(Dion sings “The Wanderer” And “Runaround Sue”)
390. “Tipitina,” Professor Longhair. Songwriter: Roy Byrd; Did Not Chart; 1953. Roy Byrd was better known by his stage name Professor Longhair and is credited with bringing a Caribbean sound into New Orleans piano playing. While Fats Domino was creating a mainstream rock ‘n’ roll sound out of New Orleans’ musical gumbo, Roy Byrd (a.k.a., Professor Longhair) created an off-kilter funk that would later be expanded upon by Dr. John and The Meters. Author Tony Russell, expanding on that point, “The vivacious rhumba-rhythmed piano blues and choked singing typical of Fess were too weird to sell millions of records; he had to be content with siring musical offspring who were simple enough to manage that, like Fats Domino or Huey ‘Piano’ Smith. But he is also acknowledged as a father figure by subtler players like Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.” “Tipitina” is accessible and mysterious at the same time, proudly displaying the artist’s eccentricity. From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, “The hum-along nonsense syllables and stutter stepping left-hand rhythm of ‘Tiptina’ is both a symbol and staple of New Orleans music.” Author Ryan Whitney on this Rosetta Stone moment, “With its syncopated rhythms, rollicking blues piano – famously dubbed boogie-rhumba – hints of gospel and one-of-a-kind vocals (such as ‘oola malla walla dalla’), the song became the model for all New Orleans piano rock that would ensue.” Dr. John on growing up in New Orleans, “Professor Longhair, Roy Brown, and Dave Bartholomew were heroes of mine. I knew their records, and saw posters all over town bearing their names and pictures. Professor Longhair, in particularly moved me. His songs ‘Tipitina’ and ‘Bald Head’ were played all over town. I remember one time peeking into a window and watching him from the back as his long, thin fingers ran across the keys.”
389. “Speedoo,” The Cadillacs. Songwriter: Esther Navarro; #17 pop/#3 R&B; 1955. The Cadillacs were a Harlem based R&B vocal group who crossed over to the pop charts with “Speedoo,” (most often referred to as “Speedo” in the modern era) a song about chasing women with a sense of purpose and alacrity. Author Philip Groia, “The connotation associated with the name Cadillacs was a fast, rocking, wild, cool one.” Lead singer Earl Carroll on the origins of this fast paced, confident number, “Bobby Phillips, the ham of the group, saw a big bombshell (at a Massachusetts armory) and said, ‘Hey Speedo, there’s your torpedo.’ And the guys just fell out laughing because they used to tease me about my head being pointy. I was a little upset with it so I turned to Bobby and said, ‘My name is Mr. Earl as far as you’re concerned.’ By the time we got to New York, we had lyrics and just about all the music that we needed.” Earl Carroll joined The Coasters in 1961, reformed the Cadillacs in the 1980s, and, later in life, worked a day job as a grade school janitor. Carroll in 1988, “You really felt good about keeping the school clean, and then the teeny-weenies, they love you so much. When they found out I was a rock ’n’ roller – I was on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo with Bill Cosby – the kids couldn’t believe it. Now they call me the star of the school.”
