The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 820 to 811
820. “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns. Songwriter: Huey “Piano” Smith; #52 pop/#5 R&B; 1957. Huey “Piano” Smith wasn’t the first musician to popularize ailments during the 1950s (the b-side to “Rockin’ Pnemonia” was titled “High Blood Pressure”). Smith, in 2014, “We don’t want to forget that Little Willie John had ‘Fever’ all over the United States. That was one before mine’s, so it opened the door to whatever I wanted to come up with.” Still, nobody made maladies sound so cheerful. Robert Christgau, “’Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu’ has already created a disturbance in your mind–as an impossible yet inevitable piece of language, and as the sloppiest and most, there’s no other word, infectious of the New Orleans piano novelties.” “Rockin’ Pneumonia” wasn’t a major hit in the U.S. until Johnny Rivers’ 1973 tame, L.A. cover. Comparatively, it doesn’t even sound like Rivers has the sniffles. Huey “Piano” Smith made many contributions to 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll, including his Top Ten single “Don’t You Just Know It,” writing Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” and being a session musician on the Smiley Lewis hit “I Hear You Knocking.”
819. “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Billie Holiday. Songwriters: Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal; Did Not Chart; 1944. “I’ll Be Seeing You” was penned for the 1938 musical “Right This Way,” but became a major pop hit, with its theme of separated lovers, during WWII, with hit versions by Bing Crosby and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra in 1944, along with respected versions by pop singers Jo Stafford and Billie Holiday. Author John Szwed, “Compare Stafford’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” with Holiday’s version of the song: Stafford’s is a perfect vocal performance, calm, reassuring, a prime example of what critic Will Friedwald calls Anglo-Saxon soul, but Holiday’s pulls the heart and ears in an unimaginably different direction, singing down, slower than expected, turning the song into what one might regard as a classic of chronic nostalgia. Her tempos are so measured that it almost seems as if she is treating each word as a separate phrase.” NASA used Billie Holiday’s version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” in 2018 in a failed attempt to revive operational use of the Mars rover robot named “Opportunity.”
818. “The Sky is Crying,” Elmore James. Songwriter: Elmore James; #15 R&B; 1960. Mississippi bluesman Elmore James, the man who perfected the lacerating slide guitar sound, starting performing in juke joints near Canton, Mississippi and formed his own band in the late 1930s. He had a Top Ten R&B hit in 1951 with “Dust My Broom,” credited to James as a songwriter although it was a cover of a Robert Johnson composition. In the early 1960’s, he recorded the modern blues standards “Shake Your Money Maker” and “The Sky is Crying.” Elmore James pairs his ringing slide guitar work with a towering tale of heartbreak on “The Sky is Crying” – he watches the tears roll down the street while trying to cope with the reality of unrequited love. Author Jas Obrecht, “Using a radio tube cover as a slide, James played his amplified Kay acoustic with unstoppable body rhythm, and his ferocious, anguished vocals were as fearless as his solos.” Ry Cooder, “He’s the guy. Elmore is so in the middle of the music all the time, just covering the whole thing like a great horn player.” Robbie Robertson, “I practiced 12 hours a day, every day, until my fingers were bleeding, trying to get the same sound as Elmore James.” “The Sky is Crying” has been covered by Albert King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Hound Dog Taylor, among others.
817. “Things We Said Today,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; Did Not Chart; 1964. Paul McCartney, “It was a slightly nostalgic thing already, a future nostalgia. We’ll remember the things we said today sometime in the future, so the song projects itself into the future and then is nostalgic about the moment we’re living in now, which is quite a good trick.” Paul McCartney wasn’t only writing silly love songs in 1964, but also projecting about how an extended absence from his lover would impact their relationship. While the lyrics paint a positive scenario, the minor key melody suggests potential difficulties. The song was inspired by his relationship with Jane Asher, which ended in 1968. McCartney commented at that time, “We see each other, and we love each other, but it hasn’t worked out. Perhaps we’ll be childhood sweethearts and meet and get married when we’re about 70.” Of course, that didn’t happen, despite Asher’s um… leg up on the competition. John Lennon summarized his thoughts on “Things We Said Today” in three words: “Paul’s. Good song.”
816. “Mendocino,” The Sir Douglas Quintet. Songwriter: Doug Sahm; #27 pop; 1968. There are a few different theories on what inspired “Mendocino,” the second biggest pop hit for The Sir Douglas Quintet. One theory is that Doug Sahm wrote the lyrics after leeringly eyeing teenage girls walking down Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, California. Another possibility, and one that fits the lyrics better, is that Sahm was given a weekend room in Mendocino, California and took a young female record label employee on the trip for entertainment. Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets, “The first time I heard Doug Sahm, our friend put on the ‘Mendocino’ album. From note one, the sound of that record was cooler than anything that I’d been listening to. I wasn’t even wise enough to formulate the reasons why I loved it. I didn’t realize that it was country and blues and Mexican music and psychedelic rock. I didn’t separate it like that yet. I was still digging Aerosmith.”
