The 1001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 110 to 101
110. “Dust My Blues,” Elmore James and His “Broom Dusters.” Songwriter: Robert Johnson; Did Not Chart; 1955. Mississippi native Elmore James posthumously has become known as “The King of the Electric Slide Guitar.” James Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal, “James startling introduction (on ‘Dust My Broom’), in which his slide bar permits a loud, repetitive screech on the high strings while he chugs on the bass strings, changed the history of popular music as much as did Chuck Berry’s intro to ‘Johnny B. Goode.’” The signature song of Elmore James, “Dust My Broom”/”Dust My Blues” has a complicated history. Robert Johnson recorded “I’ll Believe I’ll Dust My Blues” in his traditional Delta style in 1936. Elmore James performed the song while he was still living in the Mississippi Delta during the late 1930s and recorded a version that made the R&B charts in 1951 with Sonny Boy Williamson II on harmonica. The complications come from James recording the song four additional times with the most famous versions sounding dissimilar, and much more exciting, than the original hit recording. For our purposes, we are referencing the 1955 version on Flair Records where James’ guitar licks ring out like an automated whip. Author Jas Obrecht, “The best-known version of ‘Dust My Broom,’ by Elmore James, begins with the world’s most recognizable slide guitar riff. Performed with the guitar tuned to an open-D or open-E chord, this riff delivers propulsive full-octave glides to the guitar’s 12th fret. Since the mid 1960s, mastering this lick and the song’s subsequent solo as played by Elmore James has been a rite of passage for up-and-coming blues guitarists. Sonically, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the song’s lyrical message, which in its later incarnations concerns a man’s dissatisfaction with his woman. Perfect fodder for the blues.”
109. “New San Antonio Rose,” Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Songwriter: Bob Wills; #13 pop; 1940. Bob Wills was a regional act in the late 1930s, performing daily on Tulsa radio and then traveling to gigs in the evenings. In 1938, the Playboys released an instrumental version of “San Antonio Rose,” which was a rewrite of another song the band had recorded, a traditional fiddle number titled “Spanish Two Step.” Wills was contacted by the firm Irving Berlin, Incorporated who wanted to publish “San Antonio Rose,” but insisted that lyrics be completed first. Recorded with big band instrumentation, there is no fiddle or steel guitar, the song became a major national hit, going gold for Bob Wills in 1940 and selling even more copies for Bing Crosby in 1941. “New San Antonio Rose” is the most beautiful song ever written about the state of Texas and had a direct impact on Wills’ diet – “it took me from hamburgers to steaks.” Additionally, long serving Will’s vocalist Tommy Duncan is one of country music’s most underappreciated major talents. Author Stephen Thomas Erlewine, “Tommy Duncan was the definitive Western swing vocalist. Crossing the smooth croon of Bing Crosby with the twang of Jimmie Rodgers and the bluesy inclinations of Emmett Miller, Duncan had a warm, distinctive, and welcoming voice that helped the Playboys cross over to a wider audience.” The legacy of Bob Wills is something that is both irresistibly simple and profound – he made people dance.
108. “19th Nervous Breakdown,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards; #2 pop; 1966. Jagger, “We had just done five weeks hectic work in the States and I said, ‘Dunno about you blokes, but I feel about ready for my nineteenth nervous breakdown.’ We seized on it at once as a likely song title. Then Keith and I worked on the number at intervals during the rest of the tour. Brian, Charlie and Bill egged us on – especially as they liked having the first two words starting with the same letter.” The target of Jagger’s withering criticism is believed to be his one time girlfriend, English model Chrissie Shrimpton. Author Dave Swanson, “Kicking off with a killer guitar riff, on loan from Bo Diddley (author – the riff is similar to the Bo Diddley song “Diddley Daddy”), ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ features some of Mick Jagger’s most arresting lyrics riding atop a pile driving rhythm, making this one of the Rolling Stones’ best early numbers. The song charges along full throttle and makes its case in just three glorious minutes. From the hypnotic opening riff through to the fade out, which features some bass heroics from Bill Wyman, it’s an early era Stones gem and a half.”