388. “Jamming,” Bob Marley and the Wailers. Songwriter: Bob Marley; Did Not Chart; 1977. Bob Marley wasn’t receiving U.S. airplay during the 1970s, but his songs were heard through cover versions by Johnny Nash (“Stir It Up”) and Eric Clapton (“I Shot the Sheriff”). Marley was shot in a failed assassination attempt in December of 1976, but the gunmen failed to kill Marley and his permanent righteous buzz – “no bullet can stop us now, we neither beg nor we won’t bow” he sings on this Top Ten U.K. single. The word “jamming” was Jamaican slang for “celebrating” and Marley is clearly in a celebratory mood on this accessible, feel good, dance number. In the good things beget more good things department, “Jamming” was the inspiration for Stevie Wonder’s 1980 hit “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”
387. “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” They Might Be Giants. Songwriters: John Flansburgh, John Linnell; Did Not Chart; 1990. The English production team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had previously worked with Madness, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and Elvis Costello, controlled the dials for the 1990 They Might Be Giants’ album “Flood.” The result was a more polished, commercial sound and the album eventually was certified platinum. The endlessly catchy, eccentric love song “Birdhouse in Your Soul” was the closest They Might Be Giants ever got to mainstream success, peaking at #3 on the U.S. modern rock charts and hitting the Top Ten in the U.K. John Flansburgh, “We’re not really into writing songs with secret meanings or coded messages. I mean, for example, ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul; is a song about a nightlight. That’s it. It’s written from the perspective of a nightlight serenading the occupant of its room. The thing is, there are so many syllables in the songs that we have to come up with something to fill the spaces. So it ends up being kind of Gilbert and Sullivany.” Rock critic Michael Azerrad has called the song a “towering achievement.” More details from author Dave Eggers, “That’s a beautiful song. A birdhouse in your soul is an image you can’t shake. It’s a beautiful line. The whole song is beautiful by any standard, a gorgeous melody. But then, it’s actually about a nightlight. That’s too much for a lot of people to process.”
386. “The Wanderer,” Dion. Songwriter: Ernie Maresca; #2 pop; 1961. Dion, “At its roots, it’s more than meets the eye. ‘The Wanderer’ is black music filtered through an Italian neighborhood that comes out with an attitude. It’s my perception of a lot of songs like ‘I’m A Man’ by Bo Diddley or ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ by Muddy Waters. But you know, ‘The Wanderer’ is really a sad song. A lot of guys don’t understand that. Bruce Springsteen was the only guy who accurately expressed what that song was about. It’s ‘I roam from town to town and go through life without a care, I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere.’ In the fifties, you didn’t get that dark. It sounds like a lot of fun but it’s about going nowhere. The other inspiration was a little bit of (Wilbert Harrison’s) ‘Kansas City,’ because that song was popular at the time and I loved it.” Dion, on a lighthearted part of the song, “The big inspiration was this kid in the neighborhood. I think his name was Jackie Burns. He was a sailor and he had tattoos all over him, like he had ‘Flo’ on his left arm, ‘Mary’ on his right. Janie was the girl that he was going to be with the next night and then he put ‘Rosie’ on his chest and he had it covered up with a battleship. Every time he went out with a girl, he got a new tattoo. So the guy was worth a song!”
385. “Paradise,” John Prine. Songwriter: John Prine; Did Not Chart; 1971. There aren’t many singer/songwriter albums from the 1970s, or any other era for that matter, that compare favorably to John Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut release. He was writing with a maturity well beyond his years about aging, the personal impacts of war, and the changing American landscape. Prine on perhaps is best known and most recorded song, “I wrote it for my father mainly so he would know I was a songwriter. Paradise was a real place in Kentucky, and while I was in the army in Germany, my father sent me a newspaper article telling me how the coal company had bought the place out. It was a real Disney-looking town. It sat on the river, had two general stores, and there was one black man in town, Bubby Short. He looked like Uncle Remus and hung out with my Granddaddy Ham, my mom’s dad, all day fishing for catfish. Then the bulldozers came in and wiped it all off the map. When I recorded the song, I brought a tape of the record home to my dad; I had to borrow a reel-to-reel machine to play it for him. When the song came on, he went into the next room and sat in the dark while it was on. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to pretend it was on the jukebox.” Prine’s sandpaper voice was a perfect match for the music, which sounded like a 1940’s era folk song.
384. “Thirteen,” Big Star. Songwriters: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell; Did Not Chart; 1972. The legend of the critically acclaimed Memphis band Big Star (named after a Southern grocery store chain – thankfully they didn’t choose Piggy Wiggly) seems to grow exponentially with each passing decade. There was always a tense fragility to their work, the sense of impending explosion or collapse both musically and interpersonally. Alex Chilton abandoned the precocious soul man voice he had used on The Box Tops’ 1967 #1 single “The Letter,” often using a plaintive tenor approach with Big Star. On this short, beautiful song about teen love, Alex Chilton manages to simultaneously convey, melancholy, hope, and a sense of rebellion. Chilton would later describe the simplicity of the song as a matter of personal necessity, noting, “I was still learning to play.”
