The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 120 to 111
120. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band. Songwriter: Robbie Robertson; Did Not Chart; 1969. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is narrated from the perspective of a defeated southerner during the final days of The Civil War. Arkansas native Levon Helm, “Robbie and I worked on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.” Rock critic Mark Kemp on the song’s impact during the late 1960s, “Helm’s aching southern drawl lent credibility to Robertson’s words and the growing movement of young American rebels, both northern and southern, who called themselves hippies and opposed the war in Vietnam, identified with its empathetic portrait of the frightened young man.” Professional ponderer Griel Marcus, “It is hard for me to comprehend how any northerner could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth – not the whole truth, simply his truth – and the little biography closes the gap between us.” Music executive Bob Santelli on Levon Helm’s innate gift: “Helm was the kind of person who not only appreciated the complexity of American roots music, but also the simple beauty and passion of it – the complexity being how it tied into race and religion and southern culture, and the simplicity of how it just made people feel good.”
119. “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Jackie Wilson. Songwriters: Gary Jackson, Carl Smith; #6 pop/#1 R&B; 1967. Detroit native/soul legend Jackie Wilson received his first break in 1953, replacing Clyde McPhatter in the popular R&B vocal group Billy Ward and his Dominos. Wilson went solo later in that decade, scoring his first Top Ten pop hit with 1958’s “Lonely Teardrops.” “Higher and Higher,” Jackie Wilson’s signature hit, was a combination of Detroit and Chicago sounds with the vocals being completed in New York. Producer Carl Davis on hiring The Funk Brothers from Motown, “They used to come over on the weekends. They’d load up in the van and come over, and I would pay ‘em double scale, and I’d pay ‘em in cash. There was a girl group called the Andantes, and they did the background on ‘Higher and Higher.’” Author Richard Williams, “When Jackie Wilson approached the microphone to overdub the lead vocal on an uptempo song called ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher’ in a New York recording studio one day in 1967, he adopted a gentle, crooning style, as if the song were a ballad. Carl Davis, the producer of the record, quickly put him straight. A more urgent approach was required. If Wilson refused to accept his advice, Davis threatened, he would put his own voice on the record – ‘and sell millions.’ Wilson did it the producer’s way, and the result became a classic of 60s soul music.” Sam Moore of Sam and Dave on Wilson’s vocal abilities, “Oh, God, was he exciting. One time I was watching him from the wings at the Apollo, singing, ‘You better stop . . . yeaahh!’ — and he twists, jumps, falls into a split and slides back up holding the note — ‘your doggin’ around!’ James Brown could do that, but he was a shouter. Jackie Leroy Wilson had a pure voice. He was a complete singer within himself.”
118. “I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; 1967. “I Am the Walrus” had several inspirations – John Lennon’s acid trips, the writing of Lewis Carroll, a playground nursery rhyme, and a desire to bewilder listeners who spent undue energy pontificating the band’s lyrics. Lennon, “In those days I was writing obscurely, ala (Bob) Dylan, never saying what you mean but giving the impression of something, where more or less can be read into it. It’s a good game.” George Martin, “’I Am the Walrus’ was organized – it was organized chaos.” Engineer Geoff Emerick, “Even listening to the record today you can hear that they’re distracted, that their minds are not really on what they’re doing. I distinctly remember the look of emptiness on all their faces while they were playing ‘I Am the Walrus.’ It’s one of the saddest memories I have of my time with The Beatles.” Still, George Martin worked with an orchestra and The Mike Samms Singers to add layers of intrigue and whimsy to one of the Beatles’ most psychedelic moments. Goo goo g’joob.
