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Your Mother Should Know

Your Mother Should Know

I miss my mom. She died five years ago, and I’m still working through it. I have a lot of guilt about all the things I could’ve said and done before she was gone. But she had a very good life and seemed to be happy with the way things turned out for her, and I have to believe she understood and forgave my failings as a son

Let’s look at a few sons’ musical tributes to moms.

bb king

“Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” This little minute-and-a-half-long ditty opens Riley “B.B.” King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds album of 1970. It’s just B.B. on piano and vocals, and features the great one-liner “Nobody loves me but my mother and she might be jivin’ too.”

After that opener, B.B. is joined by a band that includes another King, a most unlikely one—Carole—on piano on several tracks. Leon Russell does the keyboarding on the ones Ms. King sits out on. It’s a nice album, B.B. King’s favorite of his works, and capitalizes on the bluesman’s newfound popularity following the surprise hit “The Thrill is Gone.” The album is named for King’s official hometown (his birth certificate is reproduced on the inside jacket), but King says in the recent documentary The Life of Riley that he was actually born on a plantation outside of Itta Bena.

B.B.’s mother may have been jivin’ after all, since she left young Riley to be raised by her mother.

Mr. Mingus

Mr. Mingus

“Exactly Like You” This Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh song comes from the same 1930 musical, Lew Leslie’s International Review, that featured “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The singer proclaims of his mama that she “meant me for someone exactly like you.” Now, that’s an ideal: mom’s choice.

It’s been recorded by many artists, including Frank Sinatra, but, again, my favorite is an instrumental: Charles Mingus interpolates “Exactly Like You” with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” to perfection.

Dorothy Fields’ father Lew was an actor and theatrical producer, but her mother Rose was not enthusiastic about Dorothy going into show business, telling her and her siblings, “You children must be extra polite to strangers because your father’s an actor.”

“Your Mother Should Know” Paul McCartney’s light ‘n’ airy number that was included on the Magical Mystery Tour album is in the line of dance-hall nostalgia numbers that includes “When I’m 64” and “Honey Pie.”

Paul’s mother Mary died in 1956, when he was fourteen. It was a connection Paul had early on with John, whose mother died when he was seventeen.


“Mother ” John Lennon’s opener for John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, his “primal album” from 1970, is anything but light ‘n’ airy. He’s mad at his mother, and wants to let it out. “Mother,” he wails, “you had me, but I never had you.” John and Yoko had spent some time in therapy with Mr. Primal Scream, Arthur Janov. The album is raw and emotional, a world away from The Beatles’ slick productions. The band comprised Ringo Starr on drums and one of the many “fifth Beatles,” Klaus Voorman, on bass.

Many of the song titles are single words: “Remember,” “Isolation,” “God,” “Love.” They’re loose but not lax, and it remains among my all-time favorite albums. It was Village Voice critic Robert Christgau’s choice in 1970 as Album of the Year.

My wife Sweets grew up with parents who spent several years wallowing in Arthur Janov and his primal scream theories. There was a lot of confrontation and yelling in the household, and Sweets and her two sisters couldn’t wait to flee the coop. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is not one of my wife’s favorites.

n young

“New Mama” “New Mama’s got a son in her eyes.”

Neil Young’s equivalent to Lennon’s primal album is Tonight’s the Night,” the anti-Harvest. Neil, in this tribute to fallen junkie music associates, is rough, occasionally out-of-tune, tequila-soaked, and fearless. Even the most low-fi of these songs is darkly beautiful, from bleary, drug-saturated “Tired Eyes” to the acoustic trippiness of “Albuquerque” and “New Mama,” which both sound like late-night-long-after-the-show CSNY sing-alongs, hoarse and coarse and lovely. Tonight’s the Night is another all-time favorite album.

Neil lived with his mother after his father left her.


“Reminiscing in Tempo” For years, I sang Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” thinking it was a song Duke, who was very close to his mother, had written for her in his grief following her death. I later learned that wasn’t true—he wrote “Solitude” shortly before she died. Ellington biographer Terry Teachout says that the song Duke wrote while grief-stricken over his mother was actually the extended form “Reminiscing in Tempo.” It has no lyrics, but its music was inspired by mother Daisy. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Duke wrote of “Reminiscing in Tempo” that “every page of that particular manuscript was dotted with smears and unshapely marks caused by tears that had fallen.” This is a man who missed his mother.

Honorable Mention: Sonny Bono had the cheekiness to write a song for Cher to sing about their divorce. “Now how should I put this? I’ve got something to say / Your mother is staying, but I’m going away.” It worked! “You Better Sit Down, Kids” was a hit, and it’s the last Cher song I ever liked.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: On the other hand, there’s Helen Reddy’s song of mother-daughter solidarity, “You and Me Against the World.” I guess it’s not really too horrible a song, but Helen Reddy on the vocals pretty much automatically consigns it to the “no” pile.

