayhem in the long version,” she claims, “just pathos.”
“The Fool on the Hill,” The Beatles, 1967. Paul McCartney got the idea for “The Fool on the Hill” in March 1967, on the day the band completed recording, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” During a protracted lunch break from the Sargent Pepper sessions, Paul began humming the song with nonsense lyrics. (He had done so previously when the working title of “Yesterday” was hysterically called, “Scrambled Eggs”). As McCartney looked out onto Cavendish Avenue in the Saint John’s Wood section of London where he resided, John Lennon, who had accompanied him to his house, stated, “You better write the song out, or you will forget it.” Paul assured him that he wouldn’t. Six months later, on September 25, 1967, the group began to record “The Fool on the Hill,” which would then be a featured number on their Magical Mystery Tour album. The tune describes a savant, whom most outsiders view like an idiot but who, in reality, is filled with enormous wisdom. At the time, Beatle fans thought that Paul was singing about the Maharishi Yogi, the Indian guru whose transcendentalism had vastly influenced the group that year. (The band then spent ten days with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India five months later, where they observed him disingenuously hitting on an impressionable Mia Farrow. Lennon then penned the uproarious “Sexy Sadie,” in response). According to Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, however, the tune had a few different genuses. “Paul, his dog, Martha, and I had an early morning walk on Primrose Hill in the winter of 1967. We watched a particularly beautiful sunrise from the very top of the hill when Paul suddenly realized that Martha was missing. We turned to try to find her when suddenly there was a middle-aged man, very respectfully dressed in a brilliant raincoat, who smiled at us. We were sure that he hadn’t been there a moment before – we were rather startled to see him – but we greeted him, and he greeted us very warmly. A moment later, we saw Martha come bounding up the hill to rejoin us, and so we ventured back to where we had just been. To our astonishment, there was no sign of the man. Because we were on top of the hill and could easily see down on all sides, this was an impossibility. Paul and I then tried to speculate where he had disappeared, but we couldn’t make any sense out of it. Of course, we immediately felt that something mysterious, even spiritual, had just occurred. Paul began to work on ‘The Fool on the Hill’ later that night. The next day, he began to hum the song to John and completed it later on that spring.” The ballad that they recorded captured nearly all of the band’s most innovative musical elements that they had perfected as a studio band for the previous six years. In the final version of “The Fool on the Hill,” the Beatles incorporated eight strings, a trio of flutes, a standup bass, an acoustic guitar, a mouth harp, a set of maracas, finger cymbals, and a harpsichord. Producer George Martin, who constantly prodded them to explore the vast reaches of classical music, stood in awe in the producer’s sounding room at Abbey Road Number 2 Studio as they commenced to build musically upon the song. “It was the group at their very best,” Martin commented in The Beatles Anthology, “They played off each other, experimented, added things, pared things down, and created a masterpiece together. It was Paul’s song, but they all played a big part in it. It was obvious they had now transcended rock and roll and had entered a territory that no rock band before or afterward has ever visited.” In his voluminous tome on the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, writer Ian McDonald comments, “The timeless appeal of ‘The Fool on the Hill’ lies in the paradoxical air of childlike wisdom and unworldliness, an effect created by a melancholy revolving harmony in which the world turns in cycles and rest, shadowed by clouds drifting indifferently across the sky.” For longtime fans such as me, I distinctly remember hearing “The Fool on the Hill” for the first time in mid-December,1967, and thinking, “So this is what they are now up to these days!” For all of us under their spell at the time, each single and LP release was the musical equivalent of Christmas morning.
“Tempted,” Squeeze, 1980. A truly iconic single in the UK when I lived in Great Britain in the early 1980’s, “Tempted” was composed by band member Chris Dillford as he rushed in a cab heading for Heathrow for the band’s first continental tour. The Squeeze’s two brilliant but quirky songwriters, Dillford and Glenn Tillbrook – along with the band’s producer, the even more talented Elvis Costello – were considered by many British rock fans and critics at the time to be the successors to Lennon and MacCartney. While their reign as popmasters proved to be somewhat short-lived, their body of work was prodigious. Band member Paul Carrack sings the lead on “Tempted,” backed up by Dillford, Tillbrook, and Costello. After this fetching Top Ten single was released, many Squeeze fans would throw toothbrushes in Rocky Horror-style onstage when Carrack sang the opening line: “I bought a toothbrush…”
“Love On a Two Way Street,” The Moments, 1970. In an era when soul classic after soul classic was released, this massive hit, which held onto the number one spot for five weeks 50 years ago this May, turned out to be the apex for Washington, D. C. ‘s, The Moments. Featuring the Eddie Kendricks-like vocal performance of the late Johnny Moore, at least 20 other significant artists covered it afterward, including Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Still, no one could reach the depths that Moore hit here – one of the most heartfelt and searing vocal performances in soul history. If you were making a greatest hits package of the musical year, 1970, you would have to include this ballad as one of the premier songs of that period.
“Mona Lisa,” Nat King Cole, 1950. Seventy years ago this spring, Nat Cole’s signature song was by far the bestselling and most played tune in both the United States and Canada. You could hear it in barbershops, in local diners, in car radios, and as the opening song at high school proms everywhere. (For instance, it was the initial number played at Sylvia Plath’s 1950 Wellesley High Senior Prom at the Maugus Club in Wellesley, Massachusetts). Before this monstrous hit, Nat King Cole was better known as a renowned jazz pianist. Until 1947 when he was credited as a solo artist on the classic, “Nature Boy,” he recorded as a member of the King Cole Trio. “Mona Lisa” helped establish his reputation as a top vocalist of the era, although many Jazz aficionados also consider Nat one of the best piano players of the time. The timelessness of Cole’s version of this ballad is so profound that it still sounds as if it was written and recorded today. In the end, all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.
“We’ll Meet Again,” Vera Lynn, 1940. Eighty years ago this week, English singer Vera Lynn formally released this World War II standard as a single in Great Britain, which was then bracing for the Blitz. In the end, Dame Vera was the original “Forces’ Sweetheart,” providing World War II soldiers and families left at home with some positivity and spirit when they needed it most. “We’ll Meet Again,” proved to be one of Dame Vera’s most tear-inducing tracks, referring to the thousands of men who served and died – and their families at home who waited and kept the home fires burning. Eight decades later, lyrics such as “Keep smiling through, just like you always do,” strike a chord in today’s 2020 CoronaVirus climate, reminding us that history often repeats itself in unexpected ways. How incredible that Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, recently released this standard as a single in the UK. Here’s hoping – and knowing – that we’ll all meet again. (Sadly, Vera would die a few weeks after I posted this overview. What a life!)
