Memphis, Tennessee is the birthplace of rock and roll. It’s where the King of Rock & Roll lived and died. It’s where the Delta blues stopped for a drink on Beale Street before heading up to Chicago. And it’s where my late brother Peter managed the city’s finest luxury hotel, The Peabody. So, let’s celebrate Memphis in song…
1. Long Way from Memphis (The Automatics)
This cut is by a band of English ex-pats living in Los Angeles. The drummer (Paul Crowder) is friend of mine. He’s also a great video editor. I met him while working on “Behind The Music”. Saw him and the band play live at a club in Los Angeles and they opened with this fine rock & roll tune – which includes an Elvis sighting in Kalamazoo.
2. All the Way to Memphis (Mott the Hoople)
For years I loved this song – but I had no idea what Ian Hunter was singing about. The song was my favorite on the 1973 album “Mott”, which was the follow-up to “All The Young Dudes.” Listening to the song over and over, I can now tell that it’s about Hunter losing a guitar and having a hard time getting it returned to him. Never knew there was an Oriole, Kentucky – but it’s lucky for Ian, because Oriole rhymes with Rock & Roll if you pronounce it that way. The song’s best line? “It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll, from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl.”
3. I’ve Been to Memphis (Lyle Lovett)
Of course Lyle Lovett’s been to Memphis. This song, like so many songs with a Memphis connection, mentions a lot of other towns – and women – along the way. I love the honky-tonk feel of this one.
4. Memphis In the Meantime (John Hiatt)
John Hiatt ditches Nashville so he and his lady can “get good and greasy” in Memphis. The band on this track is an all-star group: Hiatt (acoustic guitar), Ry Cooder (electric guitar), Nick Lowe (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums). Nice company, huh? Ronnie Milsap, it’s your loss.
5. Graceland (Paul Simon)
While John Hiatt goes to Memphis to enjoy the down and dirty rhythm and blues with some boozy babe, Paul Simon is traveling on a pilgrimage seeking benediction and redemption. The title track of one of Simon’s greatest albums, it has some of his finest lyrics – and Simon nails the allure and power of Memphis and The King’s mansion. I have just one quibble with Simon. The Mississippi delta can surely shine like a National guitar – but it’s not “the cradle of the Civil War.” That infamy belongs to South Carolina. Just ask General Sherman’s troops.
6. I’m Going to Memphis (Johnny Cash)
The Man in Black got his start in Memphis with Sam Phillips and Sun Records: part of the Million Dollar Quartet of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. In this song, credited to Alan Lomax and associated with Memphis Slim, Johnny is journeying to Memphis to see and do a lot of strange things. I don’t think Johnny’s on the same holy pilgrimage that Paul Simon is going on.
7. Going Back to Memphis (The Levon Helm Band)
Levon Helm and his band are having a great time on this rollicking, rocking track.
The whole thing is a party, led by Levon at his gravelly best.
One of rock and roll’s best examples of a guy who can lead a band from behind his drum kit, Levon takes another journey through song to the great musical Mecca on the Mississippi.
8. Memphis (Chuck Berry)
“Long-distance information, get me Memphis, Tennessee.” Thus, Chuck Berry begins one of the most oft-covered tunes ever written about Memphis. Chuck says he recorded this one at his office in St. Louis on an $80 Sears Roebuck reel-to-reel. (Although $80 was a lot of money in those days.) With its surprise ending, in which we learn that “Marie is only 6-years old,” this is one of those perfect rock and roll songs that Chuck Berry churned out so magically in the 1950’s. It’s another reason we’re all Chuck’s children.
9. Guitar Man (Elvis Presley)
This is a great comeback Elvis track, proving that the King of Rock & Roll had survived Hollywood and emerged with his voice and flawless sense of rhythm and dynamics intact. Jerry Reed, who wrote the song (and could also play guitar like a-ringin’ a bell) had a minor hit with the tune in 1967 — but Elvis’ cover (with Reed on guitar) became a chart topper. Recorded in Nashville in the late 1960’s, it was re-remixed and re-released four years after The King’s death, scoring him a posthumous #1 hit on the country charts in 1981.
