The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 770 to 761
770. “Let Me Down Easy,” Bettye LaVette. Songwriter: Wrecia Holloway (Dee Dee Ford); #20 R&B; 1965. Bettye LaVette’s life has not been boring. From her 2012 autobiography, “A vicious pimp was precariously holding on to my right foot as he dangled me from the top of a twenty-story apartment building at Amsterdam and Seventy-eighth Street. It is as true as it is ironic that some months earlier this same man had met me at Small’s Paradise in Harlem, where I was singing my semi-hit ‘Let Me Down Easy.’” The Michigan born soul singer is begging for romantic mercy on the smoldering R&B effort. Author Vladimir Bogdanov, “’Let Me Down Easy,’ a staple of the Northern soul scene and the countless anthologies it’s yielded, is her masterpiece, a blisteringly poignant requiem for romance gone distinguished by its tango-like rhythm and sweeping string arrangement.” LaVette’s plea for empathy was sometimes too effective. LaVette, “I’d been told that James Brown didn’t want me to close my set with ‘Let Me Down Easy,’ because I was getting too much applause.”
769. “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday. Songwriter: Abel Meeropol; #16 pop; 1939. “Strange Fruit” is, by design, not a comfortable listening experience – Billie Holiday sings explicitly about lynchings (“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”) with dark, sparse instrumentation. It’s difficult to imagine this was a pop hit during the era of Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, and Kay Kyser, but the single eventually sold over a million copies. The song was written by Jewish civil rights activist Abel Meeropol, but Holiday had a strong emotional attachment to the lyrics. Her father had died at the age of 39, after being refused medical treatment due to his skin color. Holiday, “It reminds me of how Pop died. But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.” Author Emily Lordy, “There’s a real minimalist aesthetic to her recording that calls attention to just how striking the lyric is… There is simmering rage in the way she clips the syllables and that (vocal) ‘drop.’ But there’s also a deep mournful quality to Holiday’s performance.” Jazz writer Leonard Feather described “Strange Fruit” as “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.” Time magazine named “Strange Fruit” the song of the century in 1999.
768. “My Favorite Things,” John Coltrane. Songwriters: Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II; Did Not Chart; 1961. There’s almost no jazz in this countdown (sorry Miles, sorry Thelonious), because the genre, in general, is so far out of my areas of interest. The Rodgers and Hammerstein composition “My Favorite Things” is best known from its performance by Julie Andrews in the film “The Sound of Music.” Saxophonist John Coltrane used the melody to explore new concepts in modal jazz. From the documentary “The World According to John Coltrane,” “In 1960, Coltrane left Miles (Davis) and formed his own quartet to further explore modal playing, freer directions, and a growing Indian influence. They transformed ‘My Favorite Things,’ the cheerful populist song from ‘The Sound of Music,’ into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance. The recording was a hit and became Coltrane’s most requested tune and a bridge to broad public acceptance.” Author Peter Lavezzoli, “The recorded version retains a special freshness and vitality. Not only was it a radical reinvention of an American pop song, but it was another example of Coltrane’s development as a modal improviser. It was also the first indication that Coltrane was beginning to absorb the melodic and timbral aspects of Indian music into his work, not only in the repetitive drone like patterns of the bass, but in Coltrane’s tone on the soprano sax itself.” That is to say, this thirteen minute piece is a trip.
767. “Duke of Earl,” Gene Chandler. Songwriters: Gene Chandler (Eugene Dixon), Earl Edwards, Bernice Williams; #1 pop/#1 R&B; 1962. Chicago South Side product Eugene Dixon performed with vocal groups during his high school years and was a member of the doo wop act The Dukays in the early 1960s. That group originally recorded the unstoppable royalty romance number “Duke of Earl.” After the song was purchased by Vee-Jay Records, the label changed the billing from The Dukays to Gene Chandler (Dixon’s new stage name). Chandler developed the unique vocal phrasing for the lyrics, incorporating a warm up singing exercise into the song. Author Blair Jackson on “Duke of Earl,” “Is there anyone who was not charmed by its graceful doo-wop pace, by the basso profundo opening and lead singer Gene Chandler’s tenor soaring into those unearthly falsetto ‘oo-oo-oo’s’ near the end?” Chandler, perhaps branding himself as a novelty act, wore a cape, top hat, and monocle as his “Duke of Earl” persona. He returned to the Top Twenty of the pop charts in 1965 with the Curtis Mayfield composition “Nothing Can Stop Me” and had his second biggest hit in 1970 with the “can you dig it” pop/soul of “Groovy Situation,” a favorite of newsman Ron Burgundy.
766. “Sympathy for the Devil,” The Rolling Stones. Songwriters: Mick Jaggers, Keith Richards; Did Not Chart; 1968. Rolling Stone magazine on Jagger’s pleased-to-meet-you, hope- you-guess-my name look at the dark side of life, “The inspiration for this hellish detour came from Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel ‘The Master and Margarita,’ which depicts Satan having his way in 1930s Moscow. Richards struggled to find the right backing for Jagger’s menacing Dylan-esque lyrics, unsure ‘whether it should be a samba or a goddamn folk song,’ he recalled. The Stones ended up giving the devil one of their best grooves, built on Rocky Dijon’s congas and Bill Wyman’s Bo Diddley-ish maracas.” Keith Richards, “’Sympathy for the Devil’ started as sort of a folk song with acoustics, and ended up as a kind of mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later. That’s why I don’t like to go into the studio with all the songs worked out and planned beforehand.” Jagger once reflected that the rhythm has “an undercurrent of being primitive – because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.”