New York Blues

New York Blues

I am not qualified to write a post about New York City. I’ve been there once, for two days, about thirty years ago. It was a wonderful experience, but most of what I know about the city I learned from books, movies, and music. Lists of great songs about New York always include “New York, New York,” “New York, New York (What a Wonderful Town),” “New York State of Mind,” and other classics. Great songs, but I will avoid them here. I’d like to look at a few songs, written by New Yorkers about their city, that best evoke NYC to me.

g flash

“The Message” Grandmaster Flash was a pioneer (maybe the primary pioneer) of the style that took over popular music in the ‘80s and has dominated ever since. Rap and hip hop grew out of the New York block party scene. Grandmaster Flash innovated and popularized the techniques that soon spread across the country, performing with his Furious Five songs of bluster, braggadocio, and revelry. When in 1982 he proposed the social commentary rap “The Message,” about life in the New York City ghettoes, The Five balked. It wasn’t their usual thing. But we’re so glad they relented and the song made it to record.

Record Store Day purchase

Record Store Day purchase

It’s a landmark of pop music and holds up today. I know because for Record Store Day 2015 I bought a special-issue 45 rpm of “The Message,” backed with a 1997 rock version of the song by Stiff Little Fingers. I enjoyed the reimagined version, but I still love the original. “It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.” The group’s next big hit was “New York New York.”

“The Boxer” “Goin’ home, where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me.” The words of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” are among the few sets of popular music lyrics that hold up, without the music, as poetry. (Oh, but the music—that’s exceptional, too!) I have performed the song from time to time for more than forty years, and somewhere in there I started taking the lyrics, and the music, too, for granted. But it is truly a powerful song, and one of the very best about New York.

p simon

I was thinking recently about the first time I heard “The Boxer.” My friend Johnny had a store-bought Bridge Over Troubled Water on reel-to-reel tape (yes, there really was such a thing, once upon a time) and hadn’t played it yet. He called me up and I rushed over. We made Chef Boyardee pizzas and sat in his room as he cranked up “The Boxer.” What an ecstatic experience that was! When it came to the “lie-la-lie” part, with the thunderous slams, we were delirious. The whole album blew us away, so much that I came home that night much too abuzz to sleep.

I no longer get that excited about any piece of new music. Is it me or is it the music? Does anyone get that excited about any pop song these days? Maybe so.

“The Boxer” is only one of many New York songs that native Paul and his pal Artie put to disc. “The Only Living Boy in New York” is another mindblower from the same album.

criss cross

“Hackensack” Hackensack, New Jersey, is a suburb of New York City. It’s where Rudy Van Gelder set up a recording facility in his parents’ home in 1946. He managed to record a lot of important music there and, later, in an actual studio nearby. Thelonious Monk led several sessions at Rudy’s studios; the first, in 1954, produced his tribute to Van Gelder, “Hackensack.” (Not “Rudy, My Dear.”)

Monk grew up in North Carolina, but got to New York in time to start his music career. One of his first compositions was “52nd Street Theme,” named for the locus of so many great New York jazz venues of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Monk is right of center, on the sidewalk

Monk is right of center, on the sidewalk

Of course, most fifties-era jazz greats lived in New York. You can see that in the 1994 documentary A Great Day in Harlem, about the prep and accomplishment of photographing fifty-seven jazz heroes together on the steps of a Harlem brownstone in 1958. Monk was one among many. But Monk seems to me (OK, me, a non-New Yorker) to be the most New York of them all.

“Echoes of Harlem” Another great jazz composer influenced by New York as his adopted city was Duke Ellington. He’d left Washington, D.C. to find opportunity in the bigger city, and quickly the move was rewarded. Ellington’s band was installed in the legendary Cotton Club, for and about which he composed “The Cotton Club Stomp.” Duke went on to celebrate black New York life in songs like “Harlem Airshaft,” Echoes of Harlem,” and “New York Blues.” His composing partner Billy Strayhorn contributed the hit “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a New York commuter song that became the Ellington Orchestra theme.

duke harlem

“Rockaway Beach” I think the ideal rock-era band to represent New York City has to be The Ramones. No singer has ever sounded more New York than Joey. Most of their songs aren’t tied by their lyrics to any particular place, but the early movers, shakers, and adopters of the New York punk scene are portrayed in “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Cretin Hop,” and many others. One wouldn’t think of beaches and Ramones being in any way connected, but their “Rockaway Beach,” written in ’77 by Dee Dee, who frequented that beach in Queens, is another short, fast, catchy pop song in the trademark Ramones style. It was their highest-charting single, at #66.