Here’s a clip from the ’68 Comeback Special. There’s some fun stuff at the top, then Elvis tears into a bit of “Guitar Man”, proving he’s still the King of Rock & Roll.
10. Johnny Bye-Bye (Bruce Springsteen)
In this short, dark and complex song, Bruce ties Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry together. The Boss starts out with the opening lyrics of Chuck’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” (“She drew out all her money from the Southern Trust, and put her little boy aboard a Greyhound bus”) then pivots to a meditation on the death of Elvis, from his rise to stardom (“Leaving Memphis with a guitar in his hand, a one-way ticket to the promised land”) to his death at Graceland (“They found him slumped up against the drain, a whole lot of trouble running through his veins”).
11. King’s Call (Phil Lynott)
Another musical meditation on the death of Elvis Presley: this one’s a deeply personal tribute by Thin Lizzy’s lead singer, Phil Lynott – who also died tragically young, passing away at the age of 36 in 1986. “King’s Call” is a track from Lynott’s first solo album – and if the guitar playing sounds familiar, that’s because Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler sat in on guitar and backing vocals. I love this tune.
12. Memphis Monday Morning (Bobby “Blue” Bland)
As Phil Lynott sang in the previous track, “It was a rainy night, the night The King went down.” So perhaps Mr. Bobby Blue Bland is singing about that very night, as he takes us through this jazzy, bluesy walk through the late night/early morning streets of Memphis. Along the way, he name checks my brother’s hotel and several other Memphis locations. The musicianship on this track is awesome: a little cool jazz mixed with the blues for all you classy cats.
13. Big Train (From Memphis) (John Fogerty)
The great John Fogerty’s tribute to Sam Phillips and Sun records is dominated by the train imagery evoked in so many songs from and about Memphis. (By the way, I had the honor of meeting Sam Phillips in the late 1990’s when I interviewed him for Rick Nelson: Behind The Music. We sat at the same Formica kitchen table in Sam’s Memphis house where he sat with Elvis when he told the future King of Rock & Roll that he was selling his contract to RCA. No brag, just fact.) This song was on Fogerty’s hit 1985 “comeback album” Centerfield, and was covered the next year by the living Sun Records legends: Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Alas, only The Killer is still with us at the age of 79.
Somehow, Dean Martin makes everything he does sound groovy and utterly cool.
Given that Dean was one of Elvis’ biggest heroes – and that Elvis tried to emulate Dino’s sound – it’s only fitting that the King of Cool have his spot in this Memphis themed lineup.
15. Stuck Inside of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Bob Dylan)
In this fabulous track from Blonde on Blonde, Dylan puts together perhaps the greatest word collage in the history of rock & roll. And among all those words, he keeps referring to “the Memphis blues”, which he obviously has again – though he (and Jerry Reed’s guitar man) are stuck in Mobile, Alabama at the time. If this song had been sung by Ian Hunter it would be completely incomprehensible, but Dylan makes the words quite clear even if the meaning is elusive. Who cares? It’s great. It rocks. And it’s the last tune on this tribute to Memphis, Tennessee – the birthplace of rock & roll.
Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin dominated the American popular music landscape from the Jazz Age to the Rock & Roll Revolution of the 50’s. Listening to this collection of tunes (see below), it’s abundantly clear that in the mid-1920’s Bing was already plugged into black American jazz and rhythm and blues in the same way that Elvis Presley would later synthesize those same black influences – along with everything he learned from Bing, Frank (and in particular) Dean.
Among 20th century singers, a case can be made that Bing is King. The development of the microphone made Bing’s vocal style possible. At a time when vaudeville singers like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor were still belting it out to sing over the band, Bing caressed the microphone and used it to his advantage. Bing put a song across in deep, subtle, and dynamic ways that would not have been possible without electric amplification. Bing’s jazzy, relaxed and sophisticated vocal style influenced every pop, rock and jazz singer that followed – whether they knew it or not.
I thank my friend Dana for hipping me to Frank Sinatra back in our days at Northwestern University. In fact, the only song played on Dana’s Hi-Fi as often Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” was Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me.”
