The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 490 to 481
490. “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You),” The King Cole Trio with String Choir. Songwriters: Robert Wells, Mel Torme; #3 pop/#3 R&B; 1946. Nat King Cole dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen to become a touring musician and with his famous jazz trio he became a fixture on both the R&B and pop charts during the 1940s. He would later move to traditional pop music and stayed commercially relevant until his death in 1965. “The Christmas Song” was a key link in Cole’s transition from jazz to pop music. Songwriter Robert Wells started writing the song in July of 1945, telling co-writer Mel Torme, “It’s so damn hot today, I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” Author Ace Collins, “The song marked the first time thousands of white Americans plopped down money to purchase a black man’s holiday record. When people around the world listen to Nat King Cole sing about what makes Christmas so special, they hear his rich baritone voice describing cold noses, hot chestnuts, and Yuletide carols. One of the most famous Christmas recordings brought together a Jewish American (Mel Torme) and an African American to create Christmas imagery that has rarely been equaled and never surpassed.” Author Colin Flemins of Jazz Times in 2019, “Little wonder that Nat King Cole is revered as one of the towering crooners of the recorded-sound era; he sang as if his lungs were lined with silk.”
489. “River Deep – Mountain High,” Ike & Tina Turner. Songwriters: Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich; Did Not Chart; 1966. Tina Turner, remembering one of pop music’s most monumental production efforts, “I must have sung that 500,000 times. I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” Arranger Jack Nitzsche, “It was amazing to watch ‘River Deep’ grow. Even during the cutting of the track, Tina was singing along as we cut it and was so into it she was holding her crotch on the high notes. Oh man, she was great, doing a rough, scratch vocal as the musicians really kicked the rhythm section in the ass. Once in a while, a vocalist would run through a song, but Tina made everybody play better.” Depending on which version of the story you like better, Phil Spector either paid Ike Turner $20,000 to produce Tina on the track or gave Ike that much money to stay away from the recording studio. While the lyrics are somewhat childlike for a romantic pop song, the galvanic sweep of the orchestration and the Wall of Sound vocalists are undeniable. Joel Selvin writing about the failure of “River Deep” on the famed producer’s psyche, “Phil Spector was living like some kind of crazed recluse. He closed his Philles Records, fatally discouraged by the failure of his Ike and Tina single, ‘River Deep— Mountain High,’ and descended into a life lived on vampire hours behind around-the-clock security in a Beverly Hills mansion, where his jealousies and paranoias could run free.”
488. “The Loco-Motion,” Little Eva. Songwriters: Gerry Goffin, Carole King; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1962. Little Eva (Eva Boyd) was working as a babysitter for Gerry Goffin and Carole King when that duo penned “The Loco-Motion.” Little Eva performed the vocals as a demo recording and, after the song was rejected by Dee Dee Sharp (who had one of the biggest hits in 1962 with the dance number “Mashed Potato Time”), producer Don Kirshner decided to use Eva as the vocalist. Carole King on the dance sensation, “There never was a dance called the loco-motion until after it was a number one hit record. Everyone said, ‘How does this dance go?’, so Little Eva had to make up a dance.” Author Peter Hales, “The beat – pushed, syncopated, even broken, came right out of the black music of Eva Boyd’s childhood in South Carolina: gospel, R&B, and blues. That Little Eva would end up recording the song, with Carole King singing backup, also spoke for a different form of racial interplay than had characterized the conversion of race records into white hits in an early identity.” This group participation dance number (“come on, baby”) was a #1 pop hit for Grand Funk in 1974 and a major international hit for Kylie Minogue in the late 1980s.
487. “Alison,” Elvis Costello. Songwriter: Elvis Costello; Did Not Chart; 1977. Elvis Costello (born Declan Patrick McManus) was the son of a jazz trumpeter and performed data entry/computer operator work in the mid-1970s while honing his skills as a musician. Primarily recorded with the California based country rock band Clover, his 1977 debut album “My Aim Is True” was one of the landmark records of the decade, matching elite singer/songwriter skills with a cutting punk rock attitude. On the mid-tempo ballad “Alison,” Costello finds an old flame who is drowning in unsalvageable sorrow. Or, he perhaps he’s projecting those desired feelings upon her. Costello in 2015, “I’ve always told people that I wrote the song ‘Alison’ after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket. She had a face for which a ship might have once been named. Scoundrels might once have fought mist-swathed duels to defend her honour. Now she was punching in the prices on cans of beans at a cash register and looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away. All that were left would soon be squandered to a ruffian who told her convenient lies and trapped her still further.”
486. “Changed the Locks,” Lucinda Williams. Songwriter: Lucinda Williams; Did Not Chart; 1988. The daughter of college professor/poet Miller Williams, Lucinda Williams spent most of the 1970s as a folk singer, living in Louisiana, Texas, and New York. During her late twenties, Williams recorded two albums for the Folkways label – one a collection of blues standards (1979’s “Ramblin’”) and the other a set of original material (1980’s “Happy Woman Blues”). After several years of honing her writing skills and avoiding record deals that didn’t fit her vision, she released the “Lucinda Williams” album in 1988 on Rough Trade Records and it’s one of the best singer/songwriter efforts of the decade. Lucinda details how to avoid an unwanted ex-lover on “Changed the Locks.” In addition to getting a new set of keys, Lucinda decides to change her phone number, her car, her clothes, the path of the railroad tracks, and the name of her town. Another stand out track from this album is “Passionate Kisses,” which Mary Chapin-Carpenter covered for a Top Five country hit in 1993. I once tried to get Lucinda to knock Chapin-Carpenter’s remarkably timid version of her song, but even in the pre-internet days, Lucinda wasn’t falling for that trick.
