A working class hero is something to be

In 1882, the first parade that celebrated the contributions of laborers to the country’s development was staged in New York City. Within the decade, more than 30 states were holding their own events honoring workers, and by 1894, Congress passed a bill recognizing the first Monday of September as Labor Day and making it an official federal holiday.

Today, we all enjoy the three-day Labor Day weekend even as it marks the unofficial end of summer and a return to school. We tend to forget the holiday’s original meaning…but not here at Hack’s Back Pages! For this post, I have collected 15 songs from the classic rock era that celebrate and commiserate with the plight of the overworked and underpaid. Perhaps you can use the Spotify playlist found at the end of the post as a soundtrack to your weekend activities!

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“Five O’Clock World,” Vogues, 1965

Songwriter Allen Reynolds, who became a successful songwriters’ publisher in Nashville, wrote the workday anthem “Five O’Clock World” in 1965, and it became a Top Five hit for The Vogues, a Pittsburgh-based vocal group that had just scored another Top Five hit with “You’re the One.” Reynolds remembers watching commuters coming and going one weekday morning and thought it would make a great pop song: “Up every morning just to keep a job, I gotta fight my way through the hustling mob, /Sounds of the city poundin’ in my brain while another day goes down the drain…” Artists as varied as country singer Hal Ketchum and synth pop band Ballistic Kisses have covered the song over the years, and The Vogues’ version was used as the theme song for comedian Drew Carey’s workplace sitcom “The Drew Carey Show” in the 1990s.

“Workin’ For a Livin’,” Huey Lewis & The News, 1982

Lewis spent much of the ’70s in San Francisco bars and London pubs as lead singer and harmonica player in various bands. By 1980, he won a record contract as Huey Lewis and The News, and in 1982, the group broke through with “Do You Believe in Love,” a #7 hit on the pop chart. The follow-up single, the energetic “Workin’ For a Livin’,” stalled at #41 but became a fan favorite in concert. Said Lewis, “I wrote it while I was working as a truck driver, and I thought about these other jobs I’d had, like bartender and bus boy.” Lewis re-recorded the song 25 years later in a duet with Garth Brooks, which reached #20 on the country chart: “Hundred dollar car note, two hundred rent, I get a check on Friday, but it’s already spent, /Workin’ for a livin’, livin’ and workin’, I’m taking what they givin’ ’cause I’m working for a livin’…”

“Factory,” Bruce Springsteen, 1978

Springsteen’s first three albums created characters and settings full of romance and hope, but his fourth LP, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” is decidedly more downbeat. Critics praised a maturity and evolution in his music and lyrics, noting how punk rock and country music had begun to influence his songs. Boston reviewer Trevor Levin said Springsteen “has perfected a genre of rock meant to embrace working class American life while depicting it as essentially joyless and cursed.” A strong example of this is the deep track “Factory,” a concise study of the dead-end life that awaits factory workers each day: “Early in the morning, factory whistle blows, /Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes, /Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light, /It’s the working, the working, just the working life…”

“9 to 5,” Dolly Parton, 1980

When Jane Fonda came up with the idea of a film about women office workers, she envisioned it as a drama, “but it was coming across too preachy, too much like lecturing the audience. So we decided to make it a comedy instead.” They hired Director Colin Higgins and said, “What you have to do is write a screenplay which shows you can run an office without a boss, but you can’t run an office without the secretaries.” The resulting film — starring Fonda, Lily Tomlin and breakout star Dolly Parton — was a huge hit, and Parton wrote and sang the infectious theme song, which reached #1 on both the pop and country charts, winning two Grammys. The lyrics paint a bleak picture of how secretaries are treated: “Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’, /Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’, /They just use your mind, and you never get the credit, /It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it…”

“Working Again,” Michael Stanley Band, 1980

Cleveland’s hometown musical hero led one of the best underrated bands in the country during the 1975-1985 period, cranking out dozens of great Midwest rock and roll songs, smartly arranged and produced, but the fame they deserved largely eluded them. MSB, as their fans called them, recorded passionate songs of romance and loss, of dreams and despair, mirroring the lives of the working class kids who made up the bulk of their listening audience. On their 1980 LP, “Heartland,” Stanley wrote “Working Again,” a pounding rock track about the daily grind at work made tolerable by escapist evenings: “I’m gonna make it to the line, and put my time inn, like my old man. before me, died in dreamland with the union by his side, /But not tonight, tonight I’m gonna try a little harder, but come the light, I’m gonna be working, working again…”