My resistance to Sinatra owed a lot to politics and Sinatra’s uneasy reaction to rock and roll. But I should’ve known better than to reject one of the great vocal stylists in popular music history — and a champion of great songwriters.
Elvis Presley, the King of Rock & Roll, was smarter than that.
Young Elvis was a big Dean Martin fan. Of course, he was. Dean was the epitome of cool – and Dean’s smooth, effortless, yet exciting style – with his signature, sexy dynamics and boozy note bending became part of Elvis’ vocal arsenal as well. I hear a ton of Dean on Elvis cuts like “Love Me Tender” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
All right, let’s get to the songs. Too bad nobody has a Hi-Fi anymore – because that’s how this music should be appreciated — with a mixed drink in hand, sharing it with your favorite girl. And/or your kids. It’s a BFD.
Click on the links below the song titles to hear the tunes.
1. Some of These Days (Bing)
This record is often cited as a prime example of Bing Crosby’s ability to sing jazz. In 1932, Bing recorded his take on this Shelton Brooks song written in 1910 specifically for Sophie Tucker. Bing is backed on this cut by the Lennie Hayton orchestra, featuring a great solo by Crosby favorite Eddie Lang. Listening to Bing swing in front of a classic jazz band, you can easily imagine this tune coming up with the credits after an episode of “Boardwalk Empire”. Bing was at home in front of bands of all sizes and styles. He cut his teeth with jazz bands in the 20’s before becoming a fixture of swing bands in the 30’s. These bands were all about dance music – and Bing knew his role, always giving the band’s players plenty of space to solo, rock and wail.
In Bing’s early days, dance bands didn’t always employ a vocalist. In fact, when Bing began singing with Paul Whiteman’s band, he was required to sit holding a dummy instrument so as not to look odd to the audience. By the time Frank Sinatra came along, it had recently become the fashion for bands to feature a regular vocalist. And the vocalists, and not the bandleaders, eventually became the stars. As usual, Bing was a trailblazer. Bandleader Tommy Dorsey told Sinatra that the one singer he should listen to was Bing Crosby. Duh. As a kid, Frank had a picture of Bing taped above his bed.
“Sure, I’m a Crosby fan. Everybody’s a Crosby fan.”
2. Stormy Weather (Frank)
“Frank Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime.
But why did it have to be my lifetime?”
Frank cut this Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler tune in L.A. in 1947 for a special V-Disc for the occupation troops overseas. Frank made a lot of V-Discs during the war. Ironically, the man with such an ear for melody was kept out of the war by a perforated eardrum, causing him to be classified 4-F (“Registrant not acceptable for military service”) by his draft board in ‘43. An FBI report released in 1998 showed that the doctors had also noted that Frank was a “neurotic” and “not acceptable material from a psychiatric standpoint.” This was omitted from his record to avoid “undue unpleasantness for both the selectee and the induction service.”
3. Memories Are Made Of This (Dean)
BTW — Dean was drafted into the army in 1944 and served a year in Akron, Ohio before being reclassified as 4-F and discharged, possibly because of a double hernia.
Now back to the music. On this recording, it’s easy to hear how Dean’s vocal style had such a profound effect on young Elvis Presley. Dean recorded “Memories Are Made Of This” with Dick Stabile and The Easy Riders. They cut the track on October 28, 1955 and it was released a month later. The record hit #1 on the charts on December 3rd — just a week after its release and less than two months after it was recorded. Those were the days, huh? Came you imagine a recording going from the studio to #1 in less than two months now? And this was at a time when Elvis was tearing up the charts. I love the stripped down instrumentation: just a guitar and an upright bass. Not even a drum. Totally cool. Totally relaxed. Totally Dean.
4. Shoo Shoo Baby (Bing)
Written by Phil Moore, “Shoo Shoo Baby” was a big hit for The Andrews Sisters. Bing recorded this live version with a big band for an Armed Forces Broadcast during World War Two. By the 1940’s, Bing had already enjoyed more than two decades of success in the music industry. In 1926, fledgling crooner Bing was singing on the vaudeville circuit in L.A. when he came to the attention of one of the greatest bandleaders of the era, Paul Whiteman (a.k.a. The King of Jazz), who hired him to join one of the most popular bands in America. Unlike the typical vaudeville shouters, Bing learned to work the mic (and the crowd), drawing listeners in with his groovy, jazzy, mellow dynamics. But Bing was evidently a bit of a rock star in his early days – and Whiteman had to fire his star vocalist in 1930 due to his repeated youthful peccadilloes. Bada Bing, Bing.
