Music

Best Epic Story Songs from Top 40 Radio Golden Age

What do you consider to be the best 45-rpm single in the category of epic story song during the golden age of Top 40 radio?

Many would select “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin as it is arguably one of the greatest classic rock songs of all-time.  However, the most iconic tune from the “Led Zeppelin IV” album was never released as a 45-rpm single.

Another tune that some music critics would point out as the best epic story song would be “A Day in the Life” from the Beatles.  Of course, there were no 45-rpm singles released from the 1967 legendary Fab Four, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

Although, “Stairway to Heaven” and “A Day in the Life” are outstanding epic songs that tell a story, neither song meets the criteria of being released as a 45-rpm single.  Both legendary songs were only available for purchase on “long play” 33 1/3-rpm record albums.

The golden age of Top 40 radio (1965 to 1980) is the time period that I am using for selecting the best epic story songs. All selections were hits on Top 40 radio and charted at number 30 or lower on the Billboard Hot 100.

I will be counting down my favorite epic story songs into two silos.  My first list will feature songs less than 5 minutes long. The second countdown will consist of selections over 5:00 in length.

In the early days of Top 40 radio, 45-rpm singles generally averaged under 3 minutes long. Eventually, record companies started releasing singles longer in length. “Like a Rolling Stone” from Bob Dylan was the first 45-rpm single over 6-minutes long and the iconic tune peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965.

Three years later in 1968, there were two smash hit singles that broke the 7-minute mark. “MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris at 7:21 in length, peaked at number 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

Then came the first 7-minute long single to reach the number 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100: “Hey Jude” by the Beatles.  The song spent 9 weeks at the top spot in America and was the biggest selling single of 1968.

As the 70s decade started, some of the biggest top 40 hits were story songs that were 5-minutes or less in length.

  • Tie a Yellow Ribbon round the Old Oak Tree—Tony Orlando & Dawn
  • Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia—Vicki Lawrence
  • Me and Bobby McGee—Janis Joplin
  • The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down—Joan Baez
  • Bad Bad Leroy Brown—Jim Croce

Some of the most superb epic top 40 hits during the 70s, just didn’t develop a good story line. Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” falls into this category.  The Derek and the Dominoes summer of 1972 hit has excellent guitar playing but contains weak lyrical content.

For the remainder of this message, I will be counting down two sets of epic story songs.  My first listing will be songs that are all 5-minutes in length or less. The second list will be comprised of singles over 5-minutes long.

All documentation of chart positions I share below in this article, comes from The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn.  I proudly own a hard copy of this excellent reference manual, which I consider to be the ‘bible” handbook for music history with Top 40 radio.

With my two countdowns of epic story songs, I am sharing my personal favorites. Songs which I deem to be culturally, historically, aesthetically significant, meaningful or relevant. Now it is time to reveal my first countdown: Best epic story songs that are less than 5 minutes in length:

10.  In the Ghetto—Elvis Presley

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1969:  #1 Hot 100:  35th Biggest Song of Year

Describes the vicious cycle of poverty, violence and despair.  With an inner-city Chicago newborn, growing to adulthood.  Comeback hit for the “King of Rock and Roll.”

9.    Take the Money and Run—Steve Miller Band

Peak Position on Billboard Charts for 1976:  #11 Hot 100: 98th Biggest Song of Year

Message about two bandits being pursued by a detective.  Couple heads to El Paso and then south, possibly to Mexico or beyond.  Lead single from the “Fly Like an Eagle” album.

8.    Eleanor Rigby—The Beatles

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1966:  #1 Hot 100:  90th Biggest Song of Year

Baroque Pop. John Lennon and Paul McCartney lyrics are commentary on loneliness, isolation and despair. Double A-side single with “Yellow Submarine.”

7.    You’re So Vain—Carly Simon

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1973:  #1 Hot 100:  9th Biggest Song of Year

The signature song of Carly Simon. Describes a former lover who has a narcissistic personality disorder: Self-centered with vanity issues. Received Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2004. 