“Get a Job,” The Silhouettes, 1958

Richard Lewis, Bill Horton, Earl Beal and Raymond Edwards comprised The Silhouettes, one of Philadelphia’s better R&B vocal groups. They scored their biggest hit right out of the gate, “Get a Job,” a doo-wop classic that hit #1 on the pop and R&B charts in 1958 and was covered by many artists and used in such films as “American Graffiti,” “Trading Places” and “Good Morning, Vietnam.” It was Lewis who wrote the lyrics about a man whose wife berates him for his unemployment even though he is desperately struggling to find a job: “Well every morning about this time, (Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na), She gets me out of bed, a-crying, ‘get a job!’ (Sha-na-na-na, sha-na-na-na-na), /After breakfast every day, she throws the want ads right my way, and never fails to say, ‘get a job!’…” It turned out to be their only Top 40 chart appearance, and one supposes they all had to get a job at that point.

“Work to Do,” Average White Band, 1974

This Scottish R&B band were struggling along in the early ’70s when Eric Clapton’s manager took a shine to their lively neo-soul, flew them to L.A. and put them in the capable hands of producer Arif Mardin. Their self-titled second album vaulted to #1 in the US (#6 in the UK) on the strength of the mostly-instrumental track “Pick Up the Pieces,” which also reached #1. I actually preferred the B-side of that single, the insistent “Work To Do,” which drove home the idea that, as much as I’d like to spend more time with you, there’s work to be done first: “I’ve been trying to make it, woman, can’t you see? /Takes a lot of money to make it, let’s talk truthfully, /Keep your love light burning, and a little food hot in a plate, /You might as well get used to me coming home a little late, /’Cause I got work to do, I got work, baby…”

“Working Man Blues,” Merle Haggard, 1969

Country music legend Merle Haggard, who helped develop the country sub-genre known as the “Bakersfield Sound,” had a traumatic childhood scarred by his father’s death, a path of petty crime and violence, and multiple incarcerations. By 1960, he straightened himself out, adopting a strong work ethic as he pursued a career in music, writing and recording many dozens of songs and amassing an astounding 38 #1 hits on the country charts between 1965 and 2015. One of his most widely praised tunes is “Working Man Blues” from his 1969 LP “A Portrait of Merle Haggard,” featuring fine guitar work from the wondrous James Burton: “Hey hey, the working man, the working man like me, /I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be, /’Cause I’ll be working long as my two hands are fit to use, /I drink a little beer in a tavern, sing a little bit of these working man blues…”

“She Works Hard For the Money,” Donna Summer, 1983

After years as a stage performer ion Germany and Austria, Summer returned to the US and became the undisputed “Queen of Disco” with a dozen Top Ten hits, many with longer dance-club versions. In 1983, she was at a private party at a West Hollywood restaurant when she visited the ladies’ room and encountered an attendant who was sound asleep, exhausted from her day-long work shift. “I looked at her,” Summer recalled, “and my heart just filled up with compassion for this lady, and I thought, ‘God, she works hard for the money, cooped up in this stinky little room all night.’ Then a light went off in my head, and I said, ‘She works hard for the money! That’s a song!'” It went to #1: “It’s a sacrifice working day to day for little money, just tips for pay, /But it’s worth it all to hear them say that they care, /She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right…”

“I’ve Been Working,” Van Morrison, 1970

The free, relaxed sound that Morrison conjured for his iconic “Moondance” LP in 1970 was markedly different from the quieter, more vulnerable vibe of his “Astral Weeks” album before it. Morrison originally intended that the next project be recorded a cappella with a small chorus, but he ended up using the same backing musicians from the “Moondance” album and tour, and additional voices, and the record company saw fit to call the album “His Band and The Street Choir.” One track, “I’ve Been Working,” had been tried twice before in earlier album sessions, and the third time captured a wonderfully hypnotic groove based around the opening lyric “I’ve been working so hard” and “I’ve been grinding so long,” devolving into “woman, woman, woman, woman” and “all right, all right, all right, all right.”

“Takin’ Care of Business,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive, 1973

While still in The Guess Who, Randy Bachman had written a tune he called “White Collar Worker,” but the rest of the band rejected it, leading Bachman to depart in 1970. He formed another group called Brave Belt, which morphed into Bachman-Turner Overdrive by 1973. He revived “White Collar Worker” for their setlist, but one day, he heard a Vancouver radio deejay say, “We’re takin’ care of business here at CFUN Radio,” and decided to insert the phrase in the chorus where “white collar worker” had been. The crowd ate it up, stomping and shouting along to what became the song’s new title when they recorded it weeks later. It’s one of BTO’s signature songs, and an anthem of the working world: “You get up every morning from your ‘larm clock’s warning, take the 8:15 into the city, /There’s a whistle up above, and people pushin’, people shovin’, and the girls who try to look pretty, /And if your train’s on time, you can get to work by nine, and start your slaving job to get your pay…”

