The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 280 to 271
280. “I Wish,” Stevie Wonder. Songwriter: Stevie Wonder; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1976. The lead single from Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” album was a reminiscence of youthful escapades, with a winking look at naughty coming of age behavior. Wonder put the funk in the bass, the soul in the horns, and the pop music in the melody, resulting in a sound that exploded out of radio speakers and a song that topped the pop and R&B charts. Wonder, “The day I wrote it was a Saturday, the day of a Motown picnic in the summer of ’76. I had such a good time at the picnic that I went to Crystal Recording Studio right afterward and the vibe came right to my mind, running at the picnic, the contests, we all participated. It was a lot of fun…and from that came the ‘I Wish’ vibe.” Author Zeth Lundy “The track is everything that 70s funk aspired to be: buoyant, vibrant, digging deep in order to blast sky high.”
279. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Songwriters: Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson; #19 pop/#3 R&B; 1967. Valerie Simpson, “Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol were producing Marvin and Tammi, and they asked us for material. We sent them ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’ It’s funny because Dusty Springfield had just come to town (looking) for material. We played that song for her but wouldn’t give it to her, because we felt like that could be our entree to Motown. Nick called it the ‘golden egg.’ We knew that it was a hit. Sometimes you have real gut feeling about something. Then it becomes a question of what do you do with it, and who can carry it the furthest, and you start designing how you can get it to as many people as possible.” Drummer Uriel Jones on the recording process, “Ashford and Simpson had written the song and they always came to the studio with charts. They were one of the few producers and writers who had full charts and made us work from them. They knew 95 percent what they wanted to hear. Johnny Bristol and Harvey Fuqua were the actual producers in charge of the recording. We did the rhythm track first, then they put the horns on second. Then they recorded Tammi Terrell’s vocal, then they did Marvin Gaye’s next. Each vocal was done separately, the singer in the studio with the producer on their own, and they put it all together at the end. You know, I never heard the finished song until I switched on the radio and it was playing.” Author Donald Guarisco, “Gaye and Terrell’s recording is a classic Motown combination of pop sweetness and soulful fire: the stately strings give the song an ear-catching sweetness but the hard-hitting drumwork and the pulsing, staccato bass line maintain a quick, driving pace. However, the true hook of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ is the impressive chemistry between Gaye and Terrell: she balances his gospel grit during the verses with a sweet alto tone but he steps back to let her voice soar over his during the show-stopping chorus.”
278. “Blue Suede Shoes,” Carl Perkins. Songwriter: Carl Perkins; #2 pop/#1 country; 1956. Carl Perkins grew up in a poor sharecropping family in West Tennessee, learning his trade on homemade and second hand guitars. He began performing in local clubs as a young teenager and spent years splitting his time between day jobs and music gigs. After hearing the Elvis version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” he sought out Sam Phillips for an audition at Sun Records. Johnny Cash suggested that Perkins write a song about suede shoes, referencing how one of Cash’s military peers referred to his footwear. The intro was nabbed from Bill Haley’s 1953 single “Whatcha Gonna Do,” but it was Perkins’ country influenced finger picking guitar work and memorable lyrics that made “Blue Suede Shoes” an anthem. Although this ‘50s standard is frequently thought of as an Elvis song, Perkins had the bigger hit with his composition – peaking at #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the country charts. Perkins, on his success, “After all those days in the cotton fields, the dreams came true on a gold record on a piece of wood. It’s in my den where I can look at it every day. I wear it out lookin’ at it.”
277. “What a Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong. Songwriters: Bob Thiele; George David Weiss; #32 pop; released in 1967, peaked on charts in 1988. Few singers could have taken a sentiment as fundamentally schmaltzy as “What a Wonderful World” and made a genuinely moving record out of it, but Louis Armstrong was no average performer. Jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton, “I don’t think he took his singing seriously at first, but when Bing Crosby came along, he started softening his voice. It was still a gravel voice, but he found he could phrase in a very passionate and rhapsodic way, especially on slow ballads.” For Armstrong, the appeal of the lyrics was local, not global, “There’s so much in ‘Wonderful World’ that brings me back to my neighborhood where I live in Corona, New York. Lucille and I, ever since we’re married, we’ve been right there in that block. And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it’s just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block. And they’re all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille. That’s why I can say, ‘I hear babies cry/ I watch them grow/ they’ll learn much more/ then I’ll never know.’ And I can look at all them kids’s faces. And I got pictures of them when they was five, six and seven years old. So when they hand me this ‘Wonderful World,’ I didn’t look no further, that was it.” The sweeping sentimental number about peace, love, and understanding was a #1 U.K. hit in 1968, but didn’t hit the U.S. charts until 1988, after being used prominently in the hit film “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
276. “Down in the Alley,” The Clovers. Songwriter: Jesse Stone; Did Not Chart; 1957. In the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history, there may not be a more poetic lyric than, “I’ll plant you now and dig you later/’Cause you’re a fiiiiiine sweet potato.” The opening line, “Changety changety changety changety chang chang!,” was a replication of the Elmore James’ guitar line from “Dust My Broom,” turned into a vocal form. Author Larry Birnbaum has suggested that the melody for “Down in the Alley” was taken from the 1928 Leroy Carr song “How Long – How Long Blues.” When the Clovers declare that “Down in the alley, just you and me/We’re going ballin’ til half past three,” they are bursting with a level of musical and sexual authority seldom heard in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll. Lieber and Stoller would give them a comedy hit in 1959 with “Love Potion No. 9,” but these men were more at home in music’s dark passageways.