6.    Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)—Looking Glass

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1972:  #1 Hot 100:  12th Biggest Song of Year

Elliot Lurie of Looking Glass has an engaging story:  Brandy works in a seaport harbor town as a barmaid and the man she loves is a sailor. Unfortunately for Brandy, the seaman is never in port and honestly declared to her before leaving for the last time: “But my life, my lover and my lady is the sea.”

5.   City of New Orleans—Arlo Guthrie

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1972:  #18 Hot 100:  45th Biggest Song of Year

Late singer-songwriter Steve Goodman portrays a train ride from Chicago to New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad and their legendary “City of New Orleans” rail line.  The song was written in 1971, after Amtrak took over servicing the famous railroad route from Illinois Central. Arlo Guthrie’s biggest Top 40 hit.

4.   Harper Valley PTA—Jeannie C Riley

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1968: #1 Hot 100:  17th Biggest Song of Year.

Country singer-songwriter Tom T Hall created a most unusual story for this crossover Top 40 hit. The Harper Valley PTA meeting was a wild and wacky affair as an “unfit mother” addresses her concerns about the hypocrisy of multiple other members with the school organization.

3.   A Boy Named Sue—Johnny Cash

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1969:  #2 Hot 100:  36th Biggest Song of Year

Shel Silverstein’s lyrics about a father abandoning his son at age 3, with only a guitar and naming the boy Sue, became the biggest hit song for Johnny Cash.  The Man in Black sings a colorful story line of the boy seeking revenge, fighting his father in a bar, and then finally making peace with his dad.

2.   Cat’s in the Cradle—Harry Chapin

Peak Position on Billboard Chart 1974:  #1 Hot 100:  38th Biggest Song of 1975

Grammy Hall of Fame award 2011.   Harry Chapin’s signature song gives a sorrowful picture of a father neglecting his son as a child. When the son becomes an adult, he actually neglects his father, in the same exact way that his father treated him during childhood. This folk-rock song gives a baleful warning with outstanding lyrics.

  1. Ode to Billie Joe—Bobbie Gentry

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1967:  #1 Hot 100:  3rd Biggest Song of Year

My number 1 selection for short epic story songs goes to “Ode to Billie Joe” written and recorded by Bobbie Gentry.

Lyrics for “Ode to Billie Joe” are written in the form of first-person narrative, by a Mississippi Delta teenage daughter.  The song begins on the 3rd of June, with the narrator having mealtime conversations with her parents and brother.

While most of the dinner conversation is on mundane activities and events, the mother shares the big news from Choctaw Ridge: “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

The dinner conversations continue with various unrelated dialogue but an important fact is revealed.  The daughter and Billie Joe may have been in a relationship and both may have been together “throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge” just before Billie Joe’s death?

Bobby Gentry provided brilliant lyrics on “Ode to Billie Joe” and it is my favorite epic story song that is under 5 minutes long.

The ten songs from my first countdown above, include some of the most beloved hits from the golden age of Top 40 radio. Now is it time for my second countdown.  These are the best epic story songs over 5 minutes in length:

10.  Space Oddity—David Bowie

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1973:  #15 Hot 100:  97th Biggest Song of Year

First released as a single in July 1969, same month as Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon.  Before the creation of Ziggy Stardust.   Story of Major Tom alone on a malfunctioning spacecraft, failing to receiving communications from ground control. Lost in space.

9.  Papa Was a Rolling Stone—The Temptations

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1972:  #1 Hot 100:  It was #100 on Top Song Chart for 1973

With outstanding instrumentation by the Funk Brothers Motown band, the Temptations shine with this 1972 tale. A set of brothers ask their mother pointed questions on the topic of a dead father: The siblings never knew their father and have only heard bad things about the man’s character. Won 3 Grammy Awards in 1973.