“Ride Captain Ride,” Blues Image, 1970. From its enchanting lyrics to its rhythmic bass and percussion background to its counter-cross keyboards to its searing vocals by Looking Glass lead singer, Mike Pinera (who later joined Iron Butterfly), this inimitable single was the number-four hit in the US and Canada 50 years ago this May. The proverbial one-hit wonder, the group broke up later on in that summer, but for a few weeks in the spring of ‘70, “Ride Captain Ride” proved to be one of the most cherished singles of a celebrated musical year. Also, what a tremendous opening salvo: “Seventy-three men sailed up from the San Francisco Bay/Rolled off of their ship, and here’s what they had to say.” I dare you to play this and not fall in love with it once again!
“Nothing Compares To U,” Sinead O’Connor, 1990. Prince wrote and recorded this song in 1984 but didn’t release it. As fate would have it, Sinead O’Connor came out with her follow up album to The Lion and The Cobra six years later, which featured this cover to Prince’s “Nothing Compared to U.” Initially, it got a lot of play on college radio, earning the Irish balladeer a small, but devoted fan base. As it began to be played on FM stations, the word spread, and O’Connor suddenly found herself with a mega-hit. In the end, this thrust her into the spotlight, and the attention had some deleterious effects on the singer. Sinead claimed she hated the fame the song brought her, and that she struggled with the commercialization of her music. From religion to her lifestyle to her views on the music industry itself, O’Connor has remained an iconoclast. Despite her misgivings, the single eventually went platinum. Controversies aside, Sinead O’Connor has a pure and beautiful voice, which brilliantly frames this haunting song.
“Sweet Nothings,” Brenda Lee, 1960. All 4 foot 9 inches of Brenda Lee provided more power than an eight-cylinder, ’57 Oldsmobile, as demonstrated here by one of her more formidable hits, the infectious, “Sweet Nothings.” Incredibly, she was just 15-years-old when she recorded this, two years after Brenda, as a 13-year-old, recorded her most famous hit, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Until the mid-1960s, Lee, like the great Connie Francis, produced hit song after hit song, until her prowess in rockabilly turned into a more serious country phase, which sustained her career until the mid-1980s. Like Wanda Jackson, Brenda could wail with the best of them, which is why she was sometimes called, “The Girl Elvis.” And when she belts, “Uh, oh, honey,” here, it’s the equivalent of taking out the pin of a hand grenade before the ensuing explosion of sound.
How could I not include the great Marshall Crenshaw’s tribute to Miss Lee, which her reverently composed and recorded this song 25 years after her biggest hit, “I’m Sorry,” hit number one.
“Pennsylvania 6500,” Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, 1940. My mother would probably say that it seems impossible that 80 years ago today, “Pennsylvania 6-5000” was the number one song in North America! One of the great swing band standards of the pre-war era, younger listeners might not know the reference to Pennsylvania and the series of numbers afterward. Before area codes were enacted, the first two numbers were called the “exchange code,” and were represented by a word whose first two letters were used as the numbers. Thus, “Pennsylvania” signified the PE exchange code, which translated to the number 73 (P=7, E=3). By the way, if you use this number today, 212-736-5000, you’ll still get the main switchboard of that legendary hotel across the street from Pennsylvania Station in Midtown Manhattan! In terms of the tune itself, it was composed with accompanying lyrics and recorded as a vocal song by the legendary Andrews Sisters. Glenn Miller’s much more famous version featured his band members shouting out the refrain, “Pennsylvania 6500!” and then filling in the verses and bridges with infectious swing-jazz instrumentation. A personal note – my father once told me that my parents danced to this song by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra at Boston’s legendary Cocoanut Grove, not long before it burned down back in ‘42.
“Mill Valley, California,” Miss Rita Abrams and Her Fourth Grade Class, 1970. The #90 song in the end-of-the-year Top 100 for 1970, this ballad is, without a doubt, is one of the most unlikely hit songs of the modern pop era. As saccharine as cotton candy and almost nauseatingly upbeat, “Mill Valley, California” was composed by Miss Rita Abrams, a native of Brookline, Massachusetts who ended up teaching in suburban San Francisco. “After the gloomy winters of my Massachusetts upbringing, Mill Valley turned out to be a revelation, which is why I wrote a song about it,” she stated years later. To my knowledge, this is the only Top 40 song in history featuring a teacher and her class!
“American Woman,” Lenny Kravitz, 2000. Fifty years ago this June, the Canadian rock band, The Guess Who, burned up the pop charts with hits like “American Woman,” which they claimed was a love letter to the women of their own country. Lenny Kravitz’s powerful, updated version won for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance 30 years later. I saw him perform it live at a Bob Dylan Concert at Carnegie Hall, where Kravitz performed as the opening act. Ultimately, Lennie Kravitz proved that a cover could sometimes be more memorable and sustaining than the original.
“Wonderful World,” Sam Cooke, 1960. In between marriages, Sam Cooke was rooming with then-novice producer Lou Adler, who heard him play a Cooke tune in their apartment one day. “Oh, that’s a song I cut with Bob Keane that was never released,” sighed Sam. At the time, Keane, Cooke’s former producer, was suing Sam for a breach of contract. For six months, Adler could do nothing about it, and so the future standard was gathering dust in their apartment until Sam moved to RCA where it was subsequently released. A million copies later, Sam had himself another Top 5 hit sixty years ago this spring. For Lou Adler, who would go onto produce everyone from The Mama’s and Papa’s to Carole King, this proved to be “the great lucky break” of his 60-year career as a music executive. Ultimately, “Wonderful World” is one of those ballads whose timelessness seems to define musical gravity.
“Body and Soul,” Billie Holiday, 1940. Recorded 80 years ago on the afternoon of June 3, 1940, this seminal Johnny Green standard featured the heavenly combination of Lady Day, at the height of her powers, and the legendary trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who riffs off Holiday here as if they’ve been working together forever. “My days have grown so lonely,” sings the greatest blues singer of all time, “for you I cry, for you dear only/Why haven’t you seen it?I’m all for you body and soul.” What else can you possibly say?
