The Saturday evening after Thanksgiving I spent reading, doing puzzles and doodling on the computer all while watching and listening to the televised Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concerts of 2009. It was a multi-night extravaganza condensed to two parts for this TV presentation which, I believe, originally aired on HBO.

Jerry Lee Lewis?  Check

Crosby Stills and Nash?  Check

Aretha Franklin?   Check

Sam Moore of Sam and Dave?  Check

Stevie Wonder?  Check, double check and triple check!!!

There was much more and it got me thinking. All these great rock artists present, sometimes singing songs of artists no longer with us and just what are these great artists’ greatest songs?

I’ve got my own choices culled from listening to 55 years worth of the genre. I’ll give reasons for my selections of the best from the best. Agree or disagree  with that designation, I doubt you can disagree that they are all memorable and easily listenable.

Rock has songs that are romantic, or sexy or simply stir the genitals (almost a requisite for R & R). They may make political statements or comment on social mores or conventions.  They may be a lament for a lost love or a dead lover. They can be inspirational, spiritual or overtly  religious.

These songs take us on journeys to exotic lands or imaginations of drug-infused brains. They compel us to dance, to sing along, to protest, to sway arm in arm, to make love and—amazingly enough—just sit back and listen.

The songs I pick have one or more of these factors built in.

Jerry Lee Lewis    Great Balls of Fire The concert led off with that. Nuff said!

The Beatles     So much to choose from the group many call Rock’s best. Do you pick the early teen anthems I Want to Hold Your hand, or I Saw Her Standing There? Do you go for songs from Rubber Soul or Sgt. Pepper? My preference here will leave you up on the roof. Get Back. Yes, Jojo, get back indeed.

The Beach Boys   Some fans place them much higher in the pantheon of rock gods than I do. They turned The Regents’ Barbara Ann into the popular party song of that era. Good Vibrations can be listened to today with many more layers of meaning than conceived in my high school years. But California Girls had me hooked from its infectious organ intro and I never turned back.

Motown and soul, particularly the brand turned out by Stax, brought black music to the mainstream while the Civil Rights Movement brought its performers into society’s mainstream.

The Four Tops   They could tell Bernadette, Baby, I Need Your  Loving while Standing In The Shadows of Love. But Levi Stubbs and company were at their best with Reach Out (I’ll Be There). What woman wouldn’t want a man (or any person a friend) to offer his hand when she needs it most. Levi makes sure this offer of aid isn’t tentative. How could one not feel better with such a declaration?

The Temptations   My Girl is a feel good ode sure to please your lover. Losin’ You voices a premonition of soon to be lost love. Just My Imagination is sung by a man who knows perfect love and can envision the perfect woman and their life together, but who hasn’t yet found her in reality. But he fervently prays, not for money or material things but for this dream, his key to happiness. Doesn’t every woman dream in return of being that object of a great but humble man’s imagination?

The Supremes    I loved their music but thought of them just below my other Motown faves. Love Child was startlingly frank for the day. Most of us have heeded the admonition to Stop! In The Name of Love, probably more quickly than we stopped for the blue lights flashing in our rear view mirrors.

Diana Ross and friends’ greatest, oddly enough became fully expressive by a much different version by another group. You Keep Me Hanging On is a complaint I have made when left dangling by someone who didn’t have the decency to simply cut me completely loose. You know who you are!

Vanilla Fudge slowed the tempo, added psychodelic accents and laid bare all the torment of such a relationship.

Stevie Wonder  From Fingertips, Part 2 at age 13 (AGE 13…I had a damn paper route, not a hit record at that age) to the dozens of hits of his adult years, Stevie has entertained us for nearly fifty years. The songs he has written and performed contain nary a stinker. His best? Isn’t She Lovely? rates that distinction by far. What? You’re going to dispute a love song of a proud father about his newborn daughter? You heartless bastard!

Aretha Franklin  This “Queen of Soul” turned to pop music from the choir of her father’s church in Detroit. But her work almost invariably has elements of the gospel music she first learned. (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman persuaded Glenn Close to let her husband, Kevin Kline, attempt to get Mary Kay Place pregnant in The Big Chill.

Aretha advised us to Think. Her Chain of Fools could easily be addressed to today’s politicians. But the obvious choice is best. Respect works whether it is sought from a lover or due her as a woman or a black person. Respect was needed in that time, and still is, for all three reasons.

