RollingStone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters 70-61

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70- Dan Penn

Often working with Spooner Oldham, Penn was an integral part of the Southern soul sound that flowed out of Muscle Shoals and Memphis, and their songs about the hard price lovers pay for their desires became classics: “Dark End of the Street” for James Carr, “I’m Your Puppet” for James and Bobby Purify, “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops (it was Penn who produced “The Letter” for Alex Chilton’s first group). The way he could mix the deep grooves of church music and blues with lighter pop melodies electrified his music, but there was nothing light about his greatest work, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Written with Chips Moman, it was recorded by Aretha Franklin in 1967, and the feminist power of Franklin’s calm preaching about temptation, fidelity and sexual equality was, as Jerry Wexler put it, “perfection.” “I think all the best songs come out of just pure, raw feeling that you can’t quite explain,” Penn once said. “Everything we get is just a gift we can borrow for awhile.”

69- James Taylor

Taylor was one of the most successful and influential artists to emerge from the “singer-songwriter” scene of the early Seventies. By chronicling every aspect of his life — drug addiction, recovery, marriages and divorces, deaths of friends and family members — he created the mold for confessional balladeers from Cat Stevens to Elliott Smith. “It comes out of a sort of mood of melancholy, somehow,” Taylor once told Rolling Stone of his songwriting process. And like Taylor himself, standards like “Fire and Rain,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and “Copperline” seem delicate yet are as melodically sturdy as oak trees. As his friend and former guitarist Danny Kortchmar has said, “They’re like Christmas carols. It sounds like they were written a hundred years ago.” Taylor himself knows that some people slag him for the first-person aspect of his writing: “If you think it’s sentimental and self-absorbed, then I agree with you, basically. It’s not for everybody. And it doesn’t pretend to be. But to me, there’s still something compelling to me about doing it.”

68- Jay Z

No hip-hop artist has reached the Billboard Top Ten more times than Jay Z, and none has done more to shape both the culture and music around him. His most indelible songs — “Izzo (Hova),” “99 Problems,” “Big Pimpin'” — mix diamond-sharp rhymes with unshakable hooks. As he notes himself, in the late Nineties and early 2000s, it wasn’t summer without a Jay Z hit blasting out of every car window. Recent highpoints like the Kanye West collaboration “Otis” and 2013’s “Picasso Baby” show that no number of lunches with Warren Buffet or late-night diaper-duty emergency calls can slow down his de Vinci flow and Sinatra roll. He began writing as a childhood hobby — authoring, as he later recalled, “100,000 songs before I had as record deal.” Over the years, his recording-booth ability to conjure intricate verses out of thin air has become legend, but he’s a also master of fitting the right lyric to the right musical mood: “I try to feel the emotion of the track and try to feel what the track is talking about, let that dictate the subject matter,” he has said. “The melody comes second, and then the words.”

67- Morrissey and Marr

“I really believe he’s one of the best lyricists there’s been,” guitarist Johnny Marr said about his songwriting partner in 1989, just after the Smiths’ breakup. “I don’t think anyone’s got his wit or insight or originality or obsession or overall dedication.” Together, in less than four years, the duo wrote more than 70 songs, with Marr working as arranger and producer and Morrissey navigating whole new worlds of misery and disaffection, often with much more wit than he got credit for at the time. Morrissey’s lyrics went hand-in-glove with Marr’s gorgeously-detailed melodies: the lilting car-wreck fantasy “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” the Bo Diddley-in-space wallflower anthem “How Soon Is Now?,” the homoerotic Afro-pop of “This Charming Man,” the nouvelle vague folk of “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” and on, and on, and on. The more you listen, the clearer it becomes that Marr isn’t exaggerating.

66- Kenny Gamble and Leon A. Huff

They scored their first big hit with the Soul Survivors’ “Expressway to Your Heart” in 1967, but by then the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff had already been working together for five years, and over the following 15, they’d define the sound of Philadelphia soul and help invent disco. Gamble wrote most of their lyrics, and keyboardist Huff most of their music, but their roles were flexible, and so was their style: they wrote poignant love songs (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), rubbery political funk (“For the Love of Money”), and richly orchestrated dance music with the rhythms that became disco tropes (like the Soul Train theme “TSOP”). Gamble and Huff launched Philadelphia International Records in 1971, assembling a crew of musicians and engineers around them, and throughout the Seventies, they were near-permanent fixtures on the R&B charts, working with singers including the O’Jays, Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass.

