1,000 Greatest Songs of the 1960s – 520 to 511
520. “Silver Wings,” Merle Haggard. Songwriter: Merle Haggard; Did Not Chart; 1969. Merle Haggard was releasing so much first rate material during this timeframe that “Silver Wings,” which has become one of his most famous songs, was never released as a single. The string arrangement gives the song a more pop feel than most of Haggard’s material during this timeframe, but the theme of sadness while watching a love one fly into the distance is pure country heartbreak. Lyrically, it’s John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” from the perspective of the party who is left behind. “Silver Wings” has been admired by pop and country artists with covers from Marshall Crenshaw, Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, and Suzy Bogguss.
519. “I Want to Know,” Sugar Pie DeSanto. Songwriters: Ronald Dean Badger, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Bob Geddins; #4 R&B; 1960. Sugar Pie DeSanto’s “I Want to Know” was her biggest R&B hit. Recorded with The Pee Wee Kingsley Band, the song was originally released on the Bay Area Veltone label, then picked up by Check Records for national distribution. On this slinky R&B number, Sugar Pie makes a request for romantic validation and I’m guessing than an uncredited Etta James is providing backup vocals. During the early 1960s, Chicago blues artist Earl Hooker turned “I Want to Know” into an instrumental titled “Nothing But Good,” with his slide guitar replicating DeSanto’s vocal lines. Sugar Pie Desanto reflecting on touring with James Brown during this timeframe, “He’d get mad at me sometimes. He’d say, ‘Alright, don’t work so hard tonight, you’re gonna me WORK.”
518. “Act Naturally,” Buck Owens. Songwriters: Johnny Russell, Voni Morrison; #1 country; 1963. Johnny Russell became a country star in the 1970s, best remembered for his 1973 #4 hit “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” but he was an unknown Fresno songwriter in 1961. He penned “Act Naturally” after skipping a date to attend a recording session, but it stayed on the shelf for two years. Buckaroo guitarist Don Rich was originally more enthusiastic about the starry-eyed song than Buck Owens – the notably mercenary Owens probably appreciated it more when it became his first #1 country single. “Act Naturally” became one of the best known country songs of the decade after being covered by the Beatles in 1965, winningly voiced by the band’s easy going drummer. Ringo Starr and Buck Owens recorded a duet version of “Act Naturally” in 1989, resulting in a #27 country hit.
517. “James Bond Theme,” John Barry and His Orchestra. Songwriter: Monty Norman; Did Not Chart; 1962. U.K. composer, arranger, and conductor John Barry may have been destined to do film soundtrack work – his mother was a classically trained pianist and his father was a cinema projectionist. He developed film scores for decades, winning five Academy Awards from 1966 to 1990, but is best known for his contributions to the James Bond movie franchise. On the “James Bond Theme,” the large brass section gives the song a heightened sense of drama, while Vic Flick’s surf guitar riff creates the sense of mystery and intrigue. John Barry, describing the arrangement, “A peculiar mixture of that low rock guitar figure, the brass sound, and a bridge that was almost like a Dizzy Gillespie bebop phrase. It was kind of a hybrid of all these things I was involved with at the time. I didn’t give it too much thought, and it just came out like it did.”
516. “I’m a Believer,” The Monkees. Songwriter: Neil Diamond; #1 pop; 1966. Neil Diamond on having his material recorded by The Monkees, “I was thrilled, because at heart I was still a songwriter and I wanted my songs on the charts. It was one of the songs that was going to be on my first album, but Donny Kirshner, who was their music maven, hears ‘Cherry, Cherry’ on the radio and said, ‘Wow, I want one like that for The Monkees!’ He called my producers, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich – ‘Hey, does this kid have any more?’ And they played him the things I had cut for the next album and he picked ‘I’m A Believer,’ ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’ and ‘Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),’ and they had some huge hits. But the head of my record company freaked. He went through the roof because he felt that I had given #1 records away to another group. I couldn’t have cared less because I had to pay the rent and The Monkees were selling records and I wasn’t being paid for my records.” Michael Nesmith complained so loudly about the lack of hit potential for “I’m a Believer” that he was banned from the studio while Micky Dolenz recorded the lead vocal. It was The Monkees’ second single and their second #1 hit.
