The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1950s: 140 – 131
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters.
140. “Charlie Brown,” The Coasters. Songwriters: Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller; #2 pop/#2 R&B; 1959. Jerry Leiber was having difficulty writing a follow up hit to “Yakety Yak,” until he came across the lyrical hook, “He’s a clown, that Charlie Brown.” The title character, who instigates all kinds of high school mischief, then claims he’s a victim when the hammer falls, was not inspired by the famed Charles M. Schultz “Peanuts” cartoon. Leiber remembering vocalist Cornell Gunter, “Another cut up and boisterous clown, Cornell became the protector of the group. He had an eighteen-inch neck and was strong as an ox. Once when an assailant went after one of his brother Coasters, Cornell grabbed the guy and threw him over a pickup truck. Yet, you wouldn’t exactly call Cornell macho. The minute he opened his mouth, you knew he was gay. He had queenly elocution and, in fact, did a dead-on imitation of the Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington.”
139. “I Put a Spell on You,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Songwriters: Jay Hawkins, Herb Slotkin; Did Not Chart; 1956. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was a pioneer in combining comedic macabre theatre with rock ‘n’ roll – one can chart a relatively straight line between Hawkins performing in a coffin and Alice Cooper’s guillotine shtick. “I Put a Spell on You,” Hawkins’ signature song, never touched a Billboard chart, but became a classic due to his maniacal performance. Hawkins, who claimed that alcohol played a significant part in the final product, “I don’t even remember making the record. Before, I was just a normal blues singer. I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.” Hawkins, reflecting to author Nick Tosches in 1973, “This record comes out and I’ve created a monster. Man, it was WEIRD. I was forced to live the life of a monster…I’m some kinda bogeyman. I come outta coffins. Skulls, snakes, crawlin’ hands, fire, and all that mess.” “Spell on You” has been covered by over one hundred artists to include an R&B hit version by Nina Simone, as a Rickenbacker rocker by Creedence, and in a howling electronic rock format by Marilyn Manson.
138. “Wild About You,” Elmore James and His “Broom Dusters.” Songwriters: Elmore James, Joe Josea; Did Not Chart; 1956. It would be impossible for “Wild About You” to be a bad song, because it’s basically just a re-write of James’ deathless take of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” The trademark rapid fire slide guitar licks ring out while James declares his intention to leave his cheating woman, despite of his love for her. Author Bruce Lindsay, “Give him an understated, sparse, backing and a tale of lost love and that voice rings every last emotion out of the simplest of lyrics.”
137. “Hey Porter,” Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two. Songwriter: Johnny Cash; Did Not Chart; 1955. “Hey, Porter” was the a-side of Cash’s first single, but the b-side “Cry! Cry! Cry!” was the hit. Cash penned “Hey Porter,” according to first wife Vivian Liberto, in a rush of excitement as he was leaving military service and Germany to return home. Author Robert Hilburn, “The song was a victory statement of sorts. Just twenty-two, Cash felt he had emerged from the from the challenges and temptations of Landsberg (Germany) in relatively good shape. He could now look forward to everything that mattered to him. He’d be back with Vivian, his family, his faith, and his music. The joy of that moment was what ‘Hey, Porter’ was all about. Johnny Cash was returning to his personal promised land.”
136. “Harlem Nocturne,” The Viscounts. Songwriters: Earle Hagen, Dick Rogers; #39 pop/#17 R&B; released in 1959, peaked on the pop charts in 1966. “Harlem Nocturne” was from the big band era, first recorded by Ray Noble and His Orchestra in 1940. The song had been recorded approximately twenty times before The Viscounts, a New Jersey instrumental group, added some film noir guitar work to the bluesy saxophone number. Author Jim Owston, “Starting with Joe Spievak playing fifths on his bass guitar, the key to ‘Harlem Nocturne’s eerie sound is actually the slow speed amp tremolo used on Bobby Spievak’s guitar. To add to the effect, Spievak strummed the guitar backwards at the beginning of the piece and occasionally during other parts of ‘Harlem Nocturne.’” Despite having no lyrics, author Richard Aquila has noted that “sexuality oozed” from the song. Songwriter Earle Hagen would later write some of television’s best known theme numbers including “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mod Squad.”