“Overture to Tommy,” the Assembled Multitude, 1970. A concoction of studio musicians from Philadelphia came together and produced a collection of instrumentals from 1969-70, which included The Who’s “Overture to Tommy.” In June 1970, this inspiring and infectious single made it to number 16 on the US Billboard Top 40. Produced by local musician Tom Sellers, who also served as The Assembled Multitude’s spokesperson, most of the band later formed MFSB, the backbone of Philadelphia soul, working with producers Gamble and Huff, and Thom Bell, and artists such as The O’Jays, Billy Paul, The Stylistics, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. During the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reverently used Multitude’s interpretation of “Overture to Tommy” as their opening number in several East Coast venues. From my vantagepoint, this is an exceptional cover in every way.
“Hold On,” Wilson Phillips, 1990. This galvanizing ballad has probably saved scores of people over the years, thanks to its powerful lyrics and the shimmering vocal-play of Brian Wilson daughters, Carnie Wilson, Wendy Wilson, and the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of the Mama and the Papas, Chynna Phillips. In retrospect, “Hold On” is not another California Pop song, but White Girl Rock & Soul at its very best. 30 years after “Hold On” was the number 1 song in the US, the tune’s impassioned refrain, “Hold on for one more day,” ought to be our motto for the harrowing times we now live in these days.
“In the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry, 1970. How about this giddy, guilt-free pleasure of a one-hit-wonder track to launch out a bountiful of summer-laced tunes? Of course, this beloved solid gold nugget from 1970 still smacks of effervescent summertime fun five decades after it was first released. “Have a drink, have a drive/Go out and see what you can find,” is not exactly PC, but what about summer-fun really is? The mainstream British rock group, Mungo Jerry, fronted by the talented Ray Dorset, never had another substantial hit again, but the revenge here is that it has become a staple of “best summer songs” over the past half-century. According to YouTube, “In the Summertime” has been listened to nearly a billion times on its website over the years.
“I’ve Got A Crush On You,” Ella Fitzgerald, 1950. This classic George and Ira Gershwin tune, first composed in 1928 for the Broadway musical, Treasure Girl, has been recorded hundreds of times over the last ninety-two years, most notably by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, whose 1950 recording made it a jazz standard, primarily of her astonishing vocal repertoire. The way she caresses each note, it almost makes you want to blush. In a fifty-year career where she recorded more than a thousand songs, “I’ve Got a Crush On You” is one of Lady Ella’s most accomplished performances.
“Devil or Angel,” Bobby Vee, 1960. When Buddy Holly tragically perished in a plane crash in Iowa on February 3, 1959, he was supposed to play in Moorehead, Minnesota the following evening. A local Fargo, North Dakota rocker, Bobby Velline, then 15 years old, hastily assembled a band of Fargo schoolboys, calling themselves the Shadows, and volunteered to fill in for Holly and his band at the Moorhead engagement, which was across the river from their Fargo homes. Their performance there was a success, setting in motion a chain of events that led to Velline’s career as a famous singer. Liberty Records later shortened his name to Bobby Vee, and he began churning out single after single – starting in the fall of 1959. Over the next twelve years, Vee had ten Top 20 songs and six gold records, including this chestnut, a cover of the Clovers old doo-wop hit, which reached number 6 on this day 60 years ago. Yes, Bobby homogenized it a bit, but that was the entire point after all.
“America’s Farm,” Levon Helm, 1980. When Levon Helm’s criminally underappreciated LP, American Son, was released 40 years ago this June, this idiosyncratic cut captured the essence of the modern American farmer in a sublime three-minute track filled with passion, pluck, and spunk. Four decades later, “America’s Farm” remains one of my favorite Levon Helm numbers – including his nearly flawless work with the Band.
“Alley Oop,” The Hollywood Argyles, 1960. When every song had a certain swagger – “a mean motor scooter,” and life was as good as it got when we were in the throes of “The American Century.” Thus, groups such as The Hollywood Argyles cranked out songs like “Alley Oop” in the assembly line format of Top 40 radio (just like General Motors!) The Argyles, a local LA-based group, consisted of Ronnie Silico on drums, Gaynel Hodge on piano, Harper Cosby on the bass, and Sandy Nelson (of Teen Beat fame) on the tambourine and, yes, a garbage can for this number! Hodge provided the lead vocals while Sandy Nelson produced the famed vocal scream in the song. Even those of us in Kindergarten at the time walked around our classroom at the time, spouting: “Alley Oop Oop, Oop Oop Oop!”
“Make it With You,” Bread, 1970. Written by Bread’s lead singer, David Gates, this number one single, released 50 years ago this summer, came to define the new genre, which became known as soft rock. A featured single on the band’s second album, this was the first international hit for Bread. Interestingly, though, David Gates had previous success as a songwriter, most notably as the composer of 1964’s Top 5 single by the Murmaids, “Popsicles and Icicles.” I have to admit that I like this song then and I love it now. I apologize; it’s one of my many weaknesses. For DAWY.
“Life is a Highway,” Tom Cochrane and Red River, 1990. No, Rascal Flatts didn’t do this first. 30 years ago this month, it was the Canadian rocker, Tom Cochrane who composed, sang, and produced the first version, which was a number-one song in his native country. The rollicking Red River Band does a stellar job here supporting Cochrane’s infectious ballad. Happy Canada Day, everyone!
“America,” Neil Diamond, 1980. As some of you might remember, Neil Diamond starred in The Jazz Singer, a 1980 film which was a remake of the Al Jolson classic from 1927. Ultimately, this original song from the soundtrack turned out to be the proverbial keeper, a ballad that is still regularly played at citizenship swearing-ceremonies on the Fourth of July. Ultimately, this poignant ballad captures something about our country we all can identify with as Americans. With Neil Diamond’s emotive vocalization, every listener connects with it regardless of ethnicity. “On the boats and on the planes/They’re coming to America/Never looking back again/They’re coming to America…” Happy Fourth of July to all – black, brown, red, and white.
“I’m in the Mood For Love,” The Charlie Parker Quartet, 1950. Featuring Miles Davis on trumpet, Erroll Garner on piano, Teddy Kotick on the bass, and Max Roach on percussion, this sublime interpretation of the old standard by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields was released 70 years ago today! Given the number and the musicians involved, it turned out to be one of The Bird’s most evocative records. As with many of Parker’s releases, there is a double-edged sword here – the music is pulsating with life even as it breaks your heart. If Vincent Van Gogh could have played the alto saxophone, he might have well sounded like Charlie Parker.