Honorable Mentions: There are quite a few other great New York songs written by New Yorkers.

  • The late Ben E. King, who, like Monk, was born in North Carolina, moved to New York at age nine, and later sang of “Spanish Harlem.”
  • Walter Becker is a Queens native; partner Donald Fagen was born in Passaic, New Jersey, but met Becker at New York’s Bard College. (And Fagen’s mom sang in the Catskills.) Steely Dan’s debut gave us “Brooklyn” (Although who the hell knows what the line “Brooklyn owes the charmer under me” means? It scans nicely anyway.)
  • Way back in the twenties, Rodgers and Hart, both of whom were born and died in NYC) came up with “I’ll Take Manhattan.”
  • The sixties Tin Pan Alley group of songwriters King (born in Manhattan), Goffin, Barry, and Greenwich (all from Brooklyn) gave us the flavor of New York in “Uptown,” “Up on the Roof,” and others.

Fixin’ To Die

Fixin’ To Die

One of the more uncomfortable moments I’ve viewed on network television occurred on The Today Show recently. I almost never watch these morning shows; morning’s my time to read and write—TV’s for evenings. But I was on the road, in my hotel room preparing to leave and do a seminar, when I flipped to The Today Show. Host Matt Lauer was noting that it was National Honesty Day and mentioned that, just like his Honesty-Day share of last year, he really hates the orange couch in the studio’s lounge. His co-hosts shared their equally trivial moments of honesty.

Then it got to happy-go-lucky weathercaster Al Roker, who said, “Y’know, I just turned sixty and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the end of life.” Matt and the others were so taken aback that they spluttered and stuttered to the commercial break. Al’s candid little Honesty-Day moment was a downer, and not the kind of fluff that fits the cheery morning-show atmosphere.

And, to be honest (though Honesty Day has passed back into the usual not-totally-dishonest days), since I turned sixty, I, like Al, have spent more time thinking about death. It’s unavoidable, really: My parents have both died, and many aunts and uncles and parents of friends are gone. And an alarming number of friends, people my age, have died. I don’t get morbid about it or dwell on it, but it’s always there, lurking.

Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon

“Keep Me in Your Heart” Warren Zevon recorded his concept album about death, Life’ll Kill Ya, two years before he was diagnosed with late-stage mesothelioma. He must’ve seen something coming.

His final album, The Wind, was recorded post-diagnosis, when Zevon knew his remaining time was short. It’s not a gloomy or angry album. In fact, it’s less dyspeptic than most of his other stuff. He covers “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” invites several guest stars to help out on songs, and closes with the ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart,” a nice, thoughtful way to go out. “Shadows are fallin’ and I’m runnin’ out of breath / Keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less / Keep me in your heart for a while.” Zevon was only 56 when he died.

Warren Zevon’s known for some advice he offered on pal and supporter David Letterman’s show toward the end: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Words to live by.


“Blood Count” The last song Billy Strayhorn wrote, two months before he died at the age of 51 of lung cancer, was “Blood Count.” David’ Hajdu, in his Strayhorn biography Lush Life, comments on the song’s bass line “evoking the rhythmic drip of intravenous fluid.” The song became part of his mentor Duke Ellington’s tribute album, …And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded shortly after Strayhorn’s death, when Duke was still grieving.

The album closes with Duke at the piano alone, playing his favorite Strayhorn number, “Lotus Blossom,” while the other musicians can be heard in the background packing up their instruments.


“Rising” A few years ago, I came across a mysterious, dark song, sung in Spanish, called “De Cara a la Pared.” The singer was Lhasa de Sela. I was wondering how I’d never heard this singer, this song, before, but it turns out that I had. Must have, anyway, because the song was used in the John Sayles movie Casa de los Babys, which I’d seen on video years before. It didn’t register then, but it did when I heard it again. The voice is smooth, bright and, at the same time, dark. The music is hypnotic and repetitive. Dreamlike.

I immediately searched for more of her music and found her wonderful second and third albums. In the process of the search, before I heard any songs other than “De Cara a la Pared,” I learned some things about Lhasa. Her father was Mexican, her mother Jewish-Lebanese. They lived in Mexico and Canada. Lhasa toured Europe in a circus with her sisters after recording one of her albums. She made only three albums in twelve years, the first in Spanish, the second in multiple languages, and the third, recorded in 2009, in English. She died at 37 on New Year’s Day 2010, of breast cancer.

When I listened to Lhasa’s third album, I was overwhelmed by its beauty and sadness–even though I was listening while driving through rush hour traffic. It stayed with me throughout the day, and after I listened to it again driving home from work, it stayed with me through the night. I was drawn in to the music and engulfed by its desperation and longing.  This effect was certainly heightened by my understanding that Lhasa recorded the album knowing she had breast cancer and was dying from it.

