2021 Music Posts – Through a Foggy Lens, Part 4

Carol Kaye: The most prolific bassist you've never heard of

For the fourth year in a row, from the first day to the last of the year, here are the various music posts I included on my Facebook music page in 2021. Thank you for all the kind comments on the first three editions. ENJOY!

“Penny Lane,” The Beatles, 1967. Recorded in seven separate sessions commencing on the morning of December 29, 1966, and concluding in the late evening on January 17, 1967, the idea of “Penny Lane” as the subject of a song began during the Rubber Soul sessions 16 months earlier when John Lennon, looking for ideas, began jotting down various places that had framed his life early on. When he showed the list to his bandmates, “Penny Lane,” a road situated three blocks north from Lennon’s childhood home, he immediately struck a chord with his longtime chum, Paul McCartney. As teenagers, McCartney and Lennon often met at the Penny Lane junction in the Princes Park area of Liverpool in order to catch a bus to the center of the city. “As a lad, John was habitually late, so there were many times when I waited for him at the shelter in the middle of the roundabout,” Paul explained in a Rolling Stone interview in 1997. In its final form, the tune works like a kaleidoscope of images that McCartney recalled as a child – the bank, the fire station, and the nurse who sold poppies at the shelter of the roundabout on Remembrance Day. While the sun shines brightly in the first half of the ballad, later on in the song when “the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain,” it reminds the listener that McCartney’s lyrical patchwork, like time-elapsed photography, is not framed at a solitary moment – but over time. Happily, when I first visited Liverpool in 1982, Penny Lane was mapped out exactly as Paul had described – a veritable time capsule that seemed stuck in its own Brigadoon. Besides the inspired lyrics, there are also several sound effects throughout the number; most memorably, the fireman’s clanging handbell in the fourth stanza and the little roadster can be heard spinning around the communal roundabout. Lastly, the ballad’s jaunting triplet melody is impeccably supported in the final verse by David Mason’s soaring piccolo trumpet solo. (Mason, a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra legend, was paid 27 quid for his work; his horn that he used for the recording sold for a hundred times that amount in 2011.) “When ‘Penny Lane’ was recorded,” recollected Sir Paul, “we were no longer four blokes from Liverpool. Instead, we were arguably the most famous people in the world. And yet, we longed to go back to those simpler days. It had all happened so fast.” This is most evident in the middle of the ballad when Paul points out that the nurse: “…feels that she’s in a play…she is anyway…” Interestingly, one part of the tune that gave McCartney fits was how to segue from one verse to another. Lennon, who always saw life through the broadest possible lens, came up with the inspired bridge refrain…“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes/There beneath the blue suburban skies/ I sit – and meanwhile back…” As producer George Martin stated later on, “It was the perfect interlude that connected the separate elements of the song altogether.” At the crossroads of recording Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles poignantly admitted in “Penny Lane” that their once everyday lives had gone helter-skelter. In January 1967, each of them seemed to be living in a state of suspended animation.

“Hungry Heart,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1981. I joined more than 15,000 fellow Bostonians as Bruce Springsteen held out his mike and had the audience sing the entire first verse of this iconic song from his stellar double-album, The River, which had just been released that fall. I was in the midst of a breakup with my girlfriend at the time, and when he crooned, “I took a wrong turn, and I just kept going,” I just nodded my head and danced in the aisles. In Bruce’s autobiography, he recalled that women were mostly absent from his concerts until the release of this single. After “Hungry Heart, however, “they started showing up in droves.” Here’s a live version that mirrors the Boston Garden crowd in which “Hungry Heart” was featured, recorded just two weeks later at the old Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island.

“Perfidia,” The Ventures, 1961. If you ventured back in a time machine to January 1961 and turned on the radio to a classic rock station such as WINS in New York, WMEX in Boston, or KBW in Buffalo, you would have undoubtedly heard this instrumental classic by the kings of the instrumentals. Ultimately, more than 100 instrumental songs were Top 10 singles from 1955-64, with The Ventures securing an astonishing 14 songs in the Billboard Top 40. The band, a quartet who hailed from Seattle, Washington, recorded all of their singles without a vocalist and popularized the electric guitar during the 1960s. Not surprisingly, Jimi Hendrix was a passionate fan and often attended their concerts in the early days. The group was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana, 1991. Released 30 years ago this month, “Smells Like Teen Spirit “ended up wiping the lingering mindlessness of the 1980s from the consciousness of most music listeners almost instantaneously. The song turned out to be a clarion call to consciousness, Kurt Cobain’s wail against corporate America’s invasion of the youth culture, condensed in his refrain: “Here we are now/Entertain us.” The single, named after a deodorant brand for girls, was, according to Courtney Love, her husband’s attempt to write the ultimate pop song using the incongruent sound of his favorite band, The Pixies. The vulnerability in Cobain, of course, can be heard in his quivering voice.

Six decades ago this winter, Miss Toni Fisher’s “The Big Hurt,” was the #3 hit in the US. The greatest popular tune about angst, pain, and true self-pity of its era, the shuddering orchestration, and Fisher’s remarkable “phasing” combine here to add a palpable sense of foreboding to the proceedings.

“Some Kind of Wonderful, Carole King, 1971. The forerunner to the music found in Tapestry, “Some Kind of Wonderful,” finds Carole in excellent form, singing a heralded Goffin-King tune that they wrote the previous decade for The Drifters. This could have easily found its way into “Tapestry,” but instead, it has become a staple in the Broadway musical. Beautiful. A marvelous, timeless ballad, which was recorded 50 years ago this month on January 10, 1971.

“For the Good Times,” Ray Price, 1971. One of Kris Kristofferson’s most revered compositions, this seamless cover, sung reverently by country and western veteran Ray Price, was number one in the country charts and then crossed over and made it to #11 on the pop Top 40 fifty years ago this January. One of my country music fan friends once called Ray Price, “The Sinatra of the genre.” If you take the time to listen to this tear-jerker, you’ll hear why. The way he croons, “for the good times…” it comes off as the sigh of sighs. 

“I Could Never Miss You More than I Do,” Lulu, 1981. Recorded in 1979 and released in 1980, this single by the British vocalist, Lulu, finally made it to the North American Top Ten in January 1981. As someone who adored her 1967 release, “To Sir With Love,” it was beautiful to hear that her sultry voice was still very much intact. A single with disco overtones and new-wave implications, I always thought that “I Could Never Miss You More Than I Do” was a precursor for reviving the kind of soul music that such singers such as Al Jarreau and Anita Baker made careers out of ultimately. A vastly underrated, bell-weather song, which has aged very well.

“He Will Break Your Heart,” Jerry Butler, 1961. Composed by Jerry Butler, Calvin Carter, and Curtis Mayfield, during the summer of 1960, this beloved early soul ballad was recorded by Butler and released as a single, peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart throughout the winter of 1961. Butler and Mayfield, who, along with their mentor, Sam Cooke, formed the Chicago Soul Sound centerpiece, would continue to produce several standards over the ensuing decade. In 1975, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s cover of the tune, retitled, “He Don’t Love You,” would make it to number one that spring.

“Johnny Appleseed,” Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, 2001. I heard this first 20 years ago, loved it, forgot about it, and then heard it again a decade or more later on Tom Petty’s “Buried Treasure” Sirius Show. Like nearly all of his releases, there is a wellspring of meaning here that can be found in Joe Strummer’s lyrics (“If you’re after getting the honey, hey/Then you don’t go killing all the bees…”). Two decades later, the purposeful discordance of the musical track only makes it more apropos these days. Sadly, The Clash’s revered co-founder perished much too young of a heart defect just a year after this brilliant single was released. In the end, Joe Strummer’s “Johnny Appleseed” remains a fixed star in the musical heavens.   

“Lonely Days,” The Bee Gees, 1971. After their dramatic breakup in the winter of 1969, 15 months later, after their largely unsuccessful solo albums had been released, The Bee Gees reformed and began composing songs together. One day in the summer of 1970, Maurice Gibb began to riff on his piano while his brothers were preparing for lunch. Robin and Barry chimed in from the opening chord, and within two hours, they had produced one of their most stimulating and memorable singles. Incredibly, the brothers then composed a future number one hit, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” that same afternoon! Recorded on August 21, 1970, in London, “Lonely Days” was released in mid-November. After a slow start in North America, it took off and became a Top 10 hit, peaking at number 3 for the group for the week of January 26, 1971. As critic Dave Marsh once wrote, the Brothers Gibb were always about collaboration, syncopation, and finding new avenues to express themselves musically. Happily, “Lonely Days” turned out to be one of the more iconic singles of their brilliant, four-decade-plus career. 

“Shop Around,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 1961. While Smokey Robinson wrote this classic Motown single for Barrett Strong (of “Money” fame), Motown President and Producer Berry Gordy insisted that he and the Miracles record it. When Gordy then heard the single on a local Detroit radio station for the first time in November 1960, he thought the song sounded too slow. “Smoke, I want you and the boys to come back to the studio and put some “oomph” into it. They speeded up their tempo and then released it as a single. It soared to number 1 on the US Billboard charts 60 years ago this week. Can you say the word fortuitous

“Peggy Sue Got Married,” Buddy Holly and The Hollies, 1959 and 1993. The Hollies, including Graham Nash, who joined his former band specifically to make this extraordinary recording, speculate here what Buddy might have sounded like if he had recorded this follow-up single with the technology afforded to artists a generation later. Given that they named themselves after him, it seems clear that the Hollies channeled him here as they ended up producing something magical and infectious. On the 62nd anniversary of his untimely death, we will always remember – and revere – the late, great Buddy Holly. 

“You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” The Righteous Brothers, Live on Shindig!, 1965. Every once in a while, you find a nugget on YouTube that needs to be seen by as many music fans as possible. This is one of those chestnuts – a rare, 1965 appearance on Shindig! by the Righteous Brothers in which they perform their number-one “Wall of Sound” masterwork live. (For the uninformed, Shindig! was a weekly musical variety show on ABC, which was broadcast nationally for three years, from 1964-66). As you will see and hear, they do the Phil Specter-produced ballad justice. 

“Far From Me,” John Prine, 1971. As singer-songwriter Joe Henry once wrote in The Washington Post: “There are other songs its equal on John Prine’s astonishing debut album in terms of stopping time upon a knife’s edge, but this was the one that first cracked my heart open. The scene it draws is a small one: a young man sits in a café late in the evening, waiting for the woman with whom he is entangled — the solitary waitress — to close up and walk out with him into the humid summer night of his dream’s debasement. We listen and learn, as he does, that all is lost; that if she ever truly loved him, that love has cooked beyond reclamation like the dregs of the long day’s first coffee.” The verses here are pure journalism, recounting with the dispassion of a courtroom sketch artist the details of inertia and fragmentation. However, the chorus is untethered, and blooms employing pure poetry and hovers above the ground, offering if not good news, then the hard-won truth that frequently we see what we most want to see — and fool ourselves long before anyone else might ever have an inkling. “And the sky is black and still now/on the hill where the angels sing/ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle/ looks just like a diamond ring?” Damn! Of course, John died nearly a year ago from COVID-19. His songs, however, remain firmly entrenched in the consciousness of a country that he had a lover’s quarrel with throughout his fifty-year public career as a balladeer and provocateur. 

