1. “Tighten Up,” Archie Bell and the Drells, 1968.
The very best song from Houston has to do it all. It has to be a great piece of music made by Houstonians still based in town, it has to mention Houston, and it has to draw on native musical traditions. It also is known all over the world. And just for good measure, “Tighten Up” is also pre-eminently danceable and stands as one of the greatest party records ever put on wax.
“Tighten Up” does all that and even more. Somehow, it can almost make you feel our climate. Think about it. The way the timbre of the band – the T.S.U. Toronados -- seems to breathe in and out. The balmy, sighing horns, the funky little electric guitar riff, the sweaty organ, and a loping bass guitar with a tone so warm it seems to be grinning.
It’s all as gracious and hospitable as springtime sunshine: The music on “Tighten Up” sounds the way a sunny April day in Houston feels. Playing it in your car can carry your mind from an exhaust-choked stop-and-go pile-up on the Katy Freeway in the grey December twilight to a beery beach blanket picnic in the noontime sun on West Beach in May. Like Archie says, “Now make it mellow!”
Note: There’s some controversy about Bell’s intro, to wit, does he say “We can dance just as good as we walk” or “We can dance just as good as we want”? I’m siding with “want,” for two reasons. One, it makes more sense, and two, it is clearly what he actually does say. – J.N.L.
2. “Night Life,” Willie Nelson, circa 1960.
As the ‘60s dawned, Willie Nelson was fresh out of the Air Force and living in Pasadena with his first wife and three kids. He worked six nights a week backing local star Larry Butler on bass and DJed the other day.
Meanwhile, he was writing a few songs on the side in his car, while commuting between his digs in Pasadena and his gigs on the Hempstead Highway. He got hot one week and wrote three of the greatest songs in country music history: “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life,” perhaps the most covered country song of all time.
And deservedly so. Lovable losers and no-‘count boozers could hope for no better anthem than this resigned statement of near-suicidal intent. Sure, the bar-rooms might be full of people dreaming of old used-to-be’s and re-enacting scene after scene from the world of broken dreams, but just listen to the blues they’re playing. The night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life, indeed. – J.N.L.
3. “I Can See Clearly Now,” Johnny Nash, 1972.
Big Pharma should bottle this song and sell it; shrinks should prescribe it to all those who have the blues. This is one tune with optimism enough to put Prozac out of business. The pop-reggae gem passes like a giant sigh of relief; it’s plain from the hard-won calm obvious in Nash’s angelic, Sam Cooke-style tenor that he has indeed been truly delivered from some very dark places.
Native Houstonian Nash has had one of the oddest careers in American pop history. After stints as an actor and a billing as “America’s First Black Teen Idol,” Nash’s career took off after he moved to Jamaica in the late ‘60s. There he befriended the not-yet-internationally famous Bob Marley and started incorporating rocksteady and early reggae into his gospel-tinged R&B.
“I Can See Clearly Now” was the most famous and best result. Up until its release, no one reggae song had captivated mainstream listeners with as much force, and Nash belongs right up there with artists like Marley and Desmond Dekker as one of the music’s foremost early popularizers. Not bad for a guy who only a decade or so before had been humping golf bags in Hermann Park. – J.N.L.
4. “Pancho and Lefty,” Townes Van Zandt, 1977 release of a 1972 recording.
An enigmatic tale with a more or less clear story arc, Van Zandt’s tale of two bandits and their respective demises seems likely to become an American standard. Over a gorgeously simple, achingly sad melody, Van Zandt spins an epic in which just enough detail is omitted to eternally tantalize all who fall under the song’s spell. What did Lefty do to Pancho? Why did the Federales let him get away? Why did Lefty go to Cleveland, of all places? Is the song about Pancho Villa and Lefty Frizzell, as I thought as a kid? Van Zandt himself declared often that he knew the answers to none of these questions, save the last. (The answer is no, it is not about either of them.)
A Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard duet took the song to the top of the country charts in 1983, and the song has been recorded by Emmylou Harris and dozens of other artists of lesser fame.
More than that, the song has infiltrated the world’s psyche. A few years ago, a Pancho and Lefty’s Sports Bar stood on a barrio corner on the near North Side, and Rodney Crowell recently told me several hundred Swedes sang along on the chorus when he performed the song there. Van Zandt himself once had a close encounter with his own brainchild on the outskirts of Houston, decades after it was released. Pulled over for speeding near Brookshire by Anglo / Mexican-American highway patrolmen, Van Zandt’s ticket was summarily dismissed when his authorship of the song was discovered. Turns out that the two cops were known as “Pancho and Lefty” back at the station house. – J.N.L.
5. “La Grange,” ZZ Top, 1974.
Marvin Zindler's passing this summer raises an interesting question about ZZ Top: If the flamboyant newsman's investigation hadn't led to infamous Fayette County brothel the Chicken Ranch's August 1973 closure, would "La Grange" have still appeared on the Lil' Ol' Band from Texas's 1974 album Tres Hombres? Maybe, even probably, not. And then what? No Worldwide Texas tour… no Degüello… no "Legs" video? Though other Tres Hombres songs are better – "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers" rocks harder, and "Waitin' for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago" is a better blues – "La Grange" was the first domino to fall, the song that made ZZ Top's bones, so to speak. It quickly became a staple of the emerging FM radio format known as Album-Oriented Rock and reclaimed the blues for American rock bands when Brits like Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones had all but stolen them away. Said to be lifted wholesale from John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun," "La Grange" is in fact unique to ZZ Top, if only for the trio’s vacuum tightness and Billy Gibbons's leering vocals. Honestly, it can be worked up by reasonably talented musicians in a couple of hours – which some band out there is probably, hopefully, doing this very moment. – C.G.
6. “Turn On Your Love Light,” Bobby “Blue” Bland, 1961.
Joe Scott, Duke-Peacock’s in-house conductor/arranger /music director, epitomized the word “sublime.” There’s never so much as a sixteenth-note out of place in his creations, and “Turn on Your Love Light” is a flawless example.
The uptempo gospel-drenched rave-up erupts out of the blocks with a trumpet fanfare over drums and Teddy Reynolds’s prominent piano riff; seconds later Wayne Bennett’s electric guitar interlocks with Reynolds’s keyboards and Bland comes swooping in with his alternately scratchy and silken baritone, singing blue words that don’t jibe with the joyous abandon of the music: “Without a warnin’, you broke my heart, you took it darlin’ and you tore it apart.”