765. “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” The Gap Band. Songwriters: Lonnie Simmons, Rudy Taylor, Charlie Wilson; #31 pop/#2 R&B; 1981. The Gap Band was comprised of Charlie, Ronnie, and Robert Wilson, three brothers from Tulsa who named themselves after the first letters of their neighborhood streets Greenwood, Archer, and Pine (the Greenwood District was the site of the Tulsa Race riot/massacre in 1921). Their primary success was on the R&B chart hits, but they crossed over to the pop Top Forty in the early 1980s with the find another lover themed “Early in the Morning” and the…um…explosive sex song “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” Blogger Jeff Terich, “As the Gap Band eased into the ’80s, so did their technology, with big, beefy synthesizers taking over where fat basslines once were. The synths at the heart of ‘You Dropped a Bomb on Me’ are the main attraction, vibing and pulsing while Charlie Wilson pursues an extended metaphor for being turned on by a fine female. With its whistling bomb sound effect, this tale of being sexually awestruck has remained relevant as an arena rock jock jam.”
764. “Even the Losers,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Songwriter: Tom Petty; Did Not Chart; 1979. “Even the Losers” is an album track from Petty’s commercial breakthrough record, 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes.” Musically, it’s a Byrds meets Stones synthesis while lyrically Petty remembers the girl who made him feel like a short term winner (written about an actual high school crush). Although never released as a single in the U.S., “Even the Losers” was too good to omit from Petty’s excellent 1993 “Greatest Hits” CD, which has sold over ten million units. Petty on recording the song, “That’s the weirdest one ever. I had everything but the chorus and I was bold enough to say, ‘Let’s cut this thing.’ But I had no idea what I was going to sing when I got to that point. And, boom, divine intervention – it just came out. I’m not even going to question where that came from.” Perhaps every word he sang was meant to be.
763. “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick,” Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Songwriter: Ian Dury; Did Not Chart; 1978. A most unlikely pop star, Ian Dury was barely over five feet tall and carried a walking stick, resulting from a childhood bout with polio. Perhaps his constant reminder of the disease inspired the sexually suggestive “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick,” a move from Stiff Record’s simple punk rock sound to a funky dance groove. A strangely mixed record that included Davey Payne playing two saxophones at the same time, “Rhythm Stick” was edgy enough for the alternative crowd, yet so catchy that it became a #1 U.K. pop hit. Dury’s insistent demand to be smacked in the song wasn’t without irony. Producer Laurie Latham, “He wasn’t the kind of guy to invite to your party, because within five minutes it would be Ian’s party, and if it wasn’t Ian’s party, he would make sure to disrupt it.”
762. “What You Won’t Do for Love,” Bobby Caldwell. Songwriters: Bobby Caldwell, Alfons Kettner; #9 pop/#6 R&B. Miami based singer Bobby Caldwell was so soulful on “What You Won’t Do for Love,” his early audiences were surprised to learn that he wasn’t a black man (a fact that was carefully obscured by his disco oriented label TK Records). Caldwell, reflecting on his singing, “Quite honestly, I never thought I sounded black. I thought I sounded like a white guy that was influenced by R&B music. But people would swear up and down I was black. Huge amounts of money were lost in bets.” The sophisticated sound and arrangement of “What You Won’t Do for Love” makes it the type of rare record that could have been a hit in any era. An underappreciated talent, Caldwell maintained a lengthy, if low profile, career by singing pop and jazz standards.
761. “Let the Music Play,” Shannon. Songwriters: Chris Barbosa, Ed Chisolm; #8 pop/#2 R&B; 1983. Washington, D.C., native Shannon Brenda Greene was discovered by producers Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa while she was attending York College in 1983. “Let the Music Play,” her only Top Forty single, is a mixture of techno and dance and is considered an early version of the “freestyle” sound that was popular in the New York Latino community during the 1980s. The song has been described by rock critic Peter Shapiro as “a cross between Gary Numan and Tito Puente.” Music journalist Bruce Tantum, “’Let the Music Play’ is as much a love song to then-new sounds of beat machines like the 808 and the 303 as it is an extended metaphor for gaining and losing love on the dancefloor.” Producer Arthur Baker, “They used gated reverb on the kick and the snare throughout the record. Of course, when I heard ‘Let the Music Play,’ I went ‘God, I want drums like that,’ when they had, basically, taken the idea from one of my records (Africa Bambaataa’s ‘Looking for the Perfect Beat’). We were all listening to each other.” Singer Shannon Greene in 2020, “I have toured from Europe to Africa, to Israel, to the Caribbeans. ‘Let the Music Play’ was the debut song that took me all over the world.”