“I Love a Rainy Night,” Eddie Rabbitt, 1981. The veteran country singer/songwriter found joy in something usually taken for granted. Artistically, that is often a recipe for success. Eddie Rabbitt first got the idea for the song in the late ’60s when he was sitting in his small apartment on a rainy night and began to bellow impulsively, “I love a rainy night, I love a rainy night,” into a tape recorder. Inexplicably, he didn’t complete the ballad until the fall of 1980, when he discovered the tape in his basement. Eddie finished the song with the help of fellow songwriters Even Stevens and David Malloy. This crossover hit made it to the number one position on both the country and pop charts simultaneously forty years ago this February. Rabbitt, who later died of lung cancer in 1998, claimed that the rediscovered tape would pay for his children’s college education. It did. 

“Learning to Fly,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1991. Composed by Tom Petty and his Traveling Wilburys bandmate, Jeff Lynne, Petty told Billboard later that “I wanted ‘Learning to Fly’ to be a redemptive song – but only in the vaguest way.” Julien Temple, who also filmed Petty’s “Free Fallin’ directed the video, which shows a young boy in various key moments of adolescence, as he gets his wings. Bob Dylan performed “Learning to Fly” live the day after Petty died, calling his fellow Wilbury, “A man full of light.” Yes, he surely was.

“God Bless the Child,” Billie Holiday, 1941. This masterwork from the American Songbook was written in a rage after Billie Holiday’s mother refused to give her a small loan at a time when Lady Day was fronting her recently opened restaurant in New York. “She wouldn’t give me a cent. I was mad at her; she was mad at me . . . Then I spat at my mother, ‘God bless the child that’s got his own,’ and walked out,” Holiday wrote in her autobiography. As Tony Bennett commented, “When you listen to her, it’s almost like an audiotape of her autobiography. She didn’t sing anything unless she lived it.” According to Lady Sings the Blues, the singer/songwriter stewed over the words for three weeks until she rushed to her then Greenwich Village apartment and wrote it like a prayer. Eighty years ago this month, “God Bless the Child” was released. It would become Billie Holiday’s masterpiece. As Jazz singer Phyllis Montana-Leblanc stated a few years ago, “When you sing from your soul, ‘God Bless the Child’ is what it sounds like. Billie’s pain, suffering, pure strength to fight through the obstacles and faults, made her Lady Day.”

“Runaway,” Del Shannon, 1961. In Tom Petty’s much-admired classic, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” he sings, “It was a beautiful day, me and Del were singing, a little runaway.” Given the pathos of the song, it’s no wonder that Del Shannon, who admitted the ballad was autobiographical (“I was always running away from relationships,” he admitted to Dick Clark) lived a tragic life. On January 21, 1961, Shannon recorded “Runaway” at the Bell Sound recording studios in New York City, with veteran Harry Balk (“Red River Rock,” “Oh, Happy,”) as producer. The ballad, co-written with keyboardist Max Crook, who invented the clavioline-based electric keyboard called the Musitron, provides the eerie harmonic sound throughout the single. By mid-February, the tune had entered the Billboard Top 10. By early March, it was the number one song worldwide. 29 years after “Runaway” was released, Del Shannon committed suicide after battling depression for a number of years. Songs such as “Runaway,” “Hats Off to Larry,” “Little Town Flirt,” and “Keep Searchin’,” are his legacy. Not bad for a kid from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who never thought he was good enough to break into the music business. 

“After the Goldrush,” Neil Young, 1971. This breathtakingly timely song, recorded only six months after the first Earth Day, is both poignant and apocalyptic; a cry for sanity amidst the ages against a species set out to destroy us all. It’s refrain – “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970’s” – foresaw a planet on fire, underwater, and in great peril. 40 years later, here we are – the Amazon rainforest is being burned while the CEO of Amazon Corporation made 30 billion dollars last year tax-free. As Neil Young would say, “The loading has begun.” Like many high schoolers at the time, when the Beatles broke up, Neil Young saved me for a spell even as he opened up my eyes to the shadows beyond my soul.

“Where the Boys Are,” Connie Francis, 1961. Composed by the Brill Building’s Neil Sedaka and his lyricist partner, Howie Greenfield, this was the title song of the movie by the same name, starring the late George Hamilton. Connie Francis thought the song was somewhat stupid – “Who would ever ask, ‘Where the boys are’?” Nevertheless, the song made it to number 4 on the US Billboard Top 40 for the week of March 1, 1960. Neil Sedaka later admitted that…”Where the Boys Are” is the only one of his 700-plus musical compositions not composed with any intent of his singing it himself. As he said years later to Rolling Stone’s Phil Crewe: “People think I wrote [a lot of] songs for others, but the truth is I wrote them all for me to record. Other people then picked them up and recorded them themselves.” The film, Where the Boys Are, became the prototype for spring break films after that, also did very well in the box office throughout the winter and early spring of ’61. 

“If You Really Love Me,” Stevie Wonder, 1971. The number 8 hit in the US fifty years ago today, March 4, 1971, this was one of those R&B singles that Stevie began to churn out like butter throughout the 1970s. “If You Really Love Me” was one of the last to feature Motown’s iconic background band, The Funk Brothers. After its release, Wonder left the Hitsville USA studios in Detroit and ended up recording his future LP’s in both New York City and Los Angeles; throughout the seventies and eighties, Wonder played most of the instruments himself. Despite the Funk Brothers’ luminous presence here on “If You Really Loved Me,” Stevie still played the Moog bass synthesizer, drums, and piano. The late Mary Wilson recalled in a 2019 NPR interview that…“we used to peek into Motown’s studio and watch Stevie play virtually every musical instrument in the room with such prowess and ease that it took your breath away. I was there one time with Berry Gordy who then smiled and said, ‘There’s our musical genius.’” A final note – when Wonder sings the words, “ways” and “go” in “If You Really Loved Me” it should be noted how challenging it was to change the pitch on those words/notes and make it sound good. This proved how incredible his voice was at that time. In retrospect, Stevie proved to be a once-in-a-generation talent.

“Rocket 88,” Jackie Brenston and His Dala Cats, 1951. Recorded 70 years ago today, March 6, 1951, in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records Studio, “Rocket 88” soared to number one on the-then rhythm and blues chart later on that year. Many rock historians consider this to be the first rock and roll song ever released. While that can be fodder for discourse, it’s influence was immediate and sustaining. The late Jackie Brenston was Ike Turner’s saxophone player in his original ensemble. He created the original melody and the orchestral beat; he later wrote lyrics and sang the original – supported by 19-year-old Turner and his King of Rhythm Band. Of course, the tune is a paean to the new Oldsmobile 88 that had just been released by General Motors in September 1950. From this lens, “Rocket 88,” the first passage in rock’s Book of Genesis, is more complex than you’d expect. As music historian Bill Dahn recalls: “Drawing on the template of jump blues and swing combo music, Ike Turner made the style even rawer, superimposing Brenston’s enthusiastic vocals, his own piano, and tenor saxophone solos by 17-year-old Raymond Hill. The song also features one of the first examples of distortion or fuzz guitar and feedback ever recorded, played by the band’s guitarist, Willie Kizart. The legend of how the sound came about says that Kizart’s amplifier was damaged on the legendary Highway 61 when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. An attempt was made to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amplifier with wadded newspapers, which unintentionally created a distorted sound.” The sound that was made in Sam Phillips’ iconic studio in Memphis 70 years ago this month was singularly unique and changed the way “race music” would progress thereafter. As Bruce Springsteen recently said on his SiriusXM radio show, “It all started with ‘Rocket 88’.”

“Clubland,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1981. Perhaps on some distant planet eons from now, Elvis Costello’s genius as an eclectic musician and songwriter extraordinaire will receive its proper due. A composer of impossibly catchy melodies, the modern-day lyricist who could be mentioned in the same breath with Oscar Wilde, a slashing guitarist of a profoundly accomplished band, The Attractions, Elvis Costello could do it all. Here, he somehow manages to blend such sounds as salsa, Merseybeat, and jazz, creating a hypnotic single that captured the club scene of the revitalized London that I came to know and love when I resided there in the early 1980s. A must-listen. 

“Just My Imagination,” The Temptations, 1971. The illustrious Eddie Kendricks, who had sung the lead vocals on the Temps” first national hit in 1964, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” sings the lead here in his last song with the group. By the time “Just My Imagination” hit the top spot in both the pop and R&B charts 50 years ago this March, Kendricks had left the group for a solo career. The much-admired ballad, written by the luminous songwriting team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, was also the last single for group member Paul Williams, who sings the “Every night on my knees I pray,” line. It should be noted that all 11 Funk Brothers produced the musical track, which was recorded on November 24, 1970. Kendricks ended up working on his vocals for eight hours after the band retired for the night. At Motown Records, it was all in a day’s work. 

 “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, 1961. The legendary Ben E. King purportedly drew inspiration from Psalms 46:2-3 when writing his 1961 hit ballad, “Stand by Me,” with legendary songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. (“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil.”) With more than 400 recorded versions, this iconic ballad has hit the Billboard Top 100 more than any other song in existence, becoming a testament in its own right by musically staring down life’s woes by reminding us all that we are all in this thing called life. According to BMI, King’s version of “Stand By Me” was the fourth most-played track from 1961-99 on both American radio and T

“Tupelo Honey,” Van Morrison, 1971. “Tupelo Honey” is an unreservedly mystical take on the domestic happiness Morrison had found since he’d married his then-wife, Janet Rigsbee, a California-born Texan who resided throughout their married life in Cambridge, MA. She’d already been his muse for several of Morrison’s earlier songs – and “Janet Planet,” as Morrison called her, provides the core for “Tupelo Honey.” This song remains one of the truly great love songs in rock history. Ir is almost shocking that this ballad – and the LP it was named for – was released a half-century ago this spring.

“I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” The Dropkick Murphys, 2005. An Irish-American rock and roll classic? Of course! Let Boston’s Dropkick Murphys perform what would become their signature song on the waterfront in Eastie while hanging with assorted hooligans and runnin’ from the Boston fuzz. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” must be played while drinking from a tall Guinness Stout as a requirement for listening. I did so at Fenway Park when the Dropkick Murphys played the ballad live from the right-field bullpen before a Red Sox playoff game in 2007. Happy Saint Patty’s Day to you and yours! (Please drop the r at the end of yours and pronounce it, yaws. Thank you.)

“Surf’s Up,” The Beach Boys, 1971. This revered ballad is more than a song; it’s an existential prayer that asks you to close your eyes, open your mind, and let every instrument, every voice, every echo wash over you and elevate you. It’s sorrow transformed into hope through the joy of enlightenment and the sight of God. It’s about the life you’re left with after daddy takes your T-Bird away. It goes beyond any definition of pop music that existed in the ’60s, and the full expression of the potential Leonard Bernstein saw when he featured Brian Wilson in a TV special not long before this song was conceived. 50 years to the month this version was recorded, the ballad’s overriding aspiration, profound beauty, and relative obscurity are still hard to comprehend. Years later, when Wilson was asked to encapsulate the tune into a single theme, he sighed and said, “Nothing good can last.” While many think that “Good Vibrations” or “God Only Knows” are his best, in my mind, “Surf’s Up” is Brian Wilson’s masterwork. 

