Roy Orbison singing for the lonely

“Here’s another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul…”

In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and pretty much ever since, popular songwriters have reveled in the occasional practice of inserting references to other musical artists in the lyrics, delighting their listeners with sometimes cryptic, sometimes overt mentions of well-known colleagues in the rock music arena.

The Beatles never went so far as to mention other artists, but they referred back to themselves more than once.  On 1968’s “The White Album,” John Lennon used his nonsensical song from the previous year, “I Am the Walrus,” to make a tongue-in-cheek reference to Paul McCartney in the lyrics to “Glass Onion” (see quote above).

peter_paul_mary-i_dig_rock_and_roll_music_s_3When folk music started morphing into folk rock in the mid-’60s, folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary found themselves waning somewhat in popularity.  The solution:  Paul Stookey collaborated with songwriters James Mason and Dave Dixon to write “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” a whimsical tune that name-dropped several of the rising (and established) stars of the new genre, and the result was a comeback #9 hit for the trio:  “I dig The Mamas and The Papas at the Beat, Sunset Strip in L.A., they’ve got a good thing going when the words don’t get in the way…”  “I dig Donovan kind of in a dreamed out, tripped out way, his crystal images, hey, they tell you ’bout a brighter day…  And when The Beatles tell you they’ve got a word ‘love’ to sell you, they mean exactly what they say…”

arthur-conley-sweet-soul-music-atlantic-11Similarly, R&B singer Arthur Conley teamed up with Otis Redding in 1967 to rework the old Sam Cooke song “Yeah Man” with new lyrics that called out several of the hot soul singers of that period.  The result, “Sweet Soul Music,” was a #2 hit on the pop charts and a Top Ten hit in Europe:  “Spotlight on Lou Rawls, y’all… Spotlight on Sam & Dave, y’all… Spotlight on Wilson Pickett, now…  Spotlight on Otis Redding, now… Spotlight on James Brown, y’all, he’s the king of them all, y’all…”

220px-The_South's_Gonna_Do_It_-_Charlie_DanielsThe musical fraternity of artists from the American South have supported each other throughout their careers, perhaps never as overtly as on The Charlie Daniels Band’s 1975 anthem “The South’s Gonna Do It,” which references no less than eight groups from that region:   “Well, the train to Grinder’s Switch is runnin’ right on time, and them (Marshall) Tucker boys are cookin’ down in Caroline, people down in Florida can’t be still when ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s pickin’ down in Jacksonville, people down in Georgia come from near and far to hear Richard Betts pickin’ on that red guitar…  Elvin Bishop sittin’ on a bale of hay, he ain’t good lookin’, but he sure can play, and there’s ZZ Top, and you can’t forget that old brother (Wet) Willie‘s gettin’ soakin’ wet, and all the good people down in Tennessee are diggin’ Barefoot Jerry and C.D.B...”

THE_MAMAS_AND_THE_PAPAS_CREEQUE+ALLEY-604509The Mamas and The Papas chief songwriter John Phillips wrote the 1966 autobiographical song “Creeque Alley” that told the background story of how he, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot all used to hang out (and perform) with artists who later went on to greater fame in other bands.  Six verses of lyrics delve back to when they sang in Greenwich Village clubs and eventually worked their way to Los Angeles:  (John) Sebastian and Zal (Yanovsky) formed the (Lovin’) Spoonful, Michelle, John, and Denny gettin’ very tuneful, (Roger) McGuinn and (Barry) McGuire just a-catchin’ fire in L.A., you know where that’s at…”

Unknown-74In “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel’s #1 hit from 1989, he assembled a virtual grocery list of celebrities and events that marked the years from roughly 1950 to the late 1980s.  He didn’t comment on them, he just rattled them off, like a CNN feed line across the bottom of the TV screen.  A few of these were fellow musicians:  “Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland…”  Buddy Holly, Ben Hur, space monkey, Mafia…”  Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo…”  Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion…”

Don_McLean_-_American_Pie_(album)_CoverartAmerican Pie,” one of the biggest hits of 1971-72, famously chronicles the development of rock and roll from its mid-’50s infancy through the end of the ’60s.  Most of McLean’s lyrics use code words to identify the artists he’s singling out — “the jester” (Bob Dylan), “the king” (Elvis Presley), “the players” (The Rolling Stones) and “the marching band” (The Beatles).  Perhaps most easily identifiable was his allusion to Mick Jagger in the phrase “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick,” and the reference to The Byrds and their hit single in this line:  “Helter skelter in the summer swelter, the birds flew off to the fallout shelter, eight miles high and falling fast…”

the-righteous-brothers-rock-and-roll-heaven-paraiso-del-rock-and-roll-capitolBy the mid-’70s, rock music had already lost several of its stars to untimely deaths, so the time was ripe for a song like “Rock ‘n Roll Heaven,” which calls out the names and hits of four fallen stars.  Just before  The Righteous Brothers recorded it, songwriters Alan O’Day and Johnny Stevenson added a final verse to include two additional deaths, and the song ended up a #3 hit in the summer of 1974:  Jimi (Hendrix) gave us rainbows, and Janis (Joplin) took a piece of our hearts, and Otis (Redding) brought us all to the dock of a bay., sing a song to light my fire, remember Jim (Morrison) that way…”  “Remember bad bad Leroy Brown, hey, Jimmy (Croce) touched us with that song, time won’t change a friend we came to know, and Bobby (Darin) gave us ‘Mack the Knife,’ well, look out, he’s back in town….”

