My Favorite Songwriters of the Rock, Folk and Blues Era (Final of 3)

Part 1 of this series is here:

I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still
Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron
Somebody told me that his name was Bill
Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron
—Da Doo Ron Ron, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Phil Spector

Well, hell, yeah it’s not Shakespeare. Does it have to be? “I met him and my heart stood still.” What more do you need to know? The last of three posts on great songwriters of the rock, folk and blues era:

Holland/Dozier/Holland – (pictured above). If you liked Motown, you were probably hearing a song by these guys.
Greenwich/Barry – Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were from the same Tin Pan Alley generation as King/Goffin. “Da Doo Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Be My Baby,” “River Deep, Mountain High.”
U2 – I think that Bono and The Edge are the primary songwriters. But they all get credit.
James Taylor – Still a great writer and love his voice and guitar playing
Prince – Β What can’t he do?
Lieber/Stoller – “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Kansas City.” Are you KIDDING me?
Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman – Brill Building songwriters of the early ’60’s. “Teenager in Love,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “Little Sister,” “Suspicion,” among others.
Stevie Wonder – Don’t know where to begin. Start with “Fingertips Part 2,” through “For Once in My Life,” all the way through (at least) “Songs in the Key of Life.” Magnificent.
Ray Davies – I spent many an hour listening to The Kinks. So did Pete Townshend. I believe the Brits would refer to him as the guv’nor.
David Bowie – I’ve loved his stuff for a long time. I didn’t realize the breadth of good stuff he had till after his death when satellite Radio played it all weekend.
Brian May, Freddie Mercury – They didn’t really write together but independently wrote classics like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Will Rock You,” “We Are The Champions,” “Keep Yourself Alive,” “Killer Queen.”
Randy Newman – “Political Science,” “Sail Away,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,”
Robbie Robertson – “The Weight,” “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Cripple Creek.” The Band will get their due on these pages, trust me on that one.
Robert Johnson – Has any artist with such a finite number of songs had more impact?
Elvis Costello – If I could narrow it down to a Top Ten, he’d be on it.
Bruce Springsteen – Oh Thunder Road, Oh Thunder Road
Sam Cooke – “If you ever, change your mind, about leavin’, leavin’ me behind, oo-whoa bring it, bring your sweet lovin’, bring it on home to me, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Pete Townshend – None of the above songwriters – as good as they may be – has written rock operas. Pete has written “A Quick One While He’s Away,” “Tommy,” “Quadrophenia,” “Who’s Next (the aborted Lifehouse),” not to mention a million great songs.

27 thoughts on “My Favorite Songwriters of the Rock, Folk and Blues Era (Final of 3)

  1. I second Robbie Robertson and Randy Newman. Two of my favs, and I think 12 Songs is one of my favourite albums of all time πŸ™‚

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  2. Girl groups. Yes. I’m reading a book about the early years of The Beatles. (More on that later). It’s abundantly clear how strongly they were impacted by the early rockers like LIttle Richard, Eddie Cochrane and especially, Elvis. “No Elvis, no Beatles,” John is reported to have said. But they were also influenced by the girl groups, even recording “Please Mr. PosItman.” And they loved Smokey Robinson.

    But I can’t find any evidence that they were influenced by or even heard any doo-wop. So I’m thinking of songs like “Blue Moon,” “In the Still of the Night,” “You Belong to Me.” (The soundtrack to the movie “American Graffiti” has a fair amount of doo-wop and is a pretty good representation of pre-Beatles music in America.) Since they frequented Brian Epstein’s shop, if he had that stuff, they would have heard it. So I’m puzzled as to whether or not doo-wop was an American phenomenon or if it traveled around the world. And was it ever popular in England? Maybe a rhetorical question but it puzzles me.

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  3. As usual, your taste is impeccable. I especially like your inclusion of Robert Johnson, who is recognized by electric guitarists for his musicianship but whose songwriting is often overlooked (though, truth be told, blues musicians do a lot of borrowing). If you haven’t already, you might want to examine Charley Patton, one of Johnson’s mentors.

    May I tinker with your list a little? My own list would remove Frey/Henley, John/Taupin, Prince, U2, May/Mercury, and Bowie. In their places I would put Stephen Stills, Justin Hayward, Todd Rundgren, Phil Ochs, Bryan Ferry, and Lou Reed (for his Velvets work). Bacharach/David are too often overlooked when discussing Brill Building writers, since they were closer to adult easy listening and didn’t write many teen anthems, but it was still “pop,” and that duo tops all the Brill writers in my book. There are also a lot of folk-related artists like Fred Neil, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Gene Clark, Tim Hardin, Gordon Lightfoot, Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, and Tom Rapp (a psychedelic folkie that I wrote about recently). As far as duos, how about Hunter/Garcia, Marriott/Lane, and Reid/Brooker? Jim Morrison was an incredible lyricist, and also “wrote” haunting music (he sang or hummed melodies, and the others wrote down the notes). Arthur Lee (Love) was a brilliant writer before his band imploded from drugs. Rod Argent of the Zombies and Argent wrote many great songs, yet only a few got played on radio.

