The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 550 to 541
550. “Ain’t That a Shame,” Fats Domino. Songwriters: Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew; #10 pop/#1 R&B; 1955. Fats Domino was rocking away his blues, with perhaps no small tinge of sarcasm, on “Ain’t That a Shame,” which was a #1 single in 1955 for wildman Pat Boone who suggested changing the title to “Isn’t That a Shame.” Rock critic Bill Dahl, “In conjunction with his producer Dave Bartholomew, Domino enjoyed a nonstop string of smashes dating back to 1950 on the R&B charts and once white teens picked up on the non-threatening, rotund Crescent City piano man with the rollicking band, Domino was suddenly a rock & roll star of the first magnitude. ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ was the tune that propelled him into the pop arena once and for all; not appreciably different from a number of other waxings from the same timeframe by the Creole-inflected pianist, its stop-time breaks, a strong mid-tempo rhythm, and a hearty tenor sax break by longtime bandsman Herb Hardesty framed Domino in precisely the correct manner to entice a new demographical influx.” Cheap Trick returned “Ain’t That a Shame” to the Top 40 in 1979 with a live version arranged to be a showcase for drummer Bun E. Carlos.
549. “Super Freak,” Rick James. Songwriters: Rick James, Alonzo Miller; #16 pop/#3 R&B; 1981. Rick James (bitch) started his career as a musician in the mid-1960s, including being a member of the Mynah Birds with Neil Young, and had his breakthrough hit with the 1978 disco influenced funk number “You and I.” He would later become the sole proprietor of “punk funk,” his description of his rock ‘n’ roll/new wave influenced funk sound. Rick James, on his 1981 smash hit about dating the kind of girl who appears in new wave magazines and how much he enjoyed tasting her, “I wanted to write a silly song. I was in the studio and everything else for the album (‘Street Songs’) was done. I just put ‘Super Freak’ together really quickly. I wanted a silly song that had a bit of new wave texture to it. So I just came up with this silly little lick and expounded on it. I came up with the bass part first. Then I put a guitar on it and keyboards, doing the ‘ehh ehh,’ silly keyboard part. Then I found a tuning on my Oberheim OB-Xa that I’d been wanting to use for a long time – it sounds like ghosts. And I put a very operatic vocal structure on it ’cause I’m really into opera and classical music. You probably hear a lot of that in my music. So I put (sings in a deep voice) ‘She’s all right’; very operatic, sort of funny, stuff.” James would later be known just as much for his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and criminal activity as he was for his music. James in the 1990s, reflecting on living his gimmick, “There was a time where I was just trying to live the image wholeheartedly. I mean, Rick James was just a man-made image, the image I created. Just trying to live Rick James almost killed me.”
548. “Take It Easy,” The Eagles. Songwriters: Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey; #12 pop; 1972. Before forming one of the most successful and polarizing bands of their era, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Randy Meisner, were working as hired guns, serving in Linda Ronstadt’s backing band. After forming their own group, the Eagles were quickly signed and had a breakthrough hit with “Take It Easy,” a song that Jackson Browne had started writing and that Glenn Frey completed. Browne, “He finished it in spectacular fashion. And, what’s more, arranged it in a way that was far superior to what I had written.” Highlighting the band’s strong harmony singing, “Take It Easy” was memorable, catchy, perfect L.A soft rock county radio fare. Travis Tritt released a cover version in 1994 and the corresponding tribute album “Common Thread: The Songs of the Eagles” became such a surprise hit that Nashville spent the rest of that decade trying to replicate the Eagles sound. Today, a statue stands in honor of the lyrics to “Take It Easy.” On a corner. In Winslow, Arizona.
547. “Drunken Angel,” Lucinda Williams. Songwriter: Lucinda Williams; Did Not Chart; 1998. Almost a decade after his death and well before he became a posthumous cottage industry, Lucinda Williams penned “Drunken Angel” about Austin singer Blaze Foley, who she has described as both “a fuck up who put duct tape on his shoes and duct tape on his guitar” and as “a genius and a beautiful loser.” Lucinda covers both aspects of Foley in her song with the lyrics, “Followers would cling to you/Hang around just to meet you/Some threw roses at your feet/And watch you pass out on the street/Drunken angel.” Lucinda, on the influence of her father, poet/college professor Miller Williams, “When I was working on ‘Drunken Angel,’ it was pretty much finished, and I had this line, ‘blood flows out of a hole in his heart.’ He said, ‘I think it would be better if it was ‘THE hole in his heart.’ I never took a writing course, but I had him as a teacher.” Williams on the impact of the song today, “I’ll tell people that the song has become something now that could be about Townes (Van Zandt) or Gram Parsons or Kurt Cobain or any artist who’s died too young and given up the ghost. People respond to that.”
546. “Come on Eileen,” Dexys Midnight Runners. Songwriters: Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson, Billy Adams; #1 pop; 1983. Dexys Midnight Runners formed in Birmigham, England in 1978, naming themselves after a popular amphetamine. They scored a #1 U.K. hit in 1980 with “Geno,” a tribute to soul singer Geno Washington, and later found U.S. success via MTV and the unrepressed sexual desires of “Come on Eileen.” The song’s arrangement manages to be both joyful and ridiculous, like if Queen had become a pseudo-folk Celtic act. Kevin Rowland, “We wanted a good rhythm and we found one. Lots of records we liked had that rhythm: ‘Concrete and Clay’ (a 1965 U.K. hit from the band Unit 4 +2), ‘It’s Not Unusual’ by Tom Jones. Lots of records we liked had that ‘Bomp ba bomp, bomp ba bomp.’ We felt it was a good rhythm. We came up with the chord sequence ourselves and just started singing melodies over it. I remember thinking, ‘We’re really onto something here.’ I came up with that, ‘Too ra loo ra,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is sounding really good.’ You get a feeling when you’re writing a song. Something happens. And in the end it kind of finished itself. It’s about somebody I grew up with. It’s absolutely true all the way. I was about 14 or 15 and sex came into it and our relationship had always been so clean. It seemed at the time to get dirty and that’s what it’s about. I was really trying to capture that atmosphere.”