8.  Same Old Lang Syne—Dan Fogelberg

Peak Position on Billboard Chart 1980:  #9 Hot 100: 79th Biggest Song of 1981

Dan Fogelberg wrote an autobiographical account of a Christmas visit to his parents’ home during the mid 70s.  While shopping at a grocery store on Christmas Eve, Fogelberg meets an old girlfriend by chance and the two ex-lovers spend an afternoon drinking a 6-pack of beer and exchanging information on their separate life paths.

7.  Taxi—Harry Chapin

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1972:  #24 Hot 100:  85th Biggest Song of Year

This fictional narrative written by Harry Chapin involves a taxi driver on a rainy night in San Francisco. With the last fare of the night, the cabbie picks up a fancy woman, who requests to be driven to an affluent home.  Eventually, the driver recognizes his passenger as an ex-lover. Interesting conversations ensue until completion of the fare.

6.  Piano Man—Billy Joel

Peak Position on Billboard Chart:  #4 Adult Contemporary: #25 Hot 100

Signature song for Billy Joel.  Verses of the song are observations about the life of a piano player at a night club lounge bar.  The narrative describes various patrons, most living with disappointment or unfulfilled dreams. Folks coming to hear a piano man and “to forget about life for a while.”

5.  The Boxer—Simon & Garfunkel

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1969:  #7 Hot 100:  42nd Biggest Song of Year

Paul Simon’s authored an excellent lament of a boxer living in New York City.  Lyrics depict the struggles to overcome poverty and loneliness as well as the desire to succeed as a professional boxer. Rolling Stone ranks “The Boxer” as the second-best Simon & Garfunkel song of all-time.

4.  Bohemian Rhapsody—Queen

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1976 & 1992:  #9 Hot 100 & 18th Biggest Song of 1976:  #2 Hot 100 & 39th Biggest Song of 1992:

Rock opera suite written by Freddie Mercury. Queen’s composition is about a young man who accidentally killed a man and is facing pending execution. While waiting for the death sentence to be carried out, the murderer mourns on being haunted by demons and selling his soul to the devil.  “Bohemian Rhapsody” is considered one of the greatest classic rock songs ever made.  

3.  Hotel California—Eagles

Peak Positions on Billboard Charts 1977:  #1 Hot 100:  19th Biggest Song of Year

One of the most iconic rock songs from the 20th Century is “Hotel California.”  Co-written by Don Felder, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, the words depict both literal and symbolic interpretations of Southern California lifestyles from the 70s.  Themes of good vs evil and light vs darkness are developed throughout the song. Eagles won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1977 with the band’s signature recording.

2.  American Pie—Don McLean

Peak Position on Billboard Charts 1972:  #1 Hot 100:  3rd Biggest Song of Year

“American Pie” is perhaps the most mis-interpreted song in pop/rock music history. This much we know: The 1959 plane crash deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, is “the day the music died” according to Don McLean’s written masterpiece.

The author goes on to explore cultural changes within rock ‘n roll, proclaiming philosophical angst, disillusionment and disappointment with rock music created after 1959. McLean also includes the mention of multiple political events with his complex lyrics. “American Pie” comes in as my second favorite epic story single that is over 5 minutes long.

  1. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—Gordon Lightfoot

Peak Positions on Billboard Charts:  #2 Hot 100:  36th Biggest Song of Year

Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot comes in with my number one epic story song of all-time with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” 

The topic that Lightfoot wrote about is based on an actual historical event.  On November 10, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald ship sank during a storm on Lake Superior, with the entire 29-man crew dying that day.

One of two lifeboats found from the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I took this photo in July 2014 at Museum Ship Valley Camp, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

After reading an account of the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking in a Newsweek magazine article from 11/24/75, Lightfoot came up with the lyrics to what became his biggest record.  The song paints a haunting and poignant picture of the last voyage with the Great Lakes freighter.

Without any doubt, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot is my number 1 favorite epic story song from the golden age of top 40 radio.

Now that I have humbly submitted my thoughts on the best epic story songs, I am curious to find out your opinion on this topic.