And, of course, there’s the demo for this that Brian recorded in 1967 that might be one of the two or three best things recorded in that magical musical year. A tour de force. 

“The Winner Takes It All,” Abba, 1981. Given the fact that Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote this powerhouse number after separating from his wife, Agnetha Fältskog, and that she sang the lead here, no wonder millions of people view this ballad with its heartbroken lyrics, swelling crescendos, and sudden lulls as the definitive Abba single! Like many of their works, it has aged incredibly well and has become the signature song of Mamma Mia! The final Top 10 hit for the superband in the US, “The Winner Takes It All,” reached its zenith in the States during spring break, 1981.

 “Angel Baby,” Rosie and the Originals, 1961. Rosie Hamlin, the lead singer of Rosie and the Originals composed this classic early-rock single when she was 14 years old. It began as a poem about a boyfriend, and was based on “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” by The Penguins. Hamlin’s vocals here are seamless – a tour de force in sincerity and clarity. Mark Sten, who wrote the book, Rock Almanac, described the instrumentals as “generating a robot mantra devoid of embellishment or variation, the perfect underpinning for Rosie’s piercing, disembodied-siren vocal. With ‘Angel Baby,’ rock had regressed as far as it could, some nameless dread loosed within the collective Top 40 mind had run its course and spent itself in a lost mournful wail. ‘Angel Baby’ was the final moonlit flowering of rock’s medieval phase, a paean to purity and innocence no longer possible in the real world.” John Lennon so loved this recording that he recorded it for his Rock and Roll album, saying, “I could never do homage to Rosie and her band – but here it is.” A gem of a tune in every way, Brian Wilson once called “Angel Baby,”…the perfect record. 

“Just The Two Of  Us,” Bill Withers and Grover Washington, Jr., 1981. The epitome of smooth jazz, this quintessentially soulful piece was decidedly collaborative. Ultimately, renowned jazz saxophone player Grover Washington, Jr., and the revered pop-soul singer/songwriter Bill Withers ground out the tune along with Washington’s longtime writing partner, Bill Salter. At the time, “Still Bill” was thrilled to work with Washington after hearing a laudable instrumental cover of his classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Like many of his best vocal performances, Wither’s voice in this classic recording simmers irresistibly, as if cooking over a low flame. Given that both artists are gone – Washington in 1999 and Withers last year – this sublime ballad proves that great art remains forever in the present tense. 

“How Many More Years?” Howlin’ Wolf, 1951. Recorded by the great Howlin’ Wolf 70 years ago this spring, this early rock classic was the first record to feature a distorted power chord, played by Willie Johnson on the electric guitar. Four years before the supposed birth of rock and roll, Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years?” proved that the genre was well into the forming stage.  

“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971. The number one song in the world 50 years ago this week, “Brown Sugar,” was initially recorded on December 3, 1969. Various contract problems and pure laziness ensued, and what would be a defining single was ultimately released 13 months later.  The classic rocker was partially inspired by a black backup singer named Claudia Lennear, one of Ike Turner’s Ikettes. In the legendary Muscle Shoals Studios’ backroom, Jagger scrawled three verses on a pad, while Richards supplied an impossibly raunchy riff. Also of note, the late Bobby Keys’ solo on the number is one of the definitive saxophone performances in rock history. His approach throughout the number seemed more influenced by the “down and dirty” vocabulary of blues guitarists than by the overtly virtuosic, speed-driven side of the saxophone tradition. Keys achieved maximum effect with relatively few notes through his raw, plucky tone and insistent inflections. Add some exultant punctuations, and you have a Stones’ concert staple to this day. 

“Take The ‘A’ Train, Duke Ellington, 1941. Originally recorded on February 15, 1941, at the old Victor Studios at 155 24th Street, Manhattan, this epochal theme was composed by Duke Ellington’s brilliant pianist-arranger, Billy Strayhorn. The idea came to him when he took the NYC subway line to Harlem’s famed Sugar Hill district. It was so easy for Strayhorn, he said, that it was “like writing a letter to a friend.” Fans of the song are undoubtedly familiar with the trumpet solo performed by the great Ray Nance. It is frowned upon in jazz, which prides itself as an improvisational style of music, to repeat an ad-libbed solo. However, Nance’s solo is the definitive one, and Ellington said that no trumpet player could play the song without borrowing from what Nance offered. Ultimately, “Take The ‘A’ Train” served as the signature opening piece for Duke Ellington & his Orchestra for more than three decades. It still captures the vibrant essence of New York City at its finest.  

“Dancin’ Party (Tonight),” Chubby Checker, 1961. At the height of his popularity – and no one was bigger musically than the former Ernest Evans was 60 years ago – “Dancin’ Party (Tonight)” proved to be his fourth straight million-single seller in 13 months. A Dick Clark protégé from South Philadelphia, Chubby Checker debuted this rollicking nugget on ABC’s American Bandstand to a wildly receptive American audience. I had the distinct honor of seeing Chubby perform twice in person. At one memorable concert at the old Cape Cape Coliseum, which featured Bill Haley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, Chubby led off his show with “Dancin’ Party.” For the remaining 30-minute set, we never stopped dancing! Of course, that was the point. 

“Bang A Gong (Get It On),” T-Rex, 1971. Composed and recorded by T-Rex leader Marc Bolan during the British band’s first tour of America 50 years ago this April, “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” was the group’s attempt to break into the US Top 40 market. The single, which was not released until January 1972 in the States, featured the recognizable backup voices of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, who were the heart and soul of The Turtles and who, by then, were recording as Flo and Eddie. One of the early instances of glam rock, “Bang A Gong (Get It On) ” that puts an immediate smile on one’s face. Many years ago, I was playing it in my classroom when a “very distinguished parent” walked in, saw me alone, and then pretended to smoke an invisible bone. She then blushed like a giant red star. This tune will do that to you! 

 “Travelin’ Man,” Ricky Nelson, 1961. When singer-songwriter Jerry Fuller composed this in the fall of 1960, he hoped that Sam Cooke would record it. After recording a demo of him singing it, a version in which featured a young Glen Campbell on guitar, it ended up in Ricky Nelson’s lap in the most unlikely of ways. Fuller subsequently played it to Sam Cooke’s manager, J. W. Alexander, Nelson’s bass player, Joe Osborn, heard it through the walls of the music building next door and thought that it would be an excellent song for Ricky Nelson to record. “I just threw the tape away,” J. W. Alexander admitted to Osborn when he was asked about it later that day. “You can have it.” Nelson and his band (including the Jordanaires) recorded it a week later, where it became a number one song in the US and Canada sixty years ago this April. Of course, travelogues as songs are hit-or-miss propositions, but in this case, when you combine it with teenage angst and “a girl in every port” fantasy, which remains just that, how can you miss? 

“Medley – “Venus, Sugar, Sugar – and the Beatles Themes,” Stars on 45, 1981. A tune that most of you said that you hated at the time and then gleefully sang to it in your car was originally a sixteen-minute extravaganza, which was edited down to under five minutes for, well, 45-single purposes. Each number in the medley was recorded separately and edited by Jaap Eggermont, the former drummer of Golden Earring of “Radar Love” fame. This not only knocked Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” off the number one spot in the US 40 forty years ago today, but it instigated the “medley craze” in the recording industry. Within a year, medleys from the Beach Boys, Abba, and the 1950’s rock and roll pioneers all were compiled and entered the Billboard Top 40 at various times in 1981-82. I dare you to play this tune today and not have at least a slight smile on your face! 

“C’est Magnifique,” Ella Fitzgerald, Recorded Live in May 1961. You know someoneʼs a great singer if listening to their live songs sometimes beats listening to studio-recorded tracks. This enthralling rendition of the Cole Porter standard that was recorded live 60 years ago this week will give you goosebumps and make you lament the fact that youʼll never get to hear “The First Lady of Song” live in concert. Of course, it’s not a bad circumstance to have Count Basie and His Band back you up while you’re doing your thing. For my incredibly talented former student and friend, Thana Alexa, who is bringing such faultless jazz vocals to the forefront once again all over the world these days. 

“Everything I Own,” Bread, 1971. In 1970, David Gates, the lead singer and founder of Bread, was at the graveside of his father when a longtime family friend whispered into his ear, “Your father, Dave, was so proud of what you were doing.” Gates agreed and said later on: “My success would have been so special to him as he was my greatest influence. So I decided to write and record ‘Everything I Own’ about him. If you listen to the words, ‘You sheltered me from harm, kept me warm, gave my life to me, set me free,’ it says it all.” While many critics felt that this song, which was the precursor of the soft-rock era, dulled the genre’s edge, a song is a song, period. Five decades after it made it to number one on the US Billboard Top 40, “Everything I Own” still resonates with many – including me.  

“Copperline,” James Taylor, 1991. Twenty-one years after I wore out his seminal album, Sweet Baby James, the singer-songwriter released this track, the title song of his 14th LP. Ultimately, it was so good that it was like finding a nugget of gold in the local lost and found. Indeed, James’ kaleidoscope view of his childhood in North Carolina is almost cinematic: “Tore a page from a romance book/The sky opened, and the Earth shook/down on Copperline/Took a fall from a windy height, I only knew how to hold on tight/and pray for love enough to last all night, down on Copperline/day breaks and the boys wakes up/ and the dog barks, and the birds sing/, and the sap rises and the angel’s sigh/Down on Copperline.” James said later on that this was inspired by his idyllic North Carolinian childhood and was written for his big brother, Alex Taylor, who sadly died two years after this single was released.  

“Time Out of Mind,” Steely Dan, 1981. Like “Peg” and “Hey Nineteen,” Becker and Fagin turned out another deceptively upbeat tune with “Time Out of Mind,” which was a top-ten hit 40 years ago this May. As free-flowing and unencumbered as this number sounds today, it took 46-takes for the renowned perfectionist duo to get it right. No wonder they took a break from each other for a spell after this was recorded! Still, with Michael MacDonald’s flawless background vocals here as the breeziest sound imaginable supporting the sarcastic-ladened lyrics, what’s not to like here? As one of my high school buddies said recently, the music of Steely Dan ages incredibly well.  

“Too Young,” Nat King Cole, 1951. Seventy-five years ago this spring, “Too Young” dominated the American pop charts and became the top-selling song of 1951. What could go wrong with an anthem for people marrying young in the season of weddings, sung by the most sublime vocalist in the country at that time – and supported by Nelson Riddle and The Capitol Records Orchestra. Raise your hand if this ballad was played at your parents’ wedding?  

