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The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 70 to 61

 

70. “And It Stoned Me,” Van Morrison. Songwriter: Van Morrison; Did Not Chart; 1970. Morrison, “I suppose I was about 12 years old. We used to go to a place called Ballystockart to fish. We stopped in the village on the way up to this place and I went to this little stone house, and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from the stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this ‘other dimension.’ That’s what the song is about.” The lead track on Van Morrison’s “Moondance” album is a country tinged ode to simple times with remembrances of county fairs, fishing poles, mountain streams, and a salute to jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. The eloquent horn arrangement provides a dreamlike feel while Morrison narrates a blissful baptism in nature.

69. “Don’t Be Cruel,” Elvis Presley. Songwriter: Otis Blackwell; #1 pop/#1 country/#1 R&B; 1956. African American songwriter Otis Blackwell was raised in Brooklyn, where he played piano and became a fan of both R&B and country music. After winning an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, he became a recording artist for a short period of time, but quickly changed his focus to songwriting. He wrote several rock ‘n’ roll and pop classics including “Fever,” popularized by Little Willie John and Peggy Lee, Jerry Lee’s “Great Balls of Fire,” and the Jimmy Jones/James Taylor hit “Handy Man.” He is probably best known for his association with Elvis, writing “All Shook Up,” “Return to Sender,” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Elvis owned every chart known to mankind in 1956 and “Don’t Be Cruel” was a #1 pop, R&B, and country single. Author Chris Herrington, “With Bill Black and D.J. Fontana popping from the jump and the Jordanaires having perhaps their finest backup vocal moment, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ positively swings before Elvis really gets ahold of it. But when he does, it’s as easeful a vocal as he ever recorded. At his best, Elvis sang like genius athletes often play, with casual command and self-aware delight.”

68. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin Gaye. Songwriter: Marvin Gaye; #4 pop/#1 R&B; 1971. “Mercy Mercy Me” is so musically captivating that you barely notice that Gaye is singing about mercury filled fish and dying animals. The drum and echo sound, reportedly a reverb drenched result of hitting a wood block with a rubber mallet, are unlike anything else in the Motown catalogue. Album arranger David Van DePitte on drummer Chet Forest, “Marvin wanted somebody other than the normal drummers who worked Motown. Chet was coming from a different place. He was a white guy and he had done a great deal of studying in the classical vein. He was also one of the best jazz drummers I ever worked with. When this guy locked into a groove, you couldn’t shift him.” Marvin Gaye on his 1971 album “What’s Going On,” “I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.” In 2020, Rolling Stone placed “What’s Going On” at the top of their ever evolving list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

67. “Try A Little Tenderness,” Otis Redding. Songwriters: Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, Harry M. Woods; #25 pop/#4 R&B; 1966. “Try a Little Tenderness” was originally recorded as a big band number by the Ray Noble Orchestra in 1932 and was covered by Aretha Franklin three decades later. Isaac Hayes arranged Redding’s version, a #25 pop hit, which begins with sparse instrumentation and ends with Otis being propelled by Booker T. and the Memphis Horns as he passionately belts out his instructions to “LOVE her, SQUEEZE her.” (Tenderly, of course.) Jim Stewart of Stax, “The drum part always killed me because (Al) Jackson was like a metronome, how he changed the tempo. I defy any drummer to do that exactly the same. It’s one of my favorite Stax records of all time. From beginning to end, it’s like the history of Stax is wrapped up in it.” Author Emily Lordi, “This paternalistic ballad about the power of male affection to revive female morale had been covered by Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke in the years preceding Redding’s version. But whereas Franklin and Cooke maintained the song’s basic ballad structure, Redding revolutionized it. The recording owes its drama not just to Redding’s throaty vocals and lyrical embellishments, but also to the synergy of the band as a unit. As Jonathan Gould writes in his wonderful new biography ‘Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life,’ ‘the track is … a musical microcosm of the Stax sound, a seamless synthesis of the pleading ballads and pounding grooves that (Stax artists) played better than anyone else.’”