Obviously, I do not want to come across as authoritative with my critique on what I consider to be the best epic story songs of all-time. The songs that you may feel are the best, maybe be completely different from my selections.

So I am asking for your opinion: What do you consider to be the best epic story songs from 1965 through 1980?  There are no right or wrong answers. I welcome your thoughts.

Listening to music from the golden age of Top 40 radio will always have a special place in my heart. I fondly remember and cherish all of the epic story songs that I shared with you on this music blog message.  Rock on!

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18 thoughts on “Best Epic Story Songs from Top 40 Radio Golden Age

  1. John Yaeger says:

    Hi Dave. That was an interesting article on the “Best Epic Story Songs from Top 40 Radio Golden Age.” Most are definitely among my all-time favorites. I think one other deserves a place on that list. “The Ballad of John and Yoko.” Unfortunately, this song doesn’t get much air play and contained a beep to block out the word “Christ” when it first came out on the radio. It’s a time-sensitive song so that’s my guess why you almost never hear it these days. It told the story of John & Yoko’s marriage and that was it; then it immediately became old news. It is, however, a great happy rocker of a song. It’s especially notable because it was recorded with only John and Paul as a spur-of-the-moment thing and–during a time of tension among The Beatles–it’s like they forgot about their differences and played with the exuberance they had when they first began!

    • Mark: “Hurricane” by Bob Dylan is an excellent epic story song. However, it fell outside of the parameters that I set for the message. Dylan’s song about the imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter only reached number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.

  2. Bernard Johnson says:

    Great topic. My choices from your list: Under 5 minutes- “Brandy” – Looking Glass. I believe that is a Yacht Rock song? Anyway, as a lover of all genre’s of music, this one is reverse love affair. Usually about a boy who is in love with a girl and she isn’t interested but tries to be kind. This one touches when a girl loves a guy. The sailor’s love is the sea.

    Over 5 minutes- “Papa was a Rollin Stone”. – Temps. I knew a lot of guys who had fathers like that and wanted to know more about him. Moms would just shake their heads!

    My personal favorites are:
    “September” EWF. – I was college and was a glorious time to be in love.
    “When Somebody Loves You Back” -Teddy Pendergrass.
    The title speaks for itself. Great feeling.
    “I Saw Her Again Last Night” The Mamas and Papas.
    Explores the world of relationship triangles.

    • Jamie: An interesting observation. As you know, “Born to Run” is my favorite Bruce Springsteen song. However, I feel that the lyrics are actually a description song, more than a traditional story composition: Providing narration about motorcycles, cars, street life, love and running away.

      In my humble opinion, the best Springsteen epic story song during the 1965-1980 years is “The River.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t a Top 40 hit as Columbia Records never released it as a single in the U.S.

      Maybe my definition of a story song is too narrow, as I excluded “Born to Run” from the 5 minute countdown listing? But the song is still my number 1 favorite single that I played on WROV Roanoke in 1975. The Boss rules. Rock on!

  3. Tom Eckert says:

    I would say “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” Charlie Daniels Band and “The Day They Burned Old Dixie Down”. Tom Eckert

  4. Vangie says:

    Thanks Dave! I know and love every one of these songs! This is one of my favorite things about music. The story it tells. As you know, I love billy Joel and “Piano Man” is my favorite! However these are all favorites! I am going to make a new playlist with all of these songs on it! “We didn’t start the fire” by Billy Joel wasn’t released until 1989 but it is one of my favorite stories. The Berlin Wall fell that year and I was a senior in high school so it holds a lot of meaning for me.

  5. Terrie Martin says:

    This is an interesting topic…I would agree on your choices David, but I also think that Queen tops them all.
    I remember listening to the The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the feeling of sadness it always gave me…I loved the song though.
    I would have to say my absolute favorite is American Pie…loved it and I’m a fan of the Buddy Holly story.
    Thank you for another great article!!!