At about the one-minute mark, all falls away save for the sanctified funky beats of not one but two drummers who pop and crash away as Bland, by now pleading, croons that he gets a little lonely in the middle of the night, and he needs you, darling, to make things all right. An impeccable sax solo leads into Bland’s trademark “squall,” and he roars, redeemed on the fade-out “I feel alright!” Rarely can two minutes, 40 seconds be better spent. – J.N.L.
7. “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me,” The Geto Boys, 1991.
In 1991, in the eyes of then-young Hip-Hop America, rap was still a bi-coastal game. Sure, Miami’s 2 Live Crew had enjoyed a couple of hits, but those nasty party jams were mere novelty records.
The Dirty South had not yet begun to truly fight. “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” would change all that. Not only would the song top the Billboard rap charts and crack the top 25 in pop, but it would also demonstrate that Southerners could rap about something other than sex.
Over a melancholy, insistent jazz guitar riff culled from “Hung Up on My Baby,” an Isaac Hayes instrumental, the paranoid, borderline psychotic rhymes of Bushwick Bill, Willie D and Scarface set a new standard in true gangsta poetry. Often tabbed by national critics as one of the top rap songs ever, “Mind Playin’ Tricks…” surfaces often in the work of other masters. The Notorious B.I.G. would nod to the song in the lyrics of his hit single “One More Chance,” while Scarface’s “I had a woman down with me…” lines bubble up in the effervescent mix behind Andre 3000 on OutKast’s “She Lives in My Lap.” – J.N.L.
8. “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” Esther Phillips, 1970.
Percy Mayfield, “the poet laureate of the blues,” was born in Louisiana and died in California but spent his formative years in Houston. Mayfield penned dozens of great songs – most notably “Hit the Road, Jack” for Ray Charles – but none surpassed “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” one of the most-covered blues / R&B songs of all time. Everyone from Count Basie and Etta James to Fiona Apple and Jeff Buckley has taken a crack at it.
In words direct and simple as a child’s Christmas prayer, Mayfield begs a higher power to send love to all: “Heaven please send to all mankind, understanding and peace of mind, and if it's not asking too much, please send me someone to love.” The melody matches this exquisiteness. While it is resigned enough to lead you to believe that love is in the cards neither for the world nor the singer, a faint glimmer of hope remains on the final stanza: “Show the world how to get along, peace will enter when hate is gone, but if it's not asking too much, please send me someone to love.”
Few versions surpass this one by Esther Phillips, a singer who shouldn’t need any introduction to modern audiences but probably does.
A native of Galveston who spent much of her too-short life shuttling between her father’s house in Houston and her mother’s in Los Angeles, Phillips dominated the R&B charts in 1950, when she was all of 15 years old. Her biggest pop hit came after her rediscovery (by Kenny Rogers) 12 years later, when she scored big with her lush, majestic rendition of the country standard “Release Me.”
By that time the pint-size dynamo was already grappling with joneses for both heroin and whiskey, twin monkeys that never left her back until her death of liver failure in 1984. But along the way she would leave behind some of the finest recordings of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and stake a strong claim as the greatest female vocalist Houston ever produced.
Philips ran the gamut from gutbucket blues to big band jazz to soul-country to pure pop to British Invasion rock -- both the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” and the Stones’ “As Tears Go By” were in her repertoire. She was at her best when, much like Ray Charles, she combined all that in one song.
And there was that voice. Man, that voice, equally capable of Lady Day vulnerability, Etta James fire, and sophistication and hard-bitten diction she learned from her heroine Dinah Washington. Like Nina Simone, Phillips had the rare ability to match a nasal, razor-sharp edge with supple, full-throated phrasing, albeit without ever sounding as kittenish as Simone. (There’s an echo of that style, albeit a faint one, in Amy Winehouse.)
Atlantic Records honcho Ahmet Ertegun called Phillips a singer of “extreme soul” who “thrilled you no matter what she sang.” When Aretha Franklin edged out Phillips for a Grammy in 1972, legend has it the Queen of Soul deemed Phillips the more deserving of the two and handed the statuette over. One day Phillips will be rediscovered – mark our words. – J.N.L.
9. “Whiskey River,” Johnny Bush/Willie Nelson, 1972/1973.
Willie Nelson was doing all right before he recorded “Whiskey River” for 1973’s Shotgun Willie, but the ode to the memory-erasing properties of a good sour mash sent the Red Headed Stranger’s career into a completely different orbit. It’s become as much a signature song as “Night Life” or “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and he’s opened every concert with “Whiskey River” for decades now. Over the years, it’s even lent its name to a Dallas nightclub and brand of bourbon, both partially owned by Nelson, and is still a saloon in several states. However, “Whiskey River” was never selected as a single from Shotgun Willie, perhaps because the previous year it was a top 15 country hit for its author, Kashmere Gardens-raised Johnny Bush. A longtime friend, fellow alumnus of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, and Nelson’s RCA labelmate at the time, Bush had several hits of his own (“You Gave Me a Mountain,” “I’ll Be There”) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and was poised for even greater stardom before his voice gave out. He thought it was God’s punishment for his promiscuous lifestyle, but it turned out to be a rare vocal-cord ailment called spasmodic dysphonia. Bush sought the help of a vocal coach in the mid-‘80s and began a lengthy comeback that crested this year with the excellent Kashmere Gardens Mud CD and an autobiography entitled – what else? – Whiskey River. – C.G.
10. “You're Gonna Miss Me,” Thirteenth Floor Elevators, 1966.
Without these two-and-a-half driving minutes of barely suppressed agony, kicked off by Roky Erickson's unearthly Janis Joplin-like wail, the '60s would have sounded mighty different. Its lyrics are as simple as any blues – "I gave you the warning, you never heeded it, how can you say you miss my lovin' when you never needed it?" – but it's Erickson's urgent delivery (and bitter harmonica in the outro) that really sells it. Recorded here in Houston – not Dallas, as has long been circulated - it was a smash in the Southwest, a No. 55 hit nationwide and longtime favorite of Doug Sahm, who recorded it with sons Shandon and Shawn for landmark (and shamefully out-of-print) 1990 Erickson tribute album Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye. More than 40 years later, while Erickson's recent comeback reaffirms just how true his lyrics really were – and are – "You're Gonna Miss Me" still has the power to blow your mind. Seek out the Elevators' Halloween 1966 American Bandstand performance on YouTube for proof. – C.G.
