I once saw a posting on Facebook that said, “There’s a time in one’s life when it’s appropriate to stop having birthday parties. That age is 11.”
That seems a bit harsh. There’s “Sweet Sixteen” (driver’s license time); there’s 18 (voting age); there’s 21 (drinking age); there’s 30 (“over the hill” parties). And you could make a case for 40, 50, and every decade thereafter as significant milestones.
But really, don’t we go a little crazy about the whole birthday thing? It’s just another day on life’s journey, isn’t it? Apparently not, say some folks, who relish the opportunity to shower friends and loved ones with loads of attention one day every year, whether it’s a milestone birthday or not.
I’m often amused when someone learns he or she has the same birthday as I do, and is just stunned. “Wow, what a coincidence! I mean, what are the ODDS?” (Actually, they’re pretty low; there are, after all, only 365 days to choose from, and 318,000,000 of us in this country…)
Ah well. If birthdays are going to continue to be commemorated, it’s always good to have some appropriate songs to mark the occasion. I’ve taken the liberty of compiling an eclectic list of tunes — some hits, some obscure, some joyous, some reflective — that can come in handy when you want to pay respect to, or reflect upon, the act of aging, turning another year older, growing up, the passing of another year:
“Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” The Tune Weavers, 1957
A classic slice of doo-wop that hit #5 on the charts in the early years of the rock era. It was written by Margo Sylvia and Gilbert Lopez, and Sylvia sang lead vocals on the track. Sylvia wrote the lyrics about her recent breakup with her boyfriend and how much she wanted to be by his side on his birthday. This one was covered by such luminaries as Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Sandy Posey, Ronnie Milsap and Wanda Jackson.
“Birthday,” The Beatles, 1968
Most of the 30 tracks that fill “The White Album” were written during the band’s retreat in India months earlier, but “Birthday” was born in one night only weeks before the album’s release. Lennon and McCartney had been listening to the Tune Weavers’ old doo-wop birthday song (see above) and wanted to come up with something a bit more contemporary, more rock ‘n roll. Paul started banging out the basic chord progressions on the piano, and a few hours later, the whole gang reconvened to flesh it out and shout out the vocals in unison with great fervor. Lennon’s opinion of it a few years later? “A load of rubbish.”
“Old,” Paul Simon, 2000
You could always count on Simon to come up with something both whimsical and poignant to say about just about anything, and here’s his take on birthdays: “Down the decades every year, summer leaves and my birthday’s here, and all my friends stand up and cheer and say, ‘Man, you’re old, gettin’ old, OLD, gettin’ old…'” This appeared on his #19 album “You’re the One,” a solid work that reflects a more mature outlook on life.
“Years,” Beth Nielsen Chapman, 1990
“And I thought about years, how they take so long, and they go so fast…” Wow. Such a concise and profound statement about life, and aging, and the need to embrace each moment. Chapman, a gifted singer as well as songwriter, has a half-dozen albums full of songs with an extraordinarily wise lyrical viewpoint. This is perhaps my personal favorite of hers.
“Happy Birthday Sweet Darling,” Kate Taylor, 1978
James Taylor’s little sister had herself a couple of albums out in the ’70s and performed throughout New England college towns, mostly, and in Vineyard clubs. Her second LP reached #49 on the charts, and brother James wrote this funny little tune for her to sing, which begins with original verses, then uses parts of “Happy Birthday to You” before concluding with a coda of “You’re a little bit older now, a little bit older…”
“Done Got Old,” Buddy Guy, 2001
One of the most legendary blues guitarists of all time, Buddy Guy turns 80 this year, and certainly knows a thing or two about aging and the limitations it brings (although you wouldn’t know it from listening to him perform today). This track uses a simple acoustic Delta blues guitar and voice arrangement to sing these lyrics of resignation about life’s realities: “Now things gone changed, and I done got old, I can’t do the things I used to do, ’cause I’m an old man…”
“My Back Pages,” Bob Dylan, 1964
This song qualifies if only because it contains my favorite wry Dylanism regarding aging: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” The line has also been regarded as self-doubting and even regretful of events and beliefs from one’s past. It was covered by many artists, most notably The Byrds, who had a #30 hit in 1967.