135. “I Get a Kick out of You,” Frank Sinatra. Songwriter: Cole Porter; Did Not Chart; 1953. This Cole Porter composition was written for the 1934 Broadway musical “Anything Goes” and had been recorded by Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, and Vaughn Monroe prior to Sinatra releasing the definitive version, or, in the words of Iman Lababedi, “the standard bearer Sinatra masterpiece.” It’s rather to droll to think about a showtune from the 1930s where a woman is so captivating that alcohol and cocaine can’t compete with her presence. Author Mark Steyn, “What Sinatra seemed to like about ‘I Get A Kick Out Of You’ was the space it gave him to try things out. George Siravo’s chart is constructed like a Benny Goodman small-group arrangement – with little riffs behind Sinatra for rhythm guitar, clarinet, piano. Even though Nelson Riddle’s conducting, it’s nothing like Riddle’s sound. But it changed the song, forever.”
134. “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter: Bill Monroe; Did Not Chart; 1954. On July 5, 1954, a musically obsessed teenage Memphis truck driver was recording at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. At the end of what seemed to be an unproductive day, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black began a spontaneous performance of Bill Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and Sam Phillips immediately knew he had found the sound he wanted. A few days later, Bill Black suggested cutting a cover of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the b-side. Like Elvis would do often in his career, he didn’t just sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” he completely transformed it. Sam Phillips immediately noted his approval, “Hell, that’s different. That’s a pop song now, Levi. That’s good.”
133. “Willie and the Hand Jive,” Johnny Otis. Songwriter: Johnny Otis; #9 pop/#3 R&B; 1958. Johnny Otis, the father of Shuggie “Strawberry Letter 23” Otis, was a big band leader in the 1940s, who moved into R&B during the 1950s, discovering Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, and Sugar Pie DeSanto. He had his only crossover pop hit with the Bo Diddley inspired “Willie and the Hand Jive.” According to Otis, the song was inspired by his manager who had recently managed a different act in Europe and had seen seated audiences “dancing” with their hands (much to his chagrin, Otis was often asked if the song was about self-gratification). Otis, “People say, ‘Don’t you get tired of playing ‘Hand Jive’? I say no. It’s a piece of nonsense, it’s not deathless art, but it’s fun and as long as somebody out there likes it, I’m delighted.” Eric Clapton took “Willie and the Hand Jive” back to pop radio in 1974. Otis was of Greek heritage and his given name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. Reflecting on his life he noted, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.”
132. “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie. Songwriter: Woody Guthrie; Did Not Chart; 1951. Woody Guthrie wrote the folk/alternative national anthem as a reaction to the Kate Smith version of “God Bless America,” and, perhaps to put it in modern terms, it was a leftist reaction to unquestioned American exceptionalism. Thinking that the United States should be more about the people who inhabit the country than a supernatural concept, Guthrie began writing “This Land is Your Land” in 1940, with original verses that were much more cynical about income inequality. Borrowing the tune from the Carter Family’s “When the World’s on Fire,” Guthrie penned what has become a patriotic anthem regardless of the original political intent.
131. “Lucille,” Little Richard. Songwriter: Albert Collins, Little Richard; #27 pop/#1 R&B; 1957. The song that would become “Lucille” was first released as a slow ballad by Little Richard titled “Directly from My Heart to You” in 1955. (Note – the Albert Collins in the writing credits is not the famed blues guitarist). Richard in 1999, “The effects and rhythms you hear on my songs, I got ‘em from the trains that passed by my house. Like ‘Lucille’ came from a train – Dadas-dada-dada-dada, I got that from the train.” Richard spend up the tempo and screamed about missing his woman to make “Lucille” a hit two years later. Stephen Thomas Erlewine and Keith Harris, “’Lucille’ is pure madness – the drums pound and the horns wail, driving their refrain into submission. Little Richard cries like a man possessed with carnal yearning that, no matter how much he begs and pleads, he knows will never be fulfilled.” Notable cover versions of “Lucille” include Waylon Jennings 1983 #1 country hit, an extended live jam by Deep Purple in 1980, and a surprisingly straight forward, bluesy take by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1978.