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Top 11 Classic Tracks from Singer/Songwriters
“I don’t deserve a Songwriters Hall of Fame Award. But fifteen years ago, I had a brain operation and I didn’t deserve that, either. So I’ll keep it!”
— Quincy Jones
*Editor’s note: Don’t look at this list as a ranking of the “best” songs in this particular category; it’s more a collection of some of the most long-lasting, the ones with rich histories and an impact still felt today.
- “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel
Because supermodel Christie Brinkley appeared in the video for “Uptown Girl,” it is often assumed that she was the song’s inspiration. “Uptown Girl,” which appeared on Billy Joel‘s album An Innocent Man, reached No. 3 in 1983. In an appearance at the University of Rochester in 1996, Joel explained how he wrote “Uptown Girl.”
“I started going out with a lot of women . . . I was in my mid-30s, I was going out with Christie, I was going out with Elle Macpherson . . . and I was going out with these uptown girls. It really got written not as ‘Uptown Girl’ but as ‘Uptown Girls.’ But I was laughing to myself, I’d come home and I’d wake up and I’d look in the mirror and go ha ha ha, this is great. And you’re going out with all these [sings] uptown girls. It was kind of a joke to me.
“I was doing this album which was a lot of older rock and roll-type songs, early ’60s, late ’50s rhythm and blues and rock and roll and one of the big bands at that time was the Four Seasons. So I thought hey, I’ll sing it like Frankie Valli. You gotta sing Frankie Valli — how can I put this — as if someone’s kinda squeezin’ . . .”
- “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell wrote “Big Yellow Taxi” in 1969, a time of environmental disasters like the massive oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif. that released three million gallons of crude oil along the Pacific coast.
“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii,” Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times. “I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart . . . this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.
“When it first came out, it was a regional hit in Hawaii because people there realized their paradise was being chewed up. It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places in the country. That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.”
Mitchell’s original only reached No. 67 in 1970 but a live version released in 1974 reached No. 24.
“Big Yellow Taxi” (live) by Joni Mitchell
- “A Well-Respected Man” by the Kinks
Written by lead singer and rhythm guitarist Ray Davies, 1966’s “A Well-Respected Man” marked a shift from the Kinks‘ rowdier hits “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” The new approach led Pye Records to refuse to release the song as a single in the UK; “A Well-Respected Man” was a No. 13 hit in the US.
“I decided I was going to use words more, and say things,” Davies explained in the book The Kinks: All Day and All of the Night. “I wrote ‘A Well-Respected Man.’ That was the first real word-oriented song I wrote.”
Davies has continued to write about British culture and traditions over the years. “It was inspired by my accountant, my headmaster . . . all self-important authority figures,” Davies said in Express. “My big fear is to become like them.”
- “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder
“Superstition” was a single from 1972’s Talking Book. “I think that the reason that I talked about being superstitious is because I really didn’t believe in it,” Wonder told NPR. “I didn’t believe in the different things that people say about breaking glasses or the number 13 is bad luck, and all those various things. And to those, I said, ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer.'”
Wonder collaborated on the track with guitarist Jeff Beck. “There was a time when I was pretty bored with my music, and I think somebody at CBS asked me what I wanted to do,” Beck recalled in The Guitar Greats. “I said I loved Stevie’s stuff, so they quietly broke it to him that I was interested in doing something together, and he was really receptive. The original agreement was that he’d write me a song, and in return, I’d play on his album, and that’s where ‘Superstition’ came in.”
Beck recorded “Superstition” in July 1972 with his band Beck, Bogert & Appice but its release was delayed until March 1973. Wonder’s version, released in October 1972, shot to No. 1. “That was the right decision but we were gutted, you know, totally,” said Beck. “We would have had a monstrous, monstrous hit.”
“Superstition” by Beck, Bogert & Appice
- “Graceland” by Paul Simon
Graceland is the title track of Paul Simon‘s 1986 album recorded in South Africa with Black musicians when the country was boycotted for its apartheid policies. Simon was criticized by some artists for breaking the boycott. “They were completely disingenuous about it,” Simon told CNN. “First of all, we didn’t break any boycott. There was no rule about recording with Black South African musicians. In fact, the whole purpose of the boycott was the antithesis of what we did. The musicians voted whether they wanted me to come or not.”
The song recalls Simon’s trip to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, after the breakup of his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher. “Just as in the song, the journey was more interesting than the destination,” Simon recalled in Spin. “Graceland itself was just a business. Big parking lots, you buy your ticket, get on a bus, and wait in line. There’s a tour, guides, and they take you through the house and show you Elvis’s this and Elvis’s that.
“It’s a very common experience, but nevertheless, at the end, you come out onto the grounds and there are the graves of his mother, his father, and him. Even though it’s so commercial, you could even feel it offensive to your taste — and then, on the plaque on Presley’s grave, it says he was given the gift of this incredible voice that has touched millions of people all around the world. And that’s just what it is. A gift.”