11. “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta,” Geto Boys, 1999.
“Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” isn’t the Geto Boys’ best song, and it’s sure as hell not their most violent, paranoid or depraved, but you can bet all three copies of your TPS report it’s the one most white people know. In Mike Judge’s 1999 cult comedy Office Space, this handy guide to everyday gangsta do’s and don’ts – remember, “real gangsta-ass niggas don’t flex nuts” – its brooding beats, unhurried Dirty South tempo and cocksure lyrics form a menacing backdrop as that trio of white-collar Initech geeks Peter, Samir and Michael Bolton implement their ill-conceived embezzlement scheme. The song fits the scene as perfectly as fellow Houstonian B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” in Goodfellas. “Gangsta” has since been re-imagined as “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Yuppie” by downsized Austin GOP punks the Yuppie Pricks and straight-up covered by Waco native Carter Falco for last year’s I-35 Texas Country compilation. Now that’s a crossover. – C.G.
12. “Merry Christmas from the Family,” Robert Earl Keen, 1994.
For the purposes of a Houston list, this one edges out the more famous “The Road Goes on Forever.” There’s something about Keen’s droll description of Christmas that seems ineffably H-Town.
There’s the incessant trips to the Stop N’ Go (lyrics now need to be changed to Valero, but still…), the relatives, from chain-smoking new wife Kay who talks all about AA to electrically competent cousin David to Fran and Rita, the mystery kin from Harlingen, and the drinking – lots and lots of drinking, cut with plenty of football on TV. There’s no snow save for the fake stuff on shelves at the Quik-Pak store, and nobody knows what to think of the Mexican boyfriend little sister brought to dinner until he sings “Feliz Navidad.”
It’s easily the greatest Texas Christmas song ever written, but it transcends the season and stands as a great slice-of-life depiction of suburban Texans handling stress as only they can – by stocking up at Spec’s early and often and then filling in on accessories like celery and lemons as needed later. – J.N.L.
13. “Treat Her Right,” Roy Head & the Traits, 1965.
In 1965, the same year as Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” the Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again” and James Brown’s double shot of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Feel Good (I Got You),” Three Rivers native Roy Head and his San Marcos group the Traits wanted to tell you a story. A fast-paced, horn-charged tale about the proper way to treat a lady: “If you want a little lovin’ you gotta start real slow, she’ll love you tonight if you just treat her right.” Gulf Coast R&B mogul Don Robey printed it up on his Back Beat label, and America loved it: “Treat Her Right” spent a solid month atop jukebox tracker Cash Box’s R&B chart, the same span as Junior Walker & the All-Stars’ “Shotgun” and only seven less days than the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” and Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me.” On the pop chart, only the Beatles’ “Yesterday” kept it out of the top spot. Not bad, and as Head proved earlier this month at the Continental Club’s Superstars of Soul revue, both he and “Treat Her Right” are as dynamic as ever, and may have even gained a step or two over the years. – C.G.
14. “Bootylicious,” Destiny’s Child, 2001.
Song titles become pop-culture catchphrases all the time – remember everyone walking like an Egyptian? – but precious few get bumped up to full-fledged dictionary definitions. Now, a reading from the Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, via Dictionary.com: “Bootylicious, adj. Sexually attractive, esp. in the buttocks.” Co-written by Beyoncé, Falonte Moore and Rob Fusari, with a generous assist from Stevie Nicks’s 1981 hit “Edge of Seventeen” – Nicks appears in the video playing guitar – “Bootylicious” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 2001. Two years later, Soulwax’s splicing the “Bootylicious” lyrics onto the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music, for the brilliantly titled “Smells Like Booty,” was one of the first widely circulated examples of the hybrid genre known as mash-ups. Beyoncé said the word meant “beautiful, bountiful and bounce-able” to her – not quite the same as Snoop Dogg’s “the rhymes you were kickin’ was quite bootylicious,” meaning lame, on 1992’s “Wit Dre Day.” Even better, the trio’s assertion “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly” mirrors bygone vaginal blues terminology like Bessie Smith’s “No One Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” – thus one of this decade’s biggest hits owes its existence to the bawdy slang of a century ago. – C.G.
15. “Guyana Punch,” The Judy’s, 1981
The pride of Pearland, the Judy’s carried the banner for Houston’s punk/new-wave scene in the early ‘80s, and “Guyana Punch” was their show-stopper. Even today, it sounds as snotty, fresh, danceable and eternal as ever. And austere – aside from backing vocals, the music is comprised of nothing more than bass, drums and singer David Bean’s quintessentially bratty voice.
What’s more, it remains hard to believe that a guy in his teens could write with such mature black humor and a well-developed sense of enigma. He took as his inspiration one of the more bizarre events of his childhood – the religiously inspired mass suicide of over more than 1,000 followers of cult leader Jim Jones in Guyana – and turned it into a bleakly comic post-punk masterpiece. (Other grist for Bean’s twisted mill included killers such as Gary Gilmore and the Son of Sam, girls, and TV.)
The Judy’s almost made it. They did open for like-minded contemporaries Talking Heads, the B-52’s and Devo, conquering Houston, Dallas and Austin along the way, and seemed singularly poised to break nationally. It didn’t happen, in no small part through lack of interest from the band members themselves. The band wasn’t joking when they named their label Wasted Talent. – J.N.L.
16. “White Freightliner Blues,” Townes Van Zandt, 1977 release of a 1973 recording.
“It’s bad news from Houston, half my friends are dyin’, White Freightliner won’t you steal away my mind.”
Is there a better line containing the word “Houston” in any song? And who among us has not felt that way at some point?
Others who evidently can relate include one-time Houstonians Billy Joe Shaver and Steve Earle, as well as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, New Grass Revival, Bobby Bare, J.D. Crowe and the New South and even the String Cheese Incident, all of whom have recorded the song.