And then I found out that the cancer was diagnosed after the album was complete. I was reading themes of death into it. Still, the song “Rising” from that album is almost unbearably sad, even though I now know its lyrics about being “caught in a storm” and “breaking, breaking” were not about her apprehension over death.

Bukka White

Bukka White

“Fixin’ to Die” There are many notable songs of death written and sung by artists who lived long after the song was created. Bukka White’s 1940 song “Fixin’ to Die,” in fact, helped give new life to White, at least as a recording and performing artist, when Dylan covered the song on his debut album in ‘61. The song was written shortly after White’s release from Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state pen. White died in 1977 at the age of 67.

Honorable Mentions: Son House is another bluesman (and another Parchman Farm inmate and sixties rediscovery) with a classic song of death, “Death Letter.” The song recounts the story of the singer learning of and lamenting his lover’s death. House lived to the age of 86.

Ralph Stanley is still kickin’, nearing ninety. In his seventies, he sang the folk song “O Death” a cappella for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? And won a Grammy for it.

In his biggest pop hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” B.B. King sang, “Although I still live on, but so lonely I’ll be.” I don’t think King was a lonely fellow, but he did live on to 89, and we were blessed to have him so long.

Trav’lin’ Light

Trav’lin’ Light

There are many, many songs of travel to specific locales; maybe I’ll get to some of those places—New York, Paris, Minot, North Dakota—eventually, but right now we’re just concerned with travel in general.

“I’ve Been Everywhere” This song of travel got me thinking about an extroverted uncle who married into our family of relatively reserved folks. For many years, my mothers’ family—her seven sisters and brothers and their kids—gathered every year at a lake for a family reunion. Lots of boating, horseshoes, dominos, and, of course, eating. When Uncle Jerry came along, he introduced several new things to the reunion mix: beer; jokes, which he had a library of that he delivered with verve; and karaoke.

Uncle Jerry had found his calling in karaoke. He’d been a successful salesman, of retractable walls, of all things. He got interested in karaoke at the VFW post (he was a Viet Nam vet), and then got himself a machine. He wasn’t a singer, but he could sell the right types of songs with his flair for performance. And what he truly was exceptional at was hosting. Through his emceeing skills, he built a little empire and was able to drop the whole retractable wall thing. He was The King of Karaoke! He went from the VFW to other clubs to bigger and bigger private parties (and bigger and fancier karaoke machines), able to be buddy and raconteur with any type of audience. And he brought his karaoke machine to our reunions at the lake.

When Uncle Jerry was killed in a car accident a few years ago, it was truly shocking to us all. But he left behind a cadre of protégé karaoke hosts, all hoping to live up to the King.

cash trav

My favorite of the songs Uncle Jerry sang in his booming bass was the tongue-twisting “I’ve Been Everywhere,” with its string of American towns that made up the verses. It was a pop and country hit for Hank Snow, after he talked the Aussie songwriter into replacing Australian cities with North American ones. I recall hearing it on café jukeboxes when I was a kid, when I desperately tried to keep up with the torrent of towns named. Johnny Cash had the voice of experience that perfectly suited this song, but then his version was used in a TV commercial.


“Wandering” I think a lot of James Taylor’s version of this traditional folk song from his 1975 album Gorilla. I’m not always too crazy about the Sweet Baby James treatment, particularly of soul and R&B hits, which he makes a bit too bland and polite and, yes, white. On Gorilla, for example, is his hit cover of “How Sweet It Is.” Probably my least favorite song on the album. But there’s a plain-spoken poignancy about James Taylor’s delivery on “Wandering” that adds a lot of heart to the resigned, first-person tale of the drifter who has wandered “from New York City to the Golden Gate.” It has a Woody Guthrie sense about it. He can’t find a place for himself in the world, geographically, socially, philosophically. And Sweet Baby James really sounds like he’s feeling it, in his dry-as-a-bone North Carolina voice and in his equally crisp acoustic-guitar picking.


“Trav’lin’ Light” This is a song many singers love, so much so that a couple have named albums after it. Anita O’Day’s specialty was her daring and dazzling phrasing through lightning-fast passages. But she also had a unique softer side, and she recorded a nice, restrained “Trav’lin’ Light” in 1961. Her Trav’lin’ Light album was a tribute to Billie Holiday, who had had her wonderful way with the song a couple of decades earlier. About 65 years after Billie’s hit, Queen Latifah called her 2007 collection of ballads and jazz and blues standards Trav’lin’ Light, and her version of the song is quite sultry.

