Compiling playlists of classic rock songs that share a given theme is one of my favorite leisure pastimes. Researching and whittling down a sizable selection of tunes into a diverse yet reasonably coherent playlist can be a fun challenge.
Songs about sleeping, driving, dancing. Songs about cars, food, money. Songs about gambling, dreaming, forgetting. Songs about fire, sex, magic.
Seems as if I’ve made lists about every topic. Wait — singing! How have I not made a playlist of songs about singing??
I’ve chosen 15 songs, mostly from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with “sing” or “singing” in the title, followed by another 15-or-so “honorable mentions.” At the end, you’ll find my usual Spotify collection that combines them all in one 100-minute playlist to listen to as you read.
“Sing a Song,” Earth, Wind and Fire, 1976
Written by EW&F frontman Maurice White, “Sing a Song” was the second of seven Top Ten singles the group charted in the US. As with most of the band’s repertoire, the lyrics to this effervescent tune are brimming with optimism and positive attitude, in keeping with White’s life philosophy: “When you feel down and out, sing a song, it’ll make your day, /Here’s a time to shout, sing a song, it’ll make a way, /Sometimes it’s hard to care, sing a song, it’ll make your day, /A smile so hard to bear, sing a song, it’ll make a way…”
“Sing Me Away,” Night Ranger, 1982
In the mid-’80s, Night Ranger scored five Top 20 singles and a couple of Top 20 albums as well, but their 1982 debut didn’t get the attention they were hoping for. Still, it was the infancy of MTV, and the group’s first music videos — “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and “Sing Me Away” — got airplay. Drummer Kelly Keagy took lead vocals on “Sing Me Away,” and it soon became a crowd pleaser during their live shows: “Sometimes I sit and I dream on for hours, sometimes my hours they turn into days, /I dream of a girl I once knew as a school boy, she is the one who could sing me away, /But she is a long ways away, and I want to be with her today…”
“And Your Bird Can Sing,” The Beatles, 1966
John Lennon said he liked the busy, twin-guitar arrangement of the music but was dismissive of the lyrics of this track from the band’s 1966 LP “Revolver.” “It’s one of my throwaways — fancy paper around an empty box,” he said in a 1980 interview. The words are certainly cryptic, and open to interpretation. Lennon’s ex-wife Cynthia claimed it was inspired by a gift she gave him of a clockwork bird inside a gilded cage, which Lennon saw as symbolic of their marriage and her failure to understand him. The song’s working title, by the way, had been “You Don’t Get Me.”
“I Shall Sing,” Van Morrison, 1970
When he was compiling tracks for use on his 1970 classic LP “Moondance,” Morrison wrote this exuberant song that, while infectious and fun, failed to make the cut for the album, but you can find it on the deluxe edition released in 2013. The vibrant horns and irrepressible beat are far more interesting than the simple lyrics, which are designed to be nothing more than, well, a singalong-type number: “I shall sing, sing my song, be it right, be it wrong, /In the night, in the day, any how, any way, I shall sing…”
“Sing, Sing, Sing,” Louis Prima, 1936
How ironic that a number entitled “Sing, Sing, Sing” is best known from its instrumental version as recorded by The Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1938, even though that outfit had the great Helen Ward as its vocalist. One of the quintessential examples of jump blues from the Swing Era, it was written and first recorded in 1936 by Louis Prima and his band, with Prima himself singing the lyrics, which are almost incidental to the musical structure and arrangement: “Sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing, /Like dee dee dee, bah bah bah dah, now you’re singin’ with a swing, /Sing, sing, sing, sing, everybody start to sing, /Like dee dee dee, bah bah bah dah, now you’re singin’ like everything…”
“When Smokey Sings,” ABC, 1987
The Europop dance band ABC had their biggest U.S. success with their 1987 single “When Smokey Sings.” Lead singer Martin Fry and guitarist/keyboardist Mark White co-wrote the soulful tribute to Motown singer/producer Smokey Robinson, who said in response, “Well, of course, it’s very flattering, and I really appreciate it.” The lyrics praise Robinson’s vocal delivery: “Like a bird in flight on a hot sweet night, you know you’re right just to hold her tight, /He soothes it right, makes it out of sight, and everything’s good in the world tonight, /When Smokey sings, I hear violins, /When Smokey sings, I forget everything…”
“Sing Child,” Heart, 1976
Ann and Nancy Wilson, on their own and in collaboration with guitarist Roger Fisher and bassist Steve Fossen, wrote the songs that made up Heart’s impressive 1976 debut LP, “Dreamboat Annie.” The hit singles “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You” are self-explanatory, but the deeper track “Sing Child” is less clear. To me, it sounds like they’re speaking about a songwriter who is reluctant to give voice to the tunes, deferring to others to sing them: “Sing child sing, sing child sing, /Melody maker, giver and taker, heartbreaker, /He want to sing, I know, try it again, /Sooner or later, he gonna break down and sing…”
“She Sings Songs Without Words,” Harry Chapin, 1974
Chapin was, first and foremost, a storyteller, weaving lengthy, multi-verse tales out of real and fictional characters, set to winsome melodies. On his popular “Verities and Balderdash” LP in 1974, he included the seemingly oxymoronic “She Sings Songs Without Words,” whose heroine gets her message through via her emotional presence: “The morning comes smiling and I laugh with no sound, and snuggle in silence and the sweet peace I’ve found, /And she sings the songs without words, songs that sailors and blind men and beggars have heard…”
“I Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” Sam Cooke, 1959
I won’t lie, I’m a sucker for blues and swing standards from the ’30s and ’40s. Harold Arlen, the musical brains behind the songs of “The Wizard of Oz,” teamed up with lyricist Ted Koehler in 1932 to write this marvelous tune for the Broadway musical “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.” It has since been sung by dozens of popular crooners, from Ethel Merman and Lena Horne to Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland. I’m partial to the late great Sam Cooke’s rendition from his 1959 LP “Tribute to The Lady,” a collection honoring Billie Holiday. It’s a classic tearjerker about a woman whose unhappy love life brings her nothing but woe: “A certain man in this little town keeps draggin’ my poor heart around, /All I see for me is misery, I got a right to sing the blues…”
“Sing,” Annie Lennox, 2007
I don’t typically reach up into the 2000s for tunes to feature here, but Lennox, a 1980s icon with The Eurythmics, wrote an exceptional song designed to help empower women around the globe who have no voice of their own. She enlisted the help of other women, including Madonna, to add their strong voices to the verses and chorus. One critic described the song, found on Lennox’s “Songs of Mass Destruction” album, as having “a killer hook, a big bad soul/gospel refrain, and a beat that, once it gets into the spine, will not be easily dismissed.” Here’s what the chorus preaches: “Sing, my sister, sing! Let your voice be heard, /What won’t kill you will make you strong, /Sing, my sister… sing!”