“Hitchin’ a Ride,” Vanity Fare, 1970. Released by the English band, Vanity Fare in November 1969, “Hitchin’ A Ride” took nine months for the US to embrace the pulsating, infectious ballad where it eventually surpassed the British in both song position and sales. 50 years ago today, this was the number 5 hit on the Billboard Top 10, where it remained for two more weeks. Many teenagers that summer sang the tune’s refrain, “Ride, ride, ride – just a hitchin’ a ride,” as they drove their Dodge Darts and Chevy Camaros to the beach or the local amusement parks, or, like me occasionally, stuck the old right thumb out to go somewhere adventurous. A one-hit-wonder, Vanity Fare never approached the success they had with this exuberant sing-a-long tune.
“Fantastic Planet of Love,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1990. One of a handful of unsung singles that should have garnered the most underrated rock performer of the 1980s a million in sales, here, Marshall pays homage to one of his favorite bands growing up, The Moody Blues, in a reinvented ballad to kick off the 1990s. There are so many things to love about this unencumbered rocker – the kick-ass guitar work; the wildly infectious melody; the hip lyrics; the seamless vocals supported by a world-class group of backup singers; the impeccable drum work of the great Kenny Aronoff; and the sustained, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…” which ends the song with a nod to such Moody Blues’ albums as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and To Our Children’s Children’s Children. One of the greatest pop vocalists of all time, Marshall Crenshaw here sounds like a combination of Buddy Holly and The Grassroots’ Rob Grill.
“Think for Yourself,” The Beatles, 1965. For some Fab Four fans, this number was an afterthought, a little ditty buried within the brilliance of Rubber Soul. But it turned out to be much more than that. In John Lennon’s most personal Beatles album, “Think for Yourself” was a subconscious love letter from George Harrison to John himself. For George, the youngest and most impressionable of the Beatles, Lennon not only filled the big brother/mentor role the moment he met him at fifteen in 1957, but John turned out to be “the best teacher I ever had.” From the time he joined John’s band, the Quarrymen, in the summer of 1957 – when he was just fifteen – George Harrison absolutely idolized Lennon. For George, the most spiritual of all four musicians, Lennon was his first guiding light before he found God in the late 1960s. “John was the center of my world for more than ten years,” George wrote in his autobiography. Despite Lennon’s vast contradictions – “he unknowingly hurt me with his sharp tongue hundreds of times,” Harrison once admitted – Lennon was, after all, the individual who wrote, “Love is a promise, love is a souvenir, once given, never forgotten, never let it disappear.” “John could be idiosyncratic, unpredictable – but his heart was almost always in the right place,” Paul McCartney told Dave March in a much-quoted Rolling Stone piece 15 years after Lennon’s death. Not long before he succumbed to cancer in 2002, George commented, “In a world in which violence and misunderstanding and war were often the final result, it was John who wrote, ‘All You Need is Love.” It’s a pretty astonishing legacy to leave to the world.” Not surprisingly, then, George’s first stab at songwriting consciously mirrored Lennon’s lyrics – ponderous, ironic, substantive. However, in “Think for Yourself,” recorded on November 8, 1965, the good student now yearns to sprout his own wings after latching onto John’s back for the previous decade. As in the best works of both Lennon and McCartney, Harrison’s subconscious prevails in the number: “Although your mind’s opaque/Try thinking more for your own sake/The future still looks good/And you’ve got time to rectify/All the things that you should.” Musically, as far back as George’s 1963 tune, “Don’t Bother Me,” Harrison often overlapped major and minor harmony with an emphatic circle progression that made his own sound distinctive from both John and Paul. He does so as well in “Think for Yourself,” a warm-up to his first authentic masterpiece, “If I Needed Someone,” which George would compose nine months later. 15 years after “Think for Yourself” was first recorded, I ended up playing it over and over again in the early morning hours of December 9, 1980. Like millions and millions of lifelong Beatles’ fans, sleep was an impossibility when I learned that John Lennon had been senselessly murdered a few hours previously. Filled with pathos, I played Rubber Soul – John’s favorite album, over and over again until the dawn light sifted through my bedroom curtains. I mourned when I listened to “Girl” and wept when I played Lennon’s searing “In My Life.” But when I got to George’s “Think for Yourself,” I ended up listening intently. Through the ghostlike presence of John Lennon, George Harrison left a calling card for all of us to ponder on the day that the leader of the Beatles had perished: “Do what you want to do/And go where you’re going to/Think for yourself/’Cause I won’t be there for you…”
“A-Rockin’ Good Way,” Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, 1960. Dinah and Brook were at the pinnacle of their musical careers when they recorded four songs together in 1960, which would serve as a harbinger for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell a few years later. “A Rockin ‘Good Way,” a Top-10-song in the US sixty years ago this week, this is nothing less than two members of the rhythm and blues royalty having an almost indescribably rollicking time cutting this pop standard together. In my mind, this number is so evocative of the era that you can picture teenagers at the time dancing to this fabulous number.
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” Stevie Wonder, 1970. Stevie Wonder had just turned 20 when he composed, produced, supported, and sung this iconic anthem, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” Ultimately, it spent six weeks atop the American R&B chart and garnered Wonder his first Grammy nomination. My fellow Wellesley (MA) High School classmates would undoubtedly agree with me when I say how great life is to have a song out like this when you’re fifteen-years-old. In the pantheon of tunes that Stevie has produced over the years, this flawless single would rank near the top. On July 22, 1970, Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” was the number one song worldwide.
“Shining Star,” The Manhattans, 1980. One of the last terrific R&B pop group standards by the vastly underrated Manhattans, this silky-soft, sexy single conjures up memories so sweet and unforgettable for those of us who danced to it back then that you still check the floor after it is finished to make sure that you didn’t just melt through the floor. Originally from Jersey City, the Manhattans had a long musical career, with a bevy of Top 40 songs from 1964 to 1986.