107. “West End Blues,” Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. Songwriter: Joe ‘King’ Oliver; Did Not Chart; 1928. “West End Blues” is a work of virtuosic beauty where Armstrong’s creates a mood that is completely relaxed, yet imbued with a sense of loss and wonder. Billy Holiday on her reactions to the record, “Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm. Other times, the same damn record would make me so happy.” Author Sam Tanenhous., “’West End Blues’ promises to trick us at every turn. Joy has already collapsed into sadness, and sadness blossomed into joy. It will be pointless to outguess Armstrong. We will be lucky even to keep up with him. When the record was issued, he and (pianist Earl) Hines listened to it over and over – 10, 15, 20 times.” Jazz scholar Gunther Schuller, “’West End Blues’ made it clear jazz could never again revert to being entertainment or folk music. The clarion call of ‘West End Blues’ served notice that jazz could compete with the highest order of musical expression. Like any profoundly creative innovation, ‘West End Blues’ summarized the past and predicted the future.” One can almost imagine Armstrong coyly responding “what what what” in response to such superlatives.
106. “Got My Mojo Working”, Muddy Waters. Songwriter: Preston Foster (credited on record to McKinley Morganfield, a.ka., Muddy Waters); Did Not Chart; 1957. Kansas City based pianist Jay McShann released an upbeat R&B number, featuring some red hot guitar licks, in 1955 titled “Hands Off.” Songwriter Preston “Red” Foster reshaped the lyrics of romantic possession to one of voodoo frustration for “Got My Mojo Working,” a song that R&B singer Ann Cole began performing as an opening act for Muddy Waters. Waters modified the lyrics, recorded the song and took the writing credit, which was later changed due to legal action. On the musical front, drummer Francis Clay pushes the tempo on “Got My Mojo Working,” while Muddy laments about his sexual frustration. One advantage Waters had over his competitors is that his band rocked harder and better than anybody else in the business during his era. Author James Perone, “’Got My Mojo Working’ represented a tie to the early blues tradition – and back to religious practices of an earlier century – but was also state-of-the-art South Chicago electric blues.” “Mojo” also has a direct tie to the next generations of rock music, as represented by English blues based rock bands (Led Zep, the Stones, the Animals, Humble Pie), then repatriated by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Allman Brothers.
105. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” Frank Sinatra. Songwriters: David Mann, Bob Hilliard; Did Not Chart; 1955. Songwriters David Mann and Bob Hilliard didn’t labor over “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” they penned it late at night after an evening of playing cards. As old acquaintances of Franks Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, they pitched this tale of dire loneliness immediately to Sinatra who made it the title track of this 1955 concept album on lost love. Musicologist Mark Steyn, “Most singers, sometimes even very good ones, don’t do anything but sing big on the ends of lines. Here Sinatra does the opposite, easing off on the word ‘morning’ and somehow touching loneliness with tenderness. He knows exactly how much dramatic weight to give each word. Sinatra’s interpretation here is as great as anything he’s ever done.” Iman Lababedi on the corresponding album, “The original ‘Small Hours’ is an achievement of huge proportions, it is the essence of greatness, it is art as pop heartbreak and it stands 70 years later as something no one else can achieve. Frank was just hitting forty when he recorded ‘Wee Small,’ but it was a young man’s album and song, its dramatic downturn was conflated by youth, the pain so palpable, it couldn’t be real: they were Sinatra’s songs of infatuation, born to end.”
104. “Heroin,” Velvet Underground. Songwriter: Lou Reed; Did Not Chart; 1967. Lou Reed, “I was working for a record company as a songwriter, where they’d lock me in a room and they’d say write ten surfing songs, ya know, and I wrote ‘Heroin’ and I said ‘Hey I got something for ya.’ They said, ‘Never gonna happen, never gonna happen.’” “Heroin” is one of the most darkly cinematic musical journeys of the 1960s, as Lou feels like Jesus’s son after putting a spike to his vein while the band alternates between warm feedback and frenzied chaos. The dynamics of the song replicate the frenzied anxiety and the disquieting peace of a drug addiction. Reed, “At the time I wrote ‘Heroin,’ I felt like a very rather negative, strung-out, violent, aggressive person. I meant those songs to sort of exorcize the darkness, or the self-destructive element in me, and hope that other people would take them the same way. ‘Heroin’ is very close to the feeling you get from smack. It starts on a certain level, it’s deceptive. You think you’re enjoying it. But by the time it hits you, it’s too late. You don’t have any choice. It comes at you harder and faster and keeps on coming. The song is everything that the real thing is doing to you.” Author Sean Stanley, “While the Beatles were singing that all you need is love, Reed was declaring that all he needed was drugs, and redefining how rock should sound in the process.”