“One Toke Over the Line,” Brewer and Shipley, 1971. One of the more conspicuous anthems to the joys of marijuana, this much-loved folkie ballad proved to be Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley’s only hit, but it was a big one, reaching the US Top Ten 50 years ago today. While Jerry Garcia was brought in to play the steel guitar on their sessions, he didn’t perform on 

“One Toke Over The Line,” contrary to popular myth. However, the Grateful Dead frontman was prominently featured on its B-side, “Oh Mommy’ (I Ain’t No Commie).” In 1971 “One Toke Over the Line” was performed live on the Lawrence Welk Show by the wholesome-looking couple Gail Farrell and Dick Dale, who had NO clue what a “toke” was. After the performance of the tune, Maestro Welk remarked famously:, “There, you’ve heard a wonderful modern spiritual by Gail and Dale!” Those of us who saw it live on ABC TV at the time literally guffawed as Grandpa and Grandma looked on with alarming perplexity. 

And the legendary Lawrence Welk version of “One Toke Over the Line.” 

“Raindrops,” Dee Clark, 1961. The number-two hit in the American Top 40 sixty years ago for the week of May 15th, veteran soul singer Dee Clark was driving in his native Chicago one night in the fall of 1960 when a heavy rainstorm struck. Not surprisingly, the opening and closing of “Raindrops” feature heavy rain and thunder sound effects, with the finish augmented by Clark’s powerful, swooping falsetto. This is truly one of those tunes that you could call both timely and timeless. (For you trivia buffs out there, Dee Clark was the first person Sam Cooke sang the newly composed classic, “Bring It On Home To Me.” Clark thought it was “okay.” Dee, listen to it again, dammit all!)  

“That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon, 1971. Carly’s first single was released 50 years ago this summer, and it ultimately made it to #10 on the US Billboard Top 40 charts. Given that her collaborator, Jacob Brickman, wrote most of the lyrics here, Simon came up with the melody. It is almost astonishing that he could capture verse-form feelings that are clearly from a woman’s point of view. However, the ballad came out of a conversation Simon had with Brackman one afternoon in New York. He was going through some relationship troubles that were very similar to Simon’s: His girlfriend moved in with him, and he was worried about giving up some of his identity and personal space as he felt an infringement on his territory. Simon’s vocals brilliantly capture the heady mix of fidelity and passion that made this tune an instant classic a half-century ago. (This is for my lifelong friend, Eileen Simendinger, who sang this song as well as Carly back in the day, and for my dear, late Wellesley High School classmate and friend, the brilliant Mindy Jostyn, who was a brilliant musician and who was happily married to Jacob Brickman until she died much too young of cancer in 2005).

“Being With You,” Smokey Robinson, 1981. Smokey originally composed this for Kim Carnes, but producer George Tobin convinced the Miracles’ former frontman to record it himself. In the end, it became one of Smokey’s most significant solo hits, charting #2 in the US and #1 in England 40 years ago, during the week of May 20, 1981. By the way, that’s Smokey’s wife, Claudette, and Robert John (of “Sad Eyes” fame) singing the background vocals. Because he was now residing on the West Coast, Robinson could no longer depend on the Funk Brothers. Instead, he let George Tobin produce a West Coast band that had just recorded “Bette Davis Eyes” and whose individual members all revered Smokey Robinson. In every way, “Being With You” turned out to be a lovefest. 

“Cry For Help,” Rick Astley, 1991. Arranged by gospel star Andrae Crouch, Rick Astley composed this haunting single with one purpose in mind – that we all need to talk to someone because we’re all carrying too much that needs to be processed. As Astley recalled in 2018: “‘Cry for Help’ is observational. It’s that thing that you can go through life, and you can be around someone, and you know that there’s something wrong, you know there’s something going on, but they don’t want to say anything. They don’t want to do it.” This was the Merseyside singer-songwriter’s last major American hit; he “retired” from the business for more than two decades, believing that fatherhood and family were more important than his career. In 2016, Astley made a  triumphant return to music with his bestselling LP, 50, which included his wildly popular, “Keep Singing.” Astley continues to dabble in music these days and hosts a much-listened-to BBC radio show Sundays in Britain.

“Long Promised Road,” The Beach Boys, 1971. The Boys first released the ballad, “Long Promised Road” 50 years ago today, May 25, 1971, – and it did not chart. It was then released on their transcendent album, Surf’s Up, and was re-released as a single, with a different b-side, the brilliant “‘Til I Die,” that October. This time it made it to No. 89 on the Billboard Hot 100. Aside from a few guitar instrumentals written in the early days of the band and collective co-writing credits, the song is Carl Wilson’s first solo composition. He plays almost all the instruments himself on the ballad. As Richard Williams wrote in Melody Maker, “Long Promised road is, quite simply, the best’ inner quest’ song I’ve ever heard, and it lacks nothing in terms of jeweled arrangements.” From this lens, the late Carl Wilson was one of the truly underappreciated classic rock-era figures. 

“I Apologize,” Billy Eckstine, 1951. Imagine melted milk chocolate being poured into a glass of brandy. From this lens, that best describes the essence of Billy Eckstine, whose voice had such an unusual, beautiful vibrato/timbre–that it was instantly recognizable to anyone who listened to popular music from 1932-57. Sam Cooke once said that Billy Eckstine was the grandfather of soul music because “it all came from his innards.” 70 years ago this May, “I Apologize” was the number-one song in both the US and Canada. 

 “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, Featuring Mike Douglas, 1946. The number-one song in the United States 75 years ago this May, bandleader Kay Kyser takes an old Hoagy Carmichael standard and dresses up with a jazz band, which is decorously supported by his young vocalist, Mike Douglas, who would later host one of the better TV talk shows in the 1960s on the old Westinghouse Network (and the singer of the 1966 novelty song, “The Man In My Little Girl’s Life.”) In an age of conformity, this charming ballad created no new waves but was another warm wind gently blowing in through our bedroom curtains. At the height of the American Century, I am sure that those listening to this number thought, “What could ever go wrong with us?”

“Delilah,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1991. Another brilliant retro song from rock’s most unheralded genius, Marshall Crenshaw, from his criminally underrated 1991 album, Life’s Too Short. While the singer-guitarist-songwriter was paying homage to all the girl-named songs of his childhood, his decidedly more modern instrumentation points to a man stuck in two disparate moments of time. As usual, the melodies are fetching, the lyrics are lyrical, and the instrumentation is seamless. What’s not to like? 

“Sweet City Woman,” The Stampeders, 1971. While this proved to be their only international smash fifty years ago this spring, Calgary, Alberta’s Stampeders were much more successful in their native Canada, where they had seven top-ten hits between 1970 and ‘77. Like many of the songs from the wellspring of the late sixties and early seventies, “Sweet City Woman” proved to be a heady mixture of melody, rhythm, and innovation; it cut across genres, and it made you want to sing along. No wonder it’s still played with such reverence all of these years later.

“Moon River Demo,” Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, 1961. This recently discovered demo of “Moon River,” a ballad that dominated the charts later on that year, came to define the word, fidelity. You will hear only two instruments here – composer Henry Mancini’s understated piano and lyricist Johnny Mercer’s quivering voice. To this day, whenever I hear anyone sing, “Waiting ’round the bend/my huckleberry friend/moon river – and me,” it gets me every time. However, to hear the composers sing it and play it as they wanted to be performed is its own kind of specialness. Ultimately, the Mancinni version of “Moon River” won an Oscar for Best Original Song from the film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  

“Waiting On A Friend,” The Rolling Stones, 1981. Initially recorded in the spring of 1972 during the sessions for their album, Goats Head Soup, “Waiting For A Friend” didn’t make the cut but was repackaged and released on Tattoo You nine years later. “Waiting On A Friend” was eventually released as a single, and it did very well in the US and Canada, primarily thanks to the advent of MTV that was thrilled to have a new video by a rock band of The Stones stature. While many interpreted this as a thoughtful and mature Jagger, in 1972, Mick was still on heroin, so many Stones’ fanatics have said that “the friend” here is his dealer. Like most great songs, it works on many compelling levels, and if it’s simply about friendship, few tunes do it better justice. 

“Daddy’s Home,” Shep and the Limelights, 1961. The poignant followup to the 1957 doo-wop classic, “A Thousand Miles Away,” by the Heartbeats, who were fronted by the late great James “Shep” Sheppard. Four years later, Shep and his new backup group, The Limelights, recorded “Daddy’s Home,” a soul-ballad extraordinaire, which became a significant top-ten hit in the US and Canada 60 years ago this June. This is the kind of ballad that instantly puts you inside your car at the nearest diner where the air smells like burgers and you check your pocket to see if you have a couple of nickels to put in the counter jukebox inside. That Shep Sheppard ended the ballad by singing the memorable phrase – “I’m not a thousand miles away!” – was nothing but a wink-of-the-eye to a whole bunch of savvy listeners. Kudos, Shep!

“Jealous Guy,” Roxy Music, 1981. Yes, this is a most-admired cover of John Lennon’s original ballad, released less than a year after his tragic death. In the original, of course, it was Lennon confronting the green-eyed monster in this song, where he sings about the fits of jealousy that controlled him in the early 1970s. There are few people who can come within a mile radius of John Lennon when one thinks of musical icons. But while Lennon’s real talent lay in songwriting, for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, it was all about the performance, and their cover version married the aching intensity of the song with Ferry’s incandescent performance. It ended up truly being a match made in heaven.

“Blue Skies,” Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra Featuring Frank Sinatra, 1941. Six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Francis Albert Sinatra was already an emerging star in Tommy Dorsey’s stable, and “Blue Skies,” which had been composed by the incomparable Irving Berlin in 1926, was already considered an American standard. This musically delicious cover has a fidelity to it that’s both undeniable and sustaining. A nod here to the underappreciated Sy Oliver, who produced and arranged the song – while breathing new air into it. In retrospect, everything about this particular recording is sublime.     

“Want Ads,” Honey Cone, 1971. The singing trio known as Honey Cone was the first act signed to the Hot Wax label. Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland (Holland-Dozier-Holland) formed the label after leaving Berry Gordy Motown at the end of 1969. Considering the trio of songwriters had composed the vast majority of hits for the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, this was big news, indeed! Edna Wright, the sister of the great Darlene Love, fronted the vocal group, with Motown veteran backup singers Shelly Clark and Carolyn Willis supporting her. A half-century ago this June, “Want Ads” became Honey Cone’s only Top 10 hit, making it number one on both the Billboard and R & B charts. This vibrant soul single is now very much a “go-to” number on Sirius’s 70’s Soul Town stations.

“You Make My Dreams Come True,” Hall and Oates, 1981. Daryl Hall and John Oates wrote this keyboard-driven classic with Sara Allen, Daryl’s girlfriend, and the subject of the 1975 ballad, “Sara Smile.” 40 years ago this summer, this was one of the most beloved records on the dance floor, where it also hit as high as number #5 the week of July 4). Interestingly, according to the BBC, it was the most requested single from 1981 in their 2018 reader’s survey – another number that has grown in stature over the years. In the October 16, 2009 issue of Entertainment Weekly, Daryl Hall listed this as one of his Top 5 Hall & Oates songs. He explained: “It’s funny – it’s ubiquitous, especially now. I think because it’s such a happy song, just a pure expression of joy. And it’s set to a really old-time-gospel kind of groove. The fact that they use it in a pivotal scene in (500) Days of Summer... I’m very flattered.” In retrospect, this is rock and soul at its very best. 