For this list we selected the version Van Zandt recorded in 1973 at the late, great Old Quarter bar, which still stands down by the courthouse. (It’s now a law office.) Though the studio version was recorded in 1974, it did not surface until 1993’s The Nashville Sessions, and even when it came out did nothing to diminish the definitiveness of the live recording. The enthusiasm of the crowd hand-clapping along and the way Van Zandt’s falsetto almost careens out of control when he sings the “Bad news from Houston” lines see to that. – J.N.L.
17. “Killin’ Time,” Clint Black, 1989.
When “Killin’ Time” appeared in early 1989, few people outside Oklahoma had heard of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson’s “Here in the Real World” was still several months away. So Katy’s Clint Black briefly became big-time country music’s flagship “New Traditionalist.” The first of four No. 1 singles from Black’s RCA debut, it’s still one of his best, up there with “Nothin’ but the Taillights” and “A Bad Goodbye.” Co-written by Black and longtime collaborator Hayden Nicholas, taken as a whole it’s a classic midtempo yarn of barroom denial with a great turn of phrase in the chorus – “drinkin’ myself blind, thinkin’ I won’t see” – and a perfect jukebox-born companion to another lonely last call. Broken down line by line, though, it gets considerably darker, especially in the second verse: “If there’s an end to all my sorrow, and this is the only price I’ll pay, I’ll be a happy man when I go, and I can’t wait another day.” Black ain’t talking about going home, either, except maybe in the spiritual sense – this may be the last time a song about someone contemplating suicide topped the country charts. – C.G.
18. Midnight Special, Leadbelly, ????
Decades before N.W.A., Too $hort or Tupac, Leadbelly was as gangsta as they came. Already an escapee from an East Texas chain gang, in 1918 the man born Huddie Ledbetter was convicted in the death of cousin-in-law Will Stafford and “assault to murder” another man, earning a total of 35 years on the infamous Sugar Land prison farm. Due in no small part to his musical gifts - he was an early master of the 12-string guitar - Leadbelly was pardoned just shy of his sentence’s seven-year minimum, leaving with both his nickname (for both his given name and toughness in fights with other inmates) and rough sketches for several of his best-known songs, chief among them “Midnight Special.” Though salvation-promising locomotives - here Southern Pacific’s Golden Gate Limited, bound for San Antonio, El Paso and the Golden State on tracks that remain alongside U.S. 90 - had been common subjects in American folk songs for decades, “Midnight Special” is as much about Leadbelly’s local experiences as any train. “If you ever go to Houston, you know you better walk right,” he sings in the first verse. “You know you better not stagger [drink], you know you better not fight.” Going on to detail his experiences with “little Rosie” and “jumpin’ Judy,” “Midnight Special” rapidly became a 20th Century standard, kept alive over the years by artists including Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and ABBA. That’s right, ABBA. – C.G.
19. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, 1967.
Before he was the Gambler, and then the Roaster, then a freakish Botox casualty, Davis High School grad Kenny Rogers rediscovered Esther Phillips and played bass on one of Mickey Gilley’s early singles (1960’s “Is It Wrong”), and his brother Lelan owned seminal psych label International Artists. After singing with L.A. folk stars the New Christy Minstrels for a year, Rogers headed back to Houston and formed the First Edition, who hit No. 5 in spring 1968 with this slice of psychedelic weirdness brought on by author/Townes Van Zandt pal/fellow Houstonian Mickey Newbury’s first (and only) acid trip. Try these on for size: “I tore my mind on a jagged sky… I got up so tight I couldn’t unwind… I saw so much I broke my mind.” If that’s not enough, several of the guitar parts were recorded backwards. Duuuude. Nobody really takes acid anymore – do they? - but “Just Dropped In” is still hanging around. It was rumored to be Jimi Hendrix’s favorite song, underscores The Big Lebowski’s pivotal dream sequence and has been recorded or covered live by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Supergrass and Willie Nelson. The original version is still pretty groovy, too. – C.G.
20. “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” Freddy Fender, 1974.
About ten years ago, Sonny Landreth told me the story of how Huey Meaux and Freddy Fender resurrected each other’s careers. Landreth was then living at Meaux’s Sugar Hill Studios, sleeping on a pool table and cutting some sessions that wouldn’t come out for more than 20 years. The early ‘70s had not been a particularly fertile period for Meaux or Fender – most of the Crazy Cajun’s gold records were behind him, and Fender’s status as the Mexican Elvis was one stretch in the army and another in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison behind him.
According to Landreth, Meaux was working late one night when Fender burst in the door, a guitar strapped on his back, a jug of tequila in one hand and a bag of psychedelic mushrooms in the other, and all Meaux could do was wonder, “What de hell I’m gonna do wid Freddy Fender?”
What the two wound up doing was creating two of the most enduring classics of Gulf Coast music -- the pop top ten hit “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and the chart-topper “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”
The latter had been a minor country hit for Charley Pride in 1968, and according to Meaux, it almost met the same fate again. In 1989, he told the Chronicle that he launched the record with a desperation $5,000 loan from a Spring Branch bank.
And what an unlikely hit it was. The Fats Domino-influenced swamp pop style had been all but dead and buried since its brief 1950s heyday, and silken-voiced Mexican-American guys from the Valley like Fender were never first and foremost among its stars. A record like this could only have come from Houston. – J.N.L.
21. “Two Steps from the Blues,” Bobby “Blue” Bland / Texas Johnny Brown, 1961/1997.
Yet another immaculate Joe Scott arrangement graces this, the title track off one of the finest albums to come from here. (Not to mention one of the best Houston album covers of all time.) Texas Johnny Brown, the song’s creator, released his own extended version on his great late-90’s album Nothin’ But the Truth. – J.N.L.
22. “On My Block,” Scarface, 2002.
Fast approaching the top 20 all-time, this piano-driven rap remembrance of a South Park childhood rivals Rodney Crowell’s “Telephone Road” as one of the most evocative Houston songs ever. – J.N.L.
23. “Rock Awhile,” Goree Carter, 1949.
Most rock scholars cite one of four records as being the first rock and roll song of all time: Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” Elvis Presley’s “That’s Alright Mama,” Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” the most oft-cited tune.