“Out of Work,” Gary U.S. Bonds, 1983

Gary Anderson, who later adopted the stage name Gary U.S. Bonds, scored four Top Ten hits in the early ’60s, most notably the rave-up “Quarter to Three,” a feisty little blues rocker that topped the charts in 1961. Bonds proved to be an early influence on Bruce Springsteen, who was happy to use his clout to help revive Bonds’ career in the early 1980s, writing ten songs that appeared on two Bonds LPs in 1982 and 1983. Most notable were the hit singles “This Little Girl” and “Out of Work,” both of which benefitted from the participation of The E Street Band in the studio. In “Out of Work” (basically a rewrite of Springsteen’s “Heavy Heart”), Bonds sings lyrics that struck home with many during the Reagan recession: “8 A.M., I’m up and my feet beating on the sidewalk, /Down at the unemployment agency, all I get’s talk, /I check the want ads but there just ain’t nobody hiring, /What’s a man supposed to do when he’s down and out of work, I need a job, I’m out of work…”

“The Working Man,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1968

John Fogerty was still honing his songwriting chops when his band Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded their debut LP in 1968. While he went on to write a dozen Top Ten hits over the next four years, at that point, the group’s best efforts came on the Dale Hawkins classic “Susie-Q” and the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins slow blues, “I Put a Spell on You.” Wedged between those two tracks was a Fogerty original called “The Working Man,” which served as a prototype for later Creedence songs like “Penthouse Pauper” and “Tombstone Shadow.” The song’s lyrics laid out Fogerty’s no-nonsense work ethic: “Well, I was born on a Sunday, on Thursday, I had me a job, /I was born on a Sunday, by Thursday, I was workin’ out on the job, I ain’t never had no day off since I learned right from wrong…”

“I’ve Been Working Too Hard,” Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes, 1991

One of the great unheralded bands from the ’70s/’80s was this group of R&B devotees from the Jersey shore fronted by singer John Lyons. Their first three LPs in 1976-1978 received immeasurable support from Lyons’ longtime pal Steve Van Zandt, who wrote and/or produced most of the best songs in the Asbury Jukes catalog. So it was only natural that, after suffering a rough patch in the late ’80s, Lyons called upon Van Zandt to fuel his comeback LP, “Better Days.” One of the highlights from that disc is “I’ve Been Working Too Hard,” a glorious, horns-driven rocker: “Now, money and me don’t talk too much, we never got along too well, /But when I got some in my pocket, I seem to have a lot more friends, /I pay the landlord and the taxman, and it’s time to go to work again, /Can I get a witness? /Let me hear you say, I’ve been workin’ too hard…”

“Take this Job and Shove It,” Johnny Paycheck, 1982

Donald Lytle was a harmony singer for country music legends like Ray Price and George Jones before he changed his name to Johnny Paycheck (contrary to popular myth, it was not meant as a parody of Johnny Cash). In the late ’70s, Paycheck became part of the outlaw country scene alongside Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams Jr., and enjoyed his own #1 song on the country charts, the iconic “Take This Job and Shove It.” Written by fellow outlaw David Allan Coe, the song’s title became a ubiquitous phrase in popular culture, not only among unhappy employees but among those who could no longer tolerate their car, their spouse, their whatever: “One of these days I’m gonna blow my top, and that sucker, he’s gonna pay, /Lord, I can’t wait to see their faces when I get the nerve to say, /Take this job and shove it, I ain’t working here no more…”

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Honorable mention:

Blue Collar,” Bachman-Turner Overdrive, 1973; “Working Girl,” Cher, 1987; “Bus Rider,” The Guess Who, 1970; “Working in the Coal Mine,” Lee Dorsey 1966; “Morning Train (Nine to Five),” Sheena Easton, 1980; “Manic Monday,” The Bangles, 1986; “Working John, Working Joe,” Jethro Tull, 1980; “Money For Nothing,” Dire Straits, 1985; “Working Man,” Rush, 1974; “Chain Gang,” Sam Cooke, 1960.

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R.I.P. to a Motown tunesmith and a pop icon

The talented musicians, songwriters and entertainers who dominated the charts in the ’60s, ’70s and into the ’80s have been passing away with disconcerting regularity lately. Not surprisingly, some of them were important and influential to me, responsible for songs and/or albums that rank high among my musical preferences. Others, while wildly popular among many listeners, were never really my cup of tea. Such is the case with two notable deaths this week, both of whom I feel are worthy of a detailed look back.