545. “Care of Cell 44,” The Zombies. Songwriter: Rod Argent; Did Not Chart; 1967. The Zombies 1968 album “Odessey and Oracle” is considered one of the peaks of the psychedelic pop era, however the band had already broken up by the time it was released. The single “Care of Cell 44,” a jaunty pop song about the impending release of a prisoner, was released prior to the album. Vocalist Colin Blunstone, perhaps ignoring the song’s theme, “I thought that ‘Care of Cell 44’ was incredibly commercial. I was really disappointed when it wasn’t a hit.” Author John Motley, “At the end of the first ineffably sing-song verse, Colin Blunstone tells his sweetie, ‘You can tell me about your prison stay’ – and sounds positively tickled. To be fair, describing the song’s lush arrangement and ecstatic melodies as ‘sunny’ is a vast understatement. Every time Blunstone belts out, ‘Feels! So! Good! You’re coming home soon!’ after the lull of a Beach Boys–style multi-part harmony, it sounds like his heart’s burst with joy.” Rod Argent on the unusual theme, “It just appealed to me. That twist on a common scenario, I just can’t wait for you to come home to me again.” This is pop music’s finest pending post incarceration euphoria moment.
544. “Hanging on the Telephone,” Blondie. Songwriter: Jack Lee; Did Not Chart; 1978. Blondie delivered a perfect pop rock album with 1978’s “Parallel Lines,” a collection filled with 1960’s girl group influences but with a contemporary sound that flirted with both new wave and disco. “Hanging on the Telephone,” a two minute and seventeen second exploding cover of The Nerves’ power pop stable, was the album’s lead track and a Top 5 U.K. hit. Producer Mike Chapman, “That track was magic from the beginning. Initially, they didn’t know quite how much to put into it, but I told them, ‘Look, this is more like the stuff on your first two records. Let’s give it that sort of punk/new wave attitude.’ I knew that the energy level on that track would make it or break it.” Songwriter Jack Lee, who got the call that Blondie was going to cover his song the same day his electricity and phone service were being cut off, “Even people who hated me – and there were plenty – had to admit it was great.”
543. “La vie en rose,” Édith Piaf. Édith Piaf, Louiguy Monnot, Marguerite Monnot; #23 pop; released in 1947 and peaked on the U.S. charts in 1950. Édith Piaf became a major star in France during the late 1930s, well known for her diminutive status (she was well under five feet in height) and her dramatic, mournful songs. The literal translation of “La ve en rose” is “Life in Pink” and the French lyrics about experience life through a positive lens resonated with a post World War II audience. To modern ears (mine anyway) “La vie en rose” sounds like a seductive theater romance number. Author Helen Brown, “Piaf’s melody whisks you up in its arms and takes you for a slow, dreamy twirl, briefly breaking hold for a few spoken sections before resuming the dance. Her version sold more than one million copies and made her name across the Atlantic, where Americans were startled to behold such a tiny woman in a simple black frock, exuding none of the Hollywood glamour to which they were accustomed.” Seven different versions of “La vie en rose” appeared on the U.S. Top Forty chart in 1950, including Piaf’s original and a warm hug take by Louis Armstrong.
542. “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor. Songwriter: James Taylor; #3 pop; 1970. James Taylor was only twenty-one when “Fire and Rain” was released, but he had already spent time in a mental institution and had developed a heroin habit. The introspective lyrics detail the finality of losing a friend and reflect upon some of Taylor’s personal demons. While critics had mixed views on his work (Lester Bangs famously wrote an essay championing protopunk music titled “James Taylor Marked for Death”), the “Sweet Baby James” album put Taylor in the forefront of the burgeoning singer/songwriter movement. Taylor, reflecting on his signature song in 2000, “That song relieved a lot of sort of tension. There was things that I needed to get rid of or at least get out of me or get in front of me or at least have some other relationship than feeling them internally, either by telling somebody else or by just putting them out in a form in front of me so that I could say, ‘There they are,’ you know, externalizing it somehow. And that part was hard, having the feelings that needed to be expressed in that way. But it was actually a relief, like a laugh or a sigh.”
541. “Heartaches by the Number,” Ray Price. Songwriter: Harlan Howard; #2 country; 1959. Ray Price was known for his ability to spot and develop talent – at various times Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Roger Miller, and Johnny Paycheck worked in his band. Price and Ernest Tubb had reworked the Harlan Howard composition “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” for a Charlie Walker hit in 1958. Price gave Howard, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of fame member who famously defined country music as “three chords and the truth,” his second Top Ten country hit in 1959 with the two-step friendly, upbeat yet downhearted “Heartaches by the Number,” perhaps the signature song from Price’s honky tonk era. Price on Harlan Howard, “They were down-to-earth (songs). They wasn’t accusatory kind of songs, they wasn’t drunken songs, they was just love songs. His songs fit me to a T, and I recorded a lot of them…. Everything was placed just right, and it wasn’t contrived.” Songwriter Harlan Howard on the financial windfall, “I went out and did the typical hillbilly thing. I bought a brand-new, white-on-white Coupe de Ville, paid $5,200 cash for it. The next thing I did was move to Nashville and hit the ground running, writing day and night for 10 or 12 years. I kept at it, almost like a fever, until finally it occurred to me that I had enough hits built up that I would never have to go back to Los Angeles and (drive) that fork truck.”