383. “Green River,” Creedence Clearwater Revival. Songwriter: John Fogerty; #2 pop; 1969. John Fogerty dug into Creedence’s swamp rock sound on “Green River,” utilizing a guitar tone that sounded more eerie than nostalgic, despite the lyrical origins. Fogerty, “’Green River’ is really about this place where I used to go as a kid on Putah Creek, near Winters, California. I went there with my family every year until I was ten. Lot of happy memories there. I learned how to swim there. There was a rope hanging from the tree. Certainly dragonflies, bullfrogs. The actual specific reference, Green River, I got from a soda pop-syrup label. You used to be able to go into a soda fountain, and they had these bottles of flavored syrup. My flavor was called Green River. It was green, lime flavored, and they would empty some out over some ice and pour some of that soda water on it, and you had yourself a Green River. The guitar riff, the musical hook, was how I imagined James Burton would’ve done it. James would always find just the right part. I wanted that bluesy rockabilly sound rather than a pretty melody like ‘Proud Mary.’ It’s almost as if, had I been lucky enough to be recording at Sun Records, this is what I would’ve come up with.”
382. “Day Tripper,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; 1965. Paul McCartney, “A song like ‘Got to Get You Into My Life,’ that’s directly about pot, although everyone missed it at the time. ‘Day Tripper,’ that’s one about acid. ‘Lucy in the Sky,’ that’s pretty obvious. There’s others that make subtle hints about drugs, but, you know, it’s easy to overestimate the influence of drugs on the Beatles’ music.” John Lennon, “Day Trippers are people who go on a day trip, right? Usually on a ferryboat or something. But the song was kind of – you’re just a weekend hippie. Get it?” Rolling Stone magazine, “While Lennon’s blues-based guitar hook may have been his answer to the Rolling Stones’ recent Number One hit, ‘Satisfaction,’ ‘Day Tripper’ was more complex, a gleaming combination of muscle and intricate arranging. Lennon’s riff builds to a midsong rave-up that climaxes with soaring harmonies and Harrison climbing a scale behind Lennon’s solo, until Starr’s tambourine roll brings back the original groove.” Cover to discover – Cheap Trick’s faux live 1980 cover with a Jeff Beck inspired guitar solo and a “She Loves You” reference in closing.
381. “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” The Temptations. Songwriters: Norman Whitfield, Eddie Holland, Cornelius Grant; #8 pop/#1 R&B; 1966. Norman Whitfield took over production duties from Smokey Robinson for The Tempations in 1966, resulting in a tougher, grittier sound. Author Joel Francis, “The list of Motown songs based around a guitar riff is a short one, but this masterpiece should be at the top of that one and several others. Producer Norman Whitfield wrote the song with Edward Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland, but the Temps’ road manager Cornelius Grant supplied the signature guitar line. Grant’s contribution not only got him co-writing credit, but earned him the spot to play on the record – that’s him you hear on guitar in the song. The Temptations’ classic line-up was in full effect for this number. David Ruffin nails the vocals. The rasp in his voice makes it sound like he’s been up all night drinking, smoking and thinking about where this relationship has gone. When the rest of the Temps chime in with ‘looosing you’ it sounds like a desperate cry echoing out of the abyss.” Berry Gordy initially balked at releasing “I’m Losing You” as a single, then reconsidered after Norman Whitfield threatened to leave the company in protest. With its insistent lead guitar riff, the song easily crossed over to rock audiences with a Top Ten cover version by Rare Earth in 1970 and another Top 40 outing by Rod Stewart (and the Faces) in 1971.
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