The people have spoken! Or at least those among the Next Avenue audience who care as passionately about the rock ‘n’ roll music of the boomer generation as I do. Nearly 200 of you weighed in on what you liked, didn’t like or thought I’d missed in my recent list of the top 15 songs that defined our generation. Some commenters were more polite than others (smile).
As I admitted when I presented my picks, I was heavily influenced by my older brother’s Doo Wop music and tastes, as well as the Dick Clark/American Bandstand milieu of the Philadelphia of my boyhood. Heck, my bro even argued for my adding more 1950s music, (Little Richard, Sam Cooke, etc.), while my wife disagreed with nearly half of my choices (she was born in 1950).
So, in chronological order, here are the songs most often referenced as being overlooked — or most forcefully argued for. Does it help my credibility if I admit that many of these were cut from my list at the last minute . . .?
We can keep this conversation going forever — the music is that darn good — so watch for future blogs about the songs and artists that epitomize the soundtrack of our lives.
1. Sherry — The Four Seasons (1962)
Selected by: A whole bunch of folks (including my good friend, Don, and my wife, Pam), who chided me for not being true to my Doo Wop roots by overlooking these sweet harmonizing Jersey Boys.
My rebuttal: One of the last songs that didn’t make my list’s final cut. Truth is, I loved Sherry and many other tunes by The Four Seasons. One of my freshman high school buddies was wooing a girl named Sherry at the time this song came out, and we used to practice our own falsettos on this line: “come, come, come out tonight!”
You might not know: Sherry was originally called Terry but the group’s producer, Bob Crewe, didn’t like the name. After considering Jackie (for Jackie Kennedy), and Peri (after a record label Crewe had a stake in), the group changed the name of the song to Sherry, after Cheri Spector, the daughter of one of Crewe’s best friends, DJ Jack Spector.
2. Ring of Fire — Johnny Cash (1963)
Selected by: All the country music lovers who took the time to respond — and a few of my fellow Vietnam vets, too. “How in the world could you not mention a single country song!” was probably the least offensive comment I received about this one.
My rebuttal: Guilty as charged. There should have been more country on my list, but I never listened to it growing up, except for El Paso by Marty Robbins (another good song). I’ve grown to love and admire Johnny Cash, especially for his visit to troops in Vietnam where he had his eyes opened to what was going wrong there.
You might not know: As ominous as the song title sounds, it is actually a reference to falling in love — which is exactly what June Carter (later Cash), who wrote the song, was feeling about Johnny Cash at the time.
3. (Oh) Pretty Woman — Roy Orbison (1964)
Selected by: All those who growled (like Roy does in the song) Mercy for my overlooking this quintessential rock ‘n’ roll classic.
My rebuttal: Another of the last songs to be cut from the original 15. Funny thing is that while I like this song, I especially loved those haunting, sometimes overly dramatic, ballads of Roy’s like Running Scared, Crying and Love Hurts, which resonated with me during my adolescence.
You might not know: As the story goes, Orbison’s wife Claudette entered the room where he and Bill Dees were working on a song and said she was going to go into town to buy something. Orbison asked if she needed any money, and Dees cracked, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” Inspired, Orbison started singing, “Pretty woman walking down the street.”
4. Where Did Our Love Go? — The Supremes (1964)
Selected by: “Where did your taste go?” was the question put to me by spurned Supremes lovers everywhere. In truth, I asked myself the same question.
My rebuttal: For sure, I needed to have a Supremes song on my original list — and why not this one, the first of their many No. 1 hits, that came out weeks after the passage of The Civil Rights Bill in 1964? I must admit that part of my Supremes hesitancy has to do with my seeing them in the late 1960s when they were more of a high class, nightclub act that didn’t sit well with me. Give me Martha and The Vandellas any day!
You might not know: Originally, The Supremes went by the name The Primettes to accompany another Motown group, The Primes (who morphed into The Temptations). You can hear the Primettes/Supremes background vocals on scores of Motown hits, including one of my all-time favorites, Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get a Witness.
5. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin — The Righteous Brothers (1964)
Selected by: Blue-eyed soul devotees, Top Gun film aficionados, Beaver Dam, Wisc. natives (where Bobby Hatfield was born) and others.
My rebuttal: OK, this really was one of the last songs that didn’t make my final cut. Even though some folks argued for the duo’s Unchained Melody, this is one of the quintessential songs of all time — allegedly the most played song on radio in the 20th century! Especially poignant for me, since it came out when I was suffering through a breakup with my senior high school sweetheart — who was the Homecoming Queen, no less! “Bring back that loving feeling, oh that loving feeling . . . “
6. My Girl — The Temptations (1965)
Selected by: An assortment of Motown mavens, soul supporters, Smokey Robinson fans and a handful of Vietnam vets.
My rebuttal: Nobody but myself to blame, especially given my strong affinity for Smokey Robinson, who wrote this song but gave it to The Temptations and not The Miracles, his own group. Scores of Vietnam vets have said this song about the girl they left back home helped them to keep it together while overseas, providing them some much-needed “sunshine on a cloudy day.”
You might not know: The signature guitar riff heard during the introduction (after the James Jamerson bass line) and under the verses was played by one of the original Funk Brothers, Robert White.
7. Sounds of Silence — Simon and Garfunkel (1965)
Selected by: All those who complained there wasn’t nearly enough folk music on the original list. And the loudest complaints came from Simon and Garfunkel fans who wanted a whole host of their hits included.
My rebuttal: Yes, Paul Simon is a genius and yes, there’s a plethora of S&G hit songs to choose from, but this is the one that really started it all. I remember listening to Sounds of Silence during my freshman year in college in 1965 when more than 30 million people and 80,000 square miles of the east coast were left without electricity for up to 13 hours that November. I imagined them all huddled together, chanting a breathless “Hello darkness, my old friend.”
You might not know: Paul Simon was horrified when he first heard producer Tom Wilson’s “folk rock” remix of the song. The lack of consultation with Simon and Garfunkel had to do with the fact that, while still contracted to Columbia Records at the time, the musical duo was no longer considered a “working entity.”
8. For What It’s Worth — Buffalo Springfield (1967)
Selected by: First and foremost by my dear friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Linda McClanahan, who goes by the name “Sister Sarge.”
My rebuttal: Nothing to rebut. Sister Sarge is right and has the story to back it up. She grew up in Berkeley, Calif. and connects this song to an unruly protest on campus she remembers witnessing (“a thousand people in the street”). That moment prompted her to join the U.S. Army and go to Vietnam so she could figure out what everybody was so fired up about. Linda lost God in Vietnam but found her way back to the church after years of struggling with her own demons. She now works as a trauma counselor, helping patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, many of whom are Vietnam veterans like her.
You might not know: Stephen Stills actually wrote the song — in only 15 minutes, he claims — about the “Sunset Strip Riots” that were a reaction to the closing of a popular LA nightspot, Pandora’s Box, and to the curfews imposed on the area to deter young people from loitering outside of clubs and bars.
9. Purple Haze — Jimi Hendrix (1967)
Selected by: Psychedelic music lovers and potheads, not necessarily in that order. And my buddy Brian, who knows more about Jimi Hendrix than anyone on the planet.
My rebuttal: You can make a strong case for including this incomparable song. Jimi and his sound are one of those musical tipping points of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and nowhere did his unique sound reverberate more than in Vietnam. There are helicopters, machine guns and smoke grenades (purple haze) and more in his pulsating music. And those guitar riffs! Nothing quite like it before — or since!
You might not know: Young master Hendrix enlisted in the U.S. Army as a member of the elite “Screaming Eagles” paratroopers, hence the “’scuse me while I kiss the sky” line.
10. Piece of My Heart — Janis Joplin (1968)
Selected by: Classic rock music lovers and a number of women who thought my top 15 was light on female singers.