- “Wedding Bell Blues” by Laura Nyro
The 5th Dimension scored a No. 1 hit in 1969 with “Wedding Bell Blues,” which featured a rousing solo by Marilyn McCoo. Like the group’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Sweet Blindness,” it was written by Laura Nyro, a young New York singer-songwriter. Nyro recorded and released her own version of “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1966, but she hated the arrangement Verve Records forced her to use.
“I was miscast,” Nyro told Down Beat in 1970. “They projected me as being the ‘Teenybopper Queen,’ because I was 18 at the time. I remember my first publicity pictures. I weighed 180 pounds at that time — my weight is always up and down. I was really fat that week, and they wanted to push my song called ‘Wedding Bell Blues,’ so they stuffed me into this wedding dress, put a veil on my head, and flowers in my hand. I looked so uptight, the most uptight bride you’ve ever seen. And then this picture was splashed all over the industry.”
“Wedding Bell Blues” by the 5th Dimension
- “People Get Ready” by the Impressions
Curtis Mayfield became the lead singer and songwriter of the Impressions in 1959 when Jerry Butler embarked on a solo career. “People Get Ready” was one of the earliest gospel-infused tracks to scale the rock charts, reaching No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. “While I had written a few gospel songs, what would be looked upon as gospel, I called them more inspirational, such things as ‘People Get Ready,’” Mayfield told NPR in 1993. “This is a perfect example of what I believe has laid in my subconscious as to the preaching of my grandmother, and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible.”
“Lyrically you could tell it’s from parts of the Bible,” Mayfield explained in The Blue Moment. “‘There’s no room for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to save his own / Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner, for there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.’ It’s an ideal. There’s a message there.”
Mayfield left the Impressions in 1970 and began a successful solo career, writing the soundtrack of the film Super Fly. Mayfield was paralyzed in 1990 when stage lighting equipment fell on him. Mayfield died on Dec. 26, 1999.
- “Everyday Is a Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow co-wrote and recorded “Everyday Is a Winding Road” for her 1996 self-titled album, but had little confidence in its hit potential. The song first appeared in the John Travolta film Phenomenon and reached No. 11 in 1997. Crow explained the song’s theme on CMT (via Songfacts):
“‘Everyday Is a Winding Road’ started out as kind of a road song, and it really wound up being about being in the moment and not always looking to the next moment and analyzing things. As I look at this record, stepping away from it, I realize thematically a lot of it is about levity, finding levity in life and balance and trying to figure out how to make all things work simultaneously without grand disruption. That’s kind of what the song is about. It’s about jumping in a truck with a guy who just lives life every minute, by the minute. Every once in a while, I have to catch myself and remind myself that life is right now. It’s not two minutes from now.”
- “Space Oddity” by David Bowie
David Bowie was inspired to write “Space Oddity” a few months after seeing director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was released in July 1969 to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing. Barely noticed in 1969, the song would reach No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 when re-released in 1973.
“In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time,” Bowie told Performing Songwriter magazine in 2003. “But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.
“When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I thought I knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here was the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.”
- “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman
On the heels of her debut hit “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1989 and performed “Give Me One Reason.” What followed were years without a chart hit. Chapman ultimately recorded “Give Me One Reason” for her 1995 album New Beginning. The track would reach No. 3 and become the biggest hit of her career.
There was a chance that “Give Me One Reason” might never have been recorded. Chapman told Charlie Rose that before recording it, she was ready to quit. “I actually felt like I’d had enough of the music business. It was wonderful to have the success of the first record, and it created so many opportunities for me and made my life better on a material level, so all of that was really great. But it was also kind of stressful for a person who likes to be kind of private.”
- “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan
“Tangled Up in Blue” is the opening track of Bob Dylan‘s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Dylan has performed the song live over 1,600 times. It’s a song that Dylan has rewritten and rerecorded often over the years. The version released as a single in 1975 was recorded in Minneapolis, Minn. and reached No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Dylan took painting classes with artist Norman Raeben in 1974 after his tour with The Band and separation from his wife Sara. Dylan credits Raeben’s understanding of time in writing the lyrics. “I had the good fortune to meet a man in New York City who taught me how to see,” Dylan explained in Rolling Stone.
“He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt. And I didn’t know how to pull it off. I wasn’t sure it could be done in songs because I’d never written a song like that. But when I started doing it, the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks.
“Everybody agrees that that was pretty different, and what’s different about it is that there’s a code in the lyrics and also there’s no sense of time. There’s no respect for it: you’ve got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there’s very little that you can’t imagine not happening.”
In 1984, Dylan recorded a version released on the Real Live LP that he says is closer to his original intent. “On Real Live it’s more like it should have been,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1985. “I was never really happy with it. I guess I was just trying to make it like a painting where you can see the different parts but then you also see the whole of it. With that particular song, that’s what I was trying to do . . . with the concept of time, and the way the characters change from the first person to the third person, and you’re never quite sure if the third person is talking or the first person is talking. But as you look at the whole thing it really doesn’t matter. On Real Live, the imagery is better and more the way I would have liked it than on the original recording.”
“Tangled Up in Blue” (live) by Bob Dylan
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