“Through the Years,” Kenny Rogers, 1982
More of a couples’ love song, really, but it’s about how one couple wants to stay together through every age of life. Written by country music mainstay composer Steve Dorff, “Through the Years” reached #13 for Rogers during his peak years in the early 1980s and was covered by many others as well.
“Advice for the Young at Heart,” Tears for Fears, 1989
One of my favorite tracks on the #8 LP “The Seeds of Love” by this excellent British pop-rock duo. The lyrics offer a cautionary tale of doing the hard work now to make a relationship successful, because, as they say, life is short: “Soon we will be older, when we gonna make it work?”
“Happy Birthday Baby!,” Elvis Presley, 1974
This hard-to-find live recording from The King’s catalog is pretty much a speeded-up remake of the old Christmas blues tune, “Merry Christmas Baby,” which has been covered by dozens of artists. In this one, Elvis manages to name-drop many of his hit song titles (All Shook Up,” “Love Me Tender,” “Burning Love,” “Hound Dog”) into the lyrics as he offers birthday greetings to his gal with lines like “you can have your cake and eat it too if you promise to be good” and “so blow out all them candles and let’s have a good time.”
“As I Come of Age,” Stephen Stills, 1975
Written by Stills in 1973 and intended for a Crosby Stills and Nash album that didn’t happen, this track ended up on the solo “Stills” album in 1975, though it still includes the trademark harmonies of the trio. The lyrics bemoan a young man’s loss of his love, made more painful with each passing year: “Yes but it’s all over now, I’m a little bit older now, the lessons that I’m learning now are gonna make it easy somehow…”
“Growin’ Up,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973
One of The Boss’s earliest tunes, and one of his best, deftly capturing the unhinged joy, defiance, angst and frustration of turning from teen to young man. It’s on his debut album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” and also on his “Live 1975/1985” collection.
“Reelin’ in the Years,” Steely Dan, 1972
Did they mean the years were being reeled in, like a fishing line? Or did they mean we’re all dizzily trying to keep it together, just reeling as the years go by? As usual, furtive composers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker aren’t talking, but both interpretations offer interesting takes on what the lyrics to this classic tune from the band’s “Can’t Buy a Thrill” LP are really about. Either way, the song evokes a certain wistfulness about the years slipping by as we get older.
“Grow Old With Me,” John Lennon, 1980
Inspired by the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono each wrote songs based on favorite poems, then blended them into this endearing piece. It was intended for the “Double Fantasy” comeback album, but instead they chose to hold it for the follow-up album, “Milk and Honey.” Sadly, they could never make an official recording due to Lennon’s murder, but one of the rough demos they made appears on that album. They hoped it would become a standard, played in church weddings as inspiration for everlasting love. Mary Chapin-Carpenter has a stunning cover version on the 1995 album “Working Class Hero: A Tribute to John Lennon.”
“Happy Birthday to You,” 1893/1912
The music for this, the most recognized song in the English language, was written in 1893 by Patty and Mildred Hill, two kindergarten teachers who were looking for a simple melody children could quickly understand and enjoy. The original lyrics were “Good Morning to All,” and the song was used to greet youngsters as they arrived for school. The lyrics “Happy Birthday” emerged in 1912, but authorship is somewhat murky, as a copyright wasn’t issued until 1935, to Preston Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman. Consequently, there have been numerous copyright infringement lawsuits over its in film and TV, so it is rarely ever used in its entirety. Perhaps the most famous public performance of it was Marilyn Monroe’s scorching rendition for President Kennedy in 1962. The song is also often sung at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to mark a member’s successful year of sobriety.