5. Ol’ Man River (Frank)
This Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein tune from the Broadway musical “Show Boat” was recorded by Frank on a CBS Radio Broadcast in Hollywood in April 1945 and included on a V-Disc sent to the troops in the last year of the war. By 1945, Frankmania was raging, with bobbysoxers swooning and throwing their underwear on stage during his gigs. In ‘44, his shows at the Paramount Theater in NYC sold out the 3,600 seats inside and left 30,000 fans outside dying to get in. As with Elvis and the Beatles, riots, hysteria and frenzied fandom drove a wedge between parents and their teenagers. Frank also sang the song in the 1945 film bio of Jerome Kern, “Till the Clouds Roll By”. Capitalizing on Frank’s appeal with teen audiences, the film included two versions of “Ol’ Man River” — the first a straightforward version sung by African-American actor-singer Caleb Peterson and the second a “crooner version” performed by Frank as the film’s grand finale. Trivia note: Bing’s 1928 recording of the song for Paul Whiteman’s band became his first #1 record as a vocalist.
6. You Was (Dean)
I love Dean’s playful duet with Peggy Lee on this song, written by Sonny Burke & Paul Francis Webster, and recorded on December 12, 1948. Who but Dean could deliver a lyric like “my heart is a spherical, lyrical miracle” with such easygoing self-assurance. (Dynamic moments like that – and performances like “Memories Are Made Of This” prove that Dean is the link between Bing and Elvis.) With his swinging playboy image, Dean was a master of the sexy male-female duet. If you dig this, check out Dean’s Christmas album classic, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.
7. Pistol Packin’ Mama (Bing)
This 1943 recording by Bing and The Andrews Sisters was the first number record on the Juke Box Folk charts — followed onto the charts by the original version (recorded March 18, 1942) performed by Al Dexter, who also wrote the song.
8. Young At Heart (Frank)
Frank recorded this lovely, sentimental but swinging song, written by C. Leigh & J. Richards, for his 1953 album “This Is Sinatra”. Like so many classic Frank hits of the ‘50s, it was arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, who perfected the lush orchestrations that showcased Frank’s voice at the height of its power and subtlety.
9. Ain’t That A Kick In The Head (Dean)
If there’s a quintessential Rat Pack recording – this is it, baby! Composed in 1960 by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” was recorded by Dean on May 10, 1960 with Nelson Riddle conducting the orchestra. Dean performed the song in the Rat Pack movie “Ocean’s 11”.
10. Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? (Bing)
Along with “Ol Man River”, this powerful balled carries the sad but true tale of working men – black and white – from the 19th into the 20th century. Written in 1930 by lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and composer Jay Gorney, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” became one of the most popular American songs of the Great Depression, best known through recordings by Bing and Rudy Vallee. Both versions were released right before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election to the presidency in 1932 and both records topped the charts. Bing’s recording became the best-selling record of its time: “an anthem of the shattered dreams of the era.”
11. Where Or When (Frank)
This recording captures Frank in concert in 1966 at The Sands in Las Vegas with Count Basie and The Orchestra — arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. Is that enough talent in one room? Frank originally recorded the song for his dark 1958 concept album “Only The Lonely”, a collection of songs that convey heartbreak and urban isolation with a moody film noir feel, including “One For My Baby” which closes out this post.
12. Open Up The Doghouse (Dean)
This one’s nothing but sheer, exuberant, naughty fun – if you can get past the utterly non-PC last verse. Dean recorded this song, written by R. Alfred & M. Fisher as a live duet with Nat King Cole, on September 7, 1954 with Billy May and Orchestra, arranged by Nelson Riddle. When I interviewed the great Wrecking Crew guitarist Glen Campbell for “Behind The Music”, he told me that when he played sessions for Dean at Capitol Records, Dean would show up after the band had rehearsed the tracks and knock his performances out quickly in front of a partying crowd of friends and entourage in the studio. Dean loved a live feel and came alive in front of an audience – and he liked to capture that vibe in the studio.