stevie_wonder-sir_duke_s_1One of Stevie Wonder’s biggest hits of the ’70s was “Sir Duke,” which came from the multi-platinum LP “Songs in the Key of Life.”  Wonder was a huge fan of Big Band music and its legends, and the track’s lyrics pay homage to Duke Ellington and four more of his peers from that period:  “But here are some of music’s pioneers that time will not allow us to forget, for there’s (Count) Basie, (Glenn) Miller, Satchmo (Louis Armstrong), and the king of all, Sir Duke, and with a voice like Ella (Fitzgerald) ringing out, there’s no way the band can lose…”

HollandCoverThe Beach Boys were on both ends of the name-dropping bandwagon.  In 1973 for their “Holland” LP, they wrote a suite called “California Saga,” in which they mentioned a stalwart hqdefault-19of the outdoor festival scene: “Have you ever been to a festival, the Big Sur congregation, where Country Joe (McDonald) will do his show, and he’d sing about liberty…”  Soon after, Neil Young referenced California’s favorite sons in his song “Long May You Run,” recorded by The Stills-Young Band in 1976:  “Maybe The Beach Boys have got you now, with those waves singing ‘Caroline,’ (oh Caroline No)…”

220px-The_Royal_Scam_album_coverSteely Dan name-checked two artists in two different songs in their catalog.  First, in the track “Everything You Did” from the 1976 LP “The Royal Scam,” the lyrics outline an argument between a warring husband and wife.  One of them offers R-2600245-1374933046-1601.jpega suggestion to keep others from eavesdropping on their conversation:  “Turn up The Eagles, the neighbors are listening…”  Then on “Gaucho” in 1980, the big hit single “Hey Nineteen” offers lyrics that illustrate the challenges of dating someone considerably younger who may not be familiar with your favorite artists:  “Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin, she don’t remember the Queen of Soul, it’s hard times befallen The Soul Survivors, she thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old…”

Dvk88njW0AAk-WJThe Dutch rock band Golden Earring has had a long history of success in their native Netherlands, but their big moment on US airwaves came with the 1973 Top Ten hit “Radar Love,” a classic tune about a guy who’s always on the road, and dying to get home to his lady.  To drive the point home, the lyrics refer to a long-ago romantic hit by a long-forgotten female vocalist who used to top the charts:  “The radio is playing some forgotten song, Brenda Lee‘s comin’ on strong…”

Unknown-72Soft rock crooner Stephen Bishop enjoyed success in the ’70s and ’80s with hits like “It Might Be You” (from the “Tootsie” film soundtrack) and “Save It For a Rainy Day,” but his biggest chart hit was the 1976 tearjerker “On and On,” which referenced Ol’ Blue Eyes himself in the second verse:  “Poor ol’ Jimmy sits alone in the moonlight, saw his woman kiss another man, so he takes a ladder, steals the stars from the sky, puts on (Frank) Sinatra and starts to cry…”

4ac225c45ac0719eabaf8d7e62bac261British rockers Deep Purple were scheduled to perform at a venue in Montreux, Switzerland, which was to be recorded for a live album, but at a concert held there the previous night, a reckless fan accidentally started a fire.  Deep Purple turned that story into their 1973 signature song, “Smoke on the Water,” and the lyrics called out the band that had been performing:  “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline to make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time, Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around, but some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground…”

Unknown-73Don Brewer, the drummer for Grand Funk Railroad,  came up with the song “We’re An American Band” and they got studio wizard Todd Rundgren to produce it, resulting in a #1 US hit that broadened the band’s audience.  The lyrics relate the ups and downs of life on the road, where their time spent offstage was sometimes spent in the company of other artists:  “Up all night with Freddie King, I got to tell you, poker’s his thing, booze and ladies keep me right as long as we can make it to the show tonight, we’re an American band…”

511Iw4aV0ALIn 1972, British rockers Mott the Hoople were about to hang it up due to lack of commercial success.  They got a big lift from David Bowie, who penned “All the Young Dudes” for them to record, and it ended up becoming one of the anthems of the glam rock movement on both sides of the Atlantic.  Two references to other artists show up in the lyrics:  “Television man is crazy saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks, oh man, I need TV when I’ve got T. Rex…”  “And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones, we never got off on that revolution stuff, what a drag, too many snags…”