“Let’s Have A Party,” Wanda Jackson, 1960. “The Girl Elvis” struck gold 60 years ago on July 31, 1960 with her iconic rockabilly hit, “Let’s Have A Party,” entered the Billboard Top 40. A favorite single of both Boston’s beloved deejay, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg and New York City’s “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, this song only went to #37 nationally despite being a top-ten hit in the Northeast, thanks to these two regionally beloved and savvy radio announcers. Composed by veteran R&B songwriter, Jessie Mae Robinson,” who had previously written songs for Louis Jordan, Nina Simone, Charlie Brown, and Sarah Vaughn, the lyrics to “Let’s Have a Party” were of garage-band quality: “I’ve never kissed a bear, I’ve never kissed a goon/But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room!” Given that the number was initially recorded and performed by Elvis back in 1957 for his movie, Lovin’ You, it turned out to be poetic justice that “The Rockin’ Wanda,” whose tough-girl screech throughout “Let’s Have a Party” clearly “out-Elvised” The King, would enjoy her most substantial rock hit in 40 years of recording mostly country tunes. The late rock and roll critic, Lester Bangs, once commented that the next single featuring a woman “who had balls” after Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have A Party” was Grace Slick’s (and the Jefferson Airplane’s) “Somebody to Love” seven years later.
You’re No Good,” Linda Ronstadt and Band, Live in 1980. Happy 74th birthday to a national treasure and my old girlfriend (I wish, hee hee). While Linda famously recorded this in 1974, her live performances of the Clint Ballard, Jr., rock standard, first written and recorded in 1963 by Betty Everett, was to die for in every way. As you will discover here if you watch this clip, there’s her powerpack vocals, of course, but it is Danny Kortchmar who steals the song for a spell with an incredible guitar solo. When you have one of the greatest female kiss-off tunes ever with the incomparable Linda Ronstadt delivering it live – watch out. This will make your day. I promise.
“I’ll Never Smile Again,” Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, 1940. Sinatra’s first national hit with TD after leaving Harry James after a two-year stint, “I’ll Never Smile Again” also turned out to be “The Voice’s” first number one hit. As Ol’ Blue Eyes said later, “I learned everything about phrasing from Tommy Dorsey and Billie Holiday.” Anecdotally, when one of my former students, a doctor, visited a nursing home to check in on one of her patients, she observed a circle of old folks huddled in one of the conference rooms listening to the old songs. “When ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’ was played to them,” she recalled, “there was not a dry eye in the place.” When the song ended, with tears streaming down their cheeks, one of the patients laughed, “I think the singer of this ballad just might go places!”
“G. I. Blues,” Elvis Presley, 1960. When The King returned to the US after his two-year stint as a GI in the US Army (1958-60) in West Germany, he quickly made a film, whose title song, “GI Blues,” recorded at the RCA Victor Studios in Hollywood with his old standbys, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana, and the Jordanaires. It proved to be a Top Ten hit in October 1960. When my older brother bought the LP, a certain nearly six-year-old named Shaun couldn’t get enough of it. And, of course, there were the words: “They give us a room/with a view of the beautiful Rhine/They give us a room with a view of the beautiful Rhine/Gimme a muddy old creek/in Texas any old time/I’ve got those/hup, two, three, four/occupation G.I. Blues/From my G.I. hair to the heels of my G.I. shoes/And if I don’t go stateside soon./I’m gonna blow my fuse…” Bruce Springsteen said in his autobiography, Born to Run that “Born in the USA” was the counter-cross to “GI Blues.” You’re right, Boss. You’re right.
“Don’t Ask Me Why,” Billy Joel, 1980. Billy Joel at his most adventurous, “Don’t Ask Me Why” contains all acoustic and Latin percussion instruments performing in an Afro-Cuban rhythmic style. Within the context of the number, there is an eclectic, instrumental “Latin Ballroom” piano solo, played over the bridge section after the second verse. Billy later claimed that the mix for the midsection included, “15 pianos overdubbed on top of one another.” “Basically, I wanted to create the ultimate summer-sound-song that framed my childhood growing up in the late fifties and early sixties.” This single, which reached number one on the Billboard Top 100 forty years ago this August, did just that – and much more.
“Image of a Girl,” The Safaris, 1960. A song readymade for success, this single featured lead singer Jimmy Stephens lilting baritone, and the Safaris’ sterling backup vocals blared out from countless transistor radios on inummerable American beaches 60 years ago this summer. As one of my longtime friends said to me about “Image of a Girl,” “It’s the kind of ballad that just refuses to go away because it’s just too damned good.”
“I Want It That Way,” The Backstreet Boys,” 2000. Composed by Swedish music producers Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson, the words hardly make sense, which is logical because Martin and Carlsson barely spoke English at the time! Nevertheless, “I Want It That Way” dominated the airwaves 20 years ago this August and became one of those beach tunes, which ended up defining the season because of its prevailing effervescence. As an active father of two children in 2000 who also loved the song, I had no problem listening to it despite its dopey lyrics simply because they loved all of its unexpected hooks and melodies. When I hear it these days, I am the Dad of a nine and six-year-old once again.
“Spill the Wine,” Eric Burdon and War, 1970. Before they renamed themselves War, the California-based soul group had backed up Los Angeles Rams immortal Deacon Jones, who yearned to be a soul-singer in the off-season. Veteran record producer Steve Gold got them together with the Animals former lead singer, Eric Burdon, who had just moved to California. Consequently, Eric Burden and War were thusly conceived. The Latin-induced rhythms came from War; Burden, who had just composed an ode to women, merged his melody and vocals to suit the beat. “Spill the wine, take that girl/Spill the wine, take that pearl,” eventually became the oft-repeated chant for a generation. 50 years ago this August, “Spill the Wine” was the number 4 hit in both the US and Canada. It would deservedly remain a Top Ten hit throughout the rest of the summer of 1970.
“It’s An Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Brian Hyland, 1960. If you were listening to the AM radio 60 years ago this August, it seemed that nearly every other song played on transistor radios beaches throughout the United States was “It’s an Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Written by veteran songwriter Paul Vance, this classic novelty tune was composed after Vance watched his 2-year-old daughter, Paula, at the beach in her new bikini. Kapp Records executives felt that the single would best be sung by a newly signed 16-year-old high school sophomore named Brian Hyland! On August 15, 1960, “It’s An Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” hit number 1 on the US Top 40 and remained a Top 10 hit through October. A few years later, it became a much-loved commercial jingle for Coppertone. “1, 2, 3, 4 – tell the people what she wore!”
“Emotional Rescue,” The Rolling Stones, 1980. Ah, such a dividing line single for Stones’ fans! The older R&B set detested it because it sounded as if the boys had given into disco, and then Mick was quoted as saying, ‘We were just doing dance club music, you know. It was just a dance music lick I was just playing on the keyboard. Charlie has a really nice groove for that.” And then, of course, there was Mick’s falsetto. Interestingly, Keith Richards loathed it so much that he kept it off “The Rolling Stones 50 Greatest Hits List,’ which the band concocted for their official website back in 2013. Given the fact that “Emotional Rescue” sold more than 2 million songs, that omission was decidedly intentional. 40 years ago this summer, you either loved it or hated “Emotional Rescue.”