My rebuttal: Definitely an oversight, and an unintended one at that. Janis had a voice that blew the doors off your dorm room, and she absolutely nailed this song when she was with Big Brother and The Holding Company. I saw her stumble through a show in Kansas City in the summer of 1970, just before I went to Vietnam and she died of an overdose at the age of 27.
You might not know: Aretha Franklin’s younger sister, Erma, sang the original version and put it on the R&B charts in 1967.
11. Leaving on a Jet Plane — Peter, Paul and Mary (1969)
Selected by: As with Simon and Garfunkel, folk music lovers clamored for more, more, more, especially songs by this talented trio.
My rebuttal: This isn’t really a folk song per se, but it is a great, great song, another that’s wrapped in a bundle of college and Vietnam memories for me. The song was originally on one of Peter, Paul and Mary’s earlier albums, so I heard it in 1967 while in college. It was later released as a single in 1969 and took off, as did many of us for Vietnam. It remains one of the most mentioned songs by Vietnam vets and their long-suffering spouses.
12. Bridge Over Troubled Water — Simon and Garfunkel (1970)
Selected by: Scores of folk music and Simon and Garfunkel lovers. And by John Alosi who took the song with him to Vietnam, and back.
My rebuttal: Left off the original 15 at the last minute. I can’t hear this song and not think about my going to Vietnam, about missing a dear friend who helped me get me through that ordeal but is no longer with us, about the song playing on the video of my beloved mother-in-law’s memorial service. I’m tearing up now just thinking about all this.
You might not know: Around the time he wrote this, Paul Simon had been listening to a lot of music by the gospel group The Swan Silvertones, which he says subconsciously influenced his decision to put gospel changes in the song. A Swan Silvertones song called Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep contains the line “bridge over deep water,” which may have seeped into Simon’s subconscious as well.
13. Your Song — Elton John (1970)
Selected by: Several folks (mainly women) clamored for an Elton John song. But the biggest proponent for including this song is my loving spouse, Pam, who had just turned 20 when it came out; she was still three years away from meeting me.
My rebuttal: I like this song, I like Elton John — and I want to stay married — so it’s on the list!
You might not know: Sir Elton labored for several years in obscurity as a songwriter and studio musician, and for a time was the warm-up act for Three Dog Night, who originally recorded this song on their 1970 album, It Ain’t Easy. When it looked like Elton might finally make it in the U.S. with his own version of Your Song, Three Dog Night chose not to release it as a single in an effort to give this young upstart a chance to make it on his own.
14. Stairway to Heaven — Led Zeppelin (1971)
Selected by: Hard rockers, hard livers and heavy metal types who are holding up their lighters as we speak.
My rebuttal: I realize this is a classic and will always be one. But for me, I much prefer the early Led Zeppelin songs and albums when they took the blues of Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson to a whole ‘nother level.
15. Born to Run — Bruce Springsteen (1975)
Selected by: Friends, Romans, and countrymen (and women)— in particular, my old East Coast crowd.
My rebuttal: Yeah, even though I was pushing 30 and still listening to the “oldies” when he came on the scene, Bruce and his music grabbed me because he was a lot like us boomer guys with his affinity for good buddies, fast cars and girls. This song is all that — and more. What a rush! Bruce is himself a boomer and could have ended up in Vietnam like many of the rest of us. And while he didn’t, he has stood tall for Vietnam vets for more than 30 years.
You might not know: In Long-Term Parking, an episode of HBO’s Sopranos, the character Christopher shows up late for a meeting with Tony Soprano and Silvio Dante. Chris’ explanation quotes from the Born to Run lyrics: “The highway was jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.” Tony Soprano just smirked at the excuse. Dante didn’t — he was played by Springsteen’s E Street bandmate, Stevie Van Zandt.
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- Paul McCartney, Speaking Words of Wisdom
- 10 Children’s Books That Made Us
- The Faces That Defined the ’60s and ’70s
- The Soundtrack of Your Life
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