“Cupid,” Sam Cooke, 1961. It is stunning to realize that this beloved oldie actually didn’t chart that well when it was released 60 years ago this summer. Incredibly, “Cupid” went only as high as #17 on the Billboard Top 40. In the spring of 1961, Sam’s longtime producers, Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti had asked him to compose a song for an unknown starstruck girl they had seen on the old Perry Como TV show who seemed to embody the fountainhead of innocence. “She didn’t do anything but just look up at Perry Como in the most wistful-type manner,” said J.W. Alexander, Cooke’s business adviser recalled.  When they got around to recording it with LA’s Wrecking Crew in May 1961, it was the singer’s idea to drop in the sound of an arrow being fired “straight to my lover’s heart.” The arrow sounds were made by backing vocalists – and twins – Kenneth Simms (leaving the bow) and Bobbie Simms (hitting the target). Like many of Sam’s singles, “Cupid” never went out of favor and has remained a favorite for R&B and soul fans for six decades. Timelessness was Sam Cooke’s game, so it makes sense that this ballad has grown in stature, popularity, and reverence over time. 

“Bette Davis Eyes,” Kim Carnes, 1981. For nine weeks in 1981, Kim Carnes’ ode to Bette Davis and the power of women was actually a cover version of a tune originally composed and recorded by the great Dusty Springfield seven years previously. Despite Dusty’s natural bite, she played it subtle in her original recording, which sounded both campy and jazz-tinged. To her everlasting credit, Kim Carnes added some plucky sensibility and muscle to it and recreated it as a New Wave 1980s anthem. From the opening synth sounds to the claps during the later verses to Kim’s perfect vocal performance, “Bette Davis Eyes” is pure pop perfection. 40 years ago this June, it seemed to be the only ballad played on the radio. “Bette Davis Eyes” eventually won a Grammy for both the “Record of the Year” and the “Song of the Year.” Unlike many songs from that era, it has aged very well.  

“Carey,” Joni Mitchell, 1971. From this lens, Joni’s magnum opus, Blue, was the best LP from the classic singer-songwriter era of the 1970s. “Carey,” which was released as a single 50 years ago this summer, was one of the confessional, lyrical sonnets on that LP. Recorded in Los Angeles with the help of friends James Taylor and Carole King, it captured Joni’s memorable stay at a European hippie commune in the caves of the island of Matala, Crete, during the summer of 1969. Carey Raditz, of course, was real – an individual Joni met in Matala. Friends recalled that he had flaming red hair and often wore a turban on Matala. They met, recalled Mitchell, when Carey “blew out of a restaurant on the island, literally. Kaboom! I heard, facing the sunset. So I turned around, and this guy is blowing out the door of this restaurant. He was a cook; he lit a gas stove, and it exploded. Burned all the red hair off himself right through his white Indian turban. And then he opened his mouth – and out spilled a North Carolinian drawl! He captured my attention right away.” The ballad features one of Mitchell’s most popular refrains – “You’re a mean old daddy, but I like you” – and one of her most playful melodies. Given the heavy-ladened other numbers on Blue, it was an unexpected and delightful exhale of an album filled mainly with intakes. 

“America,” Neil Diamond, 1981. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of a Top Ten appearance on the US Billboard Top 40, “America” was Neil Diamond’s paean to the American Dream as seen through the lens of an immigrant. Neil’s grandparents came from Poland and Russia, and because he spent his childhood amongst immigrants in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he wrote it for the 1980 remake, The Jazz Singer. In addition, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis used it as his theme song when he was the 1988 Democratic nominee for president. In the end, “America” turned out to be one of Diamond’s most sustaining and beloved original songs and is often played as a celebratory anthem at July 4th celebrations. Happy Birthday, America!

“Power of Love/Love Power,” Luther Vandross, 1991. The number 4 song on the Billboard Top 40 during the week of July 7, 1991, the late, great Luther Vandross’s Power of Love/Love Power,” was a medley of two songs, including “Love Power,” which had been a Top 20 hit for the American R&B group, The Sandpeebles, during the summer of 1968. Because of his distinctive, omnipresent pipes, you knew it was a Luther Vandross song immediately. People who say that there have been no soul singers since the 1970s have never listened to his music. Even though he died much too young in 2005 from both diabetes and hypertension, Luther Vandross’s impressive catalog of songs remains etched in the hearts of his millions of followers. 

“American Woman,” Lenny Kravitz, 2000. Fifty years ago this spring, 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.

“Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” Curtis Lee, 1961. Composed by Tommy Boyce, who later wrote many of the hits for the Monkees, this much-beloved, blue-eyed soul ballad was produced by the incomparable Phil Specter. According to Boyce, he was under orders from his publishing company to write a hit for Curtis Lee, who was an up-and-coming singer at the time. When Lee visited Boyce in New York in the fall of 1960, he asked Lee to think up a title for a song he would then write for him. Lee immediately thought of a girl whom he had just met in Florida with “pretty little angel eyes.” Given that as an inspiration, Boyce and Lee then sat down and wrote the song together in less than two hours. Phil Specter, who loved the song from the get-go, decided to give it a decided doo-wop feel while featuring Lee’s quivering tenor. A shout-out to the late Arthur Crier, the bass singer of the legendary Wrens, who provided the memorable “Pretty Little Angel eyes!” doo-wop refrain throughout the number!  Ultimately, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,”  proved to be Curtis Curtis Lee’s only Top 40 hit.

“East of the Sun, and West of the Moon,” Frank Sinatra, 1961. A friend emailed me recently and asked if I could name and then post one Sinatra song for the uninformed; what might it be? I replied that because his music was so universally acclaimed, that would be almost impossible. However, on this “old chestnut” that Old Blue Eyes first recorded with Tommy Dorsey in 1940, he “reconsiders it” (Sinatra’s words) 21 years after he first recorded it. Sinatra’s updated version of “East of the Sun, and West of the Moon” was subsequently recorded sixty years ago this week as a featured number on his first Reprise album. Arranger and producer Sy Oliver, who worked with Sinatra and Dorsey two decades previously, provides the seamless instrumentation and choral arrangement here. Of course, the impeccable, crisp musicianship is supplied by the fabled Wrecking Crew. Movingly, Frank also pays homage to the late Glenn Miller at the very end of the recording with two unexpected encores (similar to “In the Mood.”) From this lens, The Chairman of the Board never sounded better.  

“High Time We Went,” Joe Cocker, 1971. In a world of four-cylinder cars that struggled to keep up with the traffic at the start of the soft rock era, Joe Cocker was like a barrelling Sherman Tank in the left lane chock-full with a silo-full of testosterone. Talk about duende. Like a summer hurricane, I distinctly remember hearing this for the first time 50 years ago this summer and thinking, “You’ve gotta be shitting me! Wow!” This gem has an infectious groove, unimaginably passionate vocals, and seamless musical accompaniment. Yes, that’s Joe’s pal, Leon Russell, on the keyboard. But, of course, Joe Cocker sang every song as though it would be his last.  

“Let’s Twist Again,” Chubby Checker, 1961. Like The Godfather, Part II, “Let’s Twist Again” is even better than the original – a rollicking, mesmeric, brawny-ladened dance number that dominated the Billboard Top 10 from July 25, 1961, thru Labor Day. But, unlike “The Twist,” it won Song of the Year at the 1962 Grammys. More melodic than rhythmic, the tune was composed by the songwriting team of Kal Mann and Dave Appell, and, like “The Twist,” it debuted on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in June 1961. You haven’t lived until you danced to it live with Chubby singing the refrain, “Round and round and up and down we go again! Oh, baby, make me know you love me sooooo – LET’S TWIST AGAIN – LIKE WE DID LAST SUMMER!” 

“Everything I Do I Do For You,” Bryan Adams, 1991. The number-one song worldwide on July 28, 1991, “Everything I Do For You,” still holds the UK record for most consecutive weeks at number one to this very day. While we might have gotten bored of it thirty years ago this summer, it remains one of the greatest love songs of all time. Although the ballad was the lead song of the popular Kevin Costner movie, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, there was no reference to the film in the number. These days, Adams is somewhat embarrassed by it, but “Everything I Do I Do For You” ended up paying for his daughters’ education.

“Colour My World,” Chicago, 1971.  Composed by the supergroup’s trombone player, James Pankow, and sung reverently by Chicago’s lead guitarist and vocalist, Terry Kath, this became a Top Twenty hit for Chicago almost a year after their brilliant album, Chicago II, was released. “Colour My World” was the fourth section of a 13-minute suite entitled, “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.” This proved to be the bookend for the suite’s opening number, “Make Me Smile,” which led off the musical agglomeration. The legend is that the band members drew straws to see who was going to sing “Colour My World” in the studio, and the loser had to sing it, so Terry Kath ended up singing it. According to Robert Lamm, Kath drank nearly a bottle of Jack Daniels before he sang it. He then sang it in one take. By the way, if you haven’t slow-danced this with the one you love in your distant or recent past, you need to do so asap.   

“You Can Have Her,” Roy Hamilton, 1961. A major recording star whose voice was stilled by tuberculous, Roy Hamilton, who was an unlikely combination of Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson, and Brook Benton, enjoyed his last significant hit 60 years ago this week with “You Can Have Her.” Hamilton, who was shaped by the fertile black gospel music tradition of his youth, ended up having seven top-ten singles in a career that lasted eight years. In “You Can Have Her,” Hamilton sang, “Life without love is mighty empty/But confession is good for your soul/I’d rather have love for just one hour/Than have the world and all of its gold.” While his original work was largely confessional, his greatest success occurred when he brought soul to such American Songbook standards as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Ebb Tide,” and “Unchained Melody.” In July 1969, Hamilton suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at his home in New Rochelle, New York. A heartfelt message of condolence from Elvis Presley was read at his funeral.

Yes, It Is,” The Beatles, 1965. While John thought this ballad was second-rate, “a watered-down version of ‘This Boy,'” it is, in actuality one of the Fab Four most evocatively beautiful songs, and the last tune they sang in three-part harmony until 1969’s “Because on Abbey Road. The flipside to “Ticket To Ride,” “Yes, It Is” became a top-ten hit in the Boston market when a group of DJs on WMEX 1510 AM began to play it one afternoon and evening during the summer of 1965. When the band played at Boston’s Suffolk Downs the following summer, Paul McCartney thanked them saying, “You’ve always had great musical taste here.”

“Last Nite,” The Strokes, 2001. A not-so-subtle musical nod to both Tom Petty’s guitar riffs from “American Girl” and Lou Reed’s urban-grunge vocals, “Last Nite” was such a musical throwback that it supposedly ushered in what became known as “The Lower East Sound.” It was playing in the cabs and clubs of Manhattan throughout the summer of 2001, until September 11th, when the world of New York City changed forever. To The Strokes’ credit, the Manhattan-based rock band carried on and have been pioneers in the indie rock movement for almost 23 years.  