Club_at_the_end_of_the_streetElton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin finally got around to referencing another musician on Elton’s 1989 LP “Sleeping With the Past,” which contains songs meant to reflect the style of 1960s R&B.  On the Motown-inspired “Club at the End of the Street,” which leveled off at #28 on the U.S. singles chart, Taupin described the atmosphere you might find in smaller tucked-away venues:  “From the alleyways where the catwalks gently sway, you hear the sound of Otis (Redding) and the voice of Marvin Gaye, in this smoky room, there’s a jukebox plays all night, and we can dance real close beneath the pulse of a neon light…”

lynyrd-skynyrd_sweet-home-alabama_21In the early ’70s, when Neil Young wrote a couple of songs (“Southern Man,” “Alabama”) taking the South to task for its racist history, Lynyrd Skynyrd took exception and wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in defense of their homeland.  Their lyrics came right out and mentioned Young not once but three times in one verse:  “Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her, well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down, well, I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow…”

51IsE5BzGDL._SS500In 1983, for his LP “Hearts and Bones,” Paul Simon wrote the song “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” which used the name of the often neglected ’50s R&B singer to talk about the night John Lennon was shot:  “On a cold December evening, I was walking through the Christmastide, when a stranger came up and asked me if I’d heard John Lennon had died, and the two of us went to this bar, and we stayed to close the place, and every song we sang was for the late great Johnny Ace, yeah yeah yeah…”

hqdefault-20Back in 1980, when John Mellencamp was going by the name Johnny Cougar, he had his first chart success (#17) with “Ain’t Even Done With the Night,” his first attempt at writing a soul song.  The lyrics speak of the frustration and eager hormones involved in early romance, referencing one of the best singers from that genre:  “Well, our hearts beat like thunder, I don’t know why they don’t explode, you got your hands in my back pockets, and Sam Cooke‘s singin’ on the radio…”

hqdefault-21Thunder Road,” one of Bruce Springsteen’s most celebrated songs from his pivotal “Born to Run” album, tells the tale of a young man longing to break out of his dead-end existence and coax the target of his infatuation to join him on his journey of discovery.  He uses the name of a ’50s icon to push the point home:  Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, hey, that’s me, and I want you only, don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again…”

Jackie-Wilson-SaidIn 1972, Van Morrison boldly kicked off his “Saint Dominic’s Preview” LP with “Jackie Wilson Said (“I’m in Heaven When You Smile),” an overt reference to the energetic R&B singer (and his debut single, “Reet Petite” from 1957).  The lyrics use Wilson’s name to start the song, but the rest of it is really just a joyous love tune:  Jackie Wilson said it was ‘Reet Petite,’ the kind of love you got knock me off my feet, let it all hang out, and you know I’m so wired up, don’t need no coffee in my cup, let it all hang out…”

This trend shows no signs of slowing down, either.  Barenaked Ladies had two songs on their 1992 debut LP called “Brian Wilson” and “Be My Yoko Ono.”  Then there’s Taylor Swift’s 2006 debut single “Tim McGraw,” followed not so coincidentally by Tim McGraw’s 2007 song “Kristofferson” and Eric Church with his 2011 country hit “Springsteen.”  Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera teamed up that same year with the #1 pop hit “Moves Like Jagger,” which focused on how the narrator claims he can mimic the famous singer’s stage presence:  “Look into my eyes and I’ll own you with them moves like (Mick) Jagger, I’ve got the moves like Jagger…”

09ff8cbd79868ca287deef0138df0675.1000x1000x1Even Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, two of the most celebrated songwriters of the past half-century, have not been averse to mentioning another artist by name.  Mitchell’s wonderfully playful “Barangrill” from 1972’s “For the Roses” album cites Unknown-75one of pop music’s icons from the ’40s and ’50s: “The guy at the gas pump, he’s got a lot of soul, he sings ‘Merry Christmas’ for you just like Nat King Cole…”  Dylan’s 2006 track “Thunder on the Mountain” makes a blatant reference to a relatively new singer he admired:  “I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying, when she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line, I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be, I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee…”



  1. Budd · November 23, 2019

    I thought of Charlie Daniels as soon as I read the introduction.


  2. Philip Pierce · November 23, 2019

    Dear Hack,

    Glad to hear the canyon fires have dissipated. Hopefully the only smell of burning around your home is from your cooking on the grill. Great idea for today’s blog, as always. I was wondering where you get your unique inspiration, and should have known some came from Judy (and probably the girls as well).

    Speaking of Beatles, Paul and John did their share of poking at each other in the early 70s, after the acrimonious breakup, like Lennon’s “How do you sleep at night”. He had the reputation of a quick, acerbic wit, but this song got in some pretty hard gut slugs, like “Those freaks were right when they said you were dead” and “the only thing you done was yesterday”. Ouch!

    Of course, McCartney got his licks in as well, especially on his first solo album’s “Too Many People”, taking a fairly open swipe at John’s divorce from Cynthia in favor of Yoko, “That was your first mistake; you tool your lucky break, and broke it in two.” Even George had to express grudges in song. While not a popular hit, Harrison’s Living the Material World (1973) featured “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” taking a great shot at Paul with “Now all that’s left is to find yourself a new band.”

    Probably hard to find so many examples of any other band members tearing into each other, after the band falls apart. Guess that goes with the territory. It is fortunate, however, that most of the bitterness wore off with time and even Lennon and McCartney had some reconciliation before John’s death in 1980 (39 years ago!)

    Keep writing! Duryea


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