“Dance To The Music,” by Sly & The Family Stone. Is it wrong that I first heard this song performed live by a certain, unnamed teen pop star in the summer of 1989? Sigh…probably wrong, but I don’t care. This 1968 single by Sly & The Family Stone was their first big hit, reaching #8 on Billboard and kick-starting a string of classic hit singles, including: “Everyday People,” “Hot Fun In The Summertime,” and “Family Affair,” among others. The song breaks down the elements of a rock song, starting with the drummer, adding guitar, then bass, then organ and horns, telling “all the squares” to go home. While that directive clearly included me, I never went home. I stayed. And I’ve never stopped returning to this classic track.
“Old Time Rock-and-Roll,” by Bob Seger. This iconic rock song about the power of music was co-opted by an 80’s teen movie in an (admittedly) iconic socks-sliding scene, which is, sadly, what it took to make this song a rock classic. Originally just cracking the top-40 in 1979, its inclusion in the 1983 teen flick, Risky Business, solidified the Bob Seger track as a radio staple, with its punchy opening piano riff and dirty guitar and drums, the tune perfectly expresses the sheer joy of “old time rock and roll.” That said, I never understood the lyric, “…in ten minutes I’ll be late for the door.” Seger doesn’t seem the type to make appointments…
“Sir Duke,” by Stevie Wonder. As the title suggests, this song about the power of music is a tribute by Wonder to his musical hero, jazz pianist, Duke Ellington, who had died a few years before Wonder wrote this transcendent song. Taken from his legendary 1976 album, Songs In The Key Of Life (if you don’t own this album, you’re just missing out), the single, released in the summer of 1977, topped the U.S. Billboard charts for two weeks and still sounds fresh today, due largely to Wonder’s other-worldly arrangement and playful horn section. It doesn’t matter the context: when this song is played, everybody starts moving.
“Late In The Evening,” by Paul Simon. Taken from the obscure, semi-autobiographic 1980 movie, One-Trick Pony, this #6 Billboard hit is a rock classic. Andy Greene from Rolling Stone magazine recently noted, “Whenever (Paul) Simon sings the line, ‘I stepped outside and smoked myself a J,’ from "Late in the Evening," at a regular concert, the crowd goes absolutely insane.” And it’s true. I witnessed it firsthand when I saw Simon play live in June 2001. I guess folks like to have their fun. But I cheered at the next line about the rapturous joy of live music: “…I turned my amp up loud and I began to play, it was late in the evening, and I blew that room away!” Well said, Mr. Simon, well said.
“Groove Is In The Heart,” by Deee-Lite. One-hit wonders get a bad rap. I argue that on one level, they do fans justice by delivering a careers-worth of music in one, all-encompassing song, sparing fans from enduring career highs and lows and inevitable “experimental” phases. Deee-Lite is such a one-hit wonder, arguably existing for the sole purpose of bringing “Groove Is In The Heart” to the world. The song features a Herbie Hancock sample (from “Bring Down The Birds”) as well as a sample from Vernon Burch's "Get Up" and rapping by Q-Tip, from “A Tribe Called Quest.” Additionally, the song features bass and backing vocals from Bootsy Collins. How could it not have become quintessential? Its message is universal. Music stems from the heart, and it’s impossible not to move to this remarkable dance tune. It was popular when I was in college and was THE song the women in my dorm listened to when they were getting ready to go out. In fact, every time I hear the song, I can still smell the Aquanet lingering in the air, mingled with the smell of beer, perfume, and the anticipation of another dumb night.