“Never Ending Love for You,” Delaney & Bonnie, 1971. A somewhat ragged, chaotic folk number that sounds as if it could have been a track from The Plastic Ono Band, this lullaby-like paean to love remains a favorite to people 50 and over. Of course, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett had quite a band in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with such prodigious talents as Duane Allman, Leon Russell, George Harrison, Bobby Whitlock, King Curtis, and Dave Mason joining in on the fun. Delaney was the house band leader for ABC’s contemporary music show, Shindig in 1965 and ‘66; Bonnie had been a backup singer for Ike and Tina Turner. Their daughter, Bekka, was a member of Fleetwood Mac for a time in the 1990s. While their group came and went like a summer thunderstorm, this track – along with “Only You And I Know” remains as well-played dirges on both Sirius and Spotify stations and playlists.  

“The River Is Wide,” The Forum, 1967. On August 1, 1967, one of the more underappreciated covers by the LA backup group, The Forum, was released, “The River Is Wide,” a “Wall of Sound” version of The Kingston Trio ‘61 single. This was the quintessential regional hit – you had the obscurity of the group, the proverbial one-hit wonders – but in 1967, DJ’s in major cities still ran the bus and not program directors. Thus, when three of the nation’s most popular jockeys, Arnie Ginsberg, Cousin Brucie, and Wolfman Jack, listened to the demo of “The River is Wide,” loved it, and began playing it in Boston, New York, and LA, it turned out to be a Top 20 hit in those cities during The Summer of Love, 1967, and also in a few other markets, including Cleveland, Detroit, and Seattle. The ‘69 Grassroots version, which was a hit and which was based on The Forum’s interpretation, wasn’t nearly as good.

“Queen of Hearts,” Juice Newton, 1981. Let me get this out of the way. I initially loved this country-western pop standard written by Hank DeVito when it appeared on the great Dave Edmunds’ 1979 LP, Repeat When Necessary. Juice Newton’s reverent cover did the original justice, even if it didn’t quite capture the rockabilly nature of Edmunds’ single. Nevertheless, this version dominated the US Top 40 forty years ago this summer and reached as high as #2 in mid-August of 1981. Like any great summer song, “Queen of Hearts” makes you drive faster on the highway – with the top down, of course.

“Tossin’ And Turnin’,” Bobby Lewis, 1961. Bobby Lewis, a veteran r&B solo artist from Indianapolis, moved to New York City in 1960 via Detroit and soon became part of a staple of singers who regularly performed at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem. When Beltone Records producers encouraged him to record an original number he had sung and danced to at the Apollo called “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” he readily agreed. Ultimately, it became the most prominent single throughout the summer of 1961 when it was at #1 throughout July and August of that year. Lewis later claimed that his music formed a bridge between Chubby Checker and The Ronettes, and I concur. After all, one cannot deny the spontaneity and hypnotic nature of this single. While Bobby Lewis had only one other hit after this, “One Track Mind,” he lived to the age of 95 and died of pneumonia last year in his adopted hometown of Newark, New Jersey. A great run, Bobby.

“Listen to the Band,” The Monkees, 1971. Recorded in 1968, released as a single in early ‘69, and subsequently re-released two years later during the summer of 1971, this was one of those “rebound singles” that were actually quite frequent in the formative years of rock and roll. (Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” for instance, was a #1 single in 1960 AND 1962). “Listen To The Band” was written by the vastly underrated Mike Nesmith, who also sang the lead vocals – a rare occurrence for him as Mickey Dolenz on Davy Jones usually did the honors. In the end, the tune was so un-Monkee-like that many group fans put “Listen To The Band” in their top 10 Monkees’ singles of all time. By the way, the lull at 1:37 and the break at 1:48 – one of the best moments in pop music ever. If, for some reason, you missed this tune the first time around, give it a listen. You won’t be disappointed. 

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” The Smiths, 1991. Composed by lead singer Morrissey and guitarist John Marr, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” originally appeared on the Smiths’ transcendent third album, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, but wasn’t released as a single until 1991—four years after the Smiths had disbanded. Brimming with desperation and devotion, the tune gripped the hearts of critics and fans alike—Marr himself remarked in a 1993 interview for Select magazine, “I didn’t realize that ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ was going to be an anthem, but when we first played it, I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard.” 

“Teardrops From My Eyes,” Ruth Brown, 1951. As part of her musical legacy, which is prodigious, the late Ruth Brown was known as “The Queen of Rhythm and Blues” and was the kingpin of Atlantic Records, the foundational pillar of both R&B and soul (AKA “The House That Ruth Built.”) Given that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her in 1993 and that Bonnie Riatt pegged to be the one to introduce her at that ceremony, it’s no wonder that her musical catalog aged well over the years. As Bonnie said at the time, “Ruth was both a diva and a fighter, a glamorous R&B singer and a tireless advocate for musicians’ rights.” If you think that rock and roll began with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock,” then all you have to do is rewind the clock four years earlier and listen to “Teardrops From My Eyes.” You’ll instantly realize it began years previously, thanks to pioneers such as this legendary figure. All you have to know is that Little Richard said that everything he learned about singing was thanks to Ruth Brown.

“Lady (You Bring Me Up),” The Commodores, 1981. Another hot summer single from Lionel Ritchie, who was catching his stride to such an extent that he generated more Top 10 singles than any artist in the first half of the 1980s. In retrospect, “Lady” is a potent cultural fossil from early MTV. The single is a pulsating, rhythm-induced track replete with sexual innuendo and wordplay, filmed in chalky video with a cameraman who never seemed quite to capture Ritchie’s dance moves. This would be the last major single for Lionel with the Commodores before he would emerge as a solo artist. The music has aged well here – but the men’s shorts – hmmmm. Imagine that The Commodores are wearing shorts shorter and tighter than women’s at the time.  

“Michael,” The Highwaymen, 1961. If music frames your memories, I would like to share the vision for a folk ballad that was one of the most beloved from the summer of 1961. At the end of each summer at the Chatham, Massachusetts Beach Club, situated at the elbow of Cape Cod, the employees who toiled there each summer would host an evening clambake over Labor Day Weekend. (While schools in New England still open up in early to mid-September, back then the vast majority of American public schools opened up the day after Labor Day. In New England states, they still do). As I galloped down the wooden stairs to the beach for the clambake on a scrubbed-up early September night in 1961, I quickly observed an enthusiastic group of counselors and workers from the Beach Club gathered around a campfire, singing this American classic. I did not know at the time that “Michael” was a nineteenth-century folk song composed by slaves who resided in the islands off of Georgia and sung as they ventured to their plantation on the mainland by boat each day. I also wasn’t aware at the time that The Highwaymen were a college vocal group originating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Arranged by the group’s lead tenor, Dave Fisher, the ballad reached #1 just as the doors to America’s public and private schools were opening for another academic year in September. All of these years later, I remember that group of staff members heartily singing this tune. They would be in their late seventies by now. My goodness.

“Summertime Sadness,” Lana Del Ray, 2012.  Some of you might be shocked, but I have always loved Lana Del Ray’s musical output. I agree with Bruce Springsteen – she might well be the next great songwriter, and her film noir-kind of voice and obsessions are perfect for our time. We’ve all felt regret in the most joyful of seasons; it is almost a requirement when it seems to be at an end. Of course, given the fact that the former Lizzy Grant composed this ballad about a friend who had committed suicide makes it even more profound.

“Riders on the Storm,” The Doors, 1971. The posthumous single that went to #14 in the late summer of 1971, six weeks after Jim Morrison died in Paris. Recorded in LA in December 1970, the ballad, a heady mix of soul, psychedelic, and gothic music, was the last song that all four members of the original Doors recorded together. The tune has often been viewed as an autobiographical account of Morrison’s life. As Stephen Davis wrote in his much-acclaimed biography of Morrison: “In 1962, while Jim was attending Florida State University in Tallahassee, he was seeing a girl named Mary Werbelow who lived in Clearwater, 280 miles away. Jim would often hitchhike to see her. Those solitary journeys on hot and dusty Florida two-lane blacktop roads, with his thumb out and his imagination on fire with lust and poetry and Nietzsche and God knows what else – taking chances on redneck truckers, fugitive homos, and predatory cruisers – left an indelible psychic scar on Jimmy, whose notebooks began to obsessively feature scrawls and drawings of a lone hitchhiker, an existential traveler, faceless and dangerous, a drifting stranger with violent fantasies, a mystery tramp: the killer on the road.”

 “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, 1981. While Stevie was and remains an accomplished songwriter, Tom Petty wrote this number specifically for Nicks’ solo LP, Bella Donna. This turned out to be the biggest hit thus far for either Stevie Nicks as a soloist or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers when it reached #3 in August 1981. Five years later, Petty and Nicks would reunite to do a cover version of The Searchers’ classic, “Needles and Pins,” which ended up being another Top 40 hit for the rockin’ duo. Produced by veteran Jimmy Iovine, the bass player on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was Donald “Duck” Gunn of Stax Records and Blues Brothers’ fame! Stevie and Tom would perform it several times over the years to appreciative audiences, including in 2017 in London, three months before Petty died suddenly that fall. 

“Sixty Minute Man,” Billy Ward and the Dominoes, 1951. One of the pioneer songs that is now considered an early example of rock and roll, lead singer and pianist Billy Ward wrote the single, which crossed over from the R&B chart to the mainstream Top 40, where it went to #17. In retrospect, it crossed the boundaries between gospel and the blues while carving a niche in early doo-wop. Ward, who was Juilliard-educated and a brilliant keyboardist, recruited Clyde McPatter and Jackie Wilson, among others, to form his supporting band. In addition, “Sixty Minute Man’s” lyrics pushed the limits of what was deemed acceptable, and it appealed to many white and black listeners. It has held up very well over the years and is now considered a veritable classic. 

“The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen, 2002. The Boss wrote the track about 9/11, taking the viewpoint of a New York City firefighter entering one of the Twin Towers (“Can’t see nothin’ in front of me …”) before unleashing the gospel-tinged chorus, which frames this truly haunting, powerful ode. This turned out to be the title track from his concept album on 911 that was initially intended to help his fans cope with the tragedy. “The fundamental thing I hear from fans is, ‘Man, you got me through’ — whatever it is,” he told Rolling Stone in 2002, the year that The Rising – both the song and the LP – were released. 

“These Dreams, Jim Croce. 1973. This understated and yet harrowing lament is one of the gems that the extraordinary singer-songwriter released in his short but storied musical career. Produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West, “These Dreams” was recorded and released in the spring of ’73, just five months before Jim’s untimely death at 30. Also of note is that the great Maury Muehleisen, who also died with Jim in the plane crash that took his life in September ’73, provides the acoustic bridge that helps make this ballad so poignant. Of course, there’s also that voice and those lyrics as well. 

“Something To Talk About,” Bonnie Raitt, 1991. Originally composed and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Shirley Eikhard in 1985, Bonnie’s cover version not only went to #5 worldwide in September 1991, but it won a Grammy for Raitt when it was awarded the Best Female Pop Performance later that fall. It was great for those of us who were longtime Bonnie fans to see her get recognized as the queen of the slide guitar who also has the voice of a soulful angel. This joyful rendition still is a pick-me-up three decades after it was first released. 

