The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 450 to 441
450. “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. Songwriters: Gene Vincent, Donald Graves, Bill “Sheriff Tex” Davis; #9 pop/#5 country/#8 R&B; 1956. Virginia native Eugene Vincent Craddock enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 and may have been a career military man if not for shattering his left leg in a motorcycle accident in 1955. He quickly thereafter formed his band, the Blue Caps, and landed a contract with Capitol Records. In trying to find a young artist to compete with Elvis, Capitol Records struck gold with “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” which peaked at #7 on the pop charts, #5 on the country charts, and is one of the songs that defines the early rock ‘n’ roll sound/attitude. Author Bob Spitz, “Gene Vincent, with his group, the Blue Caps, staged an all-out assault on America’s teenagers by playing a brand of down-and-dirty white rhythm & blues that was rougher and more suggestive than that of their predecessors.” Author Susan VanHecke, “Presley’s band – guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana – had given their boss a hard time when they’d first heard ‘Be-Bop-A-Lulu’ on the radio; they jumped all over him, positive he recorded it behind their backs.”
449. “Wabash Cannonball,” Roy Acuff and His Crazy Tennesseans. Songwriters: William Kindt, J.A. Roff; Did Not Chart; 1936. Tennessee native Roy Acuff, later known as “The King of Country Music” started his career performing in blackface on the medicine show circuit in the early 1930s. He became known for having a strong enough voice to cut through the din of a crowd or over the noise of backing instruments. “Wabash Cannonball” is a traditional folk number, dating back to the 19th century, that was published by J.A Roff in 1882 and re-written by William Kindt in 1904. The Carter Family recorded a typically formal version of the song in 1929. Acuff converted “Wabash Cannonball” into a mythic piece of American symbolism – viewing the train not in terms of transportation but as an emblem of adventure and possibility. Acuff’s version, with a harmonica replicating the sound of a train whistle, reportedly sold over ten million copies worldwide. Acuff, on his approach to performing, “You’ve got to capture an audience. You don’t just go out there and just sing, or just play. If you can’t capture an audience, you might as well not be out there.”
448. “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five. Songwriters: Louis Jordan, Ellis Walsh; #21 pop/#1 R&B; 1949. Chuck Berry, “To my recollection, Louis Jordan was the first (person) that I heard play rock and roll.” Louis Jordan’s 1949 pop/R&B hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry” was first recorded by Eddie Williams and His Brown Buddies (a name we can assume was technically correct), but was re-written and rushed to the marketplace by Jordan. Jordan constantly reinforces the party atmosphere on this raucous jump blues shuffle by exclaiming “It was rockin!,” while he relates a tall tale of party that evolves into a fight and a night in jail. (The original recording was broken into Parts 1 and II – most modern versions merge the two sides for a virtual 1940’s rock opera that lasts over five minutes). The denouement: “If you ever want to get a fist in your eye/Just mention a Saturday night fish fry.” Jordan would have been a modern day foodie – his singles include “Lemonade,” “Cole Slaw (Sorghum Switch),” and his other 1949 #1 R&B hit “Beans and Cornbread” (they go hand in hand).
447. “Final Solution,” Pere Ubu. Songwriters: Craig Bell, Dave Taylor, David Thomas, Peter Laughner, Scott Krauss, Tim Wright, Tom Herman; Did Not Chart; 1976. The esoteric art punk garage band Pere Ubu evolved from Rocket from the Tombs, a Cleveland unit that mixed protopunk musicianship with a flair for theatrical performances. Lead singer David Thomas dropped his Crocus Behemoth pseudonym when he formed Pere Ubu. The contradictions are vast in the single “Final Solution.” The verses are typical teen angst teen moping that seem positively benign at face value. Yet, there’s a continuously surging darkness in the song – the chorus sounds like a man blindly punching in a claustrophobic rage. The musical explosions sound like sonic bombs that leave vast chasms in their wake. At one point, Pere Ubu stopped playing the song, rather than have it be confused with support of Nazi Germany. David Thomas on the surprising reaction to the band’s early singles “Final Solution” and “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” “We never had a hope in hell that anyone would ever hear of us. It was a startling, life-changing event when we started getting noticed in London and New York. We thought: ‘Well, we might as well keep going.’”
446. “The Leader of the Pack,” The Shangri-Las. Songwriters: George “Shadow” Morton, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich; #1 pop/#8 R&B; 1964. The Shangri-Las, a New York girl group quartet, peaked commercially with this is-she-really-going-out-with-him teen tragedy number. Author Iain Aitch, “’Leader of the Pack’ – an extraordinary three-minute melodrama about death, lost love and motorcycles, which was banned by the BBC – became one of the most talked about and distinctive singles of all time. The heartfelt, plaintive (and distinctively nasal-sounding) lead vocal was recorded when Mary Weiss was 15, not even old enough to sign her own name on her recording contract.” Mary Weiss, “I put a lot of my own pain into that song. I don’t think teenage years are all that rosy for a lot of people – they certainly weren’t for me. They are the most confusing time of people’s lives and there is a tremendous dark side to the record, which I think teenagers related to. The studio was a great place to let the pain out.” Author Peter Buckley, noting that strengths can also be weaknesses, “The Shangri-Las brought together all the strands of girl groups – the assertiveness, the female solidarity, the love of bad boys, the heightened emotion – in such style that there didn’t seem anywhere else to go.”
