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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.)
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.
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?