13. After You’ve Gone (Bing)
Bing’s enduring image as a softhearted movie priest and Christmas special crooner has unfortunately overshadowed his trailblazing work as a jazz cat. Bing’s 1946 single “After You’ve Gone” is one of his lesser-known records — but it puts to rest any notion that Bing was a square. The track is drenched in New Orleans/Dixieland jump and jive. The song, written in 1918 by Turner Layton with lyrics by Henry Creamer, had been covered many times before Bing cut this version with Eddie Condon & His Orchestra (with new lyrics by Eddie Condon). It was later included on Bings’s 1951 album, “Bing Crosby & Some Jazz Friends”. Bing’s jazz friends on this track include Eddie Condon (guitar), Bud Freeman (tenor saxophone), Joe Dixon (clarinet), Wild Bill Davison (cornet), Bob Haggart (bass) and George Wettling (drums).
14. Come Fly With Me (Frank)
Here’s the song Dana Olsen introduced me to all those years ago, written by James Van Heusen & Sammy Cahn, arranged and conducted by Billy May for Frank’s 1957 album, “Come Fly With Me”. This is Frank and his groovy, hipster best. Martini anyone?
15. I’d Cry Like A Baby (Dean)
Dean recorded this easygoing yet plaintive S. Gallop & H. Steiner song on August 13, 1953 with Dick Stabile and Orchestra, arranged by Nelson Riddle. Cool, casual, groovy.
16. Now You Has Jazz (Bing)
Cole Porter wrote this song for the 1956 film “High Society” (which co-starred Bing and Frank), where it was introduced by Bing and Louis Armstrong and his band. Name a prominent singer or bandleader — and chances are that Bing worked with them at one time or another during his long career. Bing was the Great Collaborator.
17. In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (Frank)
I just love this song, written by Bob Hilliard & Dave Mann. It’s one of my very favorite Frank tracks, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle for Frank’s 1955 album of the same name. The albums that Frank made with Nelson Riddle comprise the apex of his recording career: Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Only the Lonely. Frank’s interpretations of the songs on these albums are so definitive that anyone who tried to cover these songs after him had to either consciously avoid sounding anything like Frank or give up and call their version a tribute. The singers who came before Frank, including Bing, found their interpretations erased from popular memory. Today’s best crooners, like Michael Bublé and Harry Connick, Jr. still can’t get out from under the weight of Frank’s indelible stylistic stamp.
18. You Belong To Me (Dean)
This is the suave, romantic Dino that every Italian-American woman in St. Rocco’s parish swooned over when his hits were played over the PA system during our annual Labor Day festival. Dean recorded this tune on June 12, 1952 with Dick Stabile and Orchestra, featuring Stabile on alto sax. Released only as a single, Dean’s recording reached #12 on the charts on September 6, 1952 – but it was still a hit at St. Rocco’s in the 60’s when I was a kid growing up. Of course, Dean and Frank were both Italian.
19. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter (Bing)
Written in 1935 by Fred E. Ahlert with lyrics by Joe Young, this is the song from which Sir Paul got the phrase “kisses on the bottom” for the title of his 2012 album. Bing recorded it for “Bing With a Beat” — his 1957 concept album featuring “hot” jazz and Dixieland arrangements by Matty Matlock, played by Bob Scobey’s Frisco Jazz Band. Which leads to a second Beatles connection. In a TV interview on the 20th anniversary of John Lennon’s passing, John’s friend Elliot Mintz referred to this album while talking about John’s interest in Bing’s music. According to Mintz, “Yoko gave him this old-fashioned jukebox and John stocked it with Bing Crosby records. People kind of expected him to have rock ‘n’ roll records in there, but it was almost totally Crosby stuff. There were three songs which John played over and over. I still remember them. They were Crosby with a jazz quartet from the ’50s, I think. He would banter and talk in the songs and John thought that was just the end. The songs were “Whispering”, “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, and “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. Yeah, those were the songs, I can still see John listening to them.”