    I’m probably forgetting about 20 or 30 for my list (they’ll come to me later, I’m sure). Wait… here’s one now… that African-Canadian with the simple name…

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    1. Pete, I’d be shocked if you didn’t tinker. πŸ™‚ Before I entertain your additions, I need to ask about your subtractions. Generally speaking you’ve removed some icons. Is your take that the guys you removed just are not good songwriters or are not great songwriters? Or what?

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      1. Probably “not great.” I think Bowie was a multimedia visionary, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he was a great “songwriter.” John/Taupin were enormously prolific and tremendously successful, but I don’t think their songs have much depth, despite some ear candy on the early records. U2 has a good way with anthems, but I’m not a big fan of anthems. Frey/Henley had huge commercial success, but their songs were limpid (although “Hotel California” raised the stakes a bit). Even Poco was a better country-rock band. And I’ve never liked Prince or Queen, despite what the critics and general public think (overrated, in my view).

        There are many times I deviate from the critics and Billboard charts. I’m just going by my head, heart, and crotch, and the people above don’t hit those areas!

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        1. Hmm. I see where you’re coming from on those folks and I can hardly argue with the ones you named. But to take each in turn I’d say that Bowie was both a theatrical wiz and good songwriter. (I’ll drop “great” for purposes of discussion as that is for the lofty few.) He was definitely OUT THERE which I liked about him quite a bit. Likewise I think U2 has some superb stuff (and frankly, some so-so stuff). But songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “I Will Follow” and “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” rank with some of the best songs I know.

          As to Frye/Henley, I was not a fan of the Eagles for quite some time as I am not a country/folk-rocker. But they grew on me over time and looking back it’s an impressive body of work. As to Prince and Queen if you’re not into them, well, not much to say there. You like ’em or you don’t. On another tack, Brian May and Prince are two of my favorite guitarists. (We saw Prince and man, what a show!)

          Which leaves me with John/Taupin. Flat-out I’m an Elton fan. (Although not much lately.) Do they have depth? Well sometimes. “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” e.g, is a true story. But maybe one difference between you and I for the most part is I ain’t much looking for depth from rock and roll. Often quite the opposite. For example, I much prefer Springsteen’s fun songs to his “they shut the plant in Jersey down and now we’re all bummed out” songs.

          So my feeling on songwriting – tongue somewhat in cheek -is that even Springsteen would admit it’s hard to beat “I met him on a Monday and my heart stood still. Da doo ron ron ron, da doo ron ron.” πŸ™‚

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        2. Or “I can’t get no satisfaction.” That’s all ya need to know!

          Yes, by “depth” I was referring to both lyrical AND musical depth. I think Elton is very good, I just don’t rank him with the greats. Also, I do admire Brian May’s distinctive guitar style. The U2 songs you listed are strong anthems, but I frown on most anthems, and I’ve never liked Bono’s melodramatic vocals. And maybe I need to listen to more Prince. I’m probably turned off by his looks, how critics were starved for something “different” and drooled over him in the ’80s, and the fact that he supposedly wrote a song about incest. (“Uh, thanks, but no thanks.”) But it’s about the music, so maybe I need to get beyond “1999,” “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Blueberry Beret.”

          Anyway, I appreciate that you allow people (like me) to differ (politely). As I’m sure you agree, there’s way too much tribalism on social media, even regarding music. Too many echo chambers. I figure, the way a person grows is to engage in a “free exchange of ideas,” and a free exchange allows for differences of opinion, which always encourages growth!

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        3. I’ve already done a U2 tribute and – alas – you will likely not dig my longer piece on the Purple One which I will do sooner or later. (Did a tribute when he died.) And one of these days I’m going to do an Elton sixpack. Or something. You are at least of an age when you can remember Elton being somewhat of a rocker and not Elvis/Elton/Liberace Las Vegas guy. So even though you’re not a big fan, you can, I think, appreciate his British blues roots, etc. (Do you know that Elton played piano on “It’s Not Unusual?”) But much of my readership is probably half our age and will know him only as their grandmother’s music/official mourner. Question – who will play piano at Elton’s funeral? πŸ™‚

          As to the free flow of ideas, yes I am all for that. I started this blog 100% because I could not entice one single person on Facebook to engage in any kind of talk about any kind of music. Too busy posting grandchildren, cats and dogs I suppose.

