Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ten Great Songs From One Great Decade


The decade of the 60’s was perhaps the most tumultuous since the end of the Second World War. As the decade began, post-war America was in full retreat from the struggles of the War years and with it began the flight from the cities to the ever-expanding suburbia. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system seemed to be the perfect match for America’s love affair with their automobiles as Detroit became not only a major hotbed in music, but in transportation.

With the election of Camelot, it seemed our future was headed in the right direction. Even the moon was no longer out of our reach, and by the end of the decade, we landed there. But on the way, optimism and enthusiasm gave way to murder and racial upheaval. Within the ten years of the 60’s, we met and lost a President, a Senator and a Civil Rights icon to an assassin’s bullet and we lost wonderfully talented musicians to drug overdoses. What was a dream come true, turned out to be a wasted nightmare whose effects are still felt today.

Musically, this decade was the most diverse of them all. From innocent crooners and teen idols of the early 60’s to psychedelic electric music of the late 60’s, this 10-year stretch had it all. But above everything and anyone else, this decade belonged to the Beatles. Fittingly, the end of the decade brought about the end of the band who was most instrumental in fomenting the changes in music and attitudes of young Americans.

With this list, I hope to capture that evolution from the idyllic times through the complex.

Georgia On My Mind – Ray Charles (1960)

Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell wrote this in 1930. Carmichael was an actor, performer, and popular songwriter - some of his other compositions include "Stardust" and "Winter Moon." Gorrell was a banker living in New York City, and he wrote the lyrics. It's possible that this was written about a woman, not the state. Carmichael and Gorrell didn't live in Georgia, but Carmichael did have a sister named Georgia. However, Ray Charles was born in the state of Georgia. Charles decided to record this after his driver suggested it, since Ray kept singing it while riding in the car. This won Grammy awards for Best Male Vocal Recording and Best Pop Song Performance. The album also won for Best Male Vocal Performance Album, and another song on the album, "Let the Good Times Roll," won for Best R&B Performance, giving Charles a total of 4 Grammys in 1960.

Runaway – Del Shannon (1961)

This is about a guy whose girl leaves him, and he is left to wonder what went wrong. A lot of Shannon's songs were about broken relationships. He once said he wrote the words to this about himself because he was forever running away from relationships. According to Shannon, "We were on stage and Max (Crook) hit an A minor and a G and I said, 'Max, play that again, it's a great change.'" The drummer, Dick Parker, followed them and after 15 minutes, the manager of the club shouted, 'Knock it off, play something else.'" The next day Shannon wrote some lyrics: "That night I went back to the club and I told Max to play an instrumental on his musitron for the middle part, and when he played that solo, we had 'Runaway.'"

The Loco-motion – Little Eva (1962)

The husband and wife songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote this. Little Eva was the babysitter for their daughter Louise. They had Eva record it simply to demo the song, which was intended for Dee Dee Sharp. Producer Don Kirshner was impressed by Eva's vocal on the demo tape and had her record it. Carole King sang backup along with an R&B girl group called The Cookies. This was a #1 US hit for Grand Funk in 1974. It was only the second time the same song became a #1 for 2 different artists. The first was "Go Away Little Girl" by Steve Lawrence in 1962 and Donny Osmond in 1971. King and Goffin also wrote that song as well.

Up On The Roof – The Drifters (1963)

TFirst recorded by Little Eva, this breezy summertime song evokes the high-rise apartments in American cities where urban dwellers could escape from the stresses of daily living by climbing onto the tar "beaches" on the roofs of their buildings. Like “The Loco-motion”, this too was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and the lead vocalist was Rudy Lewis. Carole King recorded a solo version of this on her 1970 album Writer. In 1979, James Taylor took this song to #7 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart.

I Want To Hold Your Hand – The Beatles (1964)

This was the first Beatles song to catch on in America. In 1963, the Beatles became stars in England, but couldn't break through in the US. They couldn't get a major label to distribute their singles in America, so songs like "Love Me Do" and "She Loves You" were issued on small labels and flopped, even though they were hits in England. By February 1964, America finally took notice of The Beatles and bought this single in droves, giving them their first US hit. It sold better in first 10 days of release in the US than any other British single.

Do You Believe In Magic? – The Lovin' Spoonful(1965)

This was written by John Sebastian, who formed The Lovin' Spoonful with his friend, Zal Yanovsky. Sebastian and Yanovsky were in a group called The Mugwumps, and made a name for themselves playing clubs in Greenwich Village. When the other Mugwumps - Mama Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty - moved to California and formed The Mamas And The Papas, they formed the band and Sebastian began focusing on songwriting. The Lovin' Spoonful started playing electric instruments to get away from the folk music sound and attract a younger contemporary rock audience.

Homeward Bound – Simon and Garfunkel (1966)

Simon talked about this song in a 1990 interview with SongTalk magazine: "That was written in Liverpool when I was traveling. What I like about that is that it has a very clear memory of Liverpool station and the streets of Liverpool and the club I played at and me at age 22. It's like a snapshot, a photograph of a long time ago. I like that about it but I don't like the song that much. First of all, it's not an original title. That's one of the main problems with it. It's been around forever. No, the early songs I can't say I really like them. But there's something naive and sweet natured and I must say I like that about it. They're not angry. And that means that I wasn't angry or unhappy. And that's my memory of that time: it was just about idyllic. It was just the best time of my life, I think, up until recently, these last five years or so, six years... This has been the best time of my life. But before that, I would say that that was."

Ruby Tuesday – The Rolling Stones (1967)

This is about a groupie. Linda Keith, who was Keith Richard’s girlfriend, may have inspired it. Richards said in According to the Rolling Stones: "It was probably written about Linda Keith not being there (laughs). I don't know, she had pissed off somewhere. It was very mournful, very, VERY Ruby Tuesday and it was a Tuesday." Richards: "That's one of those things - some chick you've broken up with. And all you've got left is the piano and the guitar and a pair of panties. And it's goodbye you know. And so it just comes out of that. And after that you just build on it. It's one of those songs that are easiest to write because you're really right there and you really sort of mean it. And for a songwriter, hey break his heart and he'll come up with a good song."

I Heard It Through The Grapevine – Marvin Gaye (1968)

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote this Motown classic about a man who finds out his woman is cheating on him. Strong came up with the idea, and asked Motown writers Holland/Dozier/Holland to work on it with him. They refused to credit another writer, so Strong took it to Whitfield, who helped put it together. Whitfield and Strong wrote several other Motown hits, including "Ain't Too Proud To Beg," "Just My Imagination," and "Money (That's What I Want)." This song became the longest running Motown #1 hit, topping the US chart for 7 weeks. It was also Gaye’s first number one (he returned 5 years later with “Let’s Get it On”).

Everybody's Talkin' – Nillson (1969)

This was featured in Midnight Cowboy, a 1969 movie about a male prostitute in New York City starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. Folk singer Fred Neil wrote this and released it on his 1967 self-titled album, which was the first one where he used electric instruments. Neil was a very influential singer who made a name for himself playing Greenwich Village clubs with people like John Sebastian, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills. He pretty much disappeared around 1971, resurfacing every now and then for various events. He had a small, but dedicated group of fans and looked like he was on his way to stardom, but apparently that was never his goal. Neil died in his Florida home in 2001.

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