(Note: I checked to make sure, and yep – all three of those songs are on “Bing With a Beat”.)
20. I’ve Got The World On A String (Frank)
Written by Harold Arlen & Ted Koeler and recorded on April 30, 1953 for the album “This Is Sinatra”, this song is Frank’s first pairing with arranger and conductor Nelson Riddle. Riddle kept the band out of Frank’s way and used bass, reeds and horns to underscore and punctuate Frank’s phrasing. Working with Riddle, Frank honed his vocal style, connecting more with the emotional demands of each song and developing a self-assurance that allowed him to play with the melody and even change the songwriter’s words on occasion if it felt right. All of this is evident on “I’ve Got the World on a String.” Riddle opens with a big orchestral splash that quickly fades, leaving Frank to deliver the opening lines with spare accompaniment. Then – bang – the band jumps back in! And Riddle uses the drums in a way that seems to anticipate Rock & Roll’s backbeat. It’s a bold, dramatic start to one of the most successful collaborations in popular music.
21. Just In Time (Dean)
Dean recorded this song, with melody by Jule Styne and lyrics by Comden & Green, on May 17, 1960 for his album “This Time I’m Swingin”. The orchestra conducted by – who else? — Nelson Riddle. Judy Holliday and Dean sang the song in the 1960 film, “Bells Are Ringing”. Honestly, when you hear a song like this – and you imagine seeing and hearing Dino perform it live onstage with a big band – it’s easier to understand why men and women of a certain age in the late 50’s and early 60’s had no need (or ear) for rock and roll. They were swinging, baby. And damn. I miss those fabulous horns. Don’t you?
22. It’s Been A Long, Long Time (Bing)
This 1945 song, composed by Jule Styne with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, became a major hit at the end of World War Two, written from the perspective of someone welcoming home his significant other at the end of the war. A recording by Harry James and his band went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 24, 1945 while another version by Bing — accompanied by The Les Paul Trio — was also working its way up the charts. Bing’s record replaced Harry James’ version at No. 1 on December 8, 1945. By the way, this is the kind of guitar style that my first guitar teacher, no doubt a big Les Paul fan, tried to teach 12-year old me when I only wanted to rock. Like Bing, Les Paul makes all his brilliance, tuneful, tasteful phrasing and dazzling chops sound so effortless.
23. Nice And Easy (Frank)
The song’s title says it all. Frank recorded this tune, written by Lew Spence/Alan Bergman/Larry Keith, for his 1960 album of the same name. Arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle. (Have I heard that somewhere before?)
24. You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You (Dean)
Another dreamboat Dino song on the St. Rocco’s Labor Day Festival hit parade. Written by Russ Morgan, Larry Stock and James Cavanaugh and published in 1944, the song was first recorded by Morgan himself – but the best known version is by Dean, who recorded it for his 1964 album, “The Door Is Still Open to My Heart”. It reached #24 on the US pop chart, #1 on the easy listening chart — and #1A on the St. Rocco’s PA pop chart – next to “Volare” (1B) and “Everybody Loves Somebody” (1C).
25. Nice Work If You Can Get It (Bing)
Bing recorded this George & Ira Gershwin classic for his 1956 album, “Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings” – a collaboration between Bing and Buddy Bregman. At the time, Bregman was a 26-year old wunderkind arranger, record producer and composer. Bing was 53. (53? Yikes! That’s younger than I am!) The album was a stylistic departure for Bing: the first time he recorded an album with a hard-swinging orchestra like Frank was doing with Nelson Riddle at the same time. The songs on the album were among the rare few that Bing had never recorded before. Besides coming up with the idea of the album, Bregman also did the orchestrations and conducted a handpicked group of Hollywood’s best musicians to back Bing in the studio. The Variety reviewer wrote, “Altogether it is quite a musical package – muscular and tender, driving and romantic, pulsating and lyrical. For Bing Crosby, the artist, it is a somewhat different testament to add to the many already on record and, as you will hear, an ingeniously varied and durable one.” Time Magazine said, “After 22 years of making records for Decca — plus a few before even Decca latched onto him — Bing Crosby steps out with a handful of oldies on a new label, proves himself virtually indestructible.” Nice work if you can get it.