Sam and Dave  So many great hits by this duo emanated from Memphis. With Booker T and the MGs providing backup how could they ever go wrong when singing songs written by David Porter and Isaac Hayes? I’m gonna fudge some here. Hold On I’m Comin/Soul Man have been and should always be performed back-to-back. It doesn’t matter what order.

Hold On I’m Coming can be interpreted as merely letting a friend who needs help know it’s on its way. But, really now, we all know it’s about an approaching climax in an act of sexual congress. (A sexual act by Congress is a different matter. Most of the time it’s the country getting screwed.) Soul Man  is a braggart’s exclamation either in anticipation of or as the result of the coital coupling taking place in the other song.

Sam Cooke  Another product of a church/gospel upbringing, Cooke was known for some gentler rockers such as Cupid or Twistin’ The Night Away. But he was black in 1963 America and aware of his status as a second class citizen though Dr. King and others were moving to change that. Thus A Change is Gonna Come looks forward to the success of the movement. But if you have ever been down and trying to hold onto hope for a better future, the same lrics and powerful music may provide comfort.

The Rolling Stones  My choice for best rock band ever has so many hits that limiting the best to even just five is difficult. Satisfaction is Mick prancing at his best. Gimme Shelter is an anthem for all time. Honky Tonk Women has the perfect amount of cow bell, Christoper Walken. But I’ll rank Jumpin’ Jack Flash in front of all for one simple reason. It’s a Gas Gas Gas!

Steve Winwood/Eric Clapton Linked due to frequent collaboration, yet with distinct careers apart they are both to this day capable of performing their hits with skill and passion.

Winwood wrote and performed Gimme Some Lovin’ when he was 18 years old. The perfect “let’s get this party jumpin!” tune.  If that song doesn’t stir your ass and other parts of your body into dancing mode you’re dead.

Clapton without Winwood turned out Layla, an ode to Patty Boyd. Whatever you think of the song itself Clapton had the balls to sing a love song to the wife of a rock star more famous than himself. That’s Rock and Roll.

Winwood was with Clapton in Blind Faith and they produced Can’t Find My Way Home, about a journey of discovery, possibly a spiritual ancestor of a song by the next group.

U2  My favorite group of the past twenty-five years has plenty of material to choose from. The amazing breadth of their sound and its dramatic impact can fool casual listeners into confusing different songs for each other.  Following the lead of Blind Faith as noted above I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For segues from a yearning to be with one’s lover into a desire to get right with God as it invokes I Corinthians 13, my favorite passage from the Bible.  Or it can be read in a personal way to the listener with no loss of sensibility.

It is most powerful, most emotional in the version from Rattle and Hum where the choir from Harlem hijacks the tune. While doing so a seemingly callow group of singers demonstrates it possesses the wisdom of the ages.

As great as all that is if you have the ability and the determination to construct the perfect paean to a man who epitomizes the search for human justice and who led a non-violent revolution that changed an entire nation, and you bring it off by wrapping it up with the simplistic but profound lyric hook ” In the name of love”, you shall be rewarded with my designation as “best song you ever did”.

Pride (In The Name of Love) resounds in whatever version I have heard it, be it performed on a small stage with an intimate audience or in huge stadiums with fans as far as the eye can see. Ironically the song was dropped from the band’s Live Aid perfromance due to the extended length of their first number. But the audience ALWAYS sings along. Perhaps they do so out of habit born of regular concert attendance.  I prefer to imagine them having totally bought into the message of peace and love it promotes. The world would be a better place if we all did.

Simon and Garfunkel  Sounds of Silence was their first big hit and I saw them perform it about twenty feet from me on the Quadrangle at W&J College in 1966. Bridge Over Troubled Water sometimes reaches my core but at other times seems desperately overwrought.

My verdict? Hands down—The Boxer. If you ever have been lonely, despairingly, forlornly, utterly and irrepressibly lonely, with an aching far more painful than any physical injury you have ever suffered, you will understand…and agree.

Chuck Berry   Maybellene, School Days, Nadine, and No Particular Place to Go were all early hits for Berry as he was a prime mover for black rhythym and blues being accepted by white audiences. What many of these songs had in common with each other were the piano of Johnnie Johnson, a native of Fairmont, W. Va. Johnson had his own trio which needed a replacement guitar player one New Year’s Eve in St. Louis and Berry got the gig.

Johnson’s alcohol induced antics on the road are legendarily believed to be the inspiration for Johnny B Goode. Yes, Go Johnny go.

 Edwin Starr   I would forego the pleasures and hope derived from all this music if only the powers that be would heed  the lyrics of War that tell us it is good for absolutely nothing.
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