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Because they work their magic behind the scenes instead of on stage, songwriters are often not widely known by name. That’s probably the case with Lamont Dozier, who died August 8th at age 81.

Dozier is partly responsible for many of the biggest hits to come from the legendary R&B artists at Motown Records in the 1960s. He teamed up with songwriting brothers Brian and Eddie Holland while they were all in their mid-20s and became Motown’s most successful songwriting team. Holland-Dozier-Holland, as they were known, composed an astounding TEN #1 singles for The Supremes between 1964 and 1967: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hanging On,” “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” and “The Happening.”

The Supremes (L-R: Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross) with Ed Sullivan

As if that wasn’t remarkable enough, the trio also wrote the bulk of the hits registered by The Four Tops: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and “Bernadette.”

Hang on, I’m not done. Dozier and Company also wrote “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” for Marvin Gaye (later a hit for James Taylor) as well as “Baby Don’t You Do It” (later covered as “Don’t Do It” by The Band), plus “You’re a Wonderful One” and “Can I Get a Witness.”

More? You bet: “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack” for Martha and The Vandellas; “This Old Heart of Mine” for The Isley Brothers; and “I’m a Road Runner” for Jr. Walker and The All-Stars.

These were just the biggest hits out of an enviable catalog that included many dozens of lesser singles for these and other acts. Talk about prolific!

“Brian and Eddie and I, we had a special kind of chemistry,” Dozier said for a 2003 Rolling Stone article. “It was like being at the carnival and hitting that bell. Bam! Number One! Bam! Number One! Bam! Number One! When we weren’t doing that with The Supremes, we were over here with the Four Tops. Bam! It was just surreal.”

Dozier (seated) with Brian and Eddie Holland, 1965

As too often happens in the music business, Holland-Dozier-Holland got involved in an ugly, lengthy contract dispute with Motown mogul Berry Gordy in 1967 over profit-sharing and royalties, which wasn’t settled for more than a decade. The trio went out on their own label, but without Motown’s promotional muscle, they weren’t able to sustain as much commercial success. Still, a few of H-D-H’s songs climbed the charts with other artists, most notable Freda Payne’s #1 smash “Band of Gold” and Chairman of the Board’s #3 hit “Give Me Just a Little More Time.”

Dozier, born in Detroit in 1941, had begun his career as a singer with local doo-wop groups like The Romeos and The Voicemasters, so it wasn’t out of his wheelhouse to return to recording his own songs in 1972. He enjoyed some success on the R&B charts and had a #15 pop hit with 1974’s “Trying to Hold On To My Woman.”

He enjoyed a resurgence as a songwriter in the ’80s when his song “Invisible” was a #21 UK hit and a #31 US hit for singer Alison Moyet. Then he teamed up with the ubiquitous Phil Collins to write “Two Hearts,” a #1 smash from the 1988 British film “Buster.” It won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song from a film, and was nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy as well. From that “Buster” soundtrack LP, Dozier also wrote “Loco in Acapulco” for The Four Tops.

Holland-Dozier-Holland were inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Dozier, circa 2005

In a 2019 interview, Dozier was humble in discussing his legacy. “Everything I wrote or co-wrote, I give credit to God, the master muse,” he said. “I thank him for letting me put my name on his music. That’s how I look at it. I don’t read music, and I can’t write it out either. I did it all by ear and feeling when I sat down at the piano. I’m stunned that I still hear all those songs over and over. It still hasn’t let up. It’s amazing. I thought some of it wouldn’t last a day. But it’s been here and all over the world for 60 years, and that’s a great feeling.”

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For more than 50 years, Olivia Newton-John — wholesome songstress, iconic actress, sexy pop star, committed activist — has been in the public eye, and her worldwide legion of admirers shed a collective tear August 8 when she died at age 73, succumbing to a long battle with cancer.

Newton-John, 1974

Full confession: I’ve never been much of a fan of Newton-John’s music. I found her stuff to be way too cloying and middle-of-the-road for my rock and roll tastes, although she did adopt a more aggressive, uptempo approach for a while. To be fair, I haven’t really been a part of her demographic, so my opinion matters not at all to her millions of fans. I can say that I have enormous respect for her, both as an entertainer who gave her audience what they wanted, and as a strong woman of integrity who showed uncommon dedication to important health and environmental causes. By all accounts, she was a kind-hearted soul who embraced life.

She is most widely known as the goody-goody exchange student Sandy in the 1978 film version of the Broadway musical “Grease,” who radically transforms herself into a sexy vixen in order to win the heart of Danny, her erstwhile love interest played by John Travolta.