815. “Turn on Your Love Light,” Bobby Bland. Turn on Your Love Light. Songwriters: Joseph Scott, Deadric Malone (Don Robey); #28 pop/#2 R&B; 1961. Bobby Bland is singing straight from the pulpit on “Turn on Your Love Light.” On this rare crossover pop hit, the music alternates between blaring horn interludes and verses where most of the band, except for the drummer, steps aside to give Bland center stage. While lyrically it’s a typical broken relationship blues number, Bland sings like someone who has just discovered salvation. “Love Light” was often covered in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most generally recognized in rock music as a Grateful Dead concert staple. Meanwhile, you may notice Don Robey again on the song credits, a gentleman known for his questionable business ethics. Singer Roy Head, noting he received a new Cadillac each year from Robey, commented in 2011, “Songwriters in particular had grievances with him. Singers loved him. Writers were the ones who got screwed. He was bad about that. Most of those songs were written by other people. Don would give them 25 or 50 bucks and they’d let him have their songs.”
814. “Le Freak,” Chic. Songwriters: Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1978. After being refused entry into Studio 54, Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers responded to that slight by chanting a common obscene phrase. They transformed “Fuck Off’ to “Freak Out” when their retort was worked into “Le Freak.” Nile Rodgers on some surprising musical inspiration, “Bernard and I were particularly good at making up riffs and jamming together. We were really into jamming and we’d often start writing songs that way, sometimes drawing on ideas that were floating around. In this case, however, the riff was super, super simple, so it didn’t have to be pre-planned. It’s not like I’d been saving it. It was just something that happened. I had always like the (Cream) song ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ and I wanted to do a sort of riff song for Chic, although not a complete linear riff – that wouldn’t be Chic – so I incorporated a little linear lick and we started singing.”
813. “Mack the Knife,” Louis Armstrong. Songwriters: Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht; #20 pop; 1956. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote “Mack the Knife” for “The Threepenny Opera,” which debuted in Berlin in 1928 and was a #1 single for Bobby Darin with a slam bam Vegas arrangement in 1959. Ahmet Ertegun, “Louis Armstrong had made a record of ‘Mack the Knife,’ and that was really the inspiration for Bobby (Darin’s) record. Every singer in the world owes Louis Armstrong because he taught everybody to sing with swing.” Armstrong was pitched “Mack the Knife” after “The Threepenny Opera” had an off-Broadway run in 1954 by producer George Avakian. Avakian later recalled, “We played the acetate for Louis and showed him the arrangement and Louie’s reaction was marvelous. He broke into a big smile as he listened to the lyrics and he said, ‘Hey, I’ll record that. I knew cats like that in New Orleans. They’d stick a knife in you as fast as say hello.’” Armstrong recorded for approximately forty years before having his biggest single – 1964’s “Hello Dolly” topped the pop charts in 1964, sandwiched between The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” and Mary Wells’ “My Guy.”
812. “Why Can’t We Be Friends?,” War. Songwriters: Papa Dee Allen, Harold Ray Brown, B. B. Dickerson, Lonnie Jordan, Charles Miller, Lee Oskar, Howard E. Scott; #6 pop/#9 R&B; 1975. The southern California soul band War first found fame backing former Animal Eric Burdon on their 1970 collaboration “Spill the Wine,” a #3 pop hit, and went on to release seven gold albums during that decade. Inspired by reactions of racism when the band toured overseas, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?,” is a call for brotherhood structured more like a block party than a sermon. The intro sounds like its performed on a toy piano and the entire song has a loose, festive tone with background whoops, the entire group jumping in on the chorus, and the verses constructed like an open mike night. Drummer Harold Brown, “We Are Righteous, that’s what War stood for. It was trying to bring everybody together through music.”
811. “Radio Radio,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Songwriter: Elvis Costello; Did Not Chart; 1978. Weird as it seems now, Elvis Costello was associated with the punk rock music in 1978 and while the genre was receiving attention from critics and journalists, U.S. commercial radio avoided the aggressive new sounds like it was an unsanitary safety pin through a virgin cheek. On “Radio Radio,” Costello railed against the system, while fantasizing about biting the hand that fed him. During a late 1977 appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” Costello cut short a performance of “Less Than Zero” and played “Radio Radio” instead. That decision cemented his bad boy image, while causing him to be banned from appearing on the program for over a decade.