“Hit The Road, Jack,” Ray Charles With The Raelettes, 1961. The winner of the 1961 Grammy for Best Male Rhythm and Blues Recording, this was Ray’s second number-one song (“What I’d Say” was the first) and was written by Charles’ close friend, Percy Mayfield, an up-and-coming R&B singer who was severely disfigured in a car accident soon after he started performing. Ultimately, Mayfield cut back his touring and made his mark as a prolific songwriter, with many of his compositions performed by Charles thereafter. Of the nearly 1000 recorded songs that Ray Charles released in a 60-year-plus public career, “Hit The Road, Jack” is probably his most renowned. As Sam Cooke said at the time, “How can you not immediately move when you hear this song? It’s impossible.”

 “I am Woman,” Helen Reddy, 1971. This ballad was a cultural touchstone a generation ago as it underscored the burgeoning feminist movement at the time. I not only actively supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but I also continued to be attracted to intelligent, thoughtful, and strong women long after this hit song started to be played as an oldie. As Anne Frank wrote back in 1944: “I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion… I know that I’m a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage.” Words to live by then – and today. Rest in peace, Helen Reddy, who died much too young in 2020.

“The Mountain’s High,” Dick and Deedee, 1961. God, there were some great songs that were hits when I was growing up. Dick and Deedee’s “The Mountain’s High” never even made it into the top five in the fall of 1961, and yet I just loved it then; I love it even more now. As a nearly seven-year-old at the time, I adored the pulsating drum patterns that framed the song. Today, it conjures up the innocence, expectancy, and capriciousness of the times. It was the kind of music that spilled out of our radios like cascading droplets at the height of an early spring cloudburst. 

“Smiling Faces Sometimes,” The Undisputed Truth, 1971. At the time, this was just one more excellent soul standard that was part of the wellspring of classics sprung from what we thought was an endless firehose of such works. Like everything else in life, the well ran dry, and so The Undisputed Truth’s cover of a Temptations’ original started to get serious airplay and recognition years after it was first released. Composed by Motown veteran songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, the Temps version, recorded in April 1971, didn’t sell, mainly because it clocked in at 12:30 and was part of an ambitious (and brilliant concept LP entitled, Sky’s The Limit. However, when the songwriters encouraged another one of their groups, The Undisputed Truth, to condense the ballad to 3:20 and then release it as a single, it went all the way to #3 fifty years ago this week. Norman Whitfield assembled The Undisputed Truth in January of 1970 in an effort to bring some new blood to Motown. The male singer in the quartet turned out to be veteran soul singer Joe Harris, who had been in a popular Detroit group called The Fabulous Peps. The female singers included Brenda Joyce Evans and Billie Rae Calvin, who sang backup for Motown on various Supremes and The Four Tops tracks. In the end, “Smiling Faces” ended up being the group’s only substantial hit. Yes, that’s the incomparable Funk Brothers providing the superb musical score here. 

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Joan Baez, 1971.  While many artists have recorded this Civil War-era classic first released by Robbie Robertson and The Band in 1970, Joan’s 1971 version proved to be a veritable tour de force – and the most successful single of her illustrious career (it made it to #3 in October 1971 and turned out to be the folksinger’s sole gold single record). A featured tune on her bestselling LP, “Blessed Are….” it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Song that year. As Bob Dylan said later about Joan’s version, “You can hear the heartbreak in every sigh as she sings it.”

“Under The Bridge,” Red Hot Chilli Peppers, 1991. As many of you know, this turned out to be the most substantial hit for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it certainly wasn’t typical of their sound.  Instead of the hard rock or funk sound, the supergroup produced a ballad with a harrowing topic – heroin addiction. Originally penned by lead singer Anthony Kiedis as a poem in tribute to a friend who had died of a drug overdose, producer Rick Rubin encouraged Kiedis to write music to it – which he did – with the help of his bandmates.. Thirty years ago this month, “Under The Bridge” was the #2 song in North America.  

“Bristol Stomp,” The Dovells, 1961. During the dance craze launched by Philly’s Chubby Checker – with a nod to impresario Dick Clark – local groups such as The Dovells, also managed by Clark, began to perform their own dance-influenced tunes. The “Bristol Stomp” was written about a group of teens who were dancing a new step called “The Stomp” at Good Will Hose Company Dances, held in Bristol, PA, a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia.  The Dovells, who were fronted by Len Berry, who later had a solo hit with the great, mid-sixties ballad, “1, 2, 3,” knew that with the backing of Dick Clark on American Bandstand, their single would soar. It did – and went all the way to #2 in the US and Canada in October ’61. Here, their hero, Chubby Checker, introduces them, then they take over – led by the effervescent Len Berry. An unadulterated classic.

“Start Me Up,” The Rolling Stones, 1981. In the spring of 1975, The Glimmer twins commenced working on a somewhat ragged reggae number called “Never Stop,” but ended up chucking it. They returned to it three years later while working on Some Girls, and transformed it into a rock tune with a killer new riff from Keith Richards. But it didn’t make the cut, and in 1981 producer Chris Kimsey dug through the vaults looking for material they could release on Tattoo You and stumbled upon it. The group finally saw potential in the tune and kicked off the album with it. To their good fortune, the song not only soured to number one worldwide, but it entered their classic musical canon to such an extent that “Start Me Up” is often the tune the group starts its live concerts with all these years later.  

“Glory of Love,” The Five Keys, 1951. There have been over 1000 cover versions of this big-band standard composed in 1936 by Billy Hall and famously debuted by Benny Goodman the same year when it went to number one on the Billboard Top 40. From Bette Midler to Steve Goodman to Peggy Lee to Tom Rush, each version has tried to capture the essence of a song whose melody is as brilliant as its lyrics. However, The Five Keys’ beloved doo-wop version, recorded and released in 1951, hit the top spot in North America for four weeks running in October of that year. Featuring two of the greatest balladeers of the early rock era, Rudy West and Dickie Smith, their 2/4 time version proved to be a heart-stopper. While the Velvetines’ 1957 cover was also a Top 5 hit, I prefer the subtlety that makes this record irresistible and timeless. 

“Flim-Flam Man,” Laura Nyro, 1967. If she were alive, it would have been her 74th birthday this past Wednesday, but, sadly, such is not the case. Nevertheless, this is one of my very favorite Laura Nyro tunes from her faultless debut album, More Than A New Discovery. Recorded in February 1967 when she was just 19-years-old, Nyro composed the song for the movie of the same name. “Flim-Flam Man,” of course, is the quintessential charmer and con artist who “pays his monthly rent with daily charm.” On her next album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confessional, Nyro alerts us to another no-good man who’s about to roll into town in “Eli’s Coming,” a Top 10 hit for Three Dog Night. The vocals here – especially the harmonies, which are as exquisite as a fall morning – and the melodic orchestration is superb as well. If you haven’t heard this tune, which only made it to #82 in the US in October 1967, you’re in for a treat. 

“All Of Me,” Billie Holiday, 1941. Written in 1931 by the songwriting team of Gerald Marks (“Is It True What They Say About Dixie”) and Seymour Simon (“Shine On Harvest Moon”), “All Of Me” was a hit later on that year by the renowned Paul Whitman Orchestra with crooner Margaret Bailey singing the vocals. Even though the jazz standard has been recorded more than 1500 times over the years, Billie Holiday’s 1941 cover version remains the gold standard. Ultimately, Lady Day staked a claim of ownership that no one has managed to dislodge in subsequent years. As she proved continually over her remarkable singing career, simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance. A musical tour de force.     

“A Man Needs A Maid,” Neil Young, 1971. The first time I heard this Neil classic 50 years ago this October, it loomed over me like enduring mist from the ocean. I was wrung wet from its pathos. His refrain, “When will I see you again,” is sung as a mournful sigh; it chokes your heart when you take it in entirely and realize that the one light in his life is now extinguished forever. While many feminists have been critical of the word maid, the songwriter uses maid in an old-fashioned way – as a loving caretaker. One of my friends interpreted “A Main Needs A Maid” as… “an elderly man’s lament for his lost life partner. My father-in-law is 79 years old and lost his wife seven years ago, and now his life is in shambles, his house is a complete mess, there’s rotten food in the fridge, his car is dinged up – he is a sad, incredibly unkempt, rickety, person. He needs his maid – the woman who cared enough to make him breathe in the rarified air of love and selflessness.” Reportedly, Neil wrote this with his then-wife, actress Carrie Snodgrass, in mind. The late Jack Nitzsche, who played piano with The Rolling Stones and wrote soundtracks for such movies as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, produced the track, which was a featured number on Young’s masterwork, Harvest. The London Symphony Orchestra of Days of Future Past fame provides an impeccable backdrop. And then, of course, there’s Neil’s piano accompaniment, which are the tears to the sadness that permeates the ballad. In every way, this is a gemstone. 

“Chains of Love,” Big Joe Turner, 1951. Another example of an early R&B classic that could also be called a rock-and-roll fossil was the great Big Joe Turner’s national hit with Atlantic Records. Written by the legendary Doc Pomus, who sold it to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun for $50, “Chains of Love” made it as high as #2 on the US Billboard R&B chart 71 years ago this November. A classic. 

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” The Police, 1981. Written by Sting in the mid-1970s, this was the first demo he performed for his future Police bandmates. Initially, it was an acoustic number, but “we punked and rocked our way to this version,” commented Sting years later. The Police didn’t record this version until their fourth LP, Ghosts in the Machine, at Sir George Martin’s Montserrat studio. By the way, Stewart Copeland’s percussion work here could serve as a masterclass in drumming. 

“Town Without Pity,” Gene Pitney, 1961. “The Rockville (CT) Rocket” enjoyed his first international hit sixty years ago this November when the title song to the 1961 movie of the same name was released. Eventually, “Town Without Pity” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song and led to Gene Pitney becoming the first pop singer to perform at the Oscars in 1962. Pitney, an accomplished songwriter, musician, and vocalist, remained a favorite of his peers for the rest of his life, which ended in 2006, when he died of a massive heart attack after performing in Cardiff, Wales. When he auditioned for a record contract in 1961, Al Kooper fondly recalled his appearance:  “…this guy walks in wearing a salt and pepper jacket, heavily greased-down DA hairdo, and white bucks. Three dressing schools tied together; very strange. The creature was quickly ushered in, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to mesmerize us for two uninterrupted hours with his incredible songs and bizarre voice.” In every way, Gene Pitney was an American original.

“When She Was My Girl,” The Four Tops, 1981. Their first release on Casablanca Records after spending nearly two decades with Motown, “When She Was My Girl,” went to #1 on the American R&B chart on November 7, 1981, while simultaneously making it to its highest position on the pop charts at #11. As usual, the release contained the vital Four Tops’ formula for excellence that had made the group legendary by this time. Levi Stubbs’ vocals are truly inspired, and the supporting members bolster a Stevie Wonderesque framework that came to define soul music in the late sixties and seventies. Their top 40 showing on “When She Was My Girl” made the quartet one of the few acts with top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive decades.

