The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 670 to 661
670. “Prisoner of Love,” James Brown. Songwriters: Russ Columbo, Clarence Gaskill, Leo Robin; #18 pop/#6 R&B; 1963. “Prisoner of Love” was a 1930’s pop song that had been recorded by a series of decidedly unfunky performers to include Russ Columbo, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby. It was brought into the world of black pop music by The Platters in 1959 and Etta James in 1962. James Brown recorded his version with a ten-piece orchestra and a nine-member choir, showing that the scope of his musical vision went well beyond dance music. It has been suggested that Brown took the classic pop with strings approach due to the success that Ray Charles had in 1962 with his orchestrated version of country music. Robert Christgau, “His catalogue conceals a ballad album that could scare the shades off Ray Charles.” Iman Lababedi, “The rule of thumb is that Brown never met his white audience half way, we had to go to him. Here is an exception.”
669. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” Bruce Springsteen. Songwriter: Bruce Springsteen Did Not Chart; 1973. Bruce Springsteen released his first two albums in 1973 (“Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” and “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle”). His earliest work sounds like a man trying to discipline his enormous talents. There is a weight in Springsteen’s work that can sometimes feel like a burden, but when he hits his target the impact is immeasurable. “Rosalita” has a touch of Van Morrison’s early 1970’s R&B mysticism, but what makes this song is the updated Romeo/Juliet disapproved love riff updated with not just the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, but the commercial realities as well. “Rosalita” celebrates one dream coming true, the big advance from a record company, which gives hope to another dream – romantic fulfillment.
668. “Fade Into You,” Mazzy Star. Songwriters: Hope Sandoval; David Roback; #44 pop; 1993. The dream pop/alt rock band Mazzy Star formed in Santa Monica in 1989, evolving from the Paisley Underground act Opal. After releasing an indie album in 1990, Mazzy Star signed with Capitol Records and went platinum on their 1993 “So Tonight That I Might See” album. The sensual, yet woozy, darkness of “Fade Into You” created one of the defining sounds of the 1990s, a kind of blissed out heroin rock. Rock critic Philip Sherburne, “’Fade Into You’ was an unlikely hit – a slow, barroom waltz with a pedal-steel solo. Everything about the song, from Hope Sandoval’s smoky country voice to the slide guitar and honky-tonk piano, gave it a lush, reassuring weight.” Journalist James Weir, “The alternative piece of dream pop became a teenage soundtrack, with its repetitive words of heartache and longing on top of lingering slide guitar and piano. But the band’s guitarist and producer David Roback said they never planned on writing a song that would help define a generation.” Roback, “It was never intended to be a nostalgic song. Unless you were meant to think about nostalgia for the present because it really was about the present.”
667. “Blueberry Hill,” Fats Domino. Songwriters: Vincent Rose, Al Lewis, Larry Stock; #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. “Blueberry Hill,” now so firmly recognized as Fats Domino’s signature song, was a big band number from the 1940s. The Glenn Miller Orchestra took the song to #2 on the pop charts in 1940 with Ray Eberle providing antiseptic vocals. Louis Armstrong recorded “Blueberry Hill” as a gentle ballad in 1949, while Fats completely restructured the arrangement in his distinctive New Orleans style. Stewart Mason of the AllMusic website, “Domino delivers the (actually kind of square) lyrics with his trademark twinkle and inimitable phrasing. The man is a master of suggesting volumes with nothing more than a sly pause in the middle of a line, giving this version of ‘Blueberry Hill’ the undeniable frisson that earlier versions almost entirely lacked: there’s no question what kind of thrill Domino and his sweetie enjoyed.” Carl Perkins, “In the white honky-tonks where I was playin’, they were punchin’ ‘Blueberry Hill.’ And white cats were dancin’ to Fats Domino.” Author Rick Coleman, “His version of ‘Blueberry Hill’ made #23 on the Billboard Country & Western top 50 Best Sellers for 1956, even though — likely to avoid incensing racists — it never appeared on any other country chart, making Fats the only black artist to make the c&w charts during the early civil rights era and foreshadowing the country crossover of Ray Charles by six years.”
666. “Back Stabbers,” The O’Jays. Songwriters: Leon Huff, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead; #3 pop/#1 R&B; 1972. The O’Jays were a Canton, Ohio based R&B vocal group that started recording in 1960. While they had a few R&B hits, The O’Jays had not had any sustained success with they signed with Philadelphia International Records in 1972. The O’Jays were originally not fans of “Back Stabbers” or the vocal arrangement provide by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Still, the lush instrumentation by MFSB and the lyrical warning of romantic infidelity (“What they do!?”) gave the vocal trio their first major hit. (MFSB was a pool of over thirty Philly studio musicians and, depending upon who you believe, the acronym stood for either “Mother Father Sister Brother” or two common obscene phrases placed in succession). Leon Huff, “Our dream was to play so many counter-melodies that came with those songs, and the orchestra was able to put that together. Plus, stereo radio had just come around, and you had a lot of space to fill up. Stereo was much more soothing than mono, so we thought about the mixes we could do. The music was funky and classical at the same time.” Songwriters Gene McFadden and John Whitehead would later become the recording duo that gave the world the African-American anthem of hope “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” in 1979.