According to late New York Times pop critic and rock historian Robert Palmer, the correct answer is “E,” none of the above. To him, the strongest candidate was the 1949 song “Rock Awhile,” recorded in Houston by native Goree Carter.
"The clarion guitar intro differs hardly at all from some of the intros Chuck Berry would unleash on his own records after 1955; the guitar solo crackles through an overdriven amplifier; and the boogie-based rhythm charges right along,” Palmer writes in Rock and Roll: An Unruly History.
“The subject matter, too, is appropriate -- the record announces that it's time to 'rock awhile,' and then proceeds to show how it's done. To my way of thinking, Carter's 'Rock Awhile' is a much more appropriate candidate for 'first rock and roll record' than the more frequently cited 'Rocket '88'"
And here you thought rock and roll was from Memphis. It’s not your fault. Memphis actually treasures its history, especially that made by local musicians. Here, we just build another CVS on top of it. – J.N.L.
24. “LA Freeway,” Guy Clark, 1975.
A devastating kiss-off to L.A., Clark yearned for the “dirt-road backstreets” of Houston in this tune that was later recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker. Ironically, today the song could just as well be sung about all-grown-up Houston and our own notoriously clogged freeways and smog. – J.N.L.
25. “She’s About a Mover,” Sir Douglas Quintet, 1965.
Yes, the ultimate Texas rock song was recorded in Houston. It would certainly rank in the top three Houston songs ever if it didn’t sound so quintessentially San Antonio. – J.N.L.
26. “Release Me,” Esther Phillips, 1962.
A transcendent cover of a classic country chestnut, Phillips’s version transforms even the most drab of surroundings into a glitterball-lit dancehall where two lovers share their last dance. Her anguished yet resigned voice seems to drift above the lavish arrangement like a cloud of smoke. A must. – J.N.L.
27. “Hit the Road, Jack,” Ray Charles, 1961.
Brother Ray’s second number one single was penned by Houstonian Percy Mayfield (and recorded around the time that Charles was living here) and remains a favorite with fans of all ages. The song is also used to taunt opposing players at major sporting events, and Suzi Quatro, Buster Poindexter, the Residents and Basement Jaxx have all covered it. – J.N.L.
28. “Telephone Road,” Rodney Crowell, 2000.
One of at least five songs about the eponymous East End boulevard of broken dreams, Crowell’s is the best. The centerpiece of his autobiographical album The Houston Kid evokes Houston with a vividness that has seldom been matched. – J.N.L.
29. “The Road Goes On Forever,” Robert Earl Keen, 1989.
More Texans between 30 and 40 probably know all the words to this song than any other cut in the past 25 years. It’s the “Livin’ on a Prayer” of Texas. – J.N.L.
30. “Okie Dokie Stomp,” Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, 1954.
Blistering big band jump blues with Gatemouth’s trademark Texas swing…Some have declared that this instrumental should be the Texas National Anthem. Gatemouth was one of the very finest electric guitarists from the 1950s on, and here he dips and dodges between punches from a huge horn section like Barry Sanders jitterbugging through linebackers. Brown re-wrote the T-Bone Walker book on Texas blues and rock guitar. – J.N.L.
31. "Hold What You've Got," Joe Tex, 1964.
Sweet soul music doesn't come much sweeter than this top five hit from the tail end of '64. Rivals the best of Sam Cooke in its sanctified gospel splendor, not least because of Tex's soaring falsetto. Bonus points: It features not one but two spoken mini-sermons, each culminating in yet another spine-tingling swoop up into the vocal ionosphere. – J.N.L.
32. “Flyin’ Home #2,” Lionel Hampton Orchestra, featuring Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb, 1942.
In the 1940s, Texans had a reputation as being the wildest saxophone players in the land, and this was at a time when sax guys got all the girls and glory. Cobb and Jacquet were no exceptions, and their frenzied, “honking” playing on this swing number is cited by many rock historians as the blueprint for all sax solos to come and a key development in the evolution of rock and roll. – J.N.L.
33. “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” The Highwaymen, 1985.
A supergroup comprised of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings, the Highwaymen took this Guy Clark classic to a top 20 country charting. Like “Let Him Roll,” the song can be read sans music as a cinematic narrative, in this case an elegy about an old fatherly friend’s passing. – J.N.L.
34. “Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton, 1952.
Before Elvis’s smash, Big Mama Thornton had an R&B hit with this feral, slower version of the Leiber-Stoller tune. Would rank higher, but has somewhat tenuous Houston connections – although it came out on Peacock Records, it was penned by New Yorkers and also recorded there, and Thornton’s stay in Houston was somewhat transient. – J.N.L.
35. “Born to Lose,” Ted Daffan and His Texans / Ray Charles, 1944/1961.
This timeless honky-tonk weeper was a #3 country hit for Daffan in 1944. Eighteen years later Ray Charles cut a lush version on his Modern Sounds in Country and Western album that graced the pop charts. – J.N.L.
36. “The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers, 1978.
See #37 below.)
37. “Coward of the County,” Kenny Rogers, 1980.
With this one and number 36 below, Big Kenny was pretty much ubiquitous around the end of the redneck renaissance that accompanied the Carter Regime, that era of Smokey and the Bandit and Walking Tall, trucker lingo, Urban Cowboy, Farrah Fawcett, and not least, these two songs, both of which were world-sweeping affairs. Who can forget the chorus from “The Gambler?” As for “Coward of the County,” it spawned a stateside TV movie and went to #1 in the U.K., wangling to the top of the charts between records by The Special A.K.A. and Blondie. – J.N.L.
38. “Lookin’ For Love,” Johnny Lee, 1980.
Johnny Lee is relegated to the background in Urban Cowboy; the fiddle and steel players in his band get close-ups in the 1980 film, but not him. Luckily, the Texas City native's "Lookin' for Love" wasn't just the double-album soundtrack's breakout hit – three weeks at No. 1 on the country chart and peaking at No. 5 on the Hot 100 – it was basically the entire movie in a three-minute ballad. In the Pasadena fairy-tale romance of Bud (John Travolta) and Sissy (Debra Winger), it's not their get-acquainted dance – that's quicker two-step "Cherokee Fiddle." "Lookin' for Love" happens later, when Gilley's is practically empty. They're dancing much closer, Sissy's arms encircle Bud's neck, and he strips off her hat and his shirt before sealing their budding union with a deep soul kiss. It's that True Love moment when the audience knows that even though she will soon stray to an bullriding parolee and he to an uptown socialite, "Lookin' for Love" will allow them to find each other in the end. And sure enough, guess which song plays as Bud places the "Sissy" license plate back in the rear window of his pickup and the credits start to roll? – C.G.
