Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Hulk! Choke! Sob! – my favourite rock ‘n’ roll, country and soul tribute songs

The first rule of good tribute songs is that they have to be enjoyable in their own right - and Mike Berry's 1961 disc certainly passes the test. The next rule is that they mustn't make you want to slash your wrists - they should generally be celebratory rather than lachrymose. As to whether they need to capture the sound of the dead star, that's entirely a matter of taste - Mike Berry's producer, Joe Meek, obviously made a decent fist of it here.

The first tribute song that crossed my path was probably Eddie Cochran’s 1960 version of Tommy Dee’s "Three Stars", again bemoaning the loss of Buddy Holly, but also including Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. It breaks the rule about not being too maudlin:

As I was growing up in the land of irony when I first heard this, where one kept one’s emotions to oneself (how times have changed), I assumed Cochran was putting it on – why, the chap was practically blubbing! But of course there was no pretense about it – the young man (just 20 when he recorded the song) knew the dead rockers personally and was genuinely and directly expressing his grief.

Of course, Holly was later commemorated in possibly - and fittingly - the most successful tribute song of all time, Don MacLean’s “American Pie” (1971):

Eddie Cochran, who died in a car crash in England in 1961, a year after recording “Three Stars”, did okay on the tribute front, thanks again to producer Joe Meek, who managed to coax an almost acceptable performance from his blond, pouting, useless, would-be teen idol, Heinz, on “Just Like Eddie”, helped by Richie Blackmore on guitar. The record climbed to No. 5 in the UK charts – annoyingly, one higher than Cochran ever managed.

The crash in which Cochran died left his close friend Gene Vincent even more badly crippled than he'd already been by a motorbike accident before he became a singer – some guys really don’t have all the luck. “The Screaming End” had to wait until 1977 to be memorialised on vinyl by Ian Dury. Worth the wait, though - great lyrics:

Elvis’s death resulted in a slew of perfectly revolting tribute songs, but it also produced some classics. Fittingly, the best of these came from another musical giant, Roy Orbison:

Speaking of musical giants, John Fogerty produced the terrific "Big Train from Memphis" in 1985 (the train, by the way, is Elvis - but I don't think it's a reference to The King's eventual size):

Country, naturally, has produced its fair share of over-the-top tributes over the years (if you have some insulin handy, just try Tex Ritter's take on “Hillbilly Heaven”), but there have been some good ones as well . Let’s start with Waylon Jennings getting a Texas crowd in a lather about the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills:

I love that - and I'm no fan of Bob Wills! 

There have been tons of songs dedicated to the greatest of all country singers, Hank Williams: here are my three favourites, starting with another slice of Waylon Jennings - the man who gave up his seat to Buddy Holly on that fatal plane ride - at his very best:

Dwight Yoakam version of David Alvin’s “Long White Cadillac” is an absolute dilly:

I'm not sure Marty Stuart's "Me & Hank & Jumping Flash" is a song in its own right - more an intro to "High On a Mountain Top" - but I love it, nevertheless:

I’ll end with my favourite Soul tribute song – The Commodores haunting “Night Shift”, which honours Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson:

At some stage, I promise to produce a post featuring the worst tribute songs of all time - one is spiled for choice!