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The 15 Songs That Defined the Boomer Generation

Weigh in on which of these meant the most in your youth

We each have our own life soundtrack, especially those of us who grew up in the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll. Mine is heavily influenced by growing up in 1950s Philadelphia with an older brother (not a boomer) who sang with street-corner doo-wop groups and danced on American Bandstand.

Individual soundtracks pull from a combination of ingredients, including when you were born, where you lived and which radio stations you listened to. But there were some songs that became part of a collective, generational playlist. Back then, radio was our Internet, and the songs the DJs spun connected us to our world and to one another.

(MORE: You’re a Boomer If You Love These 10 Movies)

Here, in chronological order, are the 15 songs that this boomer ranks among the best that spoke to and defined our generation. Yes, my list tilts more East Coast, urban, R&B and late ’50s and ’60s. And I realize that, like every time one person tries to represent the millions of individuals who make up the baby boom, there will be discussion. In fact, I’m looking forward to comparing notes. Tell Next Avenue which songs you would put on a list of music that made us who we are, in the comments section below.

1. Jailhouse Rock – Elvis Presley (1957)

Why I loved it: “Elvis the Pelvis” had been around a few years already and was huge with my older brother and his crowd. This song was when I jumped on that bandwagon. It seemed really cool to have a hit song from a film with the same name — one of Elvis’ better flicks — and the song’s two-chord riff is among rock’s most unforgettable moments.

Memorable lyric snippet:
Bugsy turned to Shifty and he said, “Nix nix,
I wanna stick around a while and get my kicks.”

You might not know: Jailhouse Rock was the first record to enter the British singles chart at No. 1.

2. That’ll Be The Day – Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)

Why I loved it: This tune wasn’t just catchy, it was jaw dropping. Up until then, nothing sounded quite like this (Holly used double-tracking) or had utilized the lineup of two guitars, bass and drums. This all became even more poignant when Holly was killed in a plane crash in early 1959 (“the day the music died”).

Memorable lyric snippet:
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die

You might not know: The title, and inspiration, were from the classic John Wayne western, The Searchers, and That’ll be the Day was the first song recorded by the Quarrymen, who later became known as the Beatles.

3. At the Hop – Danny and the Juniors (1957-58)

Why I loved it: The song and the group were just so south Philly — American Bandstand impresario Dick Clark changed the group’s name and single-handedly made this a hit record. It’s celebrated for combining two of the most popular formulas in 1950s rock ‘n’ roll: the 12-bar blues and ’50s progression.

Memorable lyric snippet:
You can rock it you can roll it
Do the stomp and even stroll it
At the hop

You might not know: The rock ‘n’ roll revival act Sha Na Na delivered a raucous version of this at Woodstock in 1969.

4. Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry (1958)

Why I loved it: It feels like rock ‘n’ roll truly arrived with this great song. Couldn’t get enough of it. And, oh, that guitar riff. It didn’t matter to the local white DJs that Chuck Berry was black because they kept on playing this song on the radio, pretty much eliminating what was up until then called “race music.”

Memorable lyric snippet:
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like ringing a bell

Go Johnny go!

You might not know: The opening guitar riff on Johnny B. Goode is a note-for-note copy of the opening single-note solo on bandleader Louis Jordan’s Aint That Just Like a Woman and the song originally had “colored boy” in the lyrics, but Chuck Berry changed it to “country boy” to help ensure radio play.

5. What’d I Say – Ray Charles (1959)

Why I loved it: This was the song my parents turned off the radio for and wouldn’t let us buy. It reeks of improvisation, call and response, and sex. It forced you to get up and move, made Ray Charles a star and launched the musical sub-genre later known as soul.

Memorable lyric snippet:
See that girl with a diamond ring
she knows how to shake that thing

You might not know: Ray Charles and his orchestra ad-libbed the song in front of a white audience at the end of a set in late 1958.

6. The Twist – Chubby Checker (1960)

Why I loved it: If we were going to celebrate our own music, we needed our own dance and this song made all that happen. The dance craze swept the nation, eventually captivating high society and marking a turning point for “adult” acceptance of rock ‘n’ roll music.

Memorable lyric snippet:
Yeah, daddy just sleepin’
And mama ain’t around
We’re gonna twisty twisty twisty
Till we tear the house down

You might not know: The Twist is the only hit single to reach No. 1 in two chart runs (1960 and 1962).

7. I Want to Hold Your Hand – The Beatles (1963)

Why I loved it: What teenager didn’t dig the Beatles in early 1964? Their sound was clean and crisp and fun, a combination of Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. In fact, their manager Brian Epstein said this song was designed with “an American sound in mind.” And did we Americans ever love the Beatles.

Memorable lyric snippet:
Yeah you, got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I feel that something
I wanna hold your hand

You might not know: According to John Lennon, I Want to Hold Your Hand sprang into being when, having to come up with an opening line, Paul hit a chord on the piano to which John said “That’s it. Do it again!”

8. Dancing in the Street – Martha and the Vandellas (1964)

Why I loved it: In June 1964, just about everything in America — politics, race, music, foreign policy — was going to change and this song became its anthem. Equal measures dance record, celebration, and call to action, Dancing in the Street is 100 percent pure joy. The trumpet introduction — the “fanfare” before the song’s announcement — is one of the seminal moments in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Memorable lyric snippet:
Calling out around the world
“Are you ready for a brand new beat?”