65- George Harrison

Harrison wrote one of the Beatles’ earliest openly political songs in 1966’s “Taxman” and one of their prettiest late-period tunes in “Here Comes the Sun.” But his songwriting legacy was sealed for good when Frank Sinatra declared “Something,” the group’s second-most-covered song after “Yesterday,” to be “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.” Harrison described songwriting as a means to “get rid of some subconscious burden,” comparing the process to “going to confession.” After the Beatles split, he let his creative impulses run free on the 1970 triple-album solo debut, All Things Must Pass, and enjoyed a strong Eighties comeback with the pop success of 1987’s Cloud Nine as well his stint with the Traveling Wilburys. “If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he’d have been probably just as big as anybody,” his fellow Wilbury Bob Dylan said.

64- Bert Berns

A kid from the Bronx who fell in love with black and Latino music and even traveled to Cuba during Fidel Castro’s revolution, Bert Berns got his start in 1960 at age 31 as a Brill Building songwriter and went on a run that included hits like “Twist & Shout,” the Exciters’ “Tell Him” and Salomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” Where other writers of the time strove for sophistication, Berns’ songs communicated a fierce romantic hunger and longing. After working as a producer at Atlantic Records, he established his own labels Bang and Shout, where he collaborated closely with Van Morrison (most famously on the singer’s biggest hit, “Brown Eyed Girl”) and wrote “Piece of My Heart,” which was covered by Big Brother and the Holding Company. Berns, who suffered from chronic health problems since childhood, died of a heart attack in 1967 at 38. Despite his enormous reputation among other songwriters, he remains a relatively obscure figure in pop history. “Bert deserves to be elevated to his rightful place in the music industry,” Paul McCartney recently said.

63- Chrissie Hynde

As the leader of Pretenders, Hynde linked the start-and-go rhythms and abrasive guitars of post-punk to a heartland rocker’s sense of straightforward melody. Hynde had one of the best runs of the New Wave era: winning over a wide pop audience with sharp tunes like “Brass in Pocket (I’m Special),” “Middle of the Road,” and “Back on the Chain Gang” as well as the buoyant “Don’t Get Me Wrong” and ballads like “2000 Miles.” Despite her innate sense of craft, the brash-sounding singer was actually a bit sheepish about her idiosyncratic song structures, admitting, “People talk about songwriting clinics and how to construct a song and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I didn’t know that!'” Hynde’s lyrics proved even more influential, articulating a complex female toughness that wasn’t just a sexy pose, inspiring guitar-slinging women and self-directed pop stars like Madonna, who said, “It gave me courage, inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.”

62- Harry Nilsson

Nilsson was a pioneer of the Los Angeles studio sound, a crucial bridge between the baroque psychedelic pop of the late Sixties and the more personal singer-songwriter era of the Seventies. Overdubbing his flawless voice, he was his own angelic choir on songs like “1941” and the Beatles medley “You Can’t Do That,” and he caught the ear of Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, who bought a box of Nilsson records to send to friends. A lifelong friendship with John Lennon — who produced Nilsson’s Pussy Cats during his Lost Weekend period — followed. In songs like “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“. . .so fuck you”), “Gotta Get Up,” and “I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City” he applied pop color to the darkness of a shut in, and Three Dog Night turned “One” (“. . .is the loneliest number”), into a Top Five hit in 1969. “He had a gift for melody. Which is a rare, inexplicable talent to have,” Randy Newman once said of Nilsson’s easy way with complex melodies and counterpoint. “People like McCartney have it, Schubert, Elton John has it. Harry had that gift.”

61- Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman

Jerome Felder was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who’d been on crutches since he’d contracted polio at age six. When he started trying to establish himself as a blues singer, he called himself Doc Pomus. But he gave up his performing career in the late Fifties and formed a songwriting partnership with Mort Shuman. Together their ability to match sweet melodies and multi-faceted lyrics was second only to Leiber and Stoller among early rock & roll songwriters. Between 1958 and 1964, they wrote a string of sly, swaggering hits that bridged the divide between R&B and pop — most famously the Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister,” Dion’s “A Teenager in Love” and Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” One example of Pomus’ lyrical inventiveness is Ben E. King’s “Young Boy Blues,” a collaboration with Phil Spector, in which every verse is effectively one long sentence. Spector later called Pomus, who died of cancer in 1991, “the greatest songwriter who ever lived.”

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This Day in Music History — January 7

1968 : The influential San Francisco radio station KMPX asks listeners to select their choices for the upcoming elections. They choose Bob Dylan for President, Paul Butterfield as Vice-President, and George Harrison ambassador to the UN.

1980 : Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door is certified platinum; it will be the last Zep album issued while drummer John Bonham is alive.

2006 : Pink marries the motocross rider Carey Hart in Costa Rica.

2009 : At the 35th Annual People’s Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Carrie Underwood is the night’s big winner, taking home the Favorite Female Singer, Country Song (“Last Name”) and Favorite Star Under 35 Awards. Rascal Flatts also picks up an award for Favorite Group.

2012 : Katy Perry’s album Teenage Dream becomes the first album in history to have 7 songs from the same album reach #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Songs chart. This was official as soon as the single “The One That Got Away” hit #1.

This Day in Music History — December 17

1954 : Bill Haley and his Comets’ “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (originally recorded by Big Joe Turner) hits #4 on the UK charts. It is the first rock song to make that chart.

1963 : A Beatles song (“I Want To Hold Your Hand”) is played on American radio for the first time, in Washington, DC, at WWDC.

1967 : The Beatles’ John Lennon and George Harrison throw a party in London for the area secretaries of their official Fan Club. The film Magical Mystery Tour is screened here for the first time.

1977 : The Sex Pistols, booked on Saturday Night Live, are denied entry into the US based on various band members’ criminal records and “moral turpitude.” Elvis Costello takes their place and makes his last appearance on Saturday Night Live – he is banned because he performs “Radio Radio” after being told not to by the show’s producer.

1982 : The Who play the last show of their farewell tour at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens, which is filmed for an HBO special called Who’s Last. They re-form to play Live Aid in 1985, then tour again in 1989.

1986 : The Doobie Brothers reunite for a benefit concert in Palo Alto, CA, which eventually leads to a reunion tour and album.

This Day in Music History — November 29

1959 : The GRAMMY Awards show is televised nationally for the first time.

1966 : Elvis hears Tom Jones’ version of Green Green Grass Of Home on the radio just outside Little Rock, and calls the radio station to hear it several times. Elvis would eventually cover the song.

1979 : Paul Simon hits his record label, CBS, with two lawsuits in an attempt to break his contract.

2001 : George Harrison succumbs to lung cancer at age 58. His final hours are spent with his wife, son, and musician Ravi Shankar at his side.

2003 : In front of a crowd of 40,000+ at Greenpoint Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, The Corrs make their first concert appearance as part of Nelson Mandela’s 46664 campaign to raise AIDS awareness in Africa. Alongside artist like Bono, Beyonce and Peter Gabriel they help raise money for the Nelson Mandela Foundation for AIDS.

 

This Day in Music History — November 21

1934 : The Cole Porter musical Anything Goes opens on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre.

1960 : The Beatles’ George Harrison, then just seventeen, is deported from Hamburg, Germany, where the group had been performing at the Kaiserkeller club, back to his native England. Historians typically blame the club’s owner, Bruno Koschmider, who may have tipped the authorities to George’s age; The Beatles had broken his exclusive contract by playing in other venues, then returned to their rooms in one of his other venues and set it on fire in protest of being canned.

1987 : “Mony Mony” by Billy Idol replaces “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany at #1 in the US. Both songs were originally recorded in the ’60s by Tommy James & the Shondells.

1991 : An animated Aerosmith perform Walk This Way on the “Flaming Moe” episode of The Simpsons. The band is one of the first musical guests on the show.

2000 : Backstreet Boys’ Black & Blue debuts with one of the biggest initial retail shipments ever, with about 6 million units.

This Day in Music History — November 15

1968 : Janis Joplin performs her last gig with Big Brother and the Holding Company at New York’s Hunter College.