117. “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Roy Orbison. Songwriters: Roy Orbison, Bill Dees; #1 pop; 1964. West Texas native Roy Orbison was signed to Sun Records in 1956, but never found fame working for Sam Phillips. He had his breakthrough hit with 1960’s “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)” and had his commercial peak from 1960 to 1964. According to songwriter Bill Dees, “Oh, Pretty Woman” was inspired by a flirtatious encounter between Roy Orbison and his wife, Claudette. Dees, “(Roy) started singing ‘Pretty woman walking down the street’ while I was banging my hand down on the table. From the moment that the rhythm started, I could hear the heels clicking on the pavement. I can’t do that growl like Roy, but the ‘Mercy’ is mine. I used to say that all the time when a saw a pretty woman. The ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ probably came from The Beatles.” Author Bill Dahl, “A strong, sinuous bass line intro was a primary consideration to win concentrated rock airplay as the British Invasion raged during the mid-’60s. Seldom was a stronger or catchier one devised than the pulsating kickoff to Roy Orbison’s immortal ‘Oh, Pretty Woman.’ Pounding drums and what sounds like a 12-string acoustic guitar immediately set the tone for the Big O’s biggest hit of all, Orbison navigating a chord progression unlike any the Texas native had ever introduced before.”
116. “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Bill Withers. Songwriter: Bill Withers; #3 pop/#6 R&B; 1971. What happens when you put a duck in microwave? It’s Bill…oh, never mind. “Ain’t No Sunshine” was a B-side that was flipped and became a major hit, winning the Grammy for Best R&B song in 1972. West Virginia native Withers had a bluesy, Southern soul voice that conveyed authenticity. Producer Booker T. Jones, with access to first rate studio musicians from Memphis and Los Angeles, allowed the song to be a vocal showpiece for his 32 year old, former factory worker, rookie recording artist. Withers on the song’s inspiration, “I was watching a movie called ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ with Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon. They were both alcoholic who were alternately weak and strong. It’s like going back for seconds on rat poison. Sometimes you miss things that weren’t particularly good for you.” Withers, who passed away in 2020, never lost his down home perspective on life. Withers, “When I was repairing airplanes, that was a vital gig because you can lose a lot of lives if that job isn’t done properly. Even when I was (installing) bathroom seats (on 747s), that was at least constructive. I challenge anybody: I won’t sing for a month and you don’t go to the bathroom for a month and let’s see who comes off with less misery.”
115. “Save the Last Dance for Me,” The Drifters. Songwriters: Doc Pomus, Mort Shuman; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1960. Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman were a top tier pop music writing team – their hits included “A Teenager in Love,” “This Magic Moment,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Little Sister,” and “Suspicion.” “Save the Last Dance for Me” was about a unique problem that Pomus had. Due to suffering from polio as a child, he walked on crutches as a young man. His wife was a Broadway dancer. The lyrics describe the dynamics of their relationship. Pomus biographer Alex Halberstadt, “He wrote the words to a soaring Latin melody that Mort (Shuman) had played for him that afternoon. It reminded him of a troubadour’s song. He wanted the words to sound like a poem translated into English, so he wrote long lines, loading the measures with as many syllables as they could hold.” “Save the Last Dance for Me” was rejected by several artists and was released by the Drifters as a b-side (Dick Clark corrected the issue by telling Atlantic Records that they were pushing the wrong song). Songwriter/author John Sieger, “The writing is so tight, there’s nothing really to take out. He may have labored over it, but it sounds so natural you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a worried man’s thoughts.” Ben E. King performed the lead vocals and became a solo star the following year with the hits “Spanish Harlem” and “Stand by Me.”
114. “Kick Out the Jams,” MC5. Songwriters: Michael Davis, Wayne Kramer, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Dennis Thompson, Rob Tyner; #82 pop; 1969. The MC5 debuted with a live album, seeking to redefine the entire rock ‘n’ roll ethos on the anti-establishment “Kick Out the James.” Wayne Kramer, “The message of the MC5 has always been the sense of possibilities: a new music, a new politics, a new lifestyle. People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Brother Wayne, ‘Kick Out the Jams’ changed my life.’ I usually tell them: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t change it back.’” Drummer Dennis Thompson, “Did I play any differently that night we recorded ‘Kick Out the Jams?’ Yeah, I played harder than I ever played in my life. I don’t know, it was so intense, like we’d been waiting for that moment to get recorded. We’d played so many places in the couple years prior, and worked at the Grande without much recognition at all. So inside my heart, it was like: ‘You know, finally this is it. Making a record, this is what we’ve been doing this for. This is what I dropped out of college for!’ I think I broke 10 sticks each performance, at least. I had calluses on all my fingers, and the forefingers of both hands and the index finger had blood blisters underneath them. They’d break open every time I played. And it was just raw.” Wayne Kramer on the song’s origins, “Rob (Tyner) and I wrote in the kitchen at our house near the John C Lodge Expressway in Detroit. The song came out of bandspeak. Tyner heard the expression and it fitted in with this idea of total commitment, total assault on the culture. So we used the expression to harass other bands. I couldn’t tell you which bands, because we harassed every band we played with. Well, if they were losers, we let them know that. We’d stand by the edge of the stage and holler: ‘Kick out the jams or get off the stage!’”
