U2 took some fans by surprise in 1988 with their fun yet soulful song “Angel of Harlem” — complete with a brass section. It was the second single off of Rattle and Hum. If anyone was wondering who this “angel” was, Bono was happy to solve the mystery. Bono wrote the lyrics in honor of the legendary jazz and pop singer Billie Holiday, whose influence on modern music is impossible to calculate. She had lived in Harlem, New York, since her teens and had been a part of the city’s exciting jazz scene since the 30s.
A heroic and tragic figure, Billie Holiday could never seem to get her life in order. After a horrific childhood, she finally had a successful music career, only to see it undone with her drug and alcohol abuse, as well as abusive relationships. Sadly, she died in 1959 at age 44.
“The Weight” by The Band
The Band made history with their debut single, “The Weight.” Though it wasn’t a huge success on the charts at the time, it has certainly aged well. It has since been named among the greatest songs of all time in numerous polls and is a staple of classic rock radio. Many of the names mentioned in the song are real-life friends and acquaintances of the band members. For example, “young Anna Lee” was a long-time friend of drummer and singer Levon Helm named Anna Lee Amsden. And “Crazy Chester” was an offbeat dude who would hang out at Ronnie Hawkins’ bar in Fayetteville.
The Band helped create the genre known as roots rock with their debut album "Music From the Big Pink," and in the ensuing decade, carved out a piece of rock ‘n’ roll history. But even before they were The Band, they had achieved considerable success and fame as the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins and, even more famously, Bob Dylan.
“American Pie” by Don McLean
The title track of Don McLean’s breakthrough 1971 album American Pie was written as a tribute to the three early rock ‘n’ roll stars killed in a tragic 1959 plane crash: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper (Jiles Perry Richardson Jr.). The plane crash is now widely known as “the day the music died,” thanks to the tremendous cultural impact of the incident. Aside from the central event described in the song, the many other ambiguous cultural references to “American Pie” have given rise to decades and debate and speculation. But don’t ask McLean to explain them to you. He believes in letting people draw their own conclusions while keeping a “dignified distance.”
“American Pie” was a worldwide smash hit single and one of the biggest songs of the 1970s. It also turned Don McLean from an unknown folk singer into an international superstar and among the most recognizable voices of his generation.
“Our House” by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were both very well-known singers and songwriters in the 1960s and 70s, so when they moved in together in 1968, it was like a family of folk-rock royalty. They lived in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles along with Mitchell’s two cats. “Our House” is a charmingly simple chronicle of the ordinary events on one day of their lives. They had gone out for breakfast, then stopped on the way home to buy a cheap vase at an antique store. When they came home, Mitchell picked some flowers for the vase, Nash sat down at the piano, and an hour later, a folk-rock classic was born.
Graham Nash, in addition to his solo career, was a founding member of both the classic rock group the Hollies, as well as one of rock’s first supergroups, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. Joni Mitchell is among the most famous singers and songwriters of all time. Her songs have been covered by hundreds of artists. Among her best-known songs are “Both Sides Now,” “Woodstock,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.”
“867-5309/Jenny” by Tommy Tutone
The origins of “Jenny” have been a source of disagreement and controversy for a long time. The argument extends as far as whether the eponymous Jenny existed or not and whether 867-5309 was a real phone number. Tommy Tutone’s lead guitarist and the co-writer of the song, Jim Keller, claimed in 1982 that Jenny was a real normal girl (not a prostitute) and that he had actually dated her. He further claimed that she was really upset with him overwriting the song and making her phone number public. This claim was supported by the band’s lead singer Tommy Heath in 2008, who said that, as a joke, he had written a girl’s number on a bathroom wall, leading to years of laughter.
The other songwriter, Alex Call, has a very different story to tell, however. He said in 2009 that he wrote the song in his backyard and that both the name and the phone number simply came to him out of nowhere. He alleges that Jim Keller simply added the story to the framework that Call had come up with. So what is the truth? We may never know. “867-5309/Jenny” is the only Tommy Tutone single that achieved any significant airplay. It was a monster hit in 1981, making Tommy Tutone one of the archetypal one-hit wonders. It led to a rash of prank calls all over the USA with people calling the phone number, leading to a lot of irritated innocent people and a lot of police complaints as well as lawsuits.