39. “Ain’t That a Bitch,” Johnny “Guitar” Watson, 1976.
Just one of dozens of mid-‘70s funk classics from the pimp-a-riffic former bluesman Watson, one of the most widely-respected and underappreciated American musicians of the last 40 years. – J.N.L.
40. “Smile,” Scarface, feat. 2Pac, 1997.
This 1997 duet off of The Untouchable with 2Pac, the late James Dean of rap. was ‘Face’s biggest chart hit, his only gold single. – J.N.L.
41. “If I Needed You,” Emmylou Harris and Don Williams, 1981
Another Van Zandt song, this one done to perfection by laid-back crooner Williams and Emmylou, the goddess Athena of Americana. Legend has it the tune came to Van Zandt in a codeine-infused dream. – J.N.L.
42. “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” Rodney Crowell, 1978.
The title track to Crowell’s debut album, features forlorn words from a modern-day desperado raised on Houston’s own rough-and-tumble Wayside Drive. – J.N.L.
43. “Merry Christmas Baby,” Charles Brown, 1947.
More suave, boozy blues from Brown. This one was eventually covered by both Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Berry and is now firmly ensconced in the Yuletide Canon. – J.N.L.
44. “Slippin’ Around,” Floyd Tillman, 1949.
Country and western’s very first cheatin’ song, believe it or not. Tillman was also a pioneer of the electric guitar and an enormous influence on the vocals and songwriting of Willie Nelson and a host of other legends. Tillman is probably the most important country musician to have ever called Houston home for more than a few years. – J.N.L.
45. “Survivor,” Destiny’s Child, 2001.
Destiny’s Child’s signature tune won a Grammy and topped charts in five countries. – J.N.L.
46. “Cherry Red,” Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson,????.
This Yates High grad served as a sax man for Cootie Williams and Milt Larkin before striking out on his own around the outbreak of World War 2. Vinson sported a honking tenor sax and a unique, wheezy, shouting voice, showcased well on this tune and others such as “Kidney Stew Blues,” “Old Maid Boogie,” and “Cleanhead Blues.” Throughout his career, his music was a fascinating hybrid of blues, bebop, swing, and early rock and roll, often replete with salacious lyrics. – J.N.L.
47. “Southside,” Lil’ Keke, 1998
A devastating piano figure propels this anthemic rap hit from Screwed Up Click MC Lil’ Keke. Years later, the song was hilariously parodied by Chingo Bling as “Outside.” – J.N.L.
48. “Purple Stuff,” Big Moe, 2002
Sumptuously funky, this ode to the joys of lean (codeine cough syrup) rode Moe’s hybrid of singing and rapping and a Willy Wonka-inspired video to the national charts. – J.N.L.
49. “I’m Going to Miss Show Business,” Jimmy “T-99” Nelson, 2000.
Nelson, who passed away earlier this year, got plenty of props in his lifetime as a singer. He didn’t get anything close to his just due as a songwriter, however, until Elvis Costello adopted this tune as his official tour anthem in 2003. (Elvis didn’t play it in his set, but he did have it played over the loudspeakers as the lights went up after every show.) Nelson’s genius still awaits widespread discovery. – J.N.L.
50. “South Coast of Texas,” Guy Clark, 1981.
Though this song hasn’t been recorded as much as others in Clark’s stash, it makes it on here due to both geography and the fact that it is a very great song, an ode to shrimpers, the bars they drink in, their patois, and the ragged shoreline they all call home. – J.N.L.
51. “Let Him Roll,” Guy Clark, 1975.
Johnny Cash later recorded this tale of a white port-soaked elevator man and his unrequited love for a Dallas whore. The lyric sheet shorn of music reads like a very short, tragic O. Henry story. As for the music, it most recently appeared on Guy Clark’s series of deliciously bizarre Taco Cabana commercials of a couple of years ago – the ones that found him waxing nostalgic about his grandmamma in San Antonio and longing for fajita bushes. – J.N.L.
52. “Why Baby Why,” George Jones, 1955.
Before leaving for the bright lights of Nashville and one of the most storied of country music lives, The Possum cut this borderline rockabilly smash country hit here in Houston. – J.N.L.
53. “Farther on Up the Road,” Bobby “Blue” Bland, 1957.
This chart-topping R&B hit for Bland was co-written by Johnny Copeland and Joe Medwick. Against Copeland’s wishes, Medwick sold the song to Duke-Peacock president Don Robey for a few hundred bucks, as was Medwick’s custom. Copeland forgave him eventually, even though the song would be recorded by Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and James Brown, not even to mention Holly Golightly. – J.N.L.
54. “God Will,” Lyle Lovett, 1987.
Kiss-off lyrics don’t get much more devastating than this: “And who keeps on loving you, when you’ve been lying, saying things aint’ what they seem? God will, but I won’t, God does, but I don’t, and that’s the difference between God and me.” – J.N.L.
55. “To Live’s To Fly,” Cowboy Junkies, 1992.
When Canadian Margo Timmins wrapped her velvet alto around this Townes Van Zandt classic, it helped win the legendary Houston songwriter a whole new generation of fans. While touring with the Junkies around this time, Van Zandt won over a portion of Generation X, thus enabling him to claim “I am the mold that grunge grew out of.” – J.N.L.
56. “Passionate Kisses,” Lucinda Williams, 1991.
Went on to win a Best Country song Grammy for Mary Chapin Carpenter in 1993. – J.N.L.
57. “Skinny Legs and All,” Joe Tex, 1967.
This all-time great party record from Baytown’s Tex went on to inspire psychedelic novelist Tom Robbins to pen a novel of the same name. Tex himself went on to convert to Islam, change his name to Yusuf Hazziez, enjoy a few more hits, and return to Texas (where he was a rabid Oilers fan), before dying in Navasota in 1982. – J.N.L.