665. “La Bamba,” Ritchie Valens. Songwriter: Traditional, adapted by Ritchie Valens; #22 pop; 1958. Richard Valenzuela was a Chicano rocker from the San Fernando Valley who quit school to pursue music stardom and was only 17 when he died in the same plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson, Jr.). He had his first charting single with 1958’s “Come On, Let’s Go” which the Ramones covered in 1979, then had his biggest success with the double sided single “Donna” and “La Bamba.” “La Bamba” is a traditional Mexican folk song, which may have actually originated in Angola, that Valens heard as a child and took to pop radio. Carol Kaye, who became one of the top studio musicians in Los Angeles during the 1960s, played rhythm guitar. “La Bamba” made Valens the father of “Chicano Rock” and Los Lobos, a band from east Los Angeles that drew inspiration from Valens, took the song to #1 on the pop charts in 1987. “La Bamba” film director Luis Valdez, “If there is one song that represents the Americas, it is this one song. Ritchie took it to a whole new level and to a whole new audience: They were teenagers. They weren’t hearing Mexican folk music. They were hearing rock ‘n’ roll.”
664. “He’s A Whore,” Cheap Trick. Songwriter: Rick Nielsen; Did Not Chart; 1977. Cheap Trick’s 1977 debut album (simply titled “Cheap Trick”) was full of punk rock energy bouncing off of well-honed Beatles melodicism. The subject matter included a suicide, a serial killer, youth violence, and pedophilia. In an era when Debby Boone was ruling the charts with “You Light Up My Life,” Cheap Trick came out of the gate commercially way out of step with the mainstream. On “He’s a Whore,” Rick Nielsen dished out a fast hard rock/metal riff (the Ramones would later replicate that riff for “The KKK Took My Baby Away”), while Robin Zander performed gigolo duty with a girl who was so unattractive that her face could stop a clock. (Insert “I once dated a girl with a face that could stop Switzerland” joke here).
663. “Self Esteem,” The Offspring. Songwriter: Dexter Holland; Did Not Chart; 1994. The Southern Cal punk band The Offspring, fronted by future molecular biologist PhD Dexter Holland, often brought a comedic edge to their aggressive guitar music. “Self Esteem” dumps typical macho male rock posturing into a garbage bin as the narrator can’t break free from an emotionally abusive girlfriend, making her dessert instead of making her go away. Dexter Holland, “The thing where late at night she knocks on my door was real, and practicing all the things you would say was a funny thing that had happened before.” Chuck Eddy, “After its “Iron Man”-“Pictures of Matchstick Men”- “Beavis and Butthead” opening chant, ‘Self Esteem’ is said to sound a lot like Nirvana. If it was a Nirvana song it’d be the second-best one I ever heard; the Offspring have a better sense of humor than Nirvana, and their words make more sense. Holland, who likes Nirvana fine, nonetheless agrees with me about Kurt Cobain’s lyrics: ‘Everybody kept calling him the voice of his generation. but really, I could never figure out what his songs were about.’”
662. “Georgia on My Mind,” Ray Charles. Songwriters: Hoagy Carmichael, Stuart Gorrell; #1 pop/#3 R&B; 1960. Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Georgia on My Mind” with his college friend Stuart Gorrell in 1930 (Gorrell later became a banker and never had another songwriting credit) and the song was a Top Twenty pop hit for Native American jazz singer Mildred Bailey in 1932. Ray Charles recorded the song, some say at the suggestion of his driver, for “The Genius Hits the Road,” a 1960 theme album about U.S. cities and states. Author Tom Breihan, “His voice is a craggy croak, tired and broken. But it’s beautiful, too. There’s sweetness and devotion in it, and he’s clearly singing about something that fills him with bliss. He’s not a showy singer, exactly, but it’s clear from the song that he’s not bound by the weariness of that voice. Late in the song, he hits a couple of dazzling falsetto notes, and stretches his syllables out, and power just crackles out of him. Charles rarely got explicitly political, but there are forces at work in this song. Charles came from Georgia, but ‘Georgia on My Mind’ isn’t a simple love letter to home. It’s complicated. The Civil Rights struggle was in full swing in 1960, and Charles’ home state was where much of that struggle was happening. If I hear a conflicted bittersweetness in Charles’ voice, in the way he lets himself sound broken-down and exhausted, I don’t think I’m imagining things.”
661. “Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon. Songwriters: Warren Zevon, LeRoy Marinell, Waddy Wachtel; #21 pop; 1979. In 1975, Phil Everly jokingly suggested to Warren Zevon that he should write a song with the title of “Werewolves of London,” based upon a 1935 film with the same name. Recording the song was an interesting challenge – after working with several different bands, similar to the way Steely Dan recorded, Zeon and guitarist Waddy Wachtel felt the sound was “too cute.” Ultimately, the rhythm section of Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, provided the more authoritative sound that Zevon wanted. Jackson Browne on the theme of the song, “It’s about a really well-dressed ladies’ man, a werewolf preying on little old ways. The idea behind all those references is the idea of the ne’er-do-well who devotes his life to pleasure: the debauched Victorian gentleman in gambling clubs, consorting with prostitutes, the aristocrat who squanders the family fortune. All of that is secreted in that one line: ‘I’d like to meet his tailor.’” Zevon made intelligent, challenging, and acerbic music for decades, but this was his only Top Forty hit as a performer. Aaoooooo!