26. One For My Baby (And One More For The Road) (Frank)
Frank first recorded this boozy lament, written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, for his melancholy masterpiece LP, Only The Lonely” in 1958. Eight years later, he recorded this live version at The Sands in Las Vegas with Count Basie and The Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. I can’t think of a better way to wrap up this post. Set ‘em up, Frank. Let’s hear one more for the road.
Ever since The Beatles turned me on to rock and roll at the age of 5, I’ve been singing along to the radio, trying to recreate the style and power of the great rock voices that inspired me.
Some signature performances, like Roy Orbison’s operatic masterpiece “It’s Over” and Freddie Mercury’s incredible “Bohemian Rhapsody”, challenged my limits as a singer. On my best day, I couldn’t reach those soaring heights of vocal power — but trying to sing along with Roy and Freddie made me a better singer.
I’ve been singing in rock and roll bands since high school, and there’s nothing like trying to cover a classic song to make you appreciate the artist who sang that song on the record. Just listen to teenage Stevie Winwood sing “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group — or Bob Seeger tearing through “Get Out Of Denver”. Those performances literally leave you breathless.
Over the years, I’ve become a connoisseur of fine rock and roll vocals. So, just to start one of my favorite arguments, I’ve come up with a list of the Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time. This is not a list of my favorite singers. Indeed, many of my favorite singers – Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Paul Rogers to name a few – did not make the list.
This is a list of the ten best rock and roll vocalists who ever picked up a microphone.
1. Elvis Presley
Elvis is King. Period. And I don’t want to hear from a bunch of folks who can’t get that bloated, drug addled Elvis out of their minds. Elvis put rock and roll on the map because his voice was magic. There is a quality to Elvis Presley’s voice that thrills the listener – in the same way the sound of Paul McCartney and John Lennon singing harmony gives you goose bumps. Every rock and roll singer after Elvis has been singing in his shadow. That’s why Elvis was the first inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. (The Hall of Fame website calls him “the undisputed King of Rock and Roll”.) Listen to Elvis sing “Trying To Get To You” – and bow down to The King.
2. Ray Charles
There’s nothing Ray Charles couldn’t sing. The blues, country, rock and roll, soul, and rhythm and blues – Ray knocked them all out of the park. But as versatile as he was, no matter what style of song he sang, he made that tune inimitably his own. If Ray Charles had put a rock and roll band together in the 1950’s, he would have owned the rock and roll top 10. And though he recorded everything from gospel to standards – Ray Charles rocked hard enough to be in the first class inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Check out Ray rocking “Baby, What’d I Say?”
3. James Brown
Another member of that first class of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, James Brown is one of those singers that you just don’t even try to cover. Not even in your most drunken moment in a karaoke bar. Even if James Brown didn’t have the most out-a-sight dance moves ever invented, even if he didn’t have the most fabulous pompadour that ever adorned a rocker’s head – he would still have the most dynamic voice in rock and roll history. Like Ray Charles, James Brown didn’t make a lot records that would be considered straight up rock and roll: he was far too funky to play it in 1-4-5. But all you have do is listen to James belt out “(I Got You) I Feel Good” to know why he’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
4. Little Richard
Along with Elvis, Little Richard wrote the other half of the rock and roll singer’s lexicon in the 1950’s. Without him, The Beatles don’t wag their heads and sing, “Oooooh!” I can’t imagine what rock and roll singing would be like without the example of Little Richard: the freedom, the abandon, the soaring screams and “wooohs” – the joyous, anarchic, frenetic, rhythm-pounding pulse of his performances have influenced every rock and roller who followed. That’s why, he’s another guy they put in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Imagine what conservative Middle American parents thought when they heard Little Richard sing “Long Tall Sally”. Dangerous, man. Wild and dangerous.