“Mule Skinner Blues,” The Fendermen, 1960. Originally composed and subsequently recorded in the spring of 1930 by “The Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers, this country classic became a signature tune for Bill Monroe a decade later. It was Monroe’s first recording as a solo artist apart from his group, The Monroe Brothers. His energetic cry “Good Moooooorning, Captain!” opened the yodeling tune about a proud mule skinner trying to land a job. Fast-forward two decades later, and the tune would not only be updated by the rockabilly group, The Fendermen, but reinvented as a rock ‘n roll rebel song. Indeed, their uninhibited and unfettered cover of the old classic enabled them to achieve their only Top 5 hit sixty years ago this August. Of course, there’s enough energy in this version to launch a satellite into space. Thanks to my big brother, Chris, who bought this 45 and turned me onto it as a five-year-old! At the height of the Cold War, our parents thought that the Fendermen’s version of “Mule Skinner Blues” was some kind of Soviet infiltration on America’s youth.
“Beads of Sweat,” Laura Nyro (with Duane Allman), 1970. From her vastly underrated LP, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, this under-the-radar number is utter brilliance, with Laura’s layers of vocals both mournful and lilting while Duane Allman’s jaw-dropping guitar work supports Nyro’s vocal and keyboard work like a well-constructed basement. I am left without words today hearing it as I was a half-century ago when it first came out.
“Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” Hank Williams, Sr., 1950. According to Hank Williams’ friend, songwriter Vic McAlpin, “We left early one early spring day in 1950 to drive out to the Tennessee River where it broadens into Kentucky Lake, but Hank had been unable to sleep on the trip, and was noodling around with the title of a song in his way throughout the entire drive. Already frustrated with Hank’s preoccupation, I called out to him, ‘You come here to fish or watch the fish swim by!’ Suddenly, Hank had the key that unlocked the song for him. ‘Hey!’ he said. ‘That’s the first line of the song!’ The follow-up to his first number one song, “Lovesick Blues,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” would remain on the Billboard Country Top 40 for 21 weeks throughout much of the spring and summer of 1950. “Somewhere a hound dog is howling out of sadness.” Hank was not only a musical pioneer but a poet. For Mike Shackelford and Kent Lindsey.
”Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970. Yes, I know, Gladys sang it better, and the great Marvin Gaye personally owned it, but CCR’s version turned out to be savagely good as well. A featured single from their brilliant 1970 LP, Cosmos Factory, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” featured John Fogerty’s searing vocals, stellar guitar playing, and Doug Clifford’s pulsating percussion work. Fifty ago today, August 27, 1970, the abridged version of this remarkable cover entered the US Billboard Top 40.
“The Warmth of the Sun,” The Beach Boys, 1964. Written by a wistful Brian Wilson on the evening of November 22, 1963, the leader of the Beach Boys wanted to compose a song about the pathos, which consumed everyone after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “I ended up composing a song about endings but also about beginnings,” he admitted years later. (Interestingly, the other great pop song composed that day about Kennedy’s death, Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny,” took a decidedly different approach). The Beach Boys ended up recording it in 1964, and many then interpreted it as an ode to the end of summer and the beginning of school. “What good is the dawn/That grows into day?/The sunset at night/Or living this way/For I have the warmth of the sun/Within me at night.” For those of us who live in New England and face another fall and winter before spring comes around again, “The Warmth of the Sun” hits us a little harder than most people. Through almost six decades, it has remained one of my five favorite Brian Wilson compositions of all time.
“Band of Gold,” Freda Payne, 1970. When Freda Payne recorded this fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye almost did a double-take. He had just buried his singing partner and best friend, Tammi Terrell, and he swore to friends that “Tammi had recorded one last song” before she succumbed to a malignant brain tumor. Gaye soon discovered that it was Freda Payne, a fledgling singer who had just signed with the former Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland. Written by Motown legend Lamont Dozier, “Band of Gold” was a controversial release in 1970. As Dozier said years later, “It was about this guy that was basically gay, and he couldn’t perform. He loved her, but he couldn’t do what he was supposed to do as a groom, as her new husband.” Of course, a great song is a great song, and it made Freda Payne a star.
“It’s Now or Never,” Elvis Presley, 1960. When The King was stationed as an Army private in Germany between 1958 and 1960, he heard the Italian standard, “O Sole Mio,” on the radio while on patrol. When Elvis was discharged, he asked RCA to compose an English translation for him, a task that went to composers Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold. While Presley was a baritone, he amped it up and recorded it as a tenor. In an oft-repeated story connected to the singer, composer, and arranger, Barry White: When he first heard this song, he was in jail for stealing tires. Barry was so inspired by Elvis’s recording that he vowed to go into the music business once he was released from prison. “That song opened the door to the rest of my life,” White said later on to Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus. For me, I recall hearing “It’s Now or Never” on the antique clock-radio in the kitchen of my grandfather’s cottage as the summer ended before the start of Kindergarten. In the end, music triggers a wellspring of memories, which bring tears and smiles together as close as they can be.
“Into the Night,” Benny Mardones, 1980. How were we to know that this catchy single would encapsulate the kind of music that would come to define the1980s? From sketchy lyrics to melodic infectiousness to over-dramatic musical accompaniment to bad haircuts to an over-pretentious production, this is why hardly anyone ever thinks back on the decade as the good old days in music. To his enormous credit, however, “The Blue-eyed Souler” was able to hash out a 35-year career in the music business, and while he never had another substantial hit after “Into the Night,” he kept up performing through his 60’s. Sadly, on June 29, 2020, Benny Mardones died of Parkinson’s Disease. What a truly shitty year 2020 has been.
“Patches,” Clarence Carter, 1970. In the vein of the late O. C. Smith’s “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp,” veteran soul artist Clarence Carter’s “Patches” was actually a cover of a Chairman of the Board soul single, which failed to make much of a mark earlier that year. Recorded at the famed Muscles Shoals Studio in Alabama under the direction of the multi-talented Rick Hall, Carter’s version was more uptempo and strident, which made the juxtaposition of the story that much more noticeable. Ultimately, “Patches” won a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song for 1970. In every way, this is the quintessential, “woe is me,” song.