485. “Take Me,” George Jones. Songwriters: George Jones, Leon Payne; #8 country; 1965. “Take Me,” a pledge of eternal love written by George Jones and Leon Payne (of “Lost Highway” and “I Love You Because” fame), doesn’t sound like a typical country record of its era. With soft acoustic guitar work and delicate violin accompaniment, it sounds more like a romantic pop ballad. Jones never strains or tries to overwhelm the material, but still gives one of his most soulful and moving vocals. “Take Me” went to #8 on the charts for Jones in 1965 and returned to the Top Ten as a duet between George and Tammy Wynette in 1972, the married couple’s first single release. Nick Tosches on Jones’s legendary gift, “For the old-timers and young bloods alike, his voice possesses a quality that others can only envy and emulate. Working the hidden veins beneath the phrase and rhyme of every song, his voice is one of rare prismatic inflections that transmute the familiar light of the timeworn into subtle new glimmerings.”
484. “Disco Inferno,” The Trammps. Songwriters: Leroy Green, Ron Kersey; #11 pop/#9 R&B; 1976. Ed Cermanski of The Trammps, “Ron (Kersey) said he had a really cool groove. He put the words together, and it was supposedly inspired by the movie ‘Towering Inferno.’ I think his idea was to put a disco theme around the influence of that movie. Of course, the song wasn’t meant to be about burning a building down; it was more about the burning desire to dance!” The Trammps specialized in delayed gratification. Their song “Hold Back the Night” was released in 1973, was re-released in 1975, and finally hit the Top Forty chart in 1976. Likewise, “Disco Inferno” was released in 1976 and was an R&B hit in 1977. The band’s satisfaction came with a chain reaction. After being included on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, “Disco Inferno” became a #11 pop hit in 1978 and is one of the most unforgettable songs of the disco era. Although aimed at the dance floor, there’s a solid R&B sound in the rhythm section and Jimmy Ellis added testifying vocal thunder to the proceedings. No act, save the Bee Gees, got more white people in polyester suits on the dance floor. Burn, baby, burn.
483. “To Sir with Love,” Lulu. Songwriters: Don Black, Mark London; #1 pop; 1967. Scotland native Maria McLaughlin, professionally known as Lulu, had her first U.K. pop hit when she was fifteen years old with her 1964 cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” She made her acting debut in 1967, starring in the film “To Sir, with Love,” with Sidney Poitier. Lulu thought that the songs the producers had selected for the film were “rotten” and reached out to Canadian composer Mark London for material. Lulu on “To Sir with Love,” “I was over the moon. I just knew it was going to be a great song.” The lyrics portray a young girl becoming a woman and showing appreciation for her mentor for providing support and guidance. Arranger Mike Leander, who also developed the string arrangement for The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” built a triumphant chorus and the resulting single spent five weeks at #1 in the U.S. Lulu later became a U.K. television star and had a major international hit in 1974 with her cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” beating Kurt Cobain on becoming nouveau hip via The Thin White Duke by two decades.
482. “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield. Songwriter: Stephen Stills; #7 pop; 1967. “For What It’s Worth” captured the turmoil of the 1960s better than any other song, the sense that American society’s traditional thinking of morality was being re-evaluated, creating more chaos than enlightenment. Stephen Stills on the inspiration, “The commercial merchants on Sunset Boulevard in a certain area decided that the element of young people on the street every night was not conducive to commercial enterprise. A bunch of kids got together on a street corner and said we aren’t moving. About three busloads of Los Angeles police showed up, who looked very much like storm troopers. … And I looked at it and said, ‘Jesus, America is in great danger.’” Journalist David Browne, “With its emphasis on Stills’ spooked voice, drummer Dewey Martin’s ominous snare drum and Neil Young’s warning-bell two-note guitar part in the verse, the track became the band’s only hit. Yet equally striking was its sound: The eerily quiet song captured the uneasy mood of the moment that extended beyond Los Angeles to Vietnam. ‘For What It’s Worth’ has transcended its origin story to become one of pop’s most-covered protest songs – a sort of ‘We Shall Overcome’ of its time, its references to police, guns and paranoia remaining continually relevant.” The origin of the song’s title? Stephen Stills introduced the composition to the band stating, “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.”
481. “Why Don’t You Love Me,” Hank Williams with his Drifting Cowboys. Songwriter: Hank Williams; #1 country; 1950. “Why Don’t You Love Me” is another relationship soap opera song from Hank, highlighting his artful simplicity and his keen sense of humor. In this one, he concedes that he’s a little bit of trouble. Bob Dylan, “I tried to sing everything he would sing. Hank Williams was the first influence…I guess for a longer period of time than anyone else. Even at a young age, I identified fully with him. I didn’t have to experience anything Hank did to know what he was singing about.”