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What’s Your Name?

What’s Your Name?

Women have inspired most of the popular songs we listen to. Many popular songs have female names in their titles. So many that I have chosen to go alphabetically.

Amelia My two favorite songs on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album have women’s names in their titles. Both “Song for Sharon” and “Amelia” are long, mesmerizing songs. The hypnotic music groove supplied by Joni’s guitar provides the perfect bed for the provocative lyrics. (Joni Mitchell is not only one of the best lyricists, but is also among the best guitarists in pop-rock music history.)

Joni's Hejira

Joni’s Hejira

“Amelia” is Amelia Earhart. Joni Mitchell has said that the song uses the aviator and her driven quest to represent her own overriding need to travel and perform music, to the disruption of family and relationships and a normal life. It’s a repetitive song that I never tire of. And we get to hear Ms. Mitchell’s Canadian r at the end of every verse as she sings “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.”

Bernadette The Four Tops had a string of powerful hits featuring lead vocalist Levi Stubbs. My favorites have always been their number ones, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “I Can’t Help Myself.” But just a notch below is their wonderful “Bernadette.” It’s a hard-driving number, like “Reach Out,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” and others that made these Motown stars second only to The Beach Boys as American hit-makers of the era.

I should also mention the Looking Glass hit “Brandy”—not because it’s a favorite, but because it’s the song my Sweetie asserts is her least favorite song of all time (with the exception of anything by Joni Mitchell, including “Amelia”). I had always loved imitating the lead vocal, with its quasi-lounge delivery, but especially liked doing so once I learned of my Sweetie’s annoyance by it. (Alas, I’m not able to do a convincing Join Mitchell impersonation.)

taraf

Carolina I recently made a discovery, upon listening again to the Romanian band Taraf de Haidouk’s 2001 album Band of Gypsies, that one song, “Carolina,” is a remake of a song from across the globe. The song is credited on the album to Gabi Voicila, but it’s actually a revved-up version of a song recorded in Jamaica in 1964 by The Folkes Brothers as “Oh Carolina,” one of the first ska/reggae songs. The original has a nice folky-Caribbean feel, which Shaggy, in 1993, turned into a delightful groove for his first hit. The woman is Caro-lie-na in the Jamaican versions, and Caro-lee-na in the Romanian, but it’s the same song.

Taraf de Haidouks are the quintessential “band of gypsies,” known for their frenetic, exultant workouts that feature violin, flute, impassioned vocals, and, underpinning it all (and occasionally taking a tasty ride) is the cimbalom, the happiest of musical instruments. It’s an Eastern European relative of the hammer dulcimer. It’s kind of like the back-end of an open grand piano, on which the cimbalom player strikes the strings with a mallet. The result is spidery and shimmery and enchanting. With a cimbalom aboard, a song’s lyrics may be sung in a language I don’t understand, and may be about failed crops or the death of a loved one, but the music sounds gleeful, and makes me want to tap, clap, and dance.

A happy cimbalom player

A happy cimbalom player

At any rate, I love Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina.” When subjected to Shaggy’s hits from the early ‘00s (while driving my daughter to school), I’d thought of him as a boring rapper whose verses worsened those mediocre songs that his guest artists sang. But Shaggy’s in control on “Oh Carolina.” I’ve reassessed Shaggy, due to that one song, which tops my running playlist. Groovy!

Fats

Fats

Dinah The great composer, pianist, singer, and raconteur Thomas “Fats” Waller did my favorite version of the 1925 song “Dinah.” It was written by Sam Lewis, Joe Young, and Harry Akst for Ethel Waters to sing in Plantation Revue. Many of my favorite singers recorded it, including The Boswell Sisters, The Mills Brothers, and Cliff Edwards. But Fats is the one I always hear. It’s got the sprightliness that he put across so well, and it seems timeless to me (although you’d be unlikely to hear anyone singing like that now—or singing that song any old way, for that matter).

p floyd

Emily One of Syd Barrett’s psychedelic-pop contributions to Pink Floyd’s repertoire was the loopy and beaty “See Emily Play.” It’s my favorite Pink Floyd song, which may mean I’m not a true Pink Floyd fan.

Honorable Mentions: Amity Great name. “Amity” is probably my favorite Elliott Smith song, though it isn’t really characteristic of his music.

Belle The great Al Green recorded one of his best albums a few years after his incredible string of hits. Belle featured a nice, acoustic guitar-driven title song, a laid-back but still vocally inventive Al entertains.