“My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better,” said Travolta this week in an Instagram post. “Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you, and forever! Your Danny, your John!”

Born in Cambridge, England, Newton-John was just 6 when her family moved to Melbourne, Australia. She was 14 when she formed her first group, Sol Four, with three girls from school. Program directors at local Australian TV stations, enamored by her voice and charisma, began featuring her in solo performances under the name “Lovely Livvy.” At 18, she came in first in a talent contest and won a trip to Britain, where she recorded her first single, “’Til You Say You’ll Be Mine” (although it failed to chart).

Her first chart appearance came in 1971 with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You,” which reached #7 in the UK, #25 on the US pop chart and her first #1 on the US “adult contemporary” (read: easy listening) chart. This kicked off a run of five pristine, quasi-country singles that established her presence on Top 40 radio through the mid-’70s: “I Will Be There,” “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Please Mr. Please.” This was all pretty featherweight stuff, a Record of the Year Grammy notwithstanding.

That all changed in 1978 when Newton-John was cast in “Grease.” Critics couldn’t ignore the fact that she not only turned in a winning acting performance but also gave the mega-platinum soundtrack album its biggest hits: “Summer Nights,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and especially “You’re the One That I Want,” her duet with Travolta that served as the film’s finale after she’d morphed into the tough chick. That new image — big hair, skintight black pants, off-the-shoulder black top, red stiletto heels, vamped-up makeup — was the one that adorned many a teenage bedroom wall.

Applying the evolution of her “Grease” character to her singing career, Newton-John titled her next album “Totally Hot,” complete with an album cover clad in shoulder-to-toe leather. The singles “A Little More love” and “Deeper Than the Night,” which peaked at #3 and #11 respectively, offered more aggressive rock flavorings than in the past, and her fan base went along for the ride.

In 1980, her next film, the musical fantasy “Xanadu,” was a box-office disaster (although it did great business when revived on Broadway years later). The soundtrack album, though, was another big success, thanks to the #1 single “Magic” and her collaboration with Electric Light Orchestra on the title track.

Her savvy management should get credit for her next move, which was to position her as a sort of exercise fitness queen in the Jane Fonda Aerobics mold on the cover of her 1981 LP “Physical.” She gave the music video industry and MTV a shot in the arm with a suggestive video often depicting buff hardbodies in Speedos working out around Newton-John’s instructor as she sang the double entendre lyrics.

Hank Stuever, in a commentary in The Washington Post this week, wrote: “You can hear ‘Physical’ a hundred times, maybe a thousand, before you really hear what it’s about, and it’s not exercise. It’s a woman taking control of seduction, claiming for herself the tactics usually deployed by men: the flirtation, the dinner, the movie, the horny insistence. ‘There’s nothing left to talk about, unless it’s horizontally… /I’ve been patient, I’ve been good, tried to keep my hands on the table, /It’s gettin’ hard, this holdin’ back, you know what I mean… /You gotta know that you’re bringin’ out the animal in me, /Let’s get physical, physical…‘ Although Newton-John would not survive a coming onslaught of the far more suggestive pop hits of Prince and Madonna and beyond, she showed us a door to a kind of forbidden zone, if you chose to go through it, and naturally, we did.”

The song, of course, went through the roof, setting records by remaining in the #1 slot for a ridiculous 10 weeks in 1981. An international tour, a greatest hits package with a hot new single (“Heart Attack”) and an HBO special all followed in rapid succession. It seemed the world couldn’t get enough of The New Olivia. Reuniting her with Travolta in the 1983 film “Two Of a Kind” proved to be a misfire, although the single “Twist of Fate” was yet another Top Five single.

By 1985, she was a wife and a mom, and consequently put her career on hiatus for a while. When she re-emerged in 1989 with “Warm and Tender,” an album of lullabies for parents and their children, few people bought it, with fans deciding they preferred the new pop sensations like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany.

At age 44, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her life took on a whole new mission. She threw herself headlong into advocacy work for cancer research and self-examination, which augmented the efforts she had already been making on behalf of other health and environmental concerns. She established the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund that remains active to this day.

It gave me pause this week to see a quote attributed to her from a 2019 interview with Rolling Stone regarding her audience-friendly approach to music: “It annoys me when people think because it’s commercial, it’s bad,” she said. “I think it’s completely the opposite. If people like it, that’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Fair enough. Rest in peace, Olivia.

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I have compiled two Spotify lists below, one featuring the songs written by Lamont Dozier, and another that highlights Olivia Newton-John’s biggest hits.