1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1960s – 160 to 151
Get your motor runnin’, head out on the highway.
160. “Travelin’ Man,” Ricky Nelson. Songwriter: Jerry Fuller; #1 pop; 1961. Ricky Nelson’s bassist (and future Wrecking Crew member) Joe Osborn, “I had been in Ricky’s band for a couple of weeks. Out on the lot where they did the ‘Ozzie and Harriet Show’ there was this room full of demos, all reel-to-reel tapes. He appointed me to mail all of those back to the writers before we got sued. I don’t think I ever sent one back. I started listening to all the demos and ran across ‘Travelin’ Man.’ I took it to Ricky and said ‘Your pop wanted all this stuff sent back, but I think you oughta take a listen to this one.’” (For his part, songwriter Jerry Fuller has said he pitched the song to Sam Cooke’s business partner J.W. Alexander, who immediately tossed the demo in the trash. In this version, Joe Osborn was magically in a next door office, overheard the song, and requested the demo from Alexander). The girl-in-every-port number “Travelin’ Man” was Nelson’s second and last #1 pop hit, with his first being 1958’s “Poor Little Fool.” Nelson was also backed during this timeframe by James Burton, one of the most respected guitarists in rock music history. Rolling Stone magazine, “With Nelson, Burton created his distinct technique: He used a fingerpick and a flatpick, and replaced the four highest strings on his Telecaster with banjo strings, so that his guitar snapped, popped and stuttered.” Keith Richards, “I never bought a Ricky Nelson record. I bought a James Burton record.”
159. “I Say a Little Prayer,” Aretha Franklin. Songwriters: Burt Bacharach, Hal David; #10 pop/#3 R&B; 1968. Hal David reportedly wrote “I Say a Little Prayer” from the perspective of a woman concerned about her lover in Vietnam, however there’s nothing in the lyrics to validate that claim. “Prayer” was an intended b-side that became one of Dionne Warwick’s biggest solo hits, peaking at #4 on the pop charts in 1967 (despite Burt Bacharach’s concerns that the tempo was too fast). While rehearsing songs for Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “Aretha Now” album, The Sweet Inspirations performed an impromptu version of “Prayer,” leading to Aretha’s more gospel influenced recording. History repeated in that Aretha’s cover was intended as a b-side that again resulted in a Top Ten pop hit. Bacharach, perhaps being a bit too modest, has described Aretha’s take as “much better than the cut I did with Dionne.” Bacharach, “(Aretha) imbued the song with heavy soul and took it to a much deeper place. Hers is the definitive version.”
158. “Gentle On My Mind,” Glen Campbell. Songwriter: John Hartford; #39 pop/#30 country; 1967. Songwriter John Hartford grew up in St. Louis and was equally obsessed with music and the Mississippi River (later in life, he spent his summers working as a steamboat pilot). Influenced by Earl Scruggs fingerpicking banjo style, Hartford became a gifted instrumentalist and moved to Nashville in the mid-1960s. He wrote and released the original version of “Gentle on My Mind,” a tale about love unshackled by commitment, and his version went to #60 on the country charts in 1967. Campbell’s version was a minor hit (in both 1967 and 1968), but became well known as the theme to “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” television program. Campbell, “(‘Gentle on My Mind’) changed everything. We did ‘The Summer Brothers Smothers Show’; that just exploded everything. EMI had every press in town, every guy that could press records doing Glen Campbell records. TV is just an incredible media.” Four time Grammy Award winner Hartford would later say that the financial rewards from “Gentle on My Mind” “bought his freedom,” a fitting legacy given the song’s theme of independence.
157. “Let Me Down Easy,” Bettye LaVette. Songwriter: Wrecia Holloway (Dee Dee Ford); #20 R&B; 1965. Bettye LaVette’s life has not been boring. From her 2012 autobiography, “A vicious pimp was precariously holding on to my right foot as he dangled me from the top of a twenty-story apartment building at Amsterdam and Seventy-eighth Street. It is as true as it is ironic that some months earlier this same man had met me at Small’s Paradise in Harlem, where I was singing my semi-hit ‘Let Me Down Easy.’” Author Vladimir Bogdanov, “’Let Me Down Easy,’ a staple of the Northern soul scene and the countless anthologies it’s yielded, is her masterpiece, a blisteringly poignant requiem for romance gone distinguished by its tango-like rhythm and sweeping string arrangement.” LaVette’s plea for empathy was sometimes too effective. LaVette, “I’d been told that James Brown didn’t want me to close my set with ‘Let Me Down Easy,’ because I was getting too much applause.”
156. “Matty Groves,” Fairport Convention. Songwriter: Traditional, arranged by Fairport Convention; Did No Chart; 1969. Sandy Denny’s voice has been described as “nightingale-like,” “centuries old,” “powerful,” “perfect,” and as having “matchless purity.” A classically trained pianist, her grandmother was a Scottish ballad singer and she learned about blues music from her father’s Jelly Roll Morton’s records. Perhaps her knowledge of music history shaped her ability to sing a traditional murder ballad like “Matty Groves,” which dates back to the 17th century, and make it sound like a contemporary performance instead of a period piece. The tight, tense medieval folk rock arrangement provided a sense of epic drama and gave the cautionary tale of infidelity a timeless feel. Richard Thompson, “Sandy had a way of really living a song and I think she was able to do it because she had a very acute imagination. You could almost describe Sandy as someone who didn’t have any skin. She was so hypersensitive to every little thing in the world, it was as if she lived more vividly than the rest of us. I think that ability to get right inside a song, inside the persona of a song, was really quite extraordinary.”
