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With a Voice Like Ella’s Ringing Out There’s No Way the Band Can Lose

May 24, 2010

and the king of all Sir Duke...

When I wrote Angel of Dublin I spoke of U2’s song “Angel of Harlem” being my favorite song in their catalog, but I didn’t mention why. “Angel of Harlem” is song about another singer – Billie Holliday – which is one of my favorite category of songs – besides “retro” songs a la “65 Love Affair” by Paul Davis, songs featuring gospel choirs, a category I named does this gospel choir make me look phat and songs with talking in them. Here are a few of my faves from Songs about Singers category. My list is not comprehensive, of course. Feel free to include songs you dig!

“When We Was Fab” by George Harrison from Cloud Nine

George Harrison never comes wack on an old school track; that’s for damn sure. I didn’t think things could get better than “I Got My Mind Set on You” or the several hundred thousand versions of its music video. But then he dropped “When We Was Fab” and it was good. The song is a musical journey through Harrison’s good old days and that’s all well and good, but it’s the count off and sassy string opening that does it for me every time. Also dig the video.

“Nightshift” by Commodores from Nightshift

I have never had friends – talented or otherwise – cut down in the prime of their lives, but if I did, hopefully I could craft a celebration of their lives that was 1/100th as moving, joyous and wonderful as this mid 80s groove about Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. Oh man, this lyric always gets me:

    Oh you found another home/I know you’re not alone/On the nightshift

“All Those Years Ago” by George Harrison from Somewhere in England

Sweetest song about iconic singer and bandmate John Lennon. My favorite Harrison solo song from my favorite solo album of his. It’s also probably of Harrison’s more danceable tracks, though that’s generally not something I look for in works by him.

“Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder from Songs in the Key of Life

The two LPs duking out for the number one spot in my heart are Bowie’s Station to Station and, of course Wonder’s untouchable 1976 masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life – currently SitKoL ranks number one! If there is a musical blueprint for how to craft a song about another singer this is it. “Sir Duke” is effortless musical criticism set to a danceable beat – with a history lesson slipped in for the kiddies. That said, don’t try this at home. Leave this level of new hotness to the masters. It seems ridiculous to note the “Duke” in question refers to the incomparable Duke Ellington. You can feel it all over, people!

24 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2010 1:24 pm

    “Lady Stardust” by Bowie… is about Marc Bolan. Features many great falsetto moments for Bowie and sweet lyrics. “Oh, how I sighed/when they asked if I knew his name” I LOVE that lyric.

  2. May 24, 2010 2:56 pm

    The classic song for me in this genre of course is “Killing Me Softly With His Song” because at the time Roberta Flack scored her hit with it, I was a huge Don McLean fan (I had the pleasure of seeing him live at the Bottom Line at the end of his heyday) and he had a similar effect on me as he had on Lori Lieberman, who commissioned the song.

  3. May 24, 2010 3:42 pm

    re: Nightshift.

    wow, those are some pretty intense Isaac the Bartender outfits they’re wearing from 3:11 on.

  4. araymondjohnson permalink
    May 24, 2010 3:43 pm

    one of my other favorite songs about singers for your list:

    oh isht, i better race you to make a post of favorite songs with talking in it.

  5. araymondjohnson permalink
    May 24, 2010 3:43 pm

    i think NightShift might be my all-time favorite of the genre and that video is helping the case.

  6. May 24, 2010 3:50 pm

    Lord, them suits! Amazing. I very much look forward to your list of “songs with talking in the middle”

  7. irishup permalink
    May 24, 2010 3:52 pm

    “That Girl Could Sing” by Jackson Browne, written about Laura Nyro. I love it because JB (who seems to have had a troubled history with at least one woman) really nails it that *he’s* the one all jacked up – she has full agency to do what she does and want what she wants. Which is pretty cool and rare in breakup type songs.

  8. May 24, 2010 3:58 pm

    @Irish Up – Oooh! Okay, so that’s who it was about! I thought maybe Syd Straw! I love learning new songs to add to this category.

  9. May 24, 2010 6:23 pm

    Does Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” about Syd Barrett count, since Barrett wasn’t with the band by that point?

  10. May 24, 2010 8:02 pm

    😀 YES to Nightshift. That is one of the best songs, ever. For sure.

    Cannot dislike anything about Duke Ellington, especially that lovely picture up at the top! He is the man for sure.

    Those are far from my favorite George songs, but at least he gets props. He is the forgotten Beatles way too much.

    I have heard the “he was something to observe” in Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill referrerd to Bruce Springsteen. Just a rumor. Don’t know if I like it or not. Appearantly Peter Gabriel was unhappy in Genesis but wasn’t sure about having a solo career, and he saw Bruce Springsteen performing and saw the potential of a solo act?

    Also as Redlami mentioned Don McLean there are a lot of references in American Pie, aren’t there!

    I’m not a big dandy Warhols fan but they have a song called “cool as Kim Deal”…

    cool topic see if I remember some more!

  11. irishup permalink
    May 24, 2010 8:13 pm

    @redlami – if it does, then so does a lot of the post-Syd PF catalog, “Wish You Were Here” jumps to mind, too .
    @Snarky – I had to wiki Syd Straw, and never realized she was part of the Golden Palominos; I will now have to check her out!

  12. kia576 permalink
    May 24, 2010 9:56 pm

    Fantastic post, especially as my son is named Ellington, & Sir Duke is his official theme song.

    I miss Luther, the women in my family all went to see him a couple of times and I was looking forward to this rite of passage before he died.