Mr. 5 by 5

Mr. 5 by 5

Jimmy Rushing, Mr. 5-by-5, did a fine version of the song as well. (No jokes, please, about the rotund Mr. Rushing traveling light.) The song’s lyrics, by Johnny Mercer, are actually not about travel at all but about lost, missed love.

cassandra w

“Traveling Miles” The album Traveling Miles is a tribute to Miles Davis recorded by Cassandra Wilson in 1999. It’s got songs by Miles, about Miles, and associated with Miles. His “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” a winding, eerie number from his Bitches Brew album, is given lyrics by Wilson and retitled “Run the Voodoo Down.” She sings that “when it comes to traveling” she’ll “run the voodoo down.” The song “Traveling Miles,” with lyrics as well as music by Cassandra Wilson, is meditative. “Traveling miles / Crossing time / Shifting style / Traveling miles…and miles.” The players complement and highlight Wilson’s sultry, dark voice throughout the album, especially Stefon Harris, on vibraphone for Miles Davis and Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps” and Wayne Shorter’s “Never Broken.”

Sheet music: "Caravan"

Sheet music: “Caravan”

“Caravan” Juan Tizol, while a trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, wrote two classics that became staples of Ellington’s band and many others. “Perdido” is a catchy tune, but “Caravan,” from 1936, evokes the mystery and allure of travel about as well as any popular song.

Hejira “Hejira” is defined as a journey from something undesirable. Restless travel is the theme of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album, from the title song to “Refuge of the Road” and “Blue Hotel Room” and others. She wrote the songs while on the road.

Honorable Mentions: Back when all my friends were converting from Elvis fans to Ricky Nelson fans (before becoming Beatlemaniacs), I stayed true to The King. I never got into Ricky. “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” However, my friend Rick does a nice version of “Travelin’ Man” that gives me an appreciation for the lanky heartthrob.

Other travel songs worthy of note: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band”; Billy Wayne Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On,” one of the first songs I ever learned on guitar (right after “Tom Dooley”); “Ease on Down the Road,” from The Wiz; “Where Can I Go without You?” by Peggy Lee


Black and White

Black and White

A few years ago, I made a list of my favorite 100 albums. A couple of friends followed suit. I was shocked to see that on one of those lists, out of 100 albums, there was not a single album by a black artist. Is my friend a racist? No, I don’t believe he is. But his cultural experiences are pretty tightly circumscribed.

Black artists have been in every genre, every niche of popular music, and created most of them. Rock, folk, and even country grew out of black culture and its mixture with white culture. Blues, R&B, soul, and hip-hop/rap started black and stayed mainly black. Some of the best music reference books I’ve read are about the story of black and white cultures and pop music, and most of the best music bios are those about or by black artists.

The race-relation element is such a profound, fascinating, and often unsettling part of those stories, and is the great American story. So, some notes on race and music.

Belafonte at Carnegie Hall

Belafonte at Carnegie Hall

Belafonte at Carnegie Hall Harry Belafonte’s hit live album starts with “Moods of the American Negro”: “Cotton Fields,” “John Henry,” and other standards we had sung in school, not informed that these songs reflected the “moods” (and creative efforts) of the “American Negro.” But “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” was my favorite on the album then and is now, and would top my list of songs most-played/most-sung/still enjoyed, if I had such a list. It is among great company in the Caribbean set of songs from the Carnegie Hall performance: “Jamaica Farewell,” “Man Piaba,” “All My Trials.”

Belafonte at Carnegie Hall was the first album my brother and I owned, and we wore it out. I’m pretty sure that it was my mom who got me into Mr. Belafonte. After all, I was just a kid, listening to 45s of “Locomotion,” “The Peppermint Twist,” and the like. But my mom was listening to Harry Belafonte, and I started listening along. I recall no other black artist in my parents’ record collection. (But that’s still one better than my friend’s.)

So how did Harry make it past the gate? Well, he was very handsome, so handsome that proper southern white ladies like my mom would remark on his looks. Subtly, casually, but with a hint of a swoon. He was light-skinned and had an accent, so he was exotic. (He was born in Harlem, but his mother was Jamaican, and he spent several childhood years there.) Enough women and men of all types across the nation were drawn in by this man’s charms to make all of his early albums, including the first Carnegie Hall set, gold records. His 1956 album Calypso, in fact, was the first LP ever to sell a million copies, and stayed at #1 for 31 weeks, longer than any other album until the West Side Story soundtrack album lasted 54 weeks at #1 in 1962. But Belafonte never played down his roots, and, despite his success and comfort, got down and dirty for the cause as often as he could, marching alongside Dr. King and other black leaders in civil rights protests.


“I’ll Take You There” This 1972 Staple Singers hit, written by Alvertis Isbell (Al Bell), is among my three or four all-time favorite singles. It’s a repetitive two-chord groove with only a handful of lyrics, but I feel like I could listen to it on a loop for hours.