275. “The City of New Orleans,” Arlo Guthrie. Songwriter: Steve Goodman; #18 pop; 1972. Penned by Chicago folk singer Steve Goodman, “The City of New Orleans” manages to convey the rootlessness and loneliness of traveling through America’s heartland, while still managing to capture the spirit of hope and possibilities within the journey. That hope may be interpreted as the traveler’s welcome home or, in a bigger sense, the promise of the American dream. This was aptly performed by Arlo Guthrie, since it sounds like a railroad classic that could have been popularized during his father’s folk era. Arlo Guthrie, “I loved Steve Goodman personally. If he never wrote a song, I would still love the guy. He had a spirit about him that came through in his songs, and in his performances, in his sense of humor, in his view of the world, that I just fell in love with.” Willie Nelson, no stranger to the concept of the American dream, took “The City of New Orleans” to #1 on the country charts in 1984.
274. “You Can’t Hurry Love,” Supremes. Songwriters: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1966. Motown went to church on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” a song inspired by a 1950’s recording titled “(You Can’t Hurry God) He’s Right on Time” by Dorothy Love Coates & The Original Gospel Harmonettes. They also used the theme of maternal romantic advice that had worked on the early 1960’s hits “Shop Around” by the Miracles and “Mama Said” by the Shirelles. Lamont Dozier, “We were trying to reconstruct ‘Come See About Me’ and somehow it turned into ‘You Can’t Hurry Love.’ It was basically a gospel feel we were after.” Rock critic Jason Ankeny, “The Supremes never made a more soulful record than 1966’s ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’; one of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team’s most propulsive productions, its hypnotic bass and tambourine intro hooks you immediately, maintaining throughout a lean, percussive slinkiness far removed from the slick excess common to most of the group’s biggest hits.” Joe Lynch of Billboard magazine, “Buoyed by one of the most underrated (and subtly influential) bass lines in pop history and an irrepressible church music energy, Diana Ross’ dexterous vocals transition from a fragile coo at the song’s heartbroken start into a joyous defiance.”
273. “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” Big Joe Turner. Songwriter: Jesse Stone; #1 R&B; 1954. Kansas City native Joe Turner started recording in the late 1930s and had his first hit with the humorous “S.K. Blues” in 1945, where the narrator requests the wig back that he gave to an unappreciative bald woman. He started charting regularly on the R&B charts in the early 1950’s, serving as somewhat of a bridge between the jump blues era of Louis Jordan and the mid-1950’s mainstream rock ‘n’ roll explosion. Jesse Stone penned Turner’s signature song “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” using a phrase he had picked up, or used, at his weekly poker game. Authors Jim Cogan and William Clark, “The rumbling bass plays what would become the quintessential rock and roll line. Turner was at his comical, storytelling best. (Jesse) Stone’s lyrics drip with folk wisdom and humor, as if ripped from the pages of a Zora Neale Hurston story. To many music critics, this song was the pistol shot that started the rock and roll craze, which is ironic, because this version, and the even more familiar cover by Bill Haley and the Comets, were recorded by comfortably middle-aged men. Nevertheless, Joe Turner’s record, with its original suggestive lyrics (‘I’m like a one-eyed cat peepin’ in a seafood store’) still packs the punch of a heavyweight rocker.” Bill Haley took the song to the Top Ten on the pop charts in 1954 with a respectable, if somewhat lightweight, cover.
272. “Blue Yodel,” Jimmie Rodgers. Songwriter: Jimmie Rodgers: Did Not Chart; 1928. This song was originally released as “Blue Yodel,” but is now more commonly known as “Blue Yodel No. 1” or by its title hook “T for Texas (T for Tennessee).” As lighthearted as it sounds, Rodgers was indulging himself in a murder revenge fantasy: “I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma/Just to see her jump and fall.” Rodgers recorded a series of thirteen blue yodels and his lyrics often reflected a taste for violence that we don’t always associate with early 20th century America. Musically, “Blue Yodel” was an example of Rodgers merging Delta blues into the country tradition and the result was the most enduring song of his generation. B.B. King on the wide ranging influence of The Singing Brakeman, “Jimmie Rodgers was one of the first country singers to sing blues that black people liked.” Reportedly, “Blue Yodel” sold over a half a million copies and retitled as “T for Texas” the song got a new life in the 1970s with popular cover versions by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tompall Glaser, and Waylon Jennings.
271. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” Geto Boys. Songwriters: Brad Jordan, Doug King, William Dennis; #23 pop/#10 R&B; 1991. Early 1990s rap music was about projecting strength, not vulnerability, but the Geto Boys were sharing their demons about receiving street retribution on their 1991 pop hit “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” The sample of “Hung Up By My Baby” from Isaac Hayes, written for a 1974 blaxploitation film, serves as the perfect cinematic backing to the lyrics about drug deals, street beat downs, and the weight of bad karma. The fact that Geto Boys rapper Bushwack Bill had shot an eye out in a domestic dispute less than two weeks before the single was released added to the aura of danger surrounding the group. Rodney Carmichael of NPR, “This was confessional rap — street ministry. Scarface (rapper Brad Jordan) was acknowledging emotions a generation of black boys had been conditioned to hide.” Brad Jordan, perhaps describing how his worldview informed his music, “When you live in a society that repeatedly tells you that it values a white person’s life, safety, values, and lifestyle more than your own, and you get reminders of it every day and at every turn…it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that the best solution to all of this shit is violence.”