  13. May 24, 2010 10:52 pm

    I’m not totally sure if “I’m Great!” by Ringo Starr counts, but it does have lines about him being in the “greatest show on earth/for what it was worth” and it’s a totally ridiculous piece of music.

    Also, “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac is from Lindsey Buckingham to Stevie Nicks. So does that count?

    I love love LOVE “Sir Duke.” The year I was in marching band, that was one of our show numbers. I played trumpet, so it was waaaay too much fun. And that brass part is really hard.

  14. heathereff permalink
    May 25, 2010 5:07 am

    Two more songs about Billie Holiday: “Billie’s Bones” by Janis Ian, and “Lady Day and John Coltrane” by Gil Scott-Heron. Both very powerful. Okay, the second one is just half about her, but I’m mentioning it anyway.

    John Mayall brought us “I’m Gonna Fight For You J.B.” in honor of one of his inspirations, Chicago bluesman J.B. Lenoir.

    And Jayne County wrote “I’m In Love With Dusty Springfield”, a fun little number in which Ms. County lets us all know that we’ll always take second place in her heart to a certain English blue-eyed-soul diva.

  15. andersonljb permalink
    May 25, 2010 7:21 am

    Does ” You’re So vain” by Carly Simon about ‘ sweet baby’ James Taylor and “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan about Joan Baez ( at least that was the rumor at the Janis Ian concert), count? Or are we only noting complimentary songs?
    La Mommie

  16. May 25, 2010 10:21 am

    Yes, ma! Those songs totally count. Ha. I guess I hadn’t thought about the songs seeking to take down another singer.

  17. May 25, 2010 10:31 am

    Speaking of Janis Ian, she wrote a song “Boots Like Emmylou’s” about Emmylou Harris and of course “Jesse” which I believe is about Jesse Winchester.

    Also, she’s not a singer, but Patti D’Arbanville was the inspiration for two Cat Stevens songs, “My Lady D’Arbanville” and “Wild World.”

  18. May 25, 2010 10:43 am

    Oh I just remembered — Stephen Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” which for a long time I thought was “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.”

  19. May 25, 2010 10:47 am

    Angie Stone’s “Wish I didn’t Miss You” which is about D’Angelo. The sample of “Backstabbers” is extra bitterlicious and bad ass.

  20. siejay permalink
    May 25, 2010 6:37 pm

    (Formerly Fnord Prefect, which login I can’t seem to use here.)
    When I say “the best Beatle”, I mean George.

    “Nightshift” is maybe the ne plus ultra of elegies for fellow singers who have passed on. Such a great freaking pop song!

    My other example is the Grateful Dead’s “Bird Song”, about Janis Joplin. “All I know is something like a bird within her sang, all I know it sang a little while and then flew off…” Not as sharply dressed as the Commodores, but who could be?

    On the uncommplimentary tip, Bjork’s “5 Years” is supposed to have been about Tricky, and Ani DiFranco’s “Napoleon” was rumored to have been about Suzanne Vega.

    And a la “cool as Kim Deal”, Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” wrote that subgenre for me. They also explain that they want to be your Thurston Moore. A few years later, they opened for Thurston Moore. I interpret that as saying that rock-and-roll dreams do sometimes come true.

    Coincidentally, all of these songs happen to be jams from ninth grade. If any songs about singers have crossed my view more recently, I cannot remember!

  21. heathereff permalink
    May 25, 2010 10:16 pm

    @andersonljb — I hadn’t heard the idea that Dylan wrote “Positively 4th Street” about Joan Baez, but I can believe it. If so, it took a lot of maturity for her to turn around and write “Diamonds & Rust” and “Winds of the Old Days” about him. They’re so much more nuanced and thoughtful, with none of the bitterness and bile that “4th Street” spits out.

    (Incidentally, this brings up an issue I’ve been thinking about. If somebody does make a really evil song about you, it’s nice to be famous enough to have a platform you can respond from where you can actually reach the people who heard the original.)

    @redlami — How could I have neglected “Boots Like Emmylou’s”? I love how Janis Ian name-checks a bunch of her favorite country goddesses:

    “If I had boots like Emmylou’s,
    I’d wear my hair like Loretta used to do,
    I’d sing like Patsy Cline, and Kitty Wells combined…
    …have fingernails like Tammy,
    tease my hair like Dolly, measure ten feet tall…”

  22. badhedgehog permalink
    May 26, 2010 5:57 am

    I just remembered this one – ABC “When Smokey Sings”

    “Debonair lullabies, in melodies revealed
    In deep despair on lonely nights
    He knows just how you feel
    The slyest rhymes – the sharpest suits
    In miracles made real”

    I’d honestly forgotten the Chanel logo on the guitar. And Style shall be our watchword. Martin Fry used to genuinely carry off a gold lamé suit. There are those who snobbishly think that a gold lamé suit is not Style, but I’m looking at old pictures and videos of ABC, and I can assure them that it damn well is. Also I’m seeing an influence of Martin Fry’s stagecraft (particularly some hand movements and shoulder slides, and some of the talking bits in songs) in the work of fellow Sheffield man Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.

    Oh, have Poison Arrow. Gold lamé suit, little bit with talking in it, very entertaining 1980s Top of the Pops miming (it was better when people mimed. Artists used to have fun with it)

  23. kia576 permalink
    May 26, 2010 7:59 am

    leonard cohen- chelsea hotel no.2- janis joplin

  24. May 26, 2010 8:13 am

    ooh I love ABC. I loved watching Top of the Pops and Coca Cola Eurochart top 50!!!

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