Caroline “Caroline, No” is the haunting closer of The Beach Boys’ much-praised Pet Sounds album. The album was mostly Brian and his toys, the session musicians he used to get all of those interesting colorations in the songs. The Boys were almost an afterthought. “Caroline, No” is all Brian, and was issued as a Brian Wilson single. The lyrics were by Tony Asher, but it comes from Brian’s heart and soul.

Delia Georgia bluesman Blind Wille McTell sings the sad story of “Little Delia,” accompanied by his twelve-string guitar. Delia gets herself mixed up with some bad “rounders,” especially one Kenny, who shoots her dead and winds up in jail. Sordid stuff, but a nice, bright tune!

Eleanor/ Elenore I must mention Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” which blew me away when I first heard it. And then there’s The Turtles’ “Elenore,” with its groovily square lyrics: “Elenore, gee, I think you’re swell.” “You’re my pride and joy, et cetera.” Wonderfully nerdy stuff from the Fluorescent Leech and Eddie.

Dream Jukebox: Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” is frequently on my iPod playlists of music to run to. When I get my Dream Jukebox, I’ll find the record.

School Days

School Days

School’s in session, but some of the best songs about school are, of course, about wanting to be out of school. Chuck Berry’s “School Days” is at the head of the class. In fact, Mr. Berry liked the melody and rhythm so much he recycled them years later as “No Particular Place to Go,” and nobody minded at all. “School Days” is a delightful song about anticipation of the end of the school day, and I imagine that many, many students in classrooms in 1957 and for years afterward had it playing in their heads ‘long about 2:30 every weekday.

Chuck Berry & Friend

Chuck Berry & Friend

Another “School Days” was written and recorded in 1974 by Al Green. Its mood and music are completely different from Chuck’s. It’s a slow-tempo song of longing for schooldays, a time when things were so good between Al and his gal. Now he wishes he could have her back. It’s minor Al Green, but any Al Green done during the first half of the seventies will still have the superb voice, over the sweetness-with-a-beat of Willie Mitchell’s Hi production.

And yet another “School Days” was written and recorded by Loudon Wainwright III. It’s the first song on his first album, from 1970, a reminiscence by a prep school grad, who looks back on his schoolboy grandiosity, when he compared himself to Brando, Dean, Keats, Blake, Buddha, and Christ. It’s a wonderful song about coming of age and realizing limitations. There’s a version of it on the 1998 McGarrigle Hour album that features the whole family: Loudon, ex-wife Kate McGarrigle and her sister/duo partner Anna, and Kate and Loudon’s daughter Martha and son Rufus.

Want Two, Rufus Wainwright

Want Two, Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright (why wasn’t he christened Loudon IV?) also has a great school song to his credit. “The Art Teacher” is a very unconventional schoolgirl/boy-crush song. Rufus Wainwright sings of his (her) love for his (her) art teacher. It’s a little jarring at first to hear his baritone sing “I was just a girl then,” but if you know Rufus, you quickly get with the program.

The guitar solo performed by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter for Steely Dan’s “My Old School” is among the most notable of the era, and I had the good fortune to witness it live before I heard it on vinyl. I was a Steely Dan fan after I first heard “Reeling in the Years” (another schooldays song). I bought their first album, Can’t Buy a Thrill (proving that one really can buy a thrill). Then arose one of those serendipitous opportunities: Gloria, a girl friend (but not a girlfriend) from my old school, got tickets to see Elton John, 3rd row-center at the Cotton Bowl, from her DJ brother, and asked if I’d go with her. Heck, yeah! We went, and what a wonderful surprise to find out that Steely Dan was the opening act, performing songs from their just-released album Countdown to Ecstasy! Skunk knocked everyone out on “My Old School” and “Bodhisattva,” and the whole Fagen and Becker experience was magical. (Elton was a hoot, too.) I never saw Gloria again, but I thank her to this day for allowing me to witness this show.

Skunk & the Boys, Countdown to Ecstasy

Skunk & the Boys, Countdown to Ecstasy

Another outstanding ‘70s school song is Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out.” The 1972 song was his biggest hit, at #7 on Billboard. It features one of my favorite verses from all of sixties pop: “Well, we got no class / And we got no principles / And we got no innocence / We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.” Another feature of note is the schoolkid chant sung by actual children. As set against the driving instruments of the track, it sounds menacing and eerie, and always reminded me of the set-piece in Hitchcock’s The Birds that counterpointed scenes of schoolchildren frolicking on a playground with a rapidly growing, increasingly ominous flock of devil birds. We hear the kids droning on and on a repetitive schoolyard song, unaware of their avian company. “School’s out for summer!” Run for your lives, kids!