You might not know: The song’s writers — Ivy Jo Hunter, Marvin Gaye and Mickey Stevenson — “tricked” Martha Reeves into doing an extra take of this song so she’d record it a little edgier because they knew she’d be irritated.

(MORE: 1964: The Year America Lost It)

9. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – Rolling Stones (1965)

Why I loved it: This song (and the one that follows) embodied my turning 18 and being newly out of high school in the summer of 1965. We listened to Satisfaction all summer long — it captured the spirit of those times — pretending we were Keith Richards running his guitar through a Gibson Fuzz Box to create the song’s distinctive distortion effect. What a sound.

Memorable lyric snippet:
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me

You might not know: The opening guitar riff is very similar to Dancing in the Street, so much so that Keith Richards was worried it was too much alike.

10. Like a Rolling Stone — Bob Dylan (1965)

Why I loved it: For me, this is the greatest song of all time. The confrontational lyrics, the questioning, the cynicism, the sound, the length — they all combined to make this so unique and exceptional. We’d never heard anything quite like it before. Every time that snare drum popped, we turned up the car radio and sang this tune at the top of our lungs. How do you spell freedom?

Memorable lyric snippet:
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone

You might not know: Dylan’s original draft of the song’s lyrics was written on four sheets of headed notepaper from the Roger Smith Hotel in Washington, D.C. The handwritten pages sold for more than $2 million at Sotheby’s New York in June 2014, setting a record for a popular music manuscript.

11. Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys (1966)

Why I loved it: We East Coast kids spurned some of the early Beach Boys hits as generic ripoffs, but this song was something else again. It came out when I was in college and blew us away with its array of instruments, strange sounds and key shifts. “It’s as if Brian Wilson’s used the recording studio as another instrument,” one of my fraternity brothers remarked, and was he ever right.

Memorable lyric snippet:
I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations (Oom bop bop)

You might not know: Brian Wilson spent nearly eight months in four recording studios — at a cost of more than $50,000 — to get this one right. At the time, Good Vibrations represented the greatest sum of money ever spent on a single.

12. Respect – Aretha Franklin (1967)

Why I loved it: I liked listening to girl groups like The Shirelles and The Ronettes when I was growing up and was also a big fan of The Supremes and the Motown girl groups, but I don’t ever remember hearing a woman sound like this — so strong and demanding and, well, feminist. It didn’t hurt that Aretha had that incredible voice and brought the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group of four studio musicians, to New York for the recording.

Memorable lyric snippet:
Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB

You might not know: It was Aretha’s idea to cover the Otis Redding song (“That a girl took away from me, a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song,” he said at the Monterey Pop Festival). She came up with the arrangement, added the “Sock it to me” lines, and played piano on the track. Her sisters Emma and Carolyn sang backup.

13. Light My Fire – The Doors (1967)

Why I loved it: Nearing the end of my sophomore year of college, I began to notice that popular music was starting to sound a lot different. Light My Fire was the song that convinced me things had indeed changed. For months we’d listen to the seven-minute album version of the song until the radio started playing a shorter one. Our fires were lit, all right, thanks to The Doors, and would burn brightly for many tumultuous months to come.

Memorable lyric snippet:
You know that it would be untrue
You know that I would be a liar
If I was to say to you
Girl, we couldn’t get much higher

Come on baby, light my fire

You might not know: Scheduled to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Doors had agreed to drop the line “girl, we couldn’t get much higher.” But lead singer Jim Morrison sang it anyway, and they were never invited back.

14. A Day in the Life – The Beatles (1967)

Why I loved it: For one day — June 1, 1967 — I felt connected to my entire generation worldwide with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And I wasn’t alone — writing in Rolling Stone, Langdon Winner observed: “The closest western civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. In every city in Europe and America the radio stations played [it] … and everyone listened … For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.” And as memorable as every song on the album — and almost every Beatles No. 1 hit — is, there is something so haunting and captivating about A Day in the Life that stays in your soul.

Memorable lyric snippet:
I read the news today oh boy

You might not know: In 1968 Paul McCartney admitted, A Day in the Life was what he called a “turn-on song.” “This was the only one on the album written as a deliberate provocation,” he said, “but what we want to do is to turn you on to the truth rather than to pot.”

(MORE: Paul McCartney, Speaking Words of Wisdom)

15. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (1971)

Why I loved it: I was a U.S. Army soldier in Vietnam when this song came out, and it asked the same question and sought the same answers that I did. Marvin’s voice never sounded better, yet there was urgency, a questioning, and anger to this song and album that forced me to pay attention to what was wrong with my country. I listened to it endlessly upon my return to the states, not realizing until years later that the song and the album were inspired by Marvin’s conversations with his brother Frankie, a Vietnam vet, about Frankie’s experiences in Vietnam and his returning home to a divided America.

Memorable lyric snippet:
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying

You might not know: Marvin Gaye and Berry Gordy, Jr., owner of Motown, argued for months about the viability of this song. Eventually, they agreed to disagree, with Gordy, who hated What’s Going On, telling Marvin: “One of us is going to learn a lesson with this.” After the song became a huge hit, Gordy confessed: “I learned something.”

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