58. “Black Snake Blues,” Victoria Spivey, 1926
Spivey got her start playing in her dad’s string band in the Houston of 1918, and double-entendre lyrics and Spivey’s hard, nasal tone helped launch her long career with this single on the Okeh label. Four years later she would land a starring role in Hallelujah!, a musical by King Vidor and one of the first major films with an all-black cast. – J.N.L.
59. “Driftin’ Blues,” Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, featuring Charles Brown, 1946.
Sedate, laid-back cocktail blues like this, pioneered by Texas City-bred Brown, was utterly inhaled by the young Ray Charles, whose early recordings are blatant copies. – J.N.L.
60. “The Rains Came,” Sir Douglas Quintet, 1965.
The follow-up single to “She’s About a Mover,” this Huey Meaux mainstay of a lament would likewise rank higher were the sound not so indelibly San Antone. – J.N.L.
61. “Texas Flood,” Larry Davis feat. Fenton Robinson / Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1958 / 1983.
Before the Stevie Ray version – the title track of a 1983 album and to the end of his days one of his signature tunes – there was a Duke-Peacock rendition co-written by the impeccable Joe Scott. Larry Davis handled lead vocals, while a then-unknown Fenton Robinson played lead guitar. – J.N.L.
62. “Tops Drop,” Fat Pat, 1998.
Fun, Funkadelic-like chorus (that mentions Houston) steers this early H-Town slab-hop classic. Ghetto Dreams, Fat Pat’s debut CD that included “Tops Drop,” was released a mere two weeks after the Wreckshop rapper was shot and killed at a Southwest Houston apartment complex. – J.N.L.
63. “Crazy,” Patsy Cline, 1961
Legendary honky-tonk weeper would rank higher if Houston connects were stronger. (It was written here by Willie Nelson, but that’s about it.) – J.N.L.
64. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” BJ Thomas, 1970.
Up there with Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” in the “Optimistic songs from Houston” stakes, this one is elevated into the stratosphere by the excellent Burt Bacharach trumpet breakdown in the middle. The #1 smash from Rosenberg’s Thomas is a staple of Hollywood soundtracks, most notably Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but also Clerks 2, Forrest Gump, Spider Man 2, not to mention another episode of The Simpsons. – J.N.L.
65. “Frosty,” Albert Collins, 1962.
The Ice Man’s showstopping instrumental was one of the finest examples of a Texas blues shuffle ever committed to wax. Or maybe you like “Snow-Cone II” or “Don’t Lose Your Cool” better…At any rate, the Spanish-tinged funk-blues Collins was putting out in the early and mid-‘60s was ever bit as good as the more famous stuff Booker T. and the MG’s were doing in Memphis. – J.N.L.
66. “Sharp Dressed Man,” ZZ Top, 1983.
One of several hit singles from Eliminator, this was the only one to spawn a briefly-popular catch-phrase – “Every girl’s crazy about a sharp dressed man.” Unsurprisingly, the song has been used to peddle clothes – S&K Suits, specifically. – J.N.L.
67. “Bloody Mary Morning,” Willie Nelson, 1974.
This minor country hit for Willie Nelson mentions Houston and also does a good job of capturing the tension and existentialism of commercial flight. – J.N.L.
68. “Galveston,” Glen Campbell, 1969.
Who among us can take a trip down to our very own city by the bay and not break into a few bars of this Jimmy Webb-penned pop-country smash? I bet if you could monitor the interior of all the cars crossing the causeway, about ten percent of them would have people in them singing about “sea waves crashing” and “cannons flashing.” – J.N.L.
69. “Juana La Cubana,” Fito Olivares, 1982.
After moving to Houston from his native Mexican state of Tamaulipas, original Mexican cumbia king Olivares formed Fito Olivares y su Grupo La Pura Sabrosura (Group of Pure Flavor) and cut this single, which has since become a standard. It gave rise to a movie of the same title south of the border and graced the soundtrack of John Sayles’s classic Lone Star to the north. – J.N.L.
70. “Pledging My Love,” Johnny Ace, 1955.
This was a posthumous hit for Ace, whose life was terminated weeks before after an infamous backstage drunken gunplay incident at City Auditorium here on Christmas Eve. Would rank higher were its Houston connections a little greater – even more so than labelmate Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ace was a Memphis artist. – J.N.L.
71. “Woman Be Wise,” Sippie Wallace, 1925.
Wallace was a Fifth Ward singer and brother to Hersal Thomas of “Suitcase Blues” fame. The young Bonnie Raitt idolized Wallace and recorded with her decades after the sage advice in this song was committed to 78. Wallace, who settled in Detroit in the 1930s, lived on to return triumphally to Houston in 1985 (she was honored at the Juneteenth Blues Festival at Hermann Park) and appear on Letterman. – J.N.L.
72. “The Front Porch Song,” Robert Earl Keen / Lyle Lovett, 1984.
College friends / neighbors Lovett and Keen wrote this fun little ditty about raising hell on your porch while people go to church across the street. Bryan-College Station has not seen their like since. From the perspective of at least a few years past college, the song seems sad – those carefree days won’t ever return for most of us. – J.N.L.
73. “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer,” Amos Milburn / George Thorogood, 1953 / 1977
Oft-cited by the likes of Fats Domino and Little Richard as a key influence, proto-rock piano pounder Amos Milburn was 1949’s top-selling R&B artist. “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” was only the most successful and enduring of a long string of booze tunes, which also included “Thinking and Drinking,” “Vicious Vicious Vodka,” “Bad Bad Whiskey,” Good Good Whiskey,” and “Let Me Go Home Whiskey.” As filtered through an intermediate version by John Lee Hooker, it would join the classic rock canon as read by George Thorogood. – J.N.L.
74. “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” Lucinda Williams, 1981.
Wasn't recorded until after she moved to Los Angeles, but this enduring Lucinda favorite was written in 1981 while she was still living in Montrose and playing at Anderson Fair. Today, the only recording of it that is easily available is on 2003’s Live at the Fillmore. – J.N.L.
75. “Gangster of Love,” Johnny “Guitar” Watson, 1957 and 1977.