445. “Only Happy When It Rains,” Garbage. Songwriters: Garbage; #55 pop; 1995. After racking up production credits with Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Sonic Youth, Butch Vig decided to put together his own band. Vig tracked down charismatic lead singer Shirley Manson after seeing her front another band, Angelfish, on MTV. Garbage, cognizant of the dark themes in their music and the alternative scene in general during the 1990s, decided to lampoon the status quo on “Only Happy When It Rains.” Butch Vig, “(It’s) about what happened with grunge and the angst-filled thing which has dominated the American alternative rock scene… With us there’s self-deprecation, we have to poke fun at ourselves because we’re so incredibly obsessive about the songs and the lyrics, which makes us filled with self-loathing, hur hur.” Putting on his producer hat, Vig boosted the strong melody with a plethora of sound effects, loops, and samples for a guazy, yet dynamic sound. Rock critic James Hunter, “On ‘Only Happy When It Rains, Garbage rock righteously as though (lead singer Shirley) Manson is running for the presidency of the Robert Smith Fan Club. Just as you think she has won by a landslide, the band swings in with rhythms and riffs whose complex demeanor recolor the whole song.” Doug Stone of All Music, “This anti-rallying cry comes dangerously close to defining the times and the commercialism of angst.”
444. “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith. Songwriters: Steven Tyler, Joe Perry; #10 pop; 1975. Aerosmith always had a funkier edge than their dirty white hard rock competition and “Walk This Way” is their finest combination of grooves, riffs, and lasciviousness. Joe Perry, on this teen muffin chasin’ rocker, “I was always a big fan of R&B and blues and had a special affinity for the music that was coming out of New Orleans. I remember there was a band there called the Meters that was really laid back and funky that I was listening to a lot. I thought it might be interesting to see if I could find something that would be inspired by that kind of music.” Producer Jack Douglas had other inspirations, recommending the title phrase as a line from the Mel Brooks film “Young Frankenstein.” “Walk This Way” inexplicably bombed when it was released as a single in 1975, but peaked at #10 in early 1977 after being re-released. Reworking the song with rap pioneers Run-D.M.C. in 1986 brought Aerosmith back into the public eye after an eight year absence from the Top Forty charts and ignited, for better or worse, the band’s second wave of fame.
443. “Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland. Songwriters: Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg; #5 pop; 1939. Judy Garland (nee Frances Glumm) was a child actress who had appeared in several movies before portraying Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” the lead role in one of the most famous films of all time. “Over the Rainbow” was specifically written for the film, by Broadway turned Hollywood composers Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg. Harburg in 1980, “This particular ballad was a ballad for a little girl who was in trouble and like all little girls wanted to get away from where she was at. And where was she? Kansas. A dry, arid, colorless place. She had never seen anything colorful in her life except the rainbow. Well, where would a little girl like that, not knowing the world, want to go? Over the rainbow. On the other side of the rainbow.” Harburg’s lyrics worked outside the film as an aspiration theme for anyone seeking their personal utopia. Garland’s performance mixed innocence with a sense of determination and her limited vocal range contributed to the sense of authenticity. In 2001, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment of the Arts ranked “Over the Rainbow” as #1 on their “Songs of the Century” list.
442. “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” Vince Gill. Songwriter: Vince Gill; #14 country; 1994. Vince Gill has released over twenty Top Ten singles, but his signature song wasn’t one of them. The eulogic ballad “Go Rest High on That Mountain” was initiated after the death of Keith Whitley in 1989 and completed after the death of Vince Gill’s brother in 1993. Gill, “I wrote this song, and I didn’t have any idea if anybody would want to hear it, or like it. All I wanted to do was grieve for him and celebrate his life. That’s how I always process grief – sit down with a guitar and make something up. Turns out that if anybody remembers any of my songs, it’ll be this one.” Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs provide backing vocals on this textbook example of how to merge country and gospel music. Gill and Loveless famously performed “Go Rest High on That Mountain” at the funeral for George Jones in 2013. Rolling Stone, summarizing the song’s appeal, “Despite the devastating lyrical content and tragic circumstances, it’s noted for its spiritually optimistic note.”
441. “Wrap It Up,” Sam and Dave. Songwriters: Isaac Hayes, David Porter; Did Not Chart; 1968. Stax Records was so convinced that they had a hit with Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You” that the label sent songwriters/producers Isaac Hayes and David Porter to a Stax tour stop in France to record the vocals for the b-side, “Wrap It Up.” The rush released single had the intended impact as “I Thank You” was a Top Ten pop hit, but the horn fueled, put your love in a package funk of “Wrap It Up” eventually found an audience, too. Archie Bell and & the Drells had a minor pop hit with their Philly soul cover in 1970 and “Wrap It Up” was a 1986 Top Ten AOR single for The Fabulous Thunderbirds. If you think the song wouldn’t translate well to 1980’s new wave music, cover versions by Romeo Void and The Eurythmics serve to validate your perception. Rock critic Thom Jurek reviewing the “I Thank You” LP, “The hit from the album is the wooly groover ‘Wrap It Up,’ where the pair rise above a killer Memphis Horn arrangement and Steve Cropper’s funky guitar to wail in call and response on the choruses.” Sam Moore, on the importance of songwriter/producer/future solo superstar Isaac Hayes, “Sam and Dave didn’t have a style. Isaac Hayes gave us a style.”