113. “Dancing in the Street,” Martha and the Vandellas. Songwriters: Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter; #2 pop/#8 R&B; 1964. Author Tom Moon, “This is the ultimate summer single, two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of heat in audio form. Hear just a few seconds of the introduction, a fanfare for soul-revue horns, and pretty soon that school’s-out-let’s-party state of mind takes hold.” It’s been often said that Mickey Stevenson was inspired to write “Dancing in the Street” after watching Detroit children cool off during the summer by open fire hydrants. Although the song would later be associated with the civil rights movement, Stevenson was only thinking of inclusion, stating, “Kids have no color. They would play out there as if they were brothers and sisters of every creed. So the song comes from that idea.” Music historian Nelson George, “’Dancing’ was not only Reeves’s best vocal performance; it would also prove to be Mickey Stevenson’s most important on-record contribution to Motown. With Marvin Gaye, for whom he’d already penned, ‘Hitch Hike,’ ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow,’ and ‘Pride and Joy,’ Stevenson had conceived a driving dance record that would be perfect for the summer. Moreover, he took the musical elements Holland-Dozier-Holland had used on ‘Heat Wave’ and tightened them up. The tambourines are right on the beat now, the horns, the backing voices of the Vandellas – Stevenson, Ivy Hunter, and Gaye – are arranged more elaborately, and James Jamerson’s bass line is much higher in the mix. All the rhythmic elements, including Gaye’s piano figure, bolster a rigid beat perfect for doing the jerk or Philly dog. Stevenson, a student of Berry’s work and H-D-H’s boss, had refined the formula and gotten a better vocal performance from Martha than anyone had before or would again.”
112. “Sea of Love,” Phil Phillips with the Twilights. Songwriters: Phil Phillips, George Khoury; #2 pop/#1 R&B; 1959. Lake Charles, Louisiana native Phillip Baptiste penned “Sea of Love” with assistance from record executive Eddie Shuler on the arrangement. Baptiste, who was inspired to write the song to impress a love interest, “She really didn’t believe in me. But I felt if I could sing about it – a sea of love where it’s quiet and peaceful – I could really show her how much I loved her and cared for her.” After the song was recorded, the singer had a new name and the producer had a writing credit. In fact, Phillips was so bitter about being taken advantage of financially (his proceeds from his hit was less than $7,000), he refused to pursue a career in music. Author Nick Tosches, “An ideal song, to me, is a song that you can dance to, that summons up some darker and greater mystery. Like ‘Sea of Love.’ The guy, Phil Phillips, who wrote and recorded that first, to him it was just a dopey love song he wrote to impress some girl. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that for me it has dark allure.” “Sea of Love” is an incredibly simple song lyrically, but the metaphorical mystery of the title along with the seductive chord profession have captivated pop audiences for decades. Robert Plant, under the ad hoc studio aggregation The Honeydrippers, took the song to #3 on the pop charts in 1985 and a 2000 cover by Cat Power is her most popular song.
111. “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” Dwight Yoakam. Songwriter: Dwight Yoakam; #2 country; 1993. One of popular music’s hardest hitting songs about heartbreak, Dwight Yoakam doesn’t go for self-pity while describing his loneliness on “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere.” The impact is even greater because he is simply resigned to his hopelessness as being a permanent reality. Rick Moore of American Songwriter, “Pretty much everyone experiences the pain of love at some time in their lives, but seldom has the agony of having had one’s soul gutted been communicated in a song the way Yoakam does in this one.” As a producer, Pete Anderson’s wide open spaces arrangement reinforces the theme of displacement. As a guitarist, Pete Anderson’s solo reinforces that he was always the unsung hero in the Dwight Yoakam phenomen