18. Stop! In the Name of Love, The Supremes

Polished commercial perfection and deeply expressed emotion don’t often come together, but when they do, as they do here, it is a gem. The Motown rhythm section chugs along with Southern-school marching band precision and the Supremes are given a readymade dance move, with gloved hand extended at every “Stop!” But then, before each verse, the background chords go minor and Diana Ross, at her very best, tells her sad tale, and you can hear her heart breaking: “Is her sweet expression/ Worth more than my loving affection?” The approximate rhymes, a la Smoky Robinson, – “patient” with “infatuation” – add somehow to the sincerity of Diana’s plea. And there is one more important balance: the sad plight of the jilted lover leads not to tears, but to the forceful demand, “Stop! in the name of love.”

 

Sidebar: Girl Groups

Notably absent on the list to this point is any female representation. This in no way reflects my current taste, which runs heavily to Dar Williams, Nancy  Griffith, Mary-Chapin Carpenter; and Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Patti Smith’s Horses are among my alltime favorite albums. Rather, it reflects the far smaller role women have always played in rock: even when there are great female lead vocalists, like Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry, say, the rest of the group is male. Worse, in early rock, girl songs were often fawning: I Want to Be Bobby’s Girl; Johnny Get Angry; Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb. Still, at any one time there was usually at least one signature girl group that could stand with the best, the Chantels, the Shirelles and the Ronnettes chief among them. For general recognition, though, the Supremes were just that. At the peak of Motown glory, they matched the Temptations hit-for-hit. But rock was very much a man’s world, and it is fitting and symbolic that they appear on this list 17 places down.

19. I Wonder Why, Dion and the Belmonts

A Morse-Code barrage of “din-din-dins” announces one of the great bass lines in rock, a line that flares and swoons but never lets up. The last “din” in the opening line morphs into the first word of “don’t-know-why-I,” with each word adding a singer to the mix, in harmonic thirds. All join together then for “love-you-like-I-do,” and the Belmonts are off to the races. Surprisingly early, after verse one, the rather grounded falsetto makes its entrance, while the background singers don-don-di-diddity in controlled anarchy that carries through to the end. A pushing backbeat propels the song in a quick 2:16, stopping twice for a dramatic “wop (pause), wop (pause), wop-wop, wopwopwop.” The words – who listens to the words? – are simple but profound, nailing the uncertainty that every lover, however true, at one time or another must feel. “I wonder why I’m sure you’re always true” doesn’t sound so sure, dun-dun-du-does it?

 

Sidebar: The Doo-wop Canon

I originally intended to make #19 a three-way tie, with Come Go With Me by the Dell-Vikings and Why Do Fools Fall In Love? by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers sharing the spot. Each has the classic elements of up-tempo doo-wop with these two even adding the characteristic sax solo. “Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum, dum-de-dooby-dum” is a Hall-of-Fame doo-wop line, as is “Yip-dum-wop-a-dum, wop-a-dum, wop-a-ye-de.” Further, I could have covered the main strands of the genre with the Belmonts – white Italians, the Teenagers – inner-city blacks, and the Dell Vikings – interracial Californians. But the more I listened to the three songs together, the more I felt I Wonder Why was the only one that never sagged, even for a second. It is hard, of course, to compare doo-wop classics to the Eagles, and in fairness I will prepare a Doo-Wop Top 25 to stand on its own.  But this music of the ‘50s achieved a perfection with a semi-rigid formula: a 45 with a slow side and a fast side. While radio anointed one side as the hit, the flip side that you discovered at a party, say, could be just as good – and more memorable because you felt it was your discovery. Think Danny and the Juniors: At the Hop was the uptempo ‘A’ side; while Sometimes (When I’m All Alone) was just as good to dance to, real close. The harmonies were pleasing, the beat was irresistible, the bass and falsetto gave range, and the lead singer was distinctive (so much so that his or her name often emerged after-the-fact: Cleve Duncan, Fred Parris, Tony Williams, Arlene Smith are among the household names that were never mentioned when their songs were hits.)

 

 

21. Midnight Train to Georgia, Gladys Knight & Pips

Silky-smooth and warm-hearted, this song tells a tale of love that chills me every time: “I’d rather live in his world…than live without him in mine.” This is to Motown as Bonnard is to the Impressionists; it incorporates the innovations but adds the veneer of a later decade. The Pips in the background echo the moves of the Temptations, but their vocals don’t merely echo the lead singer, they advance the story! Gladys: “LA…grew too much for the man.” Pips: “…too much for the man – he couldn’t make it.” Gladys: “…..superstar” Pips: “A superstar, but he didn’t get far.” The instrumentation is unsurpassed. The chorus of strings flows and swells, then the Memphis horns punch in, eliminating any threat of mawkishness. Then from her controlled narrative voice, Gladys erupts at the end with a guttural “I got to go, I got to go” that just makes you wish she didn’t. Let that train keep rolling on. “Woo-hoo!”

22. Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley

This is the first song whose opening bars made me run to my room, close the door and sing along – yes, often in front of the mirror – pretending, or hoping, to be a rock star. I am not ashamed: Elvis had that effect on many, and Don’t Be Cruel is the quintessential Elvis. That five-note introductory guitar riff raises the speed from zero to sixty in four bars, just in time for Elvis to strut: “You-u-u know I can be found…” The Elvis yodel that set hearts aflame makes its presence felt: “Baby it’s just you I’m [glottal stop]-thinkin’ of.” Words are slurred – “believemeyouknowyou’llhave me” – but they’d be covered by the screaming anyway. The Jordanaires in the background are at their best, with staccato fillers behind the words of the verse, then a dreamy “ooh-we-ooh” following the King’s subdued “don’t be cruel.” And before you know it – in two minutes flat – it’s over, and you can’t wait for the radio to play it again.

B Side: The Elvis Oeuvre

For someone universally acknowledged as the King of Rock’n’Roll, with more records sold and #1 hits than anyone, give or take the Beatles, Elvis is conspicuously absent from the radio airwaves, and has been for 30 years. Granted, most oldies stations don’t go back beyond Motown, and “classic” tends more toward 20 years ago, not 50. Granted, a two-minute record doesn’t “fit” the modern playlist (but cf. the Ramones); and Elvis songs weren’t kept alive by being danceable. But with all those millions of people still buying Elvis memorabilia and visiting Graceland, you’d think that somewhere they’d play his music.

Elvis’s oeuvre can be divided into four distinct periods. There is early, Primitive Elvis, captured in the Sun Sessions (his greatest record), when we hear the genius who combined white country-and-western with black rhythm-and-blues to produce the raw, honest, urgent sound that propelled rock’n’roll. Then Elvis is cleaned up – adding the Jordanaires in the background, for instance – for a more commercial, but still urgent sound that is Classic Elvis. It didn’t get any better than Love Me, Too Much, All Shook Up, Don’t – and the song I liked most to “croon,” I Want You, I Need You, I Love You. Then Elvis loses a bit of steam, or gets co-opted by his terrible movie career and puts out records that are still good but don’t have that rock’n’roll intensity, songs that are carried only by his voice, a period I call Pro Forma Elvis: Stuck On You, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Good Luck Charm. Finally, there is the Revival Elvis. Seven years after Return to Sender he reappears with In the Ghetto, a new sound influenced by the Sixties. Popping pills, fighting his weight, getting divorced and living a screwy existence, trying out country, gospel, cabaret, Elvis still delivers some nice songs: Kentucky Rain, The Wonder of You, My Way, and one of my obscure favorites, True Love Travels on a Gravel Road. He should be played more often.

23. Gone Country, Alan Jackson

A sprightly guitar is joined by a pedal steel that wails then meanders through the song introducing this happy parable of musicians abandoning pop, folk and classical (?), respectively, to hop on the country bandwagon – “the whole world has gone country,” by the end. There’s an insistent backbeat that relates to rock, but the happy sound and clarity of the lyrics are country endemic. And what fun are all the near-rhymes: “Village-privilege,” “Vegas-ages,” “composition-children.” The song consciously offers a bridge for us rockers to the world of country: “they’re not as backward as they used to be.” A fiddle countermelody and honky-tonk piano add to the tapestry. After everyone is indoctrinated – “look at them boots” – the song rambles along for another 60 seconds of spright before sliding out with my favorite Alan Jackson expression, “We gone!”

Sidebar: Country Rock

There has always been an overlap between “country” and “rock,” with numbers like Sonny James’s Young Love and Guy Mitchell’s Singing the Blues topping my personal charts alongside Fats Domino and Little Richard. I had a thing for Buck Owens in college; but, Ringo Starr homage aside, that was still hee-haw country. It was getting hooked on Randy Travis’s Deeper than the Holler that turned me onto the potential likability of new country. Then I “discovered” Garth Brooks, Reba McIntire, Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dixie Chicks. I could now, without missing a beat, come up with a companion Country Top 25 that wouldn’t span as many years or emotions but would be full of songs that were, at their time, my favorites. Like Trisha Yearwood’s She’s in Love with the Boy, Chad Brock’s She Said Yes, Kenny Chesney’s How Forever Feels, Sara Evans’ Suds in the Bucket, and Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffett’s Five O’Clock Somewhere. And while I’m on the subject of crossover music, there is another middle ground, somewhere not quite rock, not quite country, that maybe is called “urban folk,” where we find Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, John Gorka and a host of others who have also added so much pleasure to my “rock” years.

24. Walk Away Renee, The Left Banke

It is hard to think of another under-three-minute pop song that draws one more quickly or more surely into its ethereal world of lost romance. After years of rapt listening, I have only the vaguest idea what the singer is singing. Something about a “sign that points one-way” and “your name and mine inside a heart upon the wall,” clearly Rimbaud-like images that find a way to haunt us, though they’re so small. The lush orchestration never lets up: it starts at intense then, two-thirds through, there is a crescendo before the final verse that ratchets the angst even higher. But it is the ultra-nasal vocal that, finally, vaults Renee into the pantheon. In my mind’s eye I see the lead singer, fronting the string section with his mournful delivery, his heart breaking, his lips never moving.