“Good Morning, School Girl” was first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson I in 1937. It has been recorded countless times since, often as “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl,” by blues and blues-rock artists. Its lyrics may give one pause in these days of paranoia about sexual predators. The singer asks if he can go home with the “little schoolgirl,” noting that he “was once a schoolboy, too.” Yes, and maybe now he is prohibited from living within 300 yards of any school, park, or McDonald’s with a playground. Still, it’s a great blues number.

When Muddy Waters first came to Chicago in 1943, it was Sonny Boy #1 who shepherded him through the blues scene, and, appropriately, it is Muddy Waters’ fifties version of “Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl” that is my favorite.

Peter Guralnick Bio of Sam Cooke

Peter Guralnick Bio of Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke worked his magic on the song “Wonderful World” (co-written by Lou Adler and Herb Alpert). He says, “I don’t know much about history” and various other subjects of school-learnin’ but “I do know that I love you.” One of many perfect little love songs that the singer gave his unmatched mixture of sweet and rough to. It was a hit for Sam (#12 pop, #2 R&B), but Herman’s Hermits’ version in 1965 was a bigger hit (#4 pop). I don’t know much about public taste, but I do know that I love Sam Cooke’s version more.

The Gents in Action

The Gents in Action

Back in 1985, my friend and musical associate Toby came up with the idea of the Gentlemen’s Club, a four-part-harmony group modeled on The Four Freshmen. We still do gigs here and there, thirty years later, complete with the plaid pants, blazers, and dickies we’ve worn since the beginning. The first songs we learned were both Four Freshmen songs, “In This Whole Wide World” and “Graduation Day.” Interesting that The Four Frosh were around for many years, growing older and older, stuck with that schoolboy name and singing about senior proms and graduation day. When I saw them live, they were in their sixties. And now The Gents, in their sixties, are still singing “Graduation Day.” Arrested adolescence.

frosh 45

The Gents also did two other school songs, “Be True to Your School” and the a cappella Mayberry Union High alma mater, which was sung on an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Rah, rah, rah!

Dream Jukebox Candidates: Any Chuck Berry or Al Green would be welcome on my Dream Jukebox, but especially Chuck’s “School Days.” I’d also probably like having the Four Freshmen’s “Graduation Day” for when the mood hits me.

True Love

True Love

Throughout American pop music history, most songs have been love-themed, so choosing favorite love songs is a nearly impossible task. If you asked ten random people to name ten favorite love songs, there would probably be one hundred different songs named. I would find it difficult to narrow down a Top Love Songs list to 100 songs, or even 250. The ‘30s alone would cover that. So, I’m going to go decade by decade with some love song choices, starting with the thirties.

Fats

Some of America’s best songwriters hit their peaks in the thirties—the Gershwin Brothers, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin. I’m going to go with Fats Waller, who had dozens of hits in the thirties, and then, sadly, died young in 1943. Sure, Fats was known for novelty numbers like “Your Feet’s Too Big” and “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” but he was a romantic (a fun-loving romantic), and wrote many hits of love. My favorite is “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (recorded at the end of ’29, but a huge hit in 1930). There were also “Honeysuckle Rose” (a hit for Fats in 1935 and 1937), “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “I’m Crazy ‘bout My Baby (And My Baby’s Crazy ‘bout Me),” and “Concentratin’ on You.”

To represent the forties I choose Edith Piaf, who wrote and performed two of the most passionate love songs ever. “Hymne a l’amour” (Hymn to Love) is my top pick, a beautiful song (music by Marguerite Monnot) with lyrics written by Piaf to her great love, boxer Marcel Cerdan. As you know if you saw the biopic about Edith Piaf, there is tragedy surrounding this wonderful love song. Shortly after Piaf first sang it, in autumn 1949, Cerdan was killed in a plane crash on his way to see her. She recorded the song the following year.

piaf

It caught on over here in an English-language version, “If You Love Me (Really Love Me).” It was a hit for Vera Lynn, Kay Starr, and, in the UK, Shirley Bassey. For some strange reason, though, the melody of the title phrase—the most beautiful part of the song—was altered by some who covered it. That melodic line, however, didn’t escape Neil Young, who used it for the third lines of the verses to his haunting song, “Philadelphia.”