Before the Staples went into the pop music world, patriarch Pops insisted that their songs would still have spiritual messages. This song’s message, so powerfully delivered by Mavis and family and ably backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, is that there’s a better world somewhere, a happy place where no one is “lying to the races.” That place, I guess, is Heaven, but I have the feeling that The Staples could see that Heaven on Earth, if we all would just join in, hold hands, and sing.


“Everyday People” Sly and the Family Stone were the ultimate representation of racial unity in pop music. Their lineup was interracial, and songs like “Everyday People” and many others on their albums Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On promote racial harmony or deride intolerance. And the music was always excellent, too.

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke

“A Change Is Gonna Come” Sam Cooke wrote this glorious song in 1964, after he experienced incidents of racism that were common even to the black elite at the time. It became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement, and remains the quintessential song of racial struggle. It was the B-side to “Shake,” not a bad song at all, and became a hit in 1965.


“People Get Ready” Along the same lines was Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-style “People Get Ready,” also a hit, for The Impressions, in ’65. Mayfield went on to write many songs honoring black culture (from “Miss Black America” to “Superfly”) and songs decrying racism (“This is My Country,” “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”).

“Black and White” and “Black or White” Songwriters Earl Robinson and David Arkin (father of Alan, whose group The Tarriers recorded “Day-O” the same year as Belafonte) wrote “Black and White” way back in 1954 to celebrate the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Pete Seeger recorded it in 1956. Three Dog Night, after hearing a 1971 reggae version, recorded the song in 1972, and it became a #1 hit. Michael Jackson co-wrote and recorded his own anti-racism song, “Black or White,” in 1991. Two songs with a nice message that are also upbeat and exhilarating.

Black, Brown, and Beige Filmmaker Ken Burns said that the story of jazz is basically the story of race. Duke Ellington was often criticized for not being vocally opposed to segregation and racism back in the day. He would respond that he not only had suffered the indignities of being black in America but had long portrayed black life and culture in his music. Music was his way of supporting black culture and, as one of the most popular artists of his time, exposing white audiences to it. His longer work Black, Brown, and Beige (“a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” as Duke said), and songs like “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Sepia Panorama,” “Creole Love Song,” and many others celebrated black life.

I’m overly sensitive to racism. This may go back to the eighties, when I was playing in bars. Idiot barflies, not knowing that I was married to a black woman, would start to tell a racist joke, assuming that all white folks were just as ignorant as they were. These days, fewer white people automatically make that assumption—but it still happens. Things are getting better, but if you look at the news—or pay too much attention in everyday life—you see we have a ways to go.

Honorable Mentions: Charles Mingus’s 1959 “Fables of Faubus” was written about segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus. The biting lyrics did not appear on a recording until 1960.

Garland Jeffries is a multi-racial artist who never quite caught on with audiences, black, white, or other. Too bad. He made a series of fine albums, most filled with themes of race, during the late ‘70s and the ‘80s. His “American Boy and Girl” is a kind of black-white modern-day Romeo and Juliet story set to powerful music.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: The sentiment of “Ebony & Ivory,” living together “in perfect harmony” is nice but trite. (“The ink is black, the page is white” already got there.) Unfortunately, Stevie and Paul were more syrupy than usual on this one—and that’s saying a lot when it comes to Sir Paul.


Oh What a Nite

Oh What a Nite

Of the myriad songs of night, I do have a favorite. Dr. John’s “Such a Night” is a timeless, magical song I never get tired of. Maybe that’s because, aside from home, New Orleans is the place I’d most like to spend an evening.

It appeared on the 1973 album In the Right Place, which was produced by the great New Orleans music impresario Allen Toussaint. Toussaint also played keyboards, guitars, and percussion; sang and arranged vocals; and arranged and conducted the band. The song is deep, deep New Orleans, with the Bonnaroo Horns lazily answering Dr. John’s vocals, and Toussaint’s piano and The Meters rhythm section reinforcing the whole thing.

dr john

Dr. John’s previous album, Gumbo, is a New Orleans extravaganza I slightly prefer to this album, but “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Life,” and “Such a Night” are gems in the Dr. John (and Allen Toussaint) canon.

One night song is associated, by me and many others, with certain kinds of nights—those spent in the bars. Many a bar band has used the 1952 song “Night Train” as a break song. It’s a nice R&B workout to end a set and a good cue for the audience to do a little mingling, drink-ordering, and relief work. Most people know it as a James Brown song, but his version, with his recitation of cities on his tours, wasn’t issued until 1961.