“Across the River,” Bruce Hornsby and the Range, 1990. The last of Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s Top 10 hits – he and his backup band scored 6 such singles between 1987 and 1990 – “Across the River” is typical Hornsby fare – searing lyrics, brilliant musicianship, and seamless production. As most Deadheads probably know, Jerry Garcia plays the lead guitar here, adding even more luster to an already faultless recording. 30 years ago this September, you could find such timeless songs sprinkled throughout the American Top 40.
“Volare,” Bobby Rydell, 1960. While Bobby ‘Rydell’s version of “Volare” was much more homogenized then Italy’s Domenico Modugno’s original two years previously, there also was more kick behind it, a nod to Rydell’s rock and roll roots. A prodigious cover hit throughout the late summer and early fall of 1960, everyone from Sinatra to Clooney to Martin recorded versions closer to Rydell’s thereafter. As one acclaimed critic called Bobby Rydell, “plain white toast without anything on it,” and yet, his version of “Volare” was magnifico.
“Upside Down,” Diana Ross, 1980. Nils Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the bookends of the disco supergroup, Chic, wrote, performed, and produced this later-period Diana Ross classic, which proved to be the bestselling single of her post Supremes career. Nils guitar work here is impeccable as is the percussional backdrop provided by the rest of Chic. Miss Ross later complained that the funky instrumentation overshadowed her voice, but the general public obviously disagreed.
“Chain Gang,” Sam Cooke, 1960. Back in the spring of ‘59, while on tour through the American South, The King of Soul’s tour-bus passed by a chain gang on Highway 147 just outside of Reidsville, Georgia, very near the infamous Georgia State Prison. He was so moved by the image of the chained prisoners working alongside the highway that he ordered the driver to pull over. Sam Cooke then shook everyone’s hands and passed around a few extra cartons of cigarettes. This searing incident then became the catalyst of his worldwide hit a year later, “Chain Gang,” which was a Top Ten hit for the King of Soul throughout much of the late summer and early fall of 1960. “All day long they’re singin’/Hooh-aah! Hooh-aah!” Bassist extraordinaire Carol Kay of the Wrecking Crew said that the band “had a blast” backing up this incredibly original number. I bet!
“Wake Me Up When September Ends,” Green Day, 2000. The backstory of this tune is decidedly poignant: Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s father died of cancer on September 1, 1982. At Mr. Armstrong’s funeral, Billie cried, sprinted home, and locked himself in his room. When his mother subsequently knocked on the door to his bedroom, Billie bellowed, “Wake me up when September ends!” It doesn’t feel like a sorrowful song about hoping September comes and goes quickly. It should be a perfect autumn track, but it’s as melancholy and contemplative a tune as the very month in the title. Sadly, it also could be the theme to the year, 2020, as well.
“25 or 6 to 4,” Chicago Transit Authority, 1970. Robert Lamm, the longtime keyboard player of Chicago, was living in a broken down house in the Hollywood Hills when he woke up very early one morning. As he remembered in Rolling Stone: “I wanted to try to describe the process of writing the song that I was writing. So, ‘waiting for the break of day, searching for something to say, flashing lights against the sky’ – there was a neon sign across the city. That song came from the fact that it was 25 or 6 to 4 a.m. when I looked at my watch – I was looking for a line to finish the chorus. “Of course, what evolved was one of the superband’s most revered songs ever – a galvanizing tune, which featured Chicago’s fabled horn section, trumpet player Lee Loughnane, sax player Walter Parazaider, and trombonist James Pankow. With Peter Cetera singing the lead, and lead guitarist Terry Kath’s groundbreaking use of a distorted, wah-driven guitar line, “25 or 6 to 4” ended up being the number 2 track of the third side on their most celebrated album ever, Chicago II.
“Stardust,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra,” 1940. Eighty years ago this week, Artie Shaw’s version of “Stardust” was the number one song in both the US and Canada. The immortal Hoagy Carmichael originally composed this standard after giving up his law career in 1927. According to lore, Carmichael came up with the song when he went for a stroll under the stars at his alma mater, Indiana University, and started thinking about his former Bloomington girlfriends. On this recording, “The best clarinetist who ever lived,” (according to Louis Armstrong) is nearly matched by the brilliance of trombonist Jack Jenny, who is a revelation throughout. One of the greatest twentieth-century recordings in any genre, this recording defines the word, sublime.
“The Letter,” Joe Cocker, 1970. It doesn’t seem possible that Joe recorded this incomparable live version of the Box Top’s original single 50 years ago this month as part of his legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Not only is Leon Russell’s work on the keyboards seamless, but Joe’s vocals here are as good as anything he ever recorded. Accolades as well to Rita Coolidge, Donna Washburn, Claudia Lennear, Denny Cordell, Daniel Moore, whose choral work here has given me goosebumps for five decades plus.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Leon Redbone, 1975. Another veritable classic from Leon Redbone’s best album, 1975’s On The Track, features his honking-gander voice juxtapositioned with some seamless guitar plucking and a bevy of ragtime strings, which create a melody that’ll make your foot tap and your mind swoon. For the most part, Mr. Redbone is faithful to the legendary 1929 Fats Waller original, although his added vocal accompaniment only makes the song more fetching to contemporary listeners. As Leon said later on, “I recorded this to remind the listener that he or she is never alone as far as music is concerned.” A year after his death, I still can’t believe that the great Leon Redbone is not with us anymore.
