The 100 Greatest Songs (50-41)

50. “Moon River”  Written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, Performed by Andy Williams (1961)

“Mancini and Mercer were eventually awarded four Oscars each, including one, in 1962, for best movie song with ‘Moon River,’ from Breakfast at Tiffany’s… Mancini took a month to compose exactly the right melody to suit the waif-like good-time girl [Holly Golightly]… [T]he song soared in popularity. In the first flush of its release, more than a million copies of the sheet music were sold. Andy Williams’s recording and subsequent performances became one of his biggest hits and the song title became the name of his own theatre in Missouri.” –Max Cryer, Love Me Tender: The Stories Behind the World’s Favourite Songs

49. “Take the ‘A’ Train”  Written by Billy Strayhorn and Joya Sherrill, Performed by Duke Ellington & His Orchestra (1941)

“While there are many great versions of this tune, any discussion of definitive recordings starts and ends with the 1941 original. Ellington’s supporting cast (with Ray Nance’s trumpet, Jimmy Blanton’s bass, Sonny Greer’s drums and Billy Strayhorn’s writing making a particularly major impact on this track) was never stronger than at this point in history, and it is no wonder that this tune became such an enduring standard when one listens to this remarkable performance.” –Noah Baerman,

48. “Hound Dog”  Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Performed by Big Mama Thornton / Elvis Presley (1953)

“Young Caucasian songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote their seminal collaboration ‘Hound Dog’ for Johnny Otis protégée Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton as a tough down-home blues replete with ribald, double-entendre-laden lyrics that the 300-pound belter bit into with gusto… Amazingly, when Elvis Presley cut his revered rendition of ‘Hound Dog’ in 1956, he apparently wasn’t even aware of Thornton’s sassy original… His rocked-up reading for RCA Victor…skyrocketed to the top of the pop charts in the late summer of 1956, forever defining the song for all time.” –Bill Dahl,

47. “Oh, Pretty Woman”  Written by Roy Orbison and Bill Dees, Performed by Roy Orbison (1964)

“A strong, sinuous bass line intro was a primary consideration to win concentrated rock airplay as the British Invasion raged during the mid-’60s. Seldom was a stronger or catchier one devised than the pulsating kickoff to Roy Orbison’s immortal ‘Oh, Pretty Woman.’ … Orbison and songwriting partner Bill Dees had been inspired by the pretty sight of Orbison’s wife Claudette, somehow emerging with an upbeat masterpiece shot through with intense longing and more than a little frustration as Orbison virtually begs a lady passerby to be his for the night.” –Bill Dahl,

46. “Blue Suede Shoes”  Written by Carl Perkins, Performed by Carl Perkins / Elvis Presley (1956)

“Johnny Cash had already given Perkins the phrase ‘blue suede shoes’ as an idea for a song. But when he overheard a Tennessee hepcat who was trying to keep the girl he was dancing with from scuffing up his new kicks, Perkins was inspired to write the song that would be his Sun debut. It was the first single to crack the pop, R&B and country charts, and Perkins was driving to New York to perform the song on The Perry Como Show when his car crashed into a poultry truck, laying him up for weeks. He could only sit home and watch while ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ was performed on The Milton Berle Show — sung by Elvis Presley, who would later admit he couldn’t top Perkins’ original.” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”

45. “Fire and Rain”  Written and Performed by James Taylor (1970)

“Though ‘Fire and Rain’ is from only his second LP, Sweet Baby James (1970), it will probably always be regarded as James Taylor’s signature song; an excruciatingly personal tale, the song title also served as Billboard editor Timothy White’s exhaustive biography of his friend Taylor… [T]he song is at once mournful and somberly triumphant… The intimate sound and confessional lyrics of ‘Fire and Rain’ launched Taylor and, subsequently, the singer/songwriter genre (for better or worse) of the early-’70s.” –Bill Janovitz,

44. “When a Man Loves a Woman”  Written and Performed by Percy Sledge (1966)

“Sledge was touring the South with an R&B combo called the Esquires when producer [Quin] Ivy heard him belt out an intense, pleading ballad at the local Elks Club. Sledge had recently lost both his construction job and his girl, who’d taken off for L.A. to pursue a modeling career… Ivy had the lyrics rewritten, and Sledge quit the Esquires to cut his first solo side, the immortal ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ When Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler heard the song, he told partner Ahmet Ertegun, ‘Our billing for the summer is in the bag.'” –Rolling Stone, “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”

43. “Stormy Weather”  Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Performed by Ethel Waters / Lena Horne (1933)

“[Waters] had just been through the breakup of her marriage, and the song almost seemed to have been written with her feelings in mind… Koehler’s masterful lyrics tell the tale of the breakup of a romance and the sadness such an event brings. An interesting twist to the song occurs before the bridge, where there are two extra bars. George Gershwin pointed this out to Arlen, who stated he was unaware of it, but the repeated line ‘so weary all the time’ adds an extra impetus to the line, and it’s hard to imagine that Arlen and Koehler weren’t aware of the extra bars.” –Chris Tyle,

42. “What a Wonderful World”  Written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, Performed by Louis Armstrong (1968)

“Aside from Satchmo singing throughout, this track has nothing to do with jazz. But that’s like saying, ‘Aside from the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor has no towering monuments.’ … Here he transforms a platitudinous ditty that, done by any other singer, would make us cringe, and instead makes us rapturous. What other voice so embodied dignity, heartache, humor, compassion and downright love of life? By the mid-’60s, Louis Armstrong was the world’s most endearing and uplifting American. This song shows why.” –Alan Kurtz,

41. “Hey Jude”  Written by Paul McCartney, Performed by the Beatles (1968)

“[T]he emotional impact of ‘Hey Jude’ begins with its quality of direct address… [W]hen the record was released in August of 1968, it filled the radio airwaves like a benediction for the troubled people of a troubled world… [S]o masterful are the pacing and dynamics of the performance that the unprecedented length of the track is hardly noticeable. On its most basic level, ‘Hey Jude’ is a triumph of musical form… In its inexorable movement from the personal to the public, the song itself can be said to open its heart to the world.” –Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America

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