5. Paul McCartney
The best singer in the best rock and roll band of all time, Paul McCartney earns a spot on this list even if his only vocal performance in consideration was a song he released after The Beatles broke up. No singer dares to cover Paul’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” – one of the most spectacular rock vocals of all time. And Paul can still sing this song today at the age of 69. I heard him sing it at Staples Center in Los Angeles a few years back and it was still powerful. Paul McCartney is a force of nature. Here’s he is, decades before his Knighthood, singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” with his other band, Wings.
6. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin is not just one of the best female rock and roll singers ever – she’s one of the greatest rock and roll vocalists period. There’s never been another woman who fronted a rock band with such a fearless, soulful, and savage style. Like the great blues singers, Janis understood the sexual subtext of rock and roll – but she didn’t sell sex on the stage – she sold the power of the music. She was magnetic and magnificent. All I ask is that other, inevitably lesser singers stop trying to cover Janis’ classic, “Piece Of My Heart”. It just can’t be done.
7. Burton Cummings
Perhaps the least recognizable name on this list – and probably the only Canadian – Burton Cummings is hands-down one of the very best rock and roll singers that came out of the 1960’s. Lead singer for The Guess Who, Cummings sang classics like “No Sugar Tonight”, “American Woman” and “Share The Land”. But if you want to know why I think he’s one of the best rock vocalists of all time, all you need to do is listen to him sing “These Eyes.” Toward the end, when he does a soaring riff on, “These eyes are crying” – it’s one of those vocal moments that try as I might, I’ve never been able to replicate in the shower or in my car. Burton Cummings is a master class in rich, powerful, and exhilarating rock and roll singing.
8. Roger Daltrey
Roger Daltrey is the best rock and roll screamer of all time. I personally owe him a lot. (Back in college, Fat Dave Silberger compared me to Daltrey, and I still haven’t gotten over his undeserved but much appreciated flattery.) Fronting a magnificent trio – Daltrey’s voice was the fourth instrument in one of the most powerful live rock bands to ever take the stage. Pete Townshend is one of the great rock and roll songwriters of all time – and Roger’s incredible voice made Pete’s ambitious, operatic songs possible. Case in point: “Love, Reign O’er Me”
9. Robert Plant
I was never a huge Led Zeppelin fan back in the day, but in retrospect, maybe it was because I was afraid to cover their songs. Why? Because of freaking Robert Plant! Led Zeppelin was extremely popular inn the early 70’s when I was in my first high school band, but trying to belt my way through Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” or attempt “Stairway to Heaven” was to invite comparison with Robert Plant and, thus, failure. Still, trying to sing along with Plant made me a better singer. I saw him a few years ago at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles during his tour with Alison Krauss. Dude’s still got it.
10. John Fogerty
I love John Fogerty. My father was born in New Orleans, Louisiana – but Berkeley, California native Fogerty had even more bayou in his soul than my dad did. When I was an 11-year old kid, the songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival jumped off the radio and connected with me more than anything other than The Beatles. It was that crunchy, snarling guitar groove – and John Fogerty’s voice: a rolling, driving, inescapable growl – like an unrelenting, passionate Little Richard with more politics than sex on his mind. I devoted myself to screaming through Creedence songs like Fogerty, pushing myself to my vocal limits. But I’ve never approached the master’s performance on “Fortunate Son.” Listen – and, once again, bow down…
Rock & Roll fans mourned the death of Amy Winehouse last month – but, as soulful and as talented as she was – now, we mourn the passing of a real Rock & Roll icon: Jerry Leiber. He was 78 years old. (Jerry’s the guy on the left of Elvis, above.)
Lyricist Jerry Leiber and his partner, pianist Mike Stoller, wrote some of the best songs in the rock ’n’ roll canon, including “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and “On Broadway.”
Leiber and Stoller teamed up in 1950, when Jerry was a student at Fairfax High in Los Angeles and Mr. Stoller was a freshman at Los Angeles City College.
In 1952, Leiber and Stoller wrote “Hound Dog” for the blues singer Big Mama Thornton – and it became a big hit for Elvis in 1956.
Leiber and Stoller followed up with some pretty damn good songs. Lots of them. Absolute classics.
It’s silly, really. These guys wrote “Jailhouse Rock”