James "Night Train" Brown

James “Night Train” Brown

It was Jimmy Forrest who first recorded “Night Train,” in ’52. He’s credited as the writer, but it goes back a decade. The Duke Ellington composition “Happy Go Lucky Local” was written in 1946 as part of Duke’s Deep South Suite. “Happy Go Lucky Local” was funked up and expanded upon by Forrest, who had been an Ellington sax player, but it’s recognizably the same song.


But the song goes back even farther than that, and involves another Duke sideman. In 1940, Saxophonist Johnny Hodges had recorded a song called “That’s the Blues, Old Man” with his offshoot band. Mentor Duke, as he was often wont to do, lifted the main riff of the Hodges tune for his own song. Jimmy Forrest, I guess, was saxophonist karma for Duke. Forrest himself got horned-in on by two lyric writers, who wound up with songwriter royalties. A complicated history for such a basic little song!

“Nights When I Am Lonely” is pretty straight and tame for a Boswell Sisters harmony number. It’s an A part repeated four times, and, although the girls go into some Boswellese vocal hijinks on verse three, it’s really just a cute ditty, not a great indicator of the sisterly genius to come. But it is a song of great importance, as one side of the very first Boswell Sisters record, cut in 1925 for the Victor Talking Machine Company. It was backed with “I’m Gonna Cry.” The sisters, all still in their teens, recorded five songs during their first session, all written by oldest sister Martha, but the other three were never issued.

bos legacy

As Vet’s granddaughter Kyla Titus notes in her book The Boswell Legacy, “I’m Gonna Cry” isn’t a typical Boswell Sisters record. They’re all three on it, but kept to special roles. Martha played piano, and evidently didn’t sing a note. Thirteen-year-old Vet did a horn break, using her voice, in the middle, and sister Connie sang the lead in her best Bessie Smith voice. Not typical Boswells, but pretty entertaining, with Connie, at seventeen, already showing strong pipes.

Connie, of course, later emerged as a solo recording artist (as Connee Boswell), thanks to her husband/ manager Harry Leedy, who never was as fond of the trio as the rest of the world was. Once Connie’s sisters got married, Connie and Harry took the opportunity to write them out of the picture, telling the world that Martha and Vet preferred domestic harmony to musical harmony. Martha and Vet privately said otherwise. Of course, it’s the Sisters who are music legends, as a group, all these years later, while solo Connee isn’t heard much at all.

Among my favorite doo-wop numbers is The Dells’ 1956 Vee-Jay recording of “Oh What a Nite.” It was an R&B hit, and Vee-Jay released it again three years later, but it took a re-recording of the song, as “Oh What a Night,” in 1969 to finally make the pop charts, at #10. It’s kind of a freak. It’s been embellished, with a spoken intro and more instrumentation, but it seems like a transplant from the previous decade. I prefer the simple, straight original, but I am impressed by the group’s persistence with this song, and I’m glad they finally had some success with it.

In addition to their unusual record three-peat, The Dells had another distinction. According to Jay Warner’s Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, they sang as a backup group on more than sixty records by other artists. On Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” Warner says, they could’ve received co-billing. “Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby”—yep, that’s The Dells.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Another “Oh What a Night”—actually “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”—is on my least-favorite list. The Four Seasons had a late #1 pop hit with this disco stew that doesn’t evoke 1963, or the great Four Seasons of that year. Even people who like disco can’t think this is a good song. They should’ve at least gotten The Dells to sing the “doo-da-doo-doo-t-doo-doot-doo” part.

Dream Jukebox: A great candidate would be the Dells’ 1956 “Oh What a Nite.” And Dr. John’s “Such a Night” would have to be on hand for just such a night that calls for it.

Best Song Intro: When Lenny and Squiggy perform “Night After Night” on Happy Days, Squiggy introduces the song this way: “This song is called ‘Night After Night,’ and it’s about two nights in a row.”

Which songs of night are your favorites?

You’re the Devil in Disguise

You’re the Devil in Disguise

“Christine’s Tune” was one of my favorite tracks on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ album The Gilded Palace of Sin. I always called the song “Devil in Disguise.” It was a great one to get a tight, three-part harmony on, inserting steel guitar-style suspended notes wherever appropriate. Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman had something happening on that album that they didn’t quite hit again, together or separately. Of course, they’d done some wonderful things on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo by that time.


Devilish musicians, in their Nudie suits


Christine was the devil in disguise—“You can see it in her eyes.” That song was followed on the album by the album’s centerpiece, “Sin City,” which just might have a temptress or two in it. Then we get a pair of Dan Penn-penned classics on the theme of fidelity. The first, “Do Right Woman” (which, of course, Aretha Franklin had recorded magnificently), warns that if a man doesn’t want his woman to turn evil, he’d better control himself and be a “do right, all night man.” But darned if he doesn’t, in the very next song, go meetin’ a lady-friend illicitly at “The Dark End of the Street.” By the end of this album, we’re wondering whether Christine really was all that bad, and thinking it’s maybe Chris and Graham and company who are a bit on the devilish side.

