Another List From Your Host

This is most likely a fool’s errand, but, being a lover of lists, I got to wondering the other evening about what names would show up on a list of the most influential musicians, performers and/or songwriters in American popular music. I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about this, but no real research, so this is a first draft, if you will. I know I’ll likely miss some, and suggestions will be gladly accepted in the comments.

I’ll start with one Nineteenth Century figure and two whose careers span the divide between the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, and after that, we’ll stay in the last century.

Stephen Foster

John Philip Sousa

Ma Rainey

Louis Armstrong

The Carter Family

Duke Ellington

Muddy Waters

Cole Porter

Frank Sinatra

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Chuck Berry

Elvis Presley

Phil Spector

Berry Gordy

Bob Dylan


And there we’ll stop. I know, only one woman. I considered several others: Jenny Lind, Bessie Smith, Julie London, Carole King and Madonna among them, and of those names, I think Bessie Smith’s would have been the next to be listed. But I wanted to keep the list to a manageable length.

And I also wanted to stop, essentially, twenty-five years ago, which is why the list stops with Prince. There no doubt have been writers and performers in these past twenty-five years who will belong on such a list someday, but I think we need to let the dust settle a little. If I were forced to guess right now, two names that I think will belong on that list would be those of Kurt Cobain and Will.I.Am.

There are, of course, plenty of folks from the years I’m considering who came close but didn’t seem to me to have as much influence on American pop music as the sixteen listed above. The next two likely would have been Buddy Holly and Michael Jackson. There’s no doubt that they changed American music, as did those listed above. But then, so did others not listed, like Scott Joplin, Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Stephen Sondheim, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and on and on.

So why this list today? Well, I was looking at how the Ultimate Jukebox would play out from here on, and I noticed that several of the chapters had multiple entries for which I hadn’t yet been able to find clips on YouTube. I did some shifting of those entries so that no more than one of those would show up in each segment, without paying attention to which songs they were. After I did that, I noticed that this week’s random list of songs ranged from the 1940s to the 1990s, beginning with Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”

That got me thinking about Waters’ place in that hypothetical list of American music, and I took a closer look at this week’s entries and saw that two more of those whom I’d place on such a list would also show up this week: Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. And I began to think about who else would be on that list. So there you go.

(I do have to acknowledge one thing: After my initial round of tinkering with the upcoming segments of the Ultimate Jukebox, I noticed that this week’s entry had songs from the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1990s. [I think; see the final paragraph.] I looked ahead and switched the next song from the 1980s into this week, replacing a second song from the 1970s. This will be the only time I switch a song for any reason other than balancing the non-YouTube entries.)

And here’s the video for the most recent song on this week’s list. (You may have to sit through a brief advertisement.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 18
“I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters, Aristocrat1305, 1948
“Carol” by Chuck Berry, Chess 1700, 1958
“Daddy (Rollin’ In Your Arms)” by Dion, Laurie 3464, 1968
“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & The Pips, Buddah 383, 1973
“On The Dark Side” by John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, Scotti Bros. 04594, 1983
“Things Have Changed” by Bob Dylan from the soundtrack to Wonder Boys, 1999

“I Can’t Be Satisfied” was Muddy Waters’ first hit after moving permanently to Chicago from Mississippi in 1943, and it followed five years of scuffling in Chicago’s clubs while working day jobs. The Aristocrat label was run by Leonard and Phil Chess, who soon changed the label name to Chess, and Waters recorded for the label into the 1970s. Because of reissues, his discography is difficult to follow, but during his lifetime, he released about sixty singles and thirty albums, including compilations, says Wikipedia. It’s probably impossible to overstate his influence on blues and rock and American pop culture. Want one small reminder? Listen to “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in the player below and note the introduction. Then go listen to the Allman Brothers Band’s “Pony Boy” and pay close attention at the forty-second mark.

Muddy Waters – “I Can’t Be Satisfied”

Just as with Waters, Chuck Berry’s influence on the music we listen to is vast and incalculable. From “Maybellene” in 1955 through a live version of “Reelin’ & Rockin’” in 1973, Berry got fourteen singles into the Top 40 (and more than that on the R&B chart). And according to a piece I read recently – though I cannot for the life of me remember where it was – Berry, now 83, still shows up once a month at a St. Louis club to play a set. He was (justifiably) among the first members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his riffs have influenced – directly or indirectly – anyone who’s ever picked up a guitar with rock music on his or her mind. I won’t say “Carol” is my favorite Berry tune, but it’s not heard as often as, say, “Johnny B. Goode” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” or a few others. Given that, its relative lack of familiarity makes me listen a little bit closer, which is a good thing.

