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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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