103. “Great Balls of Fire,” Jerry Lee Lewis. Songwriters: Otis Blackwell, Jack Hammer (Earl Solomon Burroughs); #2 pop/#1 country/#3 R&B; 1958. Interviewer, “What did you think when Elvis died?” Jerry Lee Lewis, “I was glad, really, just another one out of the way. Elvis this, Elvis that. What the shit did Elvis ever do except take dope that I couldn’t get a hold of.” Jerry Lee certainly howled about lust in ways that Elvis didn’t, with “Great Balls of Fire” perhaps not even being a metaphor for The Killer’s sexual desires. The concept originated with “Fujiyama Mama” songwriter Jack Hammer, who wrote a song with the title Jerry Lee would make famous. Otis Blackwell took the title and wrote a different song, although Hammer still received a co-writing credit. At one point during the recording session, per Lewis biographer Nick Tosches, “(Lewis) decided that the song was of the devil and that to sing it was to sin,” resulting in an extended, and perhaps drunken, argument with Sam Phillips. Author Cub Koda, “The song is over in a little more than a minute and a half and yet is perfectly realized with probably Jerry Lee’s best solo to recommend it and a vocal that borders on lascivious.” Nick Tosches, “It was the best-selling record in the history of Sun. Jerry Lee told his daddy that there were almost as many zeros on his checks as there had been F’s on his third-grade report card.”
102. “You Never Can Tell,” Chuck Berry. Songwriter: Chuck Berry; #14 pop/#2 R&B; 1964. Like his 1955 hit “Maybellene,” “You Never Can Tell” was inspired by hillbilly music, having a melody similar to Mitchell Torok’s 1953 #1 country hit “Caribbean.” In tandem with the “c’est la vie” attitude, Berry takes a more relaxed vocal approach, spurning his guitar for piano and sax solos. In contrast to the teen tragedy songs of this era, Berry’s Coolerator cramming lovers found fulfillment via their employment, love of music, and a cherry red, souped-up jitney. Quentin Tarantino gave new life to “You Never Can Tell,” incorporating the song in an unforgettable manner into his 1994 masterpiece “Pulp Fiction.” Author Michael Gray, “Berry was ahead of his time, offering an urban slang-sophistication slicker than any city blues man before him. He offered a bold and captivating use of cars, planes, highways, refrigerators and skyscrapers, and the accompanying details: seat-belts, bus conductors, ginger ale and terminal gates. And he brought all this into his love songs. He put love in an everyday metropolis, fast and cluttered, as no one had done before him.” In the era of COVID-19, “You Never Can Tell” sounds remarkably innocent – like a bridge to a past that probably never existed but is a groovy aspirational existence.
101. “I Walk the Line,” Johnny Cash. Songwriter: Johnny Cash; #17 pop/#1 country; 1956. Johnny Cash, “I wrote the song backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas. I was newly married at the time, and I suppose I was laying out my pledge of devotion. People ask me why I always hum whenever I sing this song. It’s to get my pitch.” Cash paired musical simplicity with a burning intensity of “I Walk the Line” and was rewarded with a #1 country hit and a Top Twenty crossover pop hit. Rodney Crowell, “As an adult, I’ve really given it some thought about what music before could this song have derived itself from? I couldn’t find it in Roy Acuff’s music or Jimmie Rodgers because it was a folk format that those songs came from. Yet this song, it was almost like jazz. It was almost like the Southern white man’s version of Charlie Parker, in a way. It was just completely turned around and disassembled, and he’s modulating down. The chords are changing and he’s going up and down. And it–normally with a modulation, you would just start in a lower key and modulate up a half-step or a full step. But he started out by modulating down and then modulating back up. And `I keep a close watch on this heart of mine’ -I mean, that’s very interior kind of – that’s sort of soul searching in a way, if you think about it. And at that time in the ’50s – this was pre-Bob Dylan. And, you know, it’s sort of existential in a way, you know. `I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the ties that bind.’ It’s poetry, you know, and it’s pretty high-level poetry, really, in my humble opinion.