Last year, I put together a playlist of great songs with titles and/or lyrics about the morning time. A friend whose profession as a tax accountant occasionally requires him to work the late shift suggested that I come up with a playlist of songs about midnight to help him endure the many hours burning the midnight oil, so I’ve done just that.
It’s a diverse group of 15 songs here, reaching back into the late ’40s and (among the honorable mentions) ahead into the late 1980s. There are always more candidates to choose from in the 1990s and beyond, but as usual, I specialize in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s here at Hack’s Back Pages.
I hope you enjoy these tunes and their back stories.
“Midnight Special,” Johnny Rivers, 1965
This traditional folk song about a passenger train called the Midnight Special is more than a century old, when prisoners in the American South would refer fondly to the Illinois Central train and “its ever-lovin’ light” that might someday take them to freedom. Blues legend Lead Belly recorded a version in 1934, and early rockabilly singer Paul Evans achieved the song’s highest chart success in 1960. Many rock fans may know Johnny Rivers’ 1965 rendition, which peaked at #20, and others may be more familiar with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover from 1971, which was used as the theme to the Midnight Special TV music showcase in the ’70s.
“Midnight Rambler,” The Rolling Stones, 1969
This violent track from the Stones’ 1969 LP “Let It Bleed” refers to the grisly deeds of Albert DeSalvo, the ’60s serial killer better known as The Boston Strangler. Curiously, Mick Jagger and Richards wrote the song while on vacation in a picturesque town in Italy earlier that year. “Why we should write such a dark song while in a beautiful, sunny place, I don’t know,” Jagger said. The original studio version is plenty great, but the in-concert rendition from the 1970 live album “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!” is considered the definitive one, so that’s the one you’ll hear on the Spotify playlist.
“Midnight at the Oasis,” Maria Muldaur, 1973
The Puerto Rican girl born Maria Grazia Rosa Domenica D’Amato grew up in New York City and became a part of the Sixties music scene in Greenwich Village, singing behind Bob Dylan, John Sebastian and others. She joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and later was an integral part of the Jerry Garcia Band, a side project of the Grateful Dead’s guitarist. Muldaur had her one and only hit with songwriter David Nichtern’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” which reached #6 in the spring of 1974 and was nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy. At 76, she still performs occasionally.
“Midnight Confessions,” The Grassroots, 1968
With bassist Rob Grill on lead vocals, The Grassroots first took hold in 1967 with the psychedelic folk hit single “Let’s Live for Today.” When follow-ups failed, Dunhill Records mogul Lou Adler resumed the reins and steered the band in a more horns-oriented direction, a year or two before Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago popularized horns-dominant rock. The first attempt was the million-selling “Midnight Confessions,” written by Lou Josie and first recorded by the Ever-Green Blues. Its lyrics are about a man who has a secret crush on a married woman, so he keeps his midnight confessions to himself.
“Midnight Wind,” John Stewart, 1979
A veteran singer-songwriter from his folkie days with The Kingston Trio, Stewart also wrote The Monkees’ 1967 #1 hit “Daydream Believer.” In 1979, he collaborated with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who took a break from their recording sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” double album. Buckingham produced and played guitar and Nicks added vocals to several tracks on Stewart’s “Bombs Away Dream Babies” LP, most notably the #5 hit “Gold” and the fantastic tune “Midnight Wind.” The album doesn’t seem to be available on Spotify, but a later re-recording by Stewart offers a satisfying alternative to the original.
“In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett, 1965
Pickett was one of the gritty soul singers signed to Stax/Volt Records, Memphis’s answer to Detroit’s Motown label. “In the Midnight Hour,” the tune that became Pickett’s signature song, was written in 1964 by Pickett and Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper during a session in the infamous Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated four years later. The tune reached #1 on the R&B charts and peaked at #21 on the pop charts, and was later covered by such artists such as The Young Rascals, Mitch Ryder, Archie Bell & The Drells, Tom Jones and Bryan Ferry.
“Midnight Rider,” The Allman Brothers Band, 1970
Organist-vocalist Gregg Allman wrote many of the band’s finest early songs, most notably “Whipping Post” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” from their debut LP, and the haunting “Midnight Rider,” which appears on the group’s 1970 second album “Idlewild South.” The tune became a popular favorite and a regular of the Allman Brothers in-concert repertoire, and later, when Gregg Allman went out on a solo tour in 1973, he performed a rearranged version that ended up on his “Laid Back” solo debut LP and even charted as a #19 hit single that year.
“Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight and The Pips, 1973
Songwriter Jim Weatherly, a friend of actor Lee Majors, called him one evening to hear that his wife, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, was “leaving on a midnight plane to Houston.” Weatherly liked the sound of that phrase and used it as the title for his soon-to-be-famous song. By the time it was presented to Gladys Knight as a great choice for her next single, the plane had been replaced by a train, and the destination had changed from Houston to Georgia. The song went on to reach #1 on both the pop charts and R&B charts in the fall of 1973, won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
“Midnight Cowboy,” John Barry, 1969
Barry is one of the more accomplished film score composers of the 20th Century, responsible for the first dozen James Bond movies as well as Oscar nominees like “Born Free,” “Out of Africa” and “Dances With Wolves,” among many others. The languid, melancholy melody he came up with for 1969’s Best Picture winner “Midnight Cowboy” is especially effective, thanks in no small part to the warm harmonica solo by the legendary Toots Thielemans. A rendition by piano duo Ferrante and Teicher did better on the charts, but I think the original is far superior.
“South City Midnight Lady,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973
In its original incarnation, The Doobies were a rough-and-tumble biker bar band from San Jose, churning out serious boogie tunes by Tom Johnston like “China Grove,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus is Just Alright.” The more melodious, understated songs in the group’s repertoire were provided by second guitarist/vocalist Pat Simmons, gems like “Toulouse Street,” “Clear as the Driven Snow” and the shimmering “South City Midnight Lady.” This track from 1973’s “The Captain and Me” includes some sweet pedal-steel work by eventual full-time Doobie Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
“Midwest Midnight,” Michael Stanley Band, 1977
Cleveland’s own Michael Stanley Band is perhaps the best example of an excellent rock band that should’ve made it big but didn’t. Between 1974 and 1984, they bounced from Epic to Arista to EMI America, writing and recording so many great songs and touring relentlessly, but MSB never achieved the well-deserved chart success their fans think they should have. On their 1977 live LP “Stagepass,” you can find the only version of the great rocker “Midwest Midnight,” which tells Stanley’s tale of listening to music late at night as a teen and dreaming about a career as a rock musician.
“Midnite Cruiser,” Steely Dan, 1972
From the pop craftwork of “Pretzel Logic” and “Katy Lied” to the jazzier arrangements on “Aja” and “Gaucho,” Steely Dan’s seven superlative albums were essentially a soundtrack to the styles and moods of the ’70s. Their later work sold better, but when I’m asked which album is my favorite, I keep coming back to their remarkable debut, “Can’t Buy a Thrill.” Beyond the radio hits “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” are irresistible tracks like “Kings,” “Dirty Work,” “Only a Fool Would Say That,” “Brooklyn” and the quirky “Midnite Cruiser,” the only Dan tune featuring original drummer Jim Hodder on vocals.
“‘Round Midnight,” Thelonious Monk, 1947
Monk, one of the two or three finest jazz pianists in music history, wrote this marvelous song in 1944, performing it in clubs for years before finally recording it in 1947. It went on to become the most recorded jazz standard composed by a jazz musician; many covers exist but Miles Davis’s rendition in 1955 is worth seeking out. Later on, torch singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Linda Ronstadt let the world know the song came with a great set of sad lyrics as well (also by Monk): “It begins to tell ’round midnight, midnight, I do pretty well till after sundown, supper time I’m feelin’ sad, but it really gets bad ’round midnight…”
“Midnight Moodies,” Joe Walsh, 1973
Walsh got his start as guitarist, singer and songwriter for Cleveland’s The James Gang, then embarked on a solo career in 1972. Perhaps my favorite track from Walsh’s masterpiece album “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” is this mesmerizing instrumental piece. Piano, guitar, bass, drums and flute combine to create a compelling piece that features multiple moods and styles in only 3:39. Walsh’s LP was a big seller thanks to the huge hit single “Rocky Mountain Way,” but I urge you to listen to the rest of the album, starting with this track, “Dreams,” “Meadows” and “Wolf.”
“After Midnight,” Eric Clapton, 1970
In the wake of Cream’s breakup and then the short-lived Blind Faith, Clapton chose to finally stick his toe in solo waters with the self-titled debut LP in the summer of 1970. He recruited friends like Stephen Stills, Leon Russell, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett and his bandmates from Derek and the Dominos to work on blues, soul and rock tunes like “Let It Rain,” “Blues Power,” “Easy Now” and “Bottle of Red Wine.” The album’s best known track was J. J. Cale’s blues shuffle “After Midnight,” which Eric and company cut in an uptempo arrangement. For the Spotify playlist, I chose to feature an alternate take that prominently features a horn section.
“Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968; “Midnight Man,” The James Gang, 1971; “It’s Midnight,” Elvis Presley, 1975; “Minutes to Midnight,” Midnight Oil, 1984; “Saturday at Midnight,” Cheap Trick, 1982; “Midnight Flyer,” The Eagles, 1974; “Moanin’ at Midnight,” Howlin’ Wolf, 1958; “Midnight Blue,” Lou Gramm, 1987; “Rockin’ at Midnight,” The Honeydrippers, 1984; “Isn’t It Midnight,” Fleetwood Mac, 1987; “Rockin’ After Midnight,” Marvin Gaye, 1982; “Midnight Wind,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1977; “Fire at Midnight,” Jethro Tull, 1977.
The playlist on Spotify includes the 15 featured selection, a couple of alternate versions and the 13 honorable mention tracks.