          So my feeling is as long as someone can disagree without being disagreeable, why not have these discussions? I started this blog exactly for that reason. But I am always surprised (like you I think) when someone completely disagrees with me, having no interest whatsoever in something I love. How can this be I ask myself? But who can account for taste? I don’t dig country very much at all but it has literally millions of followers. There were even people who liked disco but I’ve arranged to have them shipped to Mars ASAP.

          One more thing – my overriding philosophy is that guys like you and me and some of the other bloggers may be experts on musical history but that doesn’t make our musical opinion any more valid than anyone else’s. So I might know what time of day John Lennon brushed his teeth. But that doesn’t mean that because I’m knowledgeable in that way that my opinion is somehow more valid. They may be somewhat correlated but not, I think, dramatically. If any of that makes sense.

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        4. Well…(and here I go again, and I’m probably an elitist for saying this, but…) I feel that people like you and me do have opinions that are more valid than people who are much younger, or don’t listen to much music. The late, great Roger Ebert wrote a very good essay about this, after some young person took him to task for a negative movie review. Ebert devoted his life to film, had seen thousands of movies, read and researched film history, interviewed and probed hundreds of actors/directors/writers/producers… yet some 20-year-old who’s never even heard of “Citizen Kane” has the gall to chastise him for criticizing his favorite bombastic, special-effect-laden piece of crap?? I do think Ebert’s opinion is more valid than the kid’s. The kid has a right to VOICE his opinion. But equalization isn’t the same as democratization, and doesn’t exist in everything, and that’s as it should be.

          (By the way… don’t spill your Fresca… but there are some disco songs I actually like.)

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        5. I totally get your point and in fact had more or less the same conversation with CB recently. Here’s the side I would argue – let’s say my knowledge is greater than that kid, maybe my opinion is more “valid” in that others might listen to me more. But in no way, shape or form does that matter to that kid other than in the most academic sense.

          So I say to some twenty-year old girl – You know, Britney Spears is ok and everything but you really should be listening to John Coltrane (or the Rolling Stones or Foo Fighters or whatever.) And she says yeah, but they don’t do anything for me. How is her opinion not valid when we are talking about taste?

          My kids are ZERO into the blues. I tried. It didn’t take. My son asked me to make a CD for him, just random stuff I liked. It was all stuff from our generation that either you or I would like to a greater or lesser degree. I asked him what he thought and he shrugged. I took it back out of his car and he never missed it. Yet he loves music. So how does my expertise help in that case? Zero.

          Ebert’s a very good example. I watched Siskel and Ebert faithfully from the very early days of PBS. Now, Ebert has actually written whole treatises on “Citizen Kane” and I have not. Does that mean I have to accept his opinion that it’s the greatest movie of all time? I vastly prefer “The Godfather.” Who wins here? The film expert of the amateur film buff? He may be right technically (I suppose) but he hasn’t swayed me. But I agree with you that Ebert had every right to trash some POS special effects movie when he’s studied the greats.

          Let’s take your argument to its logical extreme. I’m four years older than you, therefore four years more knowledgeable (in theory) about music. Therefore since I “know better” you must agree that Paul Simon is on the same level as Dylan and L&M. But you don’t! Because your opinion is every bit as valid as mine!

          As to disco, well, start packing your bags. Oh and hey, bundle up. Mars temperatures can plummet to minus 195 F. πŸ™‚

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        6. Well, you don’t “know better” about Simon just because you’re four years older. Age can make a difference re musical knowledge, but it’s not everything. I just used age as one criterion. Listening time and research/study/knowledge are more important criteria.

          But to return to the main topic, we could go round and round on this. I think the key is to distinguish between what is personal taste and what is quality. I enjoy Sergio Leone’s films more than “Citizen Kane,” but in a ranking of “great movies,” I would never claim, although it has many great qualities, that “A Fistful of Dollars” is a better film. Ebert knows more than I do about great filmmaking, and I defer to him in the matter of quality. I can claim “I love ‘Fistful’ more than ‘Kane’,” but to claim it’s a “better” film makes me look foolish.

          Get my drift? πŸ™‚

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        7. Yes, agreed I do not know better ‘coz I’m older. Just taking that argument to a logical extreme. I see your point, though. There are experts who study things and non-experts for sure.

