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Saturday, November 5, 2011

They Just Don’t Write Songs Like That Anymore…

I grew up listening to local Boston DJ Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg’s Night Train radio show near the end of it’s more than 20 year run. He went from playing cutting edge Top-40 songs to playing the Golden Oldies playing the same music.

This is where I first heard the tunes that really struck a chord in me and continue to influence my songwriting. Songs like Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City” with that great rockin’ bass line. Or the country swing of Farron Young’s “Hello Walls”, Jim Reeve’s “He’ll Have to Go”, Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”, Freddy "Boom, Boom" Cannon's "Palisades Park",  the Jive Five’s “Daddy’s Home”, Minnie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop” (the first ska US radio hit from Jamaica) and great instrumentals like Link Wray’s “Rumble and The Dual’s “Stick Shift”. It was all one big chart on the Night Train Show.  Plus, NO BEATLES! “Mr. Postman” was sung by The Shirelles and “Twist and Shout” was recorded by the Top Notes.

But then there were these other songs. Songs you just don’t find on the radio like you did in the 1950s and early 1960s where apparently dying in a fiery car crash with/for your significant other was the height of romance. And these weren’t just quirky songs they played on the radio as a novelty; these were top ten national US chart topping hits!

Affectionately referred to as “The Casket Full of Hits”, these songs hold a place in pop music history for the death and destruction they portend. All in the name of love I might add. 

Some were just merely depressing like “Ode to Billy Joe” and some were just gut wrenching like “Tell Laura I Love Her”. You see he was going to win enough money to pay for a wedding ring at the local stock car race. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Johnny didn't make it to the end of that fatal heat. Witness a lyric from the song, which charted at #7 in the US and at #1 in the UK in 1960: “And with his dying breath, you can hear him say, Tell Laura I love her, tell Laura I need her, tell Laura not to cry, my love for her…will never die!” And then he dies. Tragic.

Then there’s “Teen Angel”. The singer saves his girlfriend by pulling her out of the car when it’s stuck on the railroad tracks while the train was coming but then she runs back for his high school ring which she left behind and so SHE GETS HIT BY A TRAIN!  Name me another Top 10 tune (#1 in the US in 1957!) where the chick gets hit by a train and I’ll buy you a beer.

Or how about Dicky Lee’s “Patches”? She’s from the wrong side of the tracks and and dresses poorly (hence the low-class nickname "Patches") so his parents won’t let him see her anymore and so SHE DROWNS HERSELF. When they find her “floating face-down in that dirty old river”, the boy vows “it may not be right, but I’ll join you tonight”. This song charted at #6 in the US in 1962. I’m not making this up!

We all know the guy on the motorcycle buys it with resounding effects in “Leader of the Pack” after the singer breaks up with him; “Lookout, lookout, lookout, lookout!” CRASH, too late. That was a #1 hit for the Shangri-las in 1964.

Not to be overlooked was “Running Bear”, a #1 hit for Billy Preston in 1959, The boy and girl this time are Indians from different tribes and they BOTH drown in the river after being forbidden to see each other. And also #1 in 1959 was the legendary “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. He gets shot down by a posse after coming back to town to see a chic who we aren't really sure if she even likes him although she gives him a kiss as he expires. I guess he was right.

Many people have heard of “Last Kiss” which was a #2 hit for Frank Wilson and his Cavaliers in 1964 since it also went to #2 for Pearl Jam in 1999. Dad should have maintained the car better because Jr. loses it on a turn and his girlfriend gets killed. This is not only the very first record I ever heard as a kid but the original recording has one of pop music's truly great signature bass lines and is sung so well that Pearl Jam doesn't begin to capture it's essence in their woefully sorry remake.

The oldest, strangest and most depressing is Bobby Gentry’s 1967 hit  “Ode to Billie Joe”. Her kinda/maybe boyfriend throws himself off a bridge which they calmly discuss over dinner. Then her dad dies just to round things out, I guess.

Well I suppose there was only one moment in time for these songs to happen. A time not long after the second great war where romance meets tragedy and then is put into song.

Now it’s only left to the musicians themselves to off themselves in spectacular fashion.