Elvis recorded a song a decade earlier called “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise.” It got to #3 in ’63. My friend The Tumblebug does a great version of it, even without the jumpsuit and karate moves.


Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” is one of the all-time best songs about the effects of a devil woman on a weak-willed man. There are some, most notably Jerry Lee himself, who think that Jerry Lee Lewis was the greatest entertainer of them all. I’d put him quite a ways down my list, but his life has inspired two of the best music biographies ever written. Both necessarily spend quite a bit of time on The Killer’s tussles with temptation and sin, in defiance of his Bible-quoting cousin Jimmy Swaggart. Rolling Stone called Nick Tosches’ Hellfire, from 1982, the greatest rock & roll bio ever, and it is indeed quite a romp. So why do we need another one? Well, the brand-new Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, gives you Lewis’s own commentary on his life as he looks back, and it gives you one of the best writers going, Rick Bragg, to usher him through it.

jerry lee

The great Dinah Washington gave it her raw and dangerous all on her second hit, “Evil Gal Blues,” in 1944. She playfully sings, “If you tell me good mornin’, I’m gon’ tell you that’s a lie.” But then she warns any potential suitors: “I’ll empty your pockets and fill you with misery, yes I will!” She covered quite a few raucous, tough-mama songs, including an album of man-taunting blues numbers Bessie Smith made famous, but let’s say she was a strong-willed gal, and not an evil gal. She burned out early, in 1963 at the age of 39—and in that short life married seven times.

Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington

Dinah, an R&B trailblazer with a string of hits from the ‘40s to the ‘60s, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, in acknowledgment of her big influence on the development of rock music. Will Friedwald writes that she “invests pop standards with a blues feeling, sings the blues with a jazz-based improvisational outlook, and can bring both a jazz and blues feeling into the most tepid of pop contexts.” My kind of singer!

There were many great movie she-devils. In 1938, Bette Davis starred in Jezebel (named for the Biblical temptress), as a woman who scandalously wears a red dress to a society ball, humiliating her beau (Henry Fonda) and driving him away. Frankie Laine had a huge hit in 1951 with a “Jezebel.” He sings that “If ever the Devil was born without a pair of horns” it was she.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles

Jennifer Jones had a comeback in the title role of the1952 movie Ruby Gentry, the story of a poor-white-trash gal who gets entangled with two very different men and, mostly unintentionally, brings them both to bad ends. Karl Malden is the good-and-wealthy fellow who marries her; Charlton Heston is the younger, wilder guy Ruby really longs for. The theme song, with music by Heinz Roemheld, was an instrumental hit by six different artists in 1953. With lyrics added by Mitchell Parish, it became a Billboard pop hit for the great Ray Charles in 1960, and no one’s done it better. You really believe Ray when he sings about Ruby, who’s like a dream but also like a song—she doesn’t always “know right from wrong”—and like a flame. “And though I should beware, still I don’t care.” He’s hooked on that bad Ruby Gentry. “Ruby” was a favorite at the acoustic jam I long attended, sung by a quartet of us in four-part harmony.

One more devil woman of cinema was Ruby Carter, played by Mae West in the 1934 movie The Belle of the Nineties. The song “Troubled Waters,” written by Sam Coslow and Arthur Johnston, comes from that movie. Mae sang it, backed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and then Duke’s own vocalist Ivie Anderson delivered the lament on disc. “They say I’m one of the devil’s daughters / They look at me with scorn / I’ll never hear that horn / I’ll be underneath the water judgment morning.” Oh, it’s bad! Ivie makes you feel she’s being unjustly maligned, just as Catherine Russell, daughter of bandleader Luis Russell, does on her excellent, pathos-wringing version recorded 75 years later. Its eerie melodrama still has a powerful effect.

c russell

Honorable Mentions: There are quite a few rock-era hits involving an “Evil Woman” or a “Devil Woman.” Best of all is Santana’s megahit, “Black Magic Woman.”

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: David Clayton-Thomas’s over-the-top, Vegasy delivery somehow suited Blood, Sweat & Tears hits like “Spinning Wheel.” I love to impersonate him doing that one. But I love even more to belt out “Ooh, whatchoo gon’ to do? Loo-cee MacEvil!” “Lucretia MacEvil” is a terrible song in every way, but the vocal histrionics push it into the “so awful it’s divine” category.

One that’s just plain bad is The Eagles’ “Witchy Woman,” which played a memorable part in an episode of Seinfeld (“Witch-ay Woman”).

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