155. “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” William Bell. Songwriter: William Bell; #95 pop; 1961. Memphis native William Bell (nee William Yarbrough) served as a backing musician for Rufus Thomas in the late 1950s and was signed to Stax Records in 1961. Bell never crossed over to any significant U.S. pop success during the 1960s, however, his 1968 single “Private Number,” a duet with Judy Clay, was a #8 U.K. hit. Bell was backed by The Mar-keys on the gospel influenced cheating number “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a song brought into the world of country rock by The Byrds on their “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album. Bell on his inspiration on this tale of heartbreak, “I was on a tour in New York with Old Man Phineas’s band (a reference to Memphis jazzman Phineas Newborn, Sr.). I was lonely in the hotel room one night, and it was pouring down rain and everything, so I wrote this particular song. I was like an old soul, even as a kid.” Author Robert Gordon, “’You Don’t Miss Your Water’ was a country music ballad baptized in a black church feel.”
154. “Summer in the City,” The Lovin’ Spoonful. Songwriters: John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian, and Steve Boone; #1 pop; 1966. “Summer in the City” was inspired by, depending on what source you believe, a poem or a bossa nova song that John Sebastian’s brother Mark wrote at the age of 15. John Sebastian’s grand description of this #1 pop hit, “That song that came from an idea my brother Mike had. He had this great chorus, and the release was so big. I had to create some kind of tension at the front end to make it even bigger. That’s where that jagged piano part comes from. I tried to write this angular thing in a minor key that then opens up like a Jewish folk song by going to the subdominant chord in a major way. Like ‘Exodus.’ And ‘Evening of Roses’ – from which it was stolen. The idea was to start with something that has that minor mode and then move into the major for the chorus. In the process of recording it Seven Boone, the bassist for the Spoonful, had a fragment that he played constantly in rehearsals. I thought this could be the bridge and it was also in a different time signature, so it did a thing that was almost classical in really taking you from one mood to another. Between that and just a nice accident, then it started to sound like Gershwin, like ‘American in Paris’ to me. And in that he was imitating traffic. So let’s imitate traffic. We hired this old radio sound man who came in and helped us find traffic and particular car horns. Then we ended it up with that pneumatic hammer.”
153. “Born To Be Wild,” Steppenwolf. Songwriter: Mars Bonfire; #2 pop; 1968. “Born to Be Wild,” the song that equated hard rock with freedom and became synonymous with biker culture, was written by Mars Bonfire (Dennis McCrohan), the brother of Jerry Edmonton (Jerry McCrohan), who was Steppenwolf’s drummer. Mars, “I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard one day and saw a poster in a window saying ‘Born to Ride’ with a picture of a motorcycle erupting out of the earth like a volcano with all this fire around it. Around this time I had just purchased my first car, a little secondhand Ford Falcon. So all this came together lyrically: the idea of the motorcycle coming out along with the freedom and joy I felt in having my first car and being able to drive myself around whenever I wanted. ‘Born To Be Wild’ didn’t stand out initially. Even the publishers at Leeds Music didn’t take it as the first or second song I gave them. They got it only because I signed as a staff writer. Luckily, it stood out for Steppenwolf. It’s like a fluke rather than an achievement, though.” Steppenwolf lead singer John Kay, “Every generation thinks they’re born to be wild and they can identify with that song as their anthem.” Three years after the song came out, Creem rock critic (and future Angry Samoan) Mike Saunders became the first writer to use the phrase “heavy metal” (a term previously used in this song and by author William Burroughs) to describe a genre of rock music.
152. “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” The Stooges. Songwriters: Dave Alexander, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, Iggy Pop; Did Not Chart; 1969. The Stooges formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1967, delivering a primitive and confrontational sound for souls brave enough to withstand their onslaught. Lester Bangs, “The Stooges were the first young American group to acknowledge the influence of the Velvet Underground. The insistent, monotonous piano note piercing like weird sleighbells through ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ is very reminiscent of the piano solo on the Velvets’ ‘I’m Waiting For the Man.’ The Stooges’ music…comes out of a primal illiterate chaos gradually taking shape as a uniquely personal style, emerges from a tradition of American music that runs from the primordial wooly rags of backwoods bands up to the magic promise eternally made and occasionally fulfilled by rock: that a band can start out bone-primitive, untutored and uncertain, and evolve into a powerful and eloquent ensemble.” Iggy, explaining his canine inspiration, “Have you ever seen like a really good looking girl, really nicely dressed, and she’s walking down the street with her dog, right? And like her dog is… intimate with her body, and she likes him and everything. Basically, it’s the idea of I want to unite with your body. I don’t wanna talk about literature with you or judge you as a person. I wanna dog you.”
151. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” The Beatles. Songwriter: George Harrison; Did Not Chart; 1968. George Harrison, “I worked on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ with John, Paul, and Ringo and they were not interested in it at all. I knew inside of me that it was a nice song. The next day, I was with Eric Clapton, and I said, ‘We’re going to do this song. Come on and play on it.’ He said, ‘On, no. I can’t do that. Nobody ever plays on Beatles records.’ I said, ‘Look it’s my song, and I want you to play on it.’ So Eric came in, and the other guys were as good as gold – because he was there. Also, it left me free to just play the rhythm and do the vocal. So Eric played that, and I thought it was really good. Then we listened to it, and he said, ‘Ah, there’s a problem, though – it’s not Beatle-y enough.’ So we put it through the ADT (automatic double-tracking) machine, to wobble it a bit.” John Lennon must have been impressed. When George Harrison quit the band for a few weeks in early 1969, Lennon immediately proposed Clapton as his replacement.