“Only the Lonely,” Roy Orbison, 1960. Originally, Roy composed this single for his Sun Records buddy, Elvis Presley, but Orbison’s demo was so good that monument Records decided to press it. Recorded at Nashville’s RCA Recording Studio B, the legendary “Nashville A-Team” of session musicians – Floyd Cramer on piano, Buddy Harmen on drums, Chet Atkins on guitar, and producer Bob Moore on bass – accompanied Orbison on the recording. 60 years ago this fall, “Only the Lonely” went to number one on the Billboard Top 40. 27 years later, Roy would author a sequel to it, “Lonely No More” for the Travelling Wilburys. In 1975, Bruce Springsteen would immortalize the song to a new generation of rock fans in his magnum opus, “Thunder Road”: “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves/Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays/Roy Orbison singing for the lonely/Hey, that’s me, and I want you only/Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again…”
“Working Class Hero,” 1970. Featuring old Kaiserkeller pal, Klauss Vormann on the bass guitar and Ringo Starr on the drums, “Working Class Hero” has remained one of John Lennon’s most misconstrued songs. “It’s about the ride, the process, and nothing else,” he confided to George Harrison years later. A few days before his death, John recollected to journalist Jonathan Cott: “The thing about the ‘Working Class Hero’ song that nobody ever got right was that it was supposed to be sardonic – it had nothing to do with socialism, it had to do with ‘If you want to go through that trip, you’ll get up to where I am, and this is what you’ll be.’ Because I’ve been successful as an artist, and have been happy and unhappy, and I’ve also been unknown and ignored in Liverpool and Hamburg and been happy and unhappy.” In reality, this is about the fragile child who hid behind both sarcasm and art after his father deserted him at four. It’s about the wise-ass student who was put in the front seat by his teachers. It’s about a boy whose mother, Julia, couldn’t raise him because of her own issues. It’s about the death of his Mum – the victim of a drunken driver – and all the pain that caused him just as they were reigniting their relationship. It’s about a volcanic artist who couldn’t decide whether he’d be a painter or a musician. It’s about eating spam sandwiches in Hamburg because he couldn’t afford anything else at the time. It’s not about the seven years of fame that John Lennon had enjoyed the year he recorded it. It was about the 23 years that preceded it. 50 years after it was first recorded, it still burns to the touch. Happy 80th birthday, John.
“Once in a Lifetime,” The Talking Heads, 1980. David Byrne, who has long been attracted to “big themes” takes on a humongous one here – not being happy with the things you have. The budget for this iconic video was less than $10,000 – and other than the green screen and Byrne’s suit – it’s all about what’s behind the visuals. As Byrne stated later on: “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here’?” Ah, the eternal question.
“(Her Name Was)” Joanne,” Michael Nesmith and the First National Band, 1970. Michael Nesmith of Monkees’ fame, took an intentional break from “the boys” to produce a mini-classic of a debut solo album, which featured this haunting country classic, which he both wrote and produced with his backup group The First National Band. “Joanne” ended up charting the highest of his singles as a solo recording artist where it reached #21 on the US Billboard chart for the week of October 15, 1970. Later on that fall, it was the #1 hit in New Zealand, #4 in Canada, and #7 in Australia. The San Antonio, Texas native, who was raised on Hank Williams, Sr., before venturing into the rock ‘n roll world, displayed his C&W chops in a song that was one of the best singles of 1970. “Her name was Joanne, and she lived in a meadow by a pond./And she touched me for a moment/with a look that spoke to me of her sweet love.” Mike Nesmith’s ballad is nothing less than unadulterated love in 3 minutes and ten seconds of musical magic.
“Late in the Evening,” Paul Simon, 1980. When Paul Simon was a kid, he dreamed of being a young rock and roller. Idolizing Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, he and his boyhood pal, Art Garfunkel, even had a 1957 national hit by the made-up, “Tom and Jerry,” entitled, “Hey Schoolgirl, which turned out to be a nod to both Little Richard and the Everly Brothers. Twenty-three years later, Simon composed this dreamlike rocker in which the narrator is listening to the radio as he falls asleep, and the next then the singer knows, he’s dreaming about playing the lead guitar in a band. Simon composed this single for One-Trick Pony, a semi-autobiographical movie he wrote and starred in 40 years ago this fall. This is one of the few numbers in his incomparable musical career that Paul is packing some serious heat. Fortuitously, I saw him perform live in New Haven, Connecticut with Bob Dylan singing harmony and rhythm guitar back in the summer of 1999!
“Midnight Blue,” Laura Nyro, 1976. After a five year break following the release of Gonna Take a Miracle, Nyro returned in 1976 with Smile. On “Midnight Blue,” Laura used a smoky, jazzy groove as the centerpiece of an arrangement where her vocals were simultaneously tender and forceful. Lyrically, “Midnight Blue” offered some of Nyro’s most vivid imagery: There’s smoke in the kitchen, shrimps curled / The sun on black velvet and high stars / At the bottom of the world / Smile all you want / But you know that I’m fine in the warm hands of midnight blue. On what would have been her 73rd birthday, the late Laura Nyro sounds as fresh as ever.
“Something To Talk About,” Bonnie Raitt, 1991. Bonnie Raitt, the daughter of a Broadway legend, a folkie Radcliffe graduate who used to play for spare-change at the old Harvard Square T stop in front of the former Out of Town News, was a veteran rocker by the time she hit international superstardom at 41 years old. By then, her country-rock sound, which featured her bluesy slide guitar breaks,was embodied in her platinum-selling album Luck of the Draw, which won three Grammy Awards in 1991 and included “Something to Talk About,” which has now become an iconic number for her. As Graeme Connors said later on: “Bonnie does something with a lyric no one else can do; she bends it and twists it right into your heart.”
“That’s How Strong My Love Is,” Candi Staton, 1970. This soul classic has been covered dozens of times, but no one, not Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, or Aretha Franklin ever did it better than Candi Staton. Originally nicknamed “The First Lady of Southern Soul,” Staton was signed by Clarence Carter and had minor hits with remakes of “In the Ghetto” and “Stand By Your Man.” Her pop/funk/soul album, “I’m Just a Prisoner,” released 50 years ago this fall, has become an often-played standard. Later on, of course, Staton had a number of disco hits, including “Young Hearts Run Free.” In the 1980s, she returned to her Southern Gospel roots and has won four Grammys for Christian Music over the years.
“A Thousand Stars,” Kathy Young and The Innocents, 1960. An early doo-wop classic by The Rivileers back in 1954, Kathy Young’s cover proved to be even more popular six years later when it reached the #3 position in the US Billboard Top 40 in late October 1960. Just 15-years-old when she recorded, “A Thousand Stars,” Young’s reverent version soon became a sock-hop slow-dancing favorite both in the US and Canada. While Young never had a hit that sold as many copies again, she has performed regularly on the oldies’ circuit for years. Some say that Karen Carpenter based her entire career on what Kathy Young was able to do in just this one song.
“Lately,” Stevie Wonder, 1980. From his undervalued LP, Hotter Than July, Stevie’s original ballad, “Lately,” was the fourth single released from the LP and barely made it to the US chart. However, the single is now generally perceived as the greatest love song ever composed by Wonder, an artist known for his astonishingly memorable ballads. While his singing here is as good as he ever did on any number, it is the key changes here that break one’s heart every time. Like many of his releases back then, “Lately” was performed by Stevie playing multi-instruments while providing all of the vocals as well. The R&B group, Jodeci, came out with a stellar cover of the tune, which went to number #3 in the US 13 years after Wonder’s original was released.