66. “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard. Songwriters: Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Enotris Johnson, Little Richard; #13 pop/#1 R&B; 1956. “Long Tall Sally” is another one of Little Richard’s howling celebrations of promiscuity. The record had a particularly strong impact on English teenager John Lennon, who later remembered, “When I heard it, it was so great I couldn’t speak. You know how you’re torn? I didn’t want to leave Elvis. Elvis was bigger than religion in my life. We all looked at each other, but I didn’t want to say anything against Elvis, not even in my mind. How could they be happening in my life, BOTH of them?” Paul McCartney was similarly impressed and performed the song at his first meeting with John Lennon. Rock critic Dave Marsh, “’Long Tall Sally’ is piano music, but the instrumental break is dominated by Lee Allen’s sax and Earl Palmer’s drums playing an apotheosis of the New Orleans shuffle. Richard gives a singularly stentorian, almost hoarse, shouting vocal, a little ragged but exactly right. ‘Long Tall Sally’ is one of the documents that established the art of rock ‘n’ roll.” There may not be a more poetic couplet in rock ‘n’ roll history than: “Well, long tall Sally, she’s built for speed/She got everything that Uncle John need.”

65. “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads. Songwriters: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, Brian Eno; Did Not Chart; 1980. We’ve all been there. There’s that point where you are standing in line for deep fried butter at the county fair or having a threesome with the waitress that just served you and your buddy breakfast or talking to your financial advisor about your multi-million dollar portfolio and think, “My God, how did I get here?” David Byrne, “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here?’ Most of the words in ‘Once in a Lifetime’ come from evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.” Music journalist Malcolm Jack, “Between Tina Weymouth’s spacious yet forceful bassline, Brian Eno’s gurgling synth drones and Jerry Harrison’s climactic organ flourish, all pieced together puzzle-like in unusual and disorientating rhythmic intervals, ‘Once in a Lifetime’ is a thing of dizzying power, beauty and mystery. Over it all lies Byrne’s head-scratching half-spoken half-sung vocal about living in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife, days going by and water flowing underground, written ad-hoc to Eno’s placeholder mumblings and inspired by the call-and-response style rantings of American radio evangelists. You can read ‘Once in a Lifetime’ as an art-pop rumination on the existential ticking time bomb of unchecked consumerism and advancing age. Or simply as a fierce groove with a clutch of nonsense lyrics dashed on the top. Either way, it sounds like nothing else in the history of pop.” There is water at the bottom of the ocean.

64. “Let’s Stay Together,” Al Green. Songwriters: Al Green, Willie Mitchell; Al Jackson, Jr.; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1971. “Let’s Stay Together” was a turning point for Al Green. It’s hard to imagine now, but he started his career with a hard-edged R&B sound. Producer Willie Mitchell was looking for falsetto voice to contrast against his tight rhythm section. Green didn’t originally like this song or his vocals and he wasn’t convinced of its hit potential. However, his statement of love was so beautifully delivered, “Let’s Stay Together” has become a standard as a pledge or romantic devotion. Nobody has made monogamy sound more rewarding. In an odd production trick, Mitchell brought in some neighborhood winos to view the recording. Organist Charles Hodges, “Sometimes when you sing about something, if you look at people, you can relate with the song a little more compassionately. You’d be surprised what you can project from that. You feed on what you’re looking at.” President Barack Obama busted out his cover version in 2012 to begin his successful reelection campaign.