“Hello in There,” John Prine, 1971. This heartbreaking ballad could only have been written by someone who served, in this case, an American Master, the late John Prine, whose Jacques Brel-like homage to old people reminds us that the elderly that we see and ignore could once have been young and made sacrifices for future generations that have since forgotten them. This may not be completely associated with Veterans’ Day, but it has everything to do with being a veteran. It seems astonishing to me that this gem of a ballad was released 50 years ago this fall. 

“Come On,” Chuck Berry (with Martha Berry), 1961. One of the great Chuck Berry’s greatest singles, this original rocker, sung with his sister, Martha Berry, should have been the template for his sixties’ output. Indeed, the duet here with sister Martha sounds like Dee Dee Sharp’s work with Chubby Checker. If only he had written and recorded more songs like this with his sister instead of a one-trick pony his popularity would have sustained him during what turned out to be a tough decade for Mr. Berry. In the end, “Come On,” which was later covered by the Rolling Stones, is one kick-ass single.  

“We’re In This Love Together,” Al Jarreau, 1981. A veritable throwback – one reviewer commented that this soul ballad is the kind of single that Nat King Cole might have recorded had he lived another decade – veteran jazz vocalist Al Jarreau’s 1981 unexpected delight left listeners with proverbial smiles on their faces each time deejays played it. Initially crafted for Johnny Mathis, who decided not to record it when it was written, by songwriters Roger Murrah and Keith Stegall, Jarreau was more than happy to oblige. The soul-jazz ballad ended up as a staple on the US Adult Contemporary Top 40 for 24 weeks. “Like berries on the vine, it gets sweeter all the time.”  

“Have You Seen Her?” The Chi-lites, 1971. Composed by Eugene Record and Barbara Acklin, who also wrote they Chi-lites other monster hit, “Oh, Girl,” this faultless call-response soul classic was not originally supported by the group’s label, Brunswick, until a gaggle of R&B dee-jays in the Northeast began playing it on the air during the fall of 1971. By late November it entered the Billboard Top 10 and later went all the way to #3 that December.  The ballad was inspired by Issac Hayes’ 1970 Hot Buttered Soul LP. All these years later, this tune still melts the heart even as its soulful rhythm makes you tap to the beat.  

“Gemini Dreams,” The Moody Blues, 1981. After their exhausting seven-album-output in four-and-a-half-years from 1967-71, The Moodies slowly emerged in the late seventies and early eighties with a canny update of their core sound, inspired by former Yes keyboardist, Patrick Moraz, who joined the band after Mike Pinder left them in 1978. An original Justin Hayward and John Lodge tune, “Gemini Dream,” was a synth-powered top-ten hit forty years ago this November from their bestselling LP, Long Distance Voyager. This tune not only influenced Asia and Yes to redefine themselves, but it served as an influential template for groups such as Toto, who made a living in the 1980s with the same kind of ethereal, harmonic sound. 

“Crying,” Roy Orbison, 1961. In a flawless concert at the old Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge some forty years ago, the late, great Roy Orbison explained to the those of us fortunate enough to see him live in such an intimate setting that he wrote the epic ballad, “Crying,” as the result of an encounter he had with an old flame with whom he was still in love. “Fortunately,” Roy laughed, “I met my wife not long after, and she turned out to be much better in every way!” The follow-up to his classic ballad, “Running Scared,” this much-beloved lament would go all the way to #2 in the USA in the late fall of 1961.

“Centerfold,” The J. Geils Band, 1981. For those of us who frequented the local bars in Boston and its suburbs in the early 1970s, this single was NOT anywhere near the blue-tinged rock that J. Geils performed when the band was our little secret. Ironically, “Centerfold” mirrored the new wave sound that amplified another Boston band, The Cars. Composed by J. Geils’ keyboard player, Seth Justman, who teamed up with Peter Wolf on the majority of numbers on Freeze Frame, the LP that “Centerfold” was featured on when it was released by EMI. The single was by far the group’s most prodigious hit, dominating the Billboard Top 40 as the #1 song forty years ago this November and December. 

“Runaround Sue,” Dion, 1961. Sixty years ago today, December 3, 1961, Dion’s Magnus Opus, “Runaround Sue,” was the #1 song in North America. While the classic later appeared on Dion And The Belmonts Greatest Hits, it was actually a solo release after Dion went out on his own. A local New York City doo-wop group, The Del-Satins, backed him up on the single recorded at the Bell Recording Studios in Manhattan on September 7, 1961. A half-century later, Dion was asked how this doo-wop, rocking masterwork came to be: “It came about by partying in a schoolyard. We were jamming, hitting the tops of boxes. I gave everyone parts like the horn parts we’d hear in the Apollo Theater, and it became a jam that we kept up for 45 minutes. I came up with all kinds of stuff. But when I wrote the song and brought it into the studio to record it, well, her name wasn’t actually Sue. It was about, you know, some girl who loved to be worshiped but as soon as you want a commitment and express your love for her, she’s gone. So the song was a reaction to that kind of woman.” How incredible that Dion, now 82 years old, just released a superb new album entitled Stomping Ground, featuring artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Boz Scaggs, Joe Bonamassa, Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, and Rickie Lee Jones. Rock on, Dion! 

“Moonglow,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, 1941. My mother once astutely declared that she and her generation the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked – 80 years ago this morning. It’s almost providential, then, that this iconic swing masterpiece was the number 1 song in the US the day we declared war. New Haven, Connecticut’s Artie Shaw proved to be one of the more underrated big band leaders, a pioneer in Third Stream Music, a heady combination of classical and jazz motifs that lies at the heart of this brilliant number one single. How cool that my parents danced to this at the old Totem Pole at Norumbega Park in Newtonville, Massachusetts when Artie Shaw and his band played there not long after they got married in April 1942., Nearly everyone who remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor is now gone. As fellow New Englander Emily Dickinson once wrote, “That it will never come again/Makes life so sweet.”

“Theme From Shaft,” Issac Hayes, 1971. Fifty years ago this December, you could walk down the streets of your city or hometown and hear this pulsating instrumental ricocheting from house to house and store to store, a musical boomerang with panache. The legendary theme song from the film, Shaft, the song was the work of the indomitable Issac Hayes. A longtime supporting musician and songwriter for Stax Records who wrote such Sam and Dave classics as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming,” Hayes recollected how such an infectious instrumental came to be in an NPR interview in 2001. “The character, Shaft, was explained to me: a relentless character always on the prowl, always on the move. I had to create something to denote that. Otis Redding’s ‘Try A Little Tenderness,’ – I had a hand in arranging that. At the end of that session, Al Jackson was doing some stuff on a hi-hat, and I thought if I sustained that kind of thing on a hi-hat, it would give a relentless, dramatic effect, and it worked. I never forgot it and put it as the driving force behind ‘Shaft’ a few years later.” As a result of the entire score of the movie, Issac Hayes became the first African-American in Academy history to win an Oscar for both Best Song and Best Musical Score. 

“I’m A Fool to Want You,” Frank Sinatra, 1951. On his 106th birthday, December 12, there is no Sinatra ballad more devastating than this one, which was so raw and authentic that even the Columbia Records musicians in the studio looked away as The Voice recorded it. Sinatra recorded the song with the Ray Charles Singers on March 27, 1951, in an arrangement crafted by his Columbia producer, Axel Stordahl, in Gay Talese wrote in a legendary Esquire Magazine article years late: “He did the song in one take, then turned around and walked out of the studio and that was that….'” Nelson Riddle added: “It was Ava Gardner who taught Frank how to sing a torch song. That’s how he learned. She was the greatest love of his life – and he lost her.” That is what “I’m A Fool To Want You” is all about.  

“Our Lips Are Sealed,” The Go-Gos, 1981. Go-Go guitarist  Jane Wiedlin wrote this rollicking anthem with musician Terry Hall, who was lead singer of The Specials when the British band visited Los Angeles and shared the stage with The Go-Gos at The Whiskey on Sunset Strip during the fall of 1980. They ended up having a fling, and when The Specials flew back to the UK, Hall sent Wiedlin the lyrics. She ultimately added the music. In the end, “Our Lips Our Sealed” became The Go-Go’s first major hit, which was cemented by constant play on MTV throughout the winter of 1981-82.

“Please Mr. Postman,” The Marvelettes, 1961. This is one of those rare times when the original and a cover version of the song could both be classified as classics. As the Christmas season of 1961 was in high gear, The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” became the first Motown song to reach #1 on the US Billboard Pop Chart 60 years ago this week. Songwriter William Garrett claimed that the single was a riff from Elvis Presley’s hit, “Return To Sender,” but he originally wrote it as a blues number. Eddie Holland speeded it up, and the Marvelettes did the rest, making it their first and only number-one song.

A year-and-a-half later, The Beatles recorded their famous cover version at Abbey Road Studio Number 2 on July 30, 1963, for their second Parlophone LP, With The Beatles. It would later be featured in the US on the Capital release, The Beatles Second Album. George Harrison felt it was one of John Lennon’s ten greatest vocals. 

“Family Affair,” Sly and the Family Stone, 1971.  There were so many rock and soul hits to choose from in 1971 that we took songs such as “Family Affair” for granted. Infectious, meaningful, and animated, the single was Sly Stone’s ninth single and third to make it to number one on the US Billboard Top 40 in December 1971. While a drum machine provided the tune’s percussion, it is rumored that Sly played all of the other instruments on the song himself. Given the intensity of the lyrics, the ironically-named “Family Affair” was a precursor for the difficulties he would face throughout the rest of the 1970s as drug addiction and mental illness. In 1971, no pop artist was hotter than Mr. Stone. Five years later, he was a musical footnote. Still, for a time, he and his band took us higher and wider and deeper than any band of that era. 

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1961. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1961. An African hunting song originally sung in Zulu and first recorded by South African singer Solomon Linda in 1939, Pete Seeger and The Weavers eventually recorded it with English words in 1952. Seeking a new record label in 1961 after their initial success with “Tonight I Fell In Love” the year previously, The Tokens rewrote the folk ballad, giving it the title, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” To the group, it was merely an audition tape for a record company – not a worldwide smash as it proved to be in December 1961. Credit Boston’s legendary deejay, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg for playing it relentlessly to the point that it became a Top 10 single in New England that fall. From there, it literally took off.

“Christmastime,” The Smashing Pumpkins. 1997. One of the most touching Christmas ballads produced in the last 30 years, the reverence behind the words and the message are what help to make this an instant Christmas classic. Who knew that the Smashing Pumpkins could pull this off? 

“Peace Train,” Cat Stevens, 1971. “Peace Train,” Cat Stevens, 1971. As 2021 fades into the twilight of history, here’s hoping that 2022 signals a new direction for us all. We need to all ride the peace train that Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam envisioned when this single from Teaser And the Firecat entered the US Top 10 fifty years ago this New Year’s Day. “Cause I’m on the edge of darkness/There rides the Peace Train/Oh, Peace Train take this country – Come take me home again.”

“Hold On Tight,” The Electric Light Orchestra, 1981. 



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