  6. Marv Burt says:

    Dave, Another great blog about the golden era of music and radio. I grew up with most of those tunes but my favorites are (in no particular order) Brandy, City of New Orleans (well done tribute video), Space Oddity, The Boxer, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and Hotel California (even in their live version, those boys can sing and play). My only complaint is that usually live versions don’t capture the memories of the original version and I typically shy away from listening to them. Hotel California was the exception. So I would look for the original recording on youtube to capture the memory. Thanks Dave!

  7. Brian Becker says:

    Well, that’s a great group of songs, but I feel that starting with 1965 and later leaves me wanting to list iconic songs like “teen angel” for a tragic love ballad 50’s song. For me though if starting in 1965, Dolly Parton’s “coat of many colors” is too good to leave off as that’s definitely one of my all time favorites. “Hot Rod Lincoln” is another oldie classic car song that misses the date. So, if restricted by the years I would likely slide “dance little jean” as one of my other top ten story songs as the rest of my list have at least been mentioned.

  8. Larry Dowdy says:

    You nailed it with the story songs. I guess all songs tell some kind of story. But some of the ones you mentioned does it better than others. “Stairway to Heaven” “American Pie” “City of New Orleans” “Hotel California” “The Boxer” “MacArthur Park”and so many others. Let’s not leave out “Paradise By The Dashboard Lights.” Love those story songs.

  9. David Hardie says:

    You checked all the boxes DJ Dave. I had forgotten about some of these. Auld Lang Syne by Dan Fogelberg comes to mind. This does not rate with the ones you chose but Chevy Van by Sammy Johns is one that I remember. Harry Chapin the master of regret and his song WOLD is also a favorite of mine. Thanks DJ Dave. Larry Dowdy is correct that Meat Loaf’s Paradise By the Dashboard Lights is a classic. Great list.

    • Dave Burt says:

      I didn’t recognize about four songs but the rest were really great songs. I probably would have put American pie as number one. John mentioned the ballad of John and Yoko which I would have to say is my favorite song by the Beatles. I always enjoy a trip down memory lane thanks Dave.

      • Dave: Your mention of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” brings back this memory for me. Early August 1969 at your house in Moose Lake, Minnesota.

        During the summer of 1969, many top 40 radio stations banned the Beatles song, including WROV Roanoke, WLS Chicago and WABC New York. Even though the song peaked at number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, I had never heard this record on the radio.

        Forward to my family’s summer vacation trip to Minnesota during August ’69. On our way to Grandma Burt’s house outside of Grand Rapids, we stopped at your parents home in Moose Lake.

        While we were visiting, I saw your record collection and the Beatles 45-rpm single that I had never heard before. I asked your mom if I could play some of your records and she agreed.

        I was so excited and played your 45-rpm single of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and heard the Beatles single for my very first time. I think I played it 4 or 5 more times before leaving your home that afternoon.

        Thanks for providing my first opportunity to hear “The Ballad of John and Yoko” back in the summer of ’69. Rock on!

  10. Sandra K says:

    Excellent blog as always Dave. I was amazed I had never heard “Same Old Lang Syne” I was literally mesmerized. I liked “Nights the Lights Went Out in Georgia”
    I was amused to watch Vickie Lawrence singing about hanging her innocent brother for murder while watching people dance on the beach in the background. I thought “did we really actually dance to these songs?” I also loved the Temptations, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and the hot pink bell bottom Tuxedos were a special treat. Musically reflecting, being on the spectrum, I remember shutting out a lot of music from this period as it was all so dark and I retreated to my room clinging to Tommy Dorsey, The Beach Boys, and My American Graffiti albums, so I really have little to contribute with this genre, but if I had to pick one favorite from your list it would Same Old Lang Syne because I could actually envision them sitting there conversing and feel the emotions they may have had.
    I remember some songs that didn’t make your list although they may not have met the criteria: “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” (equally sad) and what would be my favorite-“Escape” The Pina Colada Song.
    Thanks again for all your time and work to share your vast knowledge and love for music. It is always truly enriching.

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