515. “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Jeannie C. Riley. Songwriter: Tom T. Hall; #1 pop/#1 country; 1968. Jeanne Stephenson was a small town Texas girl who went to Nashville to find fame, but first found work as a secretary. Record executive Shelby Singleton waited for months to find a singer who could project the proper image to make “Harper Valley P.T.A.” successful and gave Jeanne Stephenson a new name in the process. Jeannie C. Riley didn’t care for this sassy smackdown number, later saying, “I had more in common with the daughter who brings the note home than the mother in the mini-skirt.” Still, it was Riley who reworked the money line, modifying Tom T. Hall’s lyrics to state “the day my momma socked it to the Harper Valley PTA.” Songwriter Tom T. Hall, “I grew up in a town of 1,300 people, but we had our aristocracy — the folks who were the leaders of the town, those we were inclined to believe were more intelligent, more moral. They’d talk about people — how ugly some of them were. But I thought those people were beautiful.” The theme of small town hypocrisy is timeless and this #1 pop/#1 country hit inspired a film starring Barbara Eden in 1978 and a television sitcom in the early 1980s.
514. “Born Under a Bad Sign,” Albert King. Songwriters: William Bell, Booker T. Jones; #49 R&B; 1967. Albert King and his twelve siblings grew up near Forrest City, Arkansas, the same town that produced Al Green. King, also known as “The Velvet Bulldozer,” had a #14 R&B hit in 1961 with “Don’t Throw You Love on Me So Strong,” but after more than a decade of working as a touring artist, he had little to show for his efforts. He signed with Stax Records in 1966 and recorded his signature song, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” King wisely let the MGs and the Memphis horns carry as much weight as his left handed, upside down string bending Flying V guitar work did on this effort, which is not to minimize his contribution. Booker T. on Albert’s playing, “We started playing the song, Steve and Duck played the intro and then Albert played that lick. Oh, man, it was like lightning hit! He just lit it up. Eric Clapton is still trying to play like that!” Steve Cropper on the success of the recording session, “When we were cutting the songs with Albert, we weren’t thinking blues at all. We were thinking about dance music.” “Bad Sign” was later covered by Blue Cheer, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Etta James, and by (Doh!) “Homer Simpson” on the album “The Simpsons Sing the Blues.”
513. “When Will I Be Loved,” The Everly Brothers. Songwriter: Phil Everly; #8 pop; 1960. The Everly Brothers were raised in Shenandoah, Iowa and performed on their father’s radio program when they were children. In their late teens, the family moved to Tennessee and family friend Chet Atkins assisted The Everly Brothers in getting their first two record deals. They had a string of hits for Cadence Records in the late 1950s and their chart success continued with Warner Brothers in the early ‘60s. “When Will I Be Loved” was a rare Phil Everly composition for the duo and has become one of their most covered songs. The magic – simple guitar licks, a classic pop theme, and their inimitable close harmony singing.
512. “End of the World,” Skeeter Davis. Songwriters: Arthur Kent, Sylvia Dee; #2 pop/#2 country; 1962. Mary Frances Penick was born in Dry Ridge, Kentucky during the Great Depression and was given the nickname “Skeeter” by her father. Skeeter formed a high school singing duo with friend Betty Jack Davis, who was not a relative, and they called themselves The Davis Sisters. Their recording career began in 1952 in Detroit and they had a #1 country hit/#18 pop hit the following year with “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know.” Betty Jack died in a car accident only a few months after the single was released and Skeeter began charting as a solo act in 1957. Her 1960’s music sounded like nothing else on country radio, often having a much more pop and playful sound. Penned by adult contemporary songwriters Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee, “End of the World” was a hopelessly despondent #2 pop and #2 country hit. Skeeter scored another Top Ten pop hit the following year with the Brill Building Gerry Goffin/Carole King number “I Can’t Stay Mad at You.”
511. “I Think We’re Alone Now,” Tommy James and the Shondells. Songwriter: Ritchie Cordell; #4 pop; 1967. The teenage lust number “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a Top Five hit for Tommy James in 1967 and a #1 hit for teen sensation Tiffany in 1987. (Ironically, Tiffany’s hit was replaced at the top spot by Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony, Mony,” indirectly making Tommy James on of the biggest acts of that year). Tommy James, “I got involved with Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell from Kama Sutra Records. They came over, and became my first real producers and songwriting collaborators. The first song that the two of them brought to me was ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’ It was almost a ballad; it was very down-tempo. It was not the uptempo song that we all know. We went into the studio to do a demo, and that’s where we came up with the pegging eighth notes. We added that to the record, and Bo sang on the demo. We took it to Morris (Levy) and we were all really excited about it. Morris wanted us to make the record right away. We actually finished the record Christmas Eve of ’66; it was a great Christmas present. The record was released and was an instant smash.”