          Yes, I see your point when you lay it out like that, totally. But mine is the more pedestrian “there’s no accounting for taste.” “Better” is in the eye of the beholder, methinks. However, someone could tell me all day long that Beethoven is higher quality than the Stones and they’re right in that sense. But I know who I’d rather listen to. If I listened to what my parents thought was better – and in a sense they’re right – I’d be listening to Sinatra all day long. Anyway, I think we’re in agreement and I hear where you’re coming from on that.

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      1. CB is sitting on the sidelines enjoying the back and forth (at least you’re not boring the shit out of me with that Donny guy) and a Dan Hill 10-parter might be a little excessive. Maybe you could throw Andy Kim and a couple other good Canadian rockers in there to fill it out. As far as songwriting and Canadians go where would Robertson fit in with you two? He kind of strikes a cord with old CB.

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        1. Who’s Donny? And BTW, I had no idea until Pete said it that Hill was A) Canadian and 2) black. I know nothing about the guy and now, hope to forget all that until and unless he writes a good song. As to Robbie, he is on my list of songwriters (multiple posts) that I mentioned to Pete. He is unique in that he weaves history and music together in some of his tunes like Al Stewart does. However, as we know, if it were up to the other guys in the Band, their names would be on those songs too. People fight over songwriting credits like it’s their last nickel.

          PS. If you haven’t read Robbie’s autobio, “Testimony” you’re missing out.

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        2. I remember seeing this post now. after i threw the Robertson comment I took a look and seen you had him. That was back when you and i first start bullshitting music (it’s been fun).
          I remember when you did your bit on the Robbie book. I might be a little burned out on certain people, The Band, Springsteen to name a couple.. I read a real good book years ago on the Band ; ‘Across The Great Divide’. After The Last Waltz I got over loaded on Robertson being the spokesperson for the boys. I do and still read lots of music bios, mostly Jazz guys.

          You know Donny, that guy the US people voted in to run the show.

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        3. I just sent your Keith Jarrett ‘Koln Concert’ take to my Jazz loving neighbor. He is thinking about getting some Jarrett for his wife’s birthday. He’s never heard him. I would say it is probably the safest bet of the Jarrett stuff. I have some more of his out there stuff and i know the neighbor won’t dig it.

          Yeah I get your love for the Simon stuff. For me I have so much music I listen to and continue to discover that that style just doesn’t get listened to. Catchy tunes, radio staple from the past. Not turn off the radio like a lot of popular music for me. Except for some of Art’s out put. You remember your ‘Indispensable’ well he did a version of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. Man I couldn’t get my head around that one. Yes’s version of America I enjoy and a few other covers. But hey Doc I really do get your love for the music.

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        4. Let me know what he thinks of Jarrett. As to Simon, yeah I read a book, get jazzed, pull him off the shelf. Then like you with the Band, I’ll get saturated, then back on the shelf. Same with The Indispensable 150. But what makes great music great is that you can always come back to it and it still sounds great.

          As to anyone who can listen to Simon’s entire output and dismiss it, their loss. I think for some people he’s just not cool enough. Take those same exact songs and let Tom Waits sing them and suddenly they’re great. Bullshit.

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        5. Big Earl isn’t much of a Pop guy but he digs Paul. Something about the word play and rhythms catch his ear and appeals to him, I certainly don’t dismiss Simon. My Gal loves the “Gus” song. As far as the “Waits” thing. I don’t get into that territory. Nothing worse than some asshole that pulls that smug shit. Lots of that in the Jazz world. Thing about music is seeing the pleasure it brings the listener is cool, Seeing it move somebody whether I dig it or not. CB over and out.

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        6. You’re right about the jazz scene. Some guys lose their focus on why they got music (love of it) and get lost in technical crap nobody cares about. Except them and their teachers I suppose. If it sounds good I’m all over it.

          Music is an amazing, magical thing. I read something recently where people way back in history responded to music before they had language. There’s something primordial in the whole thing. CB should write, produce, and direct a whole movie about that and then sell it to HBO. Hell, I’d watch it.

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        7. Faldas guy is a fireman and they use certain singing and music for therapy for burn victims. A friend of theirs has a beautiful voice and is involved.
          Music is just good fella. We know that. Ever see people dancing to polka music it’s like there’s nothing better. If CB gets enough booze in him he’s right in the thick of it.
          On the bio thing and getting overloaded. In The Bands case I never get tired of listening to the music just the talking and the bullshit. (CB went out and found a Neil Young book today ‘Waging Heavy Peace’. ( CB speaks with forked tongue).
          Last thing. You have Simon songs bouncing around my head like a red rubber ball.

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    2. BTW, I’m aware of and have listened some to Charley Patton. And while I’m a big blues guy, I cut my teeth on British blues and am only so often inclined to go back and listen to the old country blues guys. Sacrilege, yes I know. But there it is.

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