Another great Edith Piaf love song, of course, is her signature number, “La vie en rose,” which she wrote in 1946. I once got to sing it in a show as a serenade to a glamorous showgirl. I came in a little draggy before the performance, and a guy in the cast recommended I try a 5-Hour energy drink. I hadn’t had one before and was hesitant, but he said it was no big deal. “I drink ‘em all the time—just gives me a little nudge.” Well, I guess I can’t hold my energy drink, because I got quite a bit more than a nudge, and as I sang “La vie en rose,” my heart was pounding louder than the band. When I hit the big, high finish at the end, I thought I was about to explode. Not the best way to present a tender love song, but somehow it worked.

Jane and the Girls

Jane and the Girls

Cole Porter was a master of clever lyrics and sinuous melodies, writing a great number of smart and sophisticated popular songs from the teens through the mid-fifties. But it was a straightforward love song, one of his last compositions, that is, to me, an exceptional love song. “True Love” was written in 1955 for the movie High Society. Grace Kelly got her one and only gold record for it in 1956, and her duet partner Bing Crosby got his 21st. It was a big hit that same year for Jane Powell, and has been covered many times since.

“You’re a no-good heartbreaker, a liar and a cheat.” Do those sound like the opening words of a top-pick love song?

When I think of the great songs of the Summer of Love in San Francisco, I don’t come up with very many outstanding love songs. Instead, for the ‘60s I’ll go with Aretha Franklin’s first big hit, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” from her album of the same name. Franklin had recorded ten albums for Columbia, but it was her first for Atlantic that finally, in 1967, made her a star.

“I Never Loved a Man…” was the first song recorded for this first Atlantic Aretha album—a historic moment in recording history. In his book on the making of the album, Matt Dobkin quotes Atlantic honcho Jerry Wexler: “That’s the moment for me. The moment it’s happening in the studio. Not the playback, not the gold record, not the charts. The moment when that good take is happening—that’s my euphoria.”

aretha book

In the song, Aretha sings, “Ain’t never had a man hurt me so bad,” but, well, you’ve heard the title—she’s hooked. The song was written by a man, produced by a man, and played by men (except for Aretha’s piano), but Aretha Franklin delivers it, and somehow convinces you that she’s the one who’s in control. Power!

The #9 single was backed by a less dysfunctional love song, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn.

Of all the romantic crooners and warblers of the seventies, Al Green, I think, is The Love God (with apologies to Don Knotts). His love turned up to the heavens after that decade, but for a while there, he had a string of hits that outloved the many others who were making hits then, and before and after that. Of the ten songs on his Greatest Hits, Volume 1, the eight songs written by Al & pals are either happy songs of romantic fulfillment or songs that are sales pitches for Al’s brand of love. It’s the whole love story: “Look What You Done for Me”…“I’m Still in Love with You”…“Let’s Stay Together”…“Let’s Get Married.” Any of those could be “best love song of the ’70s.” The two non-originals on the collection are the weepers. (Al always liked to change up the mood of his albums with a couple of downer covers, often C&W tunes.)

"Love and Happiness" 12"

“Love and Happiness” 12″

Teenie Hodges, who played guitar on all of Green’s hit albums—that’s his intro on “Love and Happiness” and his dissonant descending line on “You Ought to Be With Me”—died in May. He co-wrote some of the best songs: “Love and Happiness,” “Take Me to the River,” “Here I Am.” Two other Hodges brothers played organ/piano, and bass, and helped give the songs their distinctive sound. Al Green lucked out by his fortunate associations.

It was Willie Mitchell who masterminded the production and engineering of the albums, and also co-wrote many of the songs. He was a frustrated horn player who found his calling and success in Al Green. Of course, Al had one of the best voices in pop music history and would’ve probably been some kind of star without Mr. Mitchell (although he’d had only minor success during the previous ten years), but the combination of the two creative wizards, supported by the talents of the Brothers Hodges, drummers Al Jackson and Howard Grimes, and others, made Al Green’s string of sixteen hits between 1970 and 1975, seven of them top ten, a consistent, exceptional treasure trove. And they were all great love songs.

platters 2

Honorable Mention: In choosing Cole Porter to represent the fifties, I’m slighting the ultra-romantic vocal groups of the era, including The Flamingos and The Platters, who gave us so many timeless love songs. The Platters’ “Only You” is right at the top.

Which pop love songs are you passionate about?

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