1990 : German producer Frank Farian admits that Milli Vanilli (Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan) didn’t actually sing on the album Girl You Know It’s True. A scandal ensues and the duo are stripped of the Best New Artist Grammy.

2000 : Michael Abram, the Liverpool native who broke into George Harrison’s home and stabbed him in an incident earlier in the year, is found not guilty by reason of insanity at Oxford Crown Court. Abram is ordered confined to a mental hospital for an indefinite period of time.

2005 : Alabama, Glen Campbell and DeFord Bailey are inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during the Country Music Association Awards in New York.

This Day in Music History — October 26

1935 : The NBC Radio show Lux Radio Theatre presents its newest find — a 12-year-old girl singer named Judy Garland.

1965 : The Beatles are awarded Members of the British Empire (MBE) medals from Queen Elizabeth II in a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace. John Lennon claims they smoked marijuana in the bathroom before receiving the awards, although George Harrison said it was just tobacco. Harrison and Paul McCartney put the awards on their jackets for the Sgt. Pepper album cover; Lennon sent his back in 1969.

1980 : Paul Kantner of Jefferson Starship is taken to LA’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after he (correctly) suspects he’s having a brain hemorrhage. His wife initially doesn’t believe him, but eventually calls the hospital’s front desk, requesting “would you please get an ambulance for this asshole?”

1993 : Michael Jackson is awarded a patent for the system that allows him to lean in unnatural angles during performances of “Smooth Criminal.” To recreate the video on stage, Jackson and his dancers wore special shoes that they could insert into pegs set up on stage for the famous lean.

2010 : Keith Richards releases his autobiography, which is called Life. His drug use is a big topic – here’s a quote: “I loved a good high. And if you stay up, you get the songs that everyone else misses because they’re asleep.”

This Day in Music History — October 25

1983 : “Islands in the Stream,” written by The Bee Gees, becomes a #1 Pop hit in a duet by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.

1996 : The first Ozzfest is held as a two-day festival in Phoenix, Arizona and Devore, California.

1997 : During a concert in Flint, Michigan, Johnny Cash tells the crowd he has Parkinson’s Disease after he falls over trying to pick up a guitar pick. The crowd thinks he’s joking, but Cash’s manager confirms it in a statement two days later.

2000 : Billy Ray Cyrus lends his support to two causes when his tour bus stops in 16 different locations on Nashville’s Music Row throughout the day to collect food for Second Harvest Food Bank’s Harvest 2000; and later the same night, headlines a concert benefiting the charity

2006 : Forbes announces that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain is now the Top-Earning Dead Celebrity, beating out Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Ray Charles, and Bob Marley.

George Harrison tribute concert, feat. Brian Wilson, The Strokes, and “Weird Al” Yankovic — watch

This month has been a month filled with tributes to Beatles great George Harrison. Capitol Records’ released a box set collecting Harrison’s first six solo albums alongside unreleased live recordings and demos, George Harrison: The Apple Years 1968-1975. Later, Conan O’Brien hosted a week-long series of performances.

Last night in Los Angeles, Harrison was again honored with an all-star tribute concert featuring The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Brian Wilson, “Weird” Al Yankovic, The Killers’ Brandon Flowers and Mark Stoermer, plus members of Weezer and The Strokes were all in attendance.

Brian Wilson – “My Sweet Lord”:

“Weird Al” Yankovich – “What Is Life”:

Conan O’Brien – “Old Brown Shoe”:

Brandon Flowers – “Got My Mind Set On You”:

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – “Art of Dying”:

This Day in Music History — August 31

1976 : George Harrison is found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism.” In a lawsuit which started in February, 1971, Bright Tunes Music Corp. brought a copyright infringement action against Harrison, claiming that he plagiarized “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons for his song, “My Sweet Lord”.

2010 : Papa Roach release their first live album, Time for Annihilation. Alongside nine live tracks, the record contains five new studio tracks.

2012 : Eddie Van Halen, of Van Halen lead-guitar fame, is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery on his digestive system. The surgery is to correct a severe bout of diverticulitis. He is expected to recover within six months. Tour dates with Van Halen are rescheduled.