Dion’s “Daddy (Rollin’ In Your Arms)” was the B Side to his 1968 hit “Abraham, Martin and John” and had to be a stunning surprise to anyone who ever flipped the 45 over. Dave Marsh called it “a surging, churning, angry, anguished version of Robert Johnson’s country blues,” adding, “Haunted electric guitars clang and clash against one another, drums pound in from another room, uniting in a wad of noise symbolizing nothing but spelling out pain and fear.” Yeah, it’s all of that, and it’s a compelling record, one that Marsh placed at No. 452 in his 1989 ranking of the top 1,001 singles

Gladys Knight – with and without the Pips – had twenty-seven Top 40 singles between 1961 and 1996, and “Midnight Train to Georgia” is likely the best of all of them. The tale of a man’s retreat from California to his home in Georgia – and the willingness of his (one assumes) California lady to go with him – was No. 1 for two weeks on the pop chart and for four weeks on the R&B chart in late 1973. Unlike a lot of stuff that topped the pop charts even in 1973, this was an adult record telling an adult tale of displacement, failure, loyalty and finally, a different type of success in the wake of that failure. And it had a compelling mid-tempo groove, too.

I’ve written a little bit previously about “On The Dark Side” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, noting that it’s the best non-Springsteen Springsteen record I know of, so we’ll pretty much leave it at that. The record is from the 1983 movie Eddie & The Cruisers, and in the fall of 1984, it spent eleven weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 7; it was also No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart for five weeks.

 I confess to a quandary. I have a date of 1999 on my mp3 of Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” but everything I see this morning dates the release as 2000. I’m certain I have a reason for dating it 1999 – perhaps a recording date listed somewhere in the notes to some anthology – but I can’t lay my hands on that information this morning. If I’m wrong, then this week’s chapter misses the 1990s and there goes that nifty little bit of programming. Ah, well. It’s still a great piece of music.

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10 Responses to “Another List From Your Host”

  1. AMD says:

    One can’t really limit such a list to 15.

    Hank Williams would rank very highly on my list. Without him, country music would have been quite a different thing. What would Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings (who in his own right was massively influential) been without him.

    I’d also consider Gram Parsons, whom we can hold accountable for the entire country rock genre.

    Soul is under-repesented. Sam Cooke has had a huge impact on music., and I’d put James Brown well ahead of Prince (and I’d have Michael Jackson ahead of him, too).

  2. David says:

    My 2 cents:

    1.) I’d drop Berry Gordy under the technicality that he is not a “musician, performer, and/or songwriter.” While I am aware that Berry Gordy did write a few tunes at the start of Motown/Tamla, he is really on the list for his influence as the owner and force behind the label. There almost should be a second list of individuals more on the production/label ownership/managerial side of the industry (Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, Russell Simmons, etc…) upon which Gordy would be placed.

    2.) Phil Spector suffers from some of the same problem, though he was much more of a writer and contributing musician than Gordy. Nevertheless, I’ve always found him wildly overrated (perhaps because I’ve never particularly enjoyed the Wall of Sound) and his influence was largely confined to a few years in the mono era before the arrival of the Beatles. I’d strike him.

    3.) As much as I love Prince, he belongs in a “best of” category rather than most influential. Apart from a few years in the mid-1980s when bands like The Time, Shelia E, Sheena Easton, The Bangles, etc… were taken over by him, he’s been too diverse to really influence others performing and the overall course of popular music.

    That leaves 3 new slots:

    1.) James Brown has to be on the list, as AMD suggested. His influence on soul was significant, but more importantly, he provided the foundation for two entirely new genres: funk and rap. Frankly, without James Brown (and, in particular, the track “Funky Drummer”), I’m not sure that hip hop develops. Not only that, his mid-1960s to early 1970s work was politicized and quite influential in the African-American community (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”).

    2.) Madonna belongs on the list. Again, if we’re sticking with “most influential,” she created the model of a commidified sexualized dance pop vixen that, 25 years on, still has scores of imitators, while she has continued to innovate. Her influence on the development and popularity of the music video alone warrants her listing.

    3.) For the final slot, I think Hank Williams or Miles Davis is the correct choice. Given that jazz is already represented, and — apart from the Carter Family — country music is not, Hank gets my vote. I’d love to nominate a hip hop figure, but I don’t feel like one particular person dominated either over the development or history of the genre. Truly a collective creative effort.

  3. whiteray says:

    @ David and AMD: Thanks for the insightful comments.