“Sing a Simple Song,” Sly and The Family Stone, 1968
When life gets you down, what do you do? Sylvester “Sly” Stewart advises, “Sing a simple song!” One of the pioneers of funk music, Sly and the Family Stone, had us up and dancing while preaching a positive message to us. The Supremes, the Temptations, even Prince and Miles Davis lined up to cover this tune from Sly’s 1968 LP “Stand!”, but the original still holds up best, with each band member taking turns singing lead vocals: “I’m livin’ livin’ livin’ life with all its ups and downs, I’m givin’ givin’ givin’ love and smilin’ at the frowns, /You’re in trouble when you find it’s hard for you to smile, a simple song might make it better for a little while…”
“Singing All Day,” Jethro Tull, 1969/1972
In the pre-“Aqualung” years, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson was dabbling in a broad array of songwriting styles and genres. Some songs made it onto the two studio LPs of that time, “Stand Up” and “Benefit,” while others were singles in the UK only, or left unreleased. In 1972, Tull released the double LP “Living in the Past,” which gathered a smorgasbord of material from that earlier period. The quasi-jazz structure and arrangement of “Singing All Day” always appealed to me, though the lyrics seem a tad slight, talking about “singing ’bout nothing”: “Back to the house, maybe she’ll phone me, /Singing my song, feeling so lonely, /I’ll sing very softly, so if the phone rings, I can hear it, I can hear it, singing all day, singing `bout nothing…”
“Sing Me Back Home,” Merle Haggard, 1968
The first version I heard of this sad country song was as a deep bonus track on the 2000 compilation “Hot Burritos!”, a retrospective of the four-year career of The Flying Burrito Brothers, featuring Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Bernie Leadon. The Grateful Dead and The Everly Brothers also recorded it, but when I saw that it had been written by legendary country artist Merle Haggard (whose rendition was one of 35 (!) singles to reach #1 on the country charts in his lengthy career), I concluded I must defer to Haggard’s pretty original recording. Such a classic country lament by a prisoner on his way to the gallows: “Sing me back home with a song I used to hear, make my old memories come alive, /Take me away and turn back the years, sing me back home before I die…”
“The Song We Were Singing,” Paul McCartney, 1997
McCartney’s involvement in the successful “Beatles Anthology” albums and video project in 1995-96 served to remind him of the high standards The Beatles set for themselves. As a solo artist, McCartney had been guilty of releasing some frankly half-assed material that didn’t measure up, but in 1997, he seemed to have been prodded into upping his game, because his “Flaming Pie” LP that year was his best in 15 years. Lots of great tunes there, including the opener, “The Song We Were Singing,” with lyrics that make me smile: “For a while, we could sit, smoke a pipe and discuss all the vast intricacies of life, /We could jaw through the night, talk about a range of subjects, anything you like, /But we always came back to the songs we were singing at any particular time…”
“Singin’ in the Rain,” John Martyn, 1971
Martyn was a British singer-songwriter who received critical praise but not much commercial success. Artists like James Taylor and America recorded his songs (“Someone” and “Head and Heart,” respectively), but his albums and singles failed to chart. Too bad, because an LP like 1971’s “Bless the Weather” is worthy of our attention. In keeping with the album’s theme, Martin chose to include a brief cover of the title song from the 1951 Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds classic film “Singing in the Rain.” It’s a tender treatment of the fine “make the best of it” lyrics and happy-go-lucky melody.
“All the Children Sing,” Todd Rundgren, 1978; “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away,” The Grateful Dead, 1973; “And the Singer Sings His Song,” Neil Diamond, 1969; “To Sing For You,” Donovan, 1965; “Sing For the Day,” Styx, 1976; “Gonna Sing You My Love Song,” ABBA, 1973; “Sing Another Song, Boys,” Leonard Cohen, 1971; “Lady Sings the Blues,” Billie Holiday, 1956; “Sing Your Life,” Morrissey, 1991; “Sing a Song for You,” Tim Buckley, 1969; “Sing Our Own Song,” UB40, 1986; “And the Angels Sing,” Barry Manilow, 1994; “Every Time I Sing the Blues,” Buddy Guy with Eric Clapton, 2008.
I feel I have to mention two tunes that are essentially children’s singalongs that I find annoying, but they sold a gazillion copies and became part of early ’70s culture, so I grudgingly list them here:
“Sing,” The Carpenters, 1973; “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” The New Seekers, 1971