63. “Quarter to Three,” Gary U.S. Bonds. Songwriters: Gene Barge, Frank Guida, Joseph Royster; #1 pop/#3 R&B; 1961. Gary Anderson performed on Norfolk, Virginia street corners with his high school vocal group The Turks and started recording with producer Frank Guida in 1960. He found out he had a stage name after hearing his 1960 hit “New Orleans” on the radio. His 1961 #1 single “Quarter to Three” is one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest party records. This all-night dance party celebration was written by adding lyrics to an instrumental titled “A Night with Daddy G” (a reference to saxophone player Gene Barge) by the Church Street Five. Producer Frank Guida, “When ‘Quarter to Three’ came out, we stood the world on its heels. There was nothing like it, nothing.” Guda’s massive overdubbing of claps and vocals resulted in the fuzzy, chaotic sound. Saxophonist Gene Barge, “When they started mailing it to jocks, they wouldn’t play it. They said, ‘This sounds like it was cut in the crapper.’ Gary has a talent to be able to overdub himself. He could sing ‘Quarter to Three”’ and then go back and sing another version exactly the same, with the same inflections. A lot of people can’t do that. They forgot what they did. He must have multi’d that about seven times—ping-ponging and overdubbing. Give (engineer) Joe Royster the credit there. It was like five or six Garys on that record.” Author Greil Marcus, “There is no more exciting passage in rock than the slow build of pressure that finally erupts into the celebrations of ‘Quarter to Three.’” Gary U.S. Bonds on inspiring another hit from that era, “Dion, every time I see him—every time I see him, I get so tired of it—the first words out of his mouth are ‘If it wasn’t for you, there’d be no ‘Runaround Sue.’”

62. “Knock on Wood,” Eddie Floyd. Songwriters: Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd; #28 pop/#1 R&B; 1966. Eddie Floyd had his first pop success as a member of the Detroit R&B band The Falcons, who peaked at #17 on the pop charts in 1959 with “You’re So Fine.” He was hired as a staff writer for Stax Records in 1965 and penned several songs for Wilson Pickett. He somewhat accidentally became a solo star with “Knock on Wood,” a song that was originally slotted for Otis Redding, but it was determined that Floyd’s lighter touch was a better fit. Steve Cropper, “We were trying to write a song about superstitions, and after we’d exhausted about every superstition known to man at that time, from cats to umbrellas, you name it, we said, what do people do for good luck? And Ed tapped on the chair and said, ‘knock on wood, there it is.’ So basically the whole theme of the song changed, and we started to sing about, I’d better knock on wood for good luck, that I can keep this girl that I got, because she’s the greatest – and that’s what it was about.” Author Rob Bowman, “David Porter contributed a second voice on the chorus, simply because he poked his head in the studio while Floyd was cutting the song. (Drummer) Al Jackson contributed the idea for the ‘knocking’ drum hook that follows Floyd’s evocation ‘You gotta knock…’” Per Eddie Floyd, the drummer was inspired by comedian Stepin Fetchit’s performance of ‘Open the Door Richard.’” Eddie Floyd on Steve Cropper’s intro, “That intro is actually the intro to Wilson Pickett’s ‘In the Midnight Hour,’ only it’s turned around backwards. Only Steve could have thought to do that. He turned the chords around, using the song he had originally done with Pickett, and it all came together.”

61. “Refugee,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Songwriters: Tom Petty, Mike Campbell; #15 pop; 1979. This single was the peak for Petty’s Heartbreakers in the rock ‘n’ roll intensity department, with s slow burn on the versus and an explosion in the chorus. Petty, explaining the “everybody’s had to fight to be free” concept, “This was a reaction to the pressures of the music business. I wound up in a huge row with the record company when ABC Records tried to sell our contract to MCA Records without us knowing about it, despite a clause in our contract that said they didn’t have the right to do that. I was so angry with the whole system that I think that had a lot to do with the tone of the ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ album. I was in this defiant mood. I wasn’t so conscious of it then, but I can look back and see what was happening. I find that’s true a lot. It takes some time usually before you fully understand what’s going on in a song – or maybe what led up to it.” Simon Vizock-Levinson of the New York Times, “The betrayal in Mr. Petty’s voice as he shouts the chorus is so piercing that it hardly matters whether anyone understands what, specifically, he means when he accuses his romantic partner of living ‘like a refugee.’ The intensity of feeling is the point. At this stage in his career, he sang often about feeling ill-treated, but never with quite the electric charge heard here.”

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