    As I was writing, I had the same reservations about Gordy but decided to list him anyway. You’re right – there should be a separate list for folks in the “production/label ownership/managerial” side. I have fewer reservations about Spector, but then, I love his stuff.

    But James Brown is a clear miss on my part. As is Ray Charles, who somehow managed to disappear between drafts.

    As to the others mentioned, good arguments all and some things to think about. Thanks again.

  4. Charlie says:

    I don’t see where Sousa was influential. Who did he influence? March music is virtually only played at football games and holiday parades.

    Brian Wilson is a must. How many vocal groups have openly admitted they’re influenced by The Beach Boys. TONS!

    Al Jolson should be on the list too. Not because his musical style has lived on but because he was the first real American multi-media star. He made movies, records, sang on radio, and on stage. When he died in 1950 he was making plans for TV. At one point he was America’s highest paid and most popular entertainer. He paved the way for Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and more. I’ve always felt that because Jolson often performed in blackface that it has become politically incorrect to acknowledge him and give him his due. Therefore younger often people don’t even know who he is.

  5. whiteray says:

    @Charlie: In one sense, you’re right about Sousa. His influence is difficult to see today. But during the latter years of the 19th Century and the first two decades of the 20th, Sousa was one of the most famous musicians in the world (if not the most famous). According to a Sousa page at the website of the Dallas Wind Symphony [], Sousa’s band was “the first musical act to travel more than a million miles and perform for more than a million people.” I get the sense as well, from things I’ve read, that the development of college marching bands during those same years was at least partly an outgrowth of the popularity of Sousa’s marches. And from that comes every high school marching band that’s ever been in a Homecoming parade. I’d call that influence.

    An interesting additional note: Meredith Wilson has said that he based his musical “The Music Man” in part on his experiences playing in Sousa’s band.

    I’ll admit that Al Jolson’s name is not one that came to me at all when I was pondering and writing, but I can see your point about his influence. Where does he rank? I have no idea, but he should be considered. And I’ll note that I did mention Brian Wilson as one of those I thought about; I acknowledge his importance, though I think we differ on its degree.

    Thanks for stopping by and making me think.

  6. Not only is “Things Have Changed” fantastic, but “Wonder Boys” is truly an overlooked gem of a movie.

  7. AMD says:

    I’ve been pondering this list. The obvious gap is, of course, the absence of the Beatles. But you’re looking at individuals who made an impact on American popular music. But that doesn’t mean that a non-US citizen couldn’t have made a huge impact on American music.

    With that in mind, I submit the name of Paul McCartney, representing the Beatles. The group’s impact on popular music was immense, still is. In many ways they shaped the way we receive music (such as the use of the album, an act writing their own songs — though here Buddy Holly deserves special mention).

    But more than that, the Beatles invented recording techniques that kept topping whatever Brian Wilson did. And as of Sgt Pepper’s, McCartney had virtually usurped George Martin’s role as a producer. The latter was more of a production manager, with McCartney providing the creative, innovative leadership.

  8. Perplexio says:

    I’ve often thought On the Darkside would have been a perfect addition to the movie Return of the Jedi, or possibly Empire Strikes Back.

  9. Kiddie Corner Kid says:

    Hold on there partner… No Hank Williams nor Gram Parsons ?? WoW !!
    And how about Whoopie John Wilfahrt or Harold Loeffelmacher (the six fat dutchman) or Jimmy Sturr.
    American Popular Music, a spectrum of sound with a core of solid genres and an infinite amount of hues. Yeah like a rainbow.

  10. whiteray says:

    @AMD: You’re right about the gap, which I thought of as I wrote, and McCartney’s influence on American music. Maybe four of those whom I listed had as much influence as he did. (You can go ahead and guess which four I’m thinking about.) But I *was* thinking in terms of only Americans as I wrote (though I guess I didn’t make that clear).

    @Kiddie Corner Kid (and AMD): I did mention Hank as one of those who, in effect, just missed the cut. I named sixteen. As I noted in a comment above, I should have had James Brown and Ray Charles in there, and I mentioned Buddy Holly and Michael Jackson as the next two. I would guess that Hank would have come next.

    As I noted, this was in effect a rough draft. Were I to do a second draft, I’d be inclined to accept David’s idea and pull Berry Gordy and Phil Spector from this list to go onto that mythical list of execs/producers and so on. Gram Parsons? I probably should have mentioned him, but I think he’d have to get in line. As would Whoopee John, Harold and Jimmy. (As I think of them and their genre, I wonder if Lawrence Welk might not actually belong on the list.)

    But that’s the fun of making this kind of imperfect list. Thanks for the comments.

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