How’s this for symmetry: Watson cuts “Gangster of Love” in his rockin’ bluesy R&B era in the late ‘50s, and inspires Dallasite Steve Miller to adopt that persona in the early ‘70s. Watston then recuts the tune as a funk jam in the mid-‘70s while also edging towards nascent rap in some of his songs. And then a decade later, Watson’s fellow Houstonians the Geto Boys lift Miller’s approximation of Watson’s bad-assery for their own take on love-gangstadom. (That’s if you got an early copy; Miller’s reps had the GB’s replace recut the song sans Miller sample later, which is some nerve when you think about how Miller jacked the idea from Watson.) – J.N.L.
76. “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Lyle Lovett and Al Green, 1993.
Another in the long line of successful Houston / Memphis collaborations, Lovett and the Reverend of Love won a Grammy for their duet cover of a song Willie Nelson wrote here during that week he also wrote “Night Life” and “Crazy.” – J.N.L.
77. “Deep in the West,” Shake Russell, 1978.
Another of Shake’s regional hits from Songs on the Radio; this one was later cut by no less a hoss than Ol’ Waylon himself. – J.N.L.
78. “Boot Heel Drag,” Bob Wills, circa 1948.
featuring Herb Remington One of Wills's jauntiest intstrumentals, led by the incomparable Houstonian Herb Remington on virtuoso steel guitar. – J.N.L.
79. “Texas Cookin’,” Guy Clark, 1976.
If a better, more thorough song about our homegrown cuisine has ever been put to paper, we’ve yet to hear it. Simultaneously makes you hungry and compels you to sing along. (George Strait cut the tune last year.) – J.N.L.
80. “Please Come Home for Christmas,” Charles Brown, 1960
A minor hit for Texas City’s Brown, the song has endured for decades to become the second of his Yuletide staples. Think you’re miserable at Christmas? Try these lyrics on for size: "Bells will be ringing / The glad, glad news / Oh, what a Christmas / To have the blues / My baby's gone / I have no friends / To wish me greetings / Once again." – J.N.L.
81. “Running Bear,” Johnny Preston, 1959.
Cheesy faux-Native American rock; "heap big fun," as they would have said in 1959, the year this song topped the charts for three weeks. George Jones and the Big Bopper provide the Apache chants in the background. – J.N.L.
82. “Houston is Hot Tonight,” Iggy Pop, 1981
James Osterberg has better material, and better songs about Houston exist, but this is undoubtedly the best Iggy Pop song about Houston. Surreal lyrics – "(T)hey've got a moon-man on the telephone," "Arabian sheiks and money up in the sky" and "I don't mind a bloodbath 'cause I've got oil on my breath," and the Uptown Horns make this one a winner. – J.N.L.
83. “Say My Name,” Destiny’s Child, 1999.
The biggest hit off of 1999’s The Writing’s on the Wall, “Say My Name” broke Destiny’s Child in Australasia, topping the charts in both the Phillippines and Australia. The video also shockingly reflected the absence of founding members LeToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson – they had been replaced by Farrah Franklin and Michelle Williams with little warning. – J.N.L.
84. “American Trilogy,” Mickey Newbury, 1971.
Newbury’s arrangement of three Civil War songs – “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials” – became one a favorite of late-period Elvis, who close every show with it until his death. “American Trilogy” was thus the last song the King performed in public. (Newbury and his “train songs” are also cited in “Luckenbach, Texas.”) – J.N.L.
85. “Houston,” Johnny Copeland, 1982.
Great, horn-heavy barn-burner of a jump blues number about being homesick for Third Ward; namechecks Lightnin’ Hopkins, Shady’s Playhouse and the corner of Live Oak and McGowen. – J.N.L.
86. “14 Carat Mind,” Gene Watson, 1981.
The biggest in a long string of hits from this nonpareil stone-cold honky-tonker from Pasadena. – J.N.L.
87. “Legs,” ZZ Top, 1984.
The video -- long on hot rods, gimmicky guitars and plenty of jiggling cheesecake -- helped usher the bluesy trio from the classic rock epoch to the brief MTV era. Jeana Keough, widely considered the sexiest of the Top girls at the time, (well, at least with the 14-year-old boy demographic at my house) went on to a Playboy centerfold, marriage to former Oakland Athletic Matt Keough, and a star turn on The Real Housewives of Orange County. – J.N.L.
88. “Telephone Road,” Steve Earle, 1997.
Earle’s musical remembrance of Telephone is seen through the eyes of an eager transplant to Houston from Lafayette who can’t wait to indulge in the dozens of jukebox-blasting, beer bottle-ringing sin-dens on the street, reasoning that “this ain’t Louisiana and mama won’t know – everybody’s rockin’ down on Telephone Road.” Gospel group The Fairfield Four does a star turn harmonizing the chorus. – J.N.L.
89. “Spin on a Red Brick Floor,” Nanci Griffith, 1988.
A song about local folk mother church Anderson Fair, recorded live at Anderson Fair. Doesn’t get much more Houston than that. As much fun as a trip to the Fair’s famous back porch. – J.N.L.
90. “Jole Blon,” Harry Choates, 1946.
The unofficial Cajun national anthem was first recorded in Houston, by Choates, a Port Arthur-raised hellraiser who would die in a fit of delirium tremens in the Austin jail at 29 five years later. – J.N.L.
91. “Suitcase Blues,” Hersal Thomas, 1925.
This composition from Thomas, a child piano prodigy who died at 16 of food poisoning at a Detroit gig, was later cited by boogie-woogie piano kings Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis as a keystone in the development of that influential keyboard style. – J.N.L.
92. “You’ve Got a Lover,” Shake Russell, 1978.
Among the last of the great Montrose folkies, Russell enjoyed regional success with this tender, harmony-laden lament. Five years later bluegrass hotshot Ricky Skaggs would take it to number two on the country charts. – J.N.L.
93. “Hot Smoke and Sassafras,” Bubble Puppy, 1969
Alternately ferocious and soothing, the one and only chart hit from these psychedelic rockers and labelmates of the 13th Floor Elevators retains all its lysergic drive after all these years. This is nother tune that seems ripe for rediscovery – if it gets in the right movie, a la “You’re Gonna Miss Me” in High Fidelity, look out. – J.N.L.
94. “Highway 87,” Hayes Carll, 2002.
A modern classic about the Bolivar Peninsula and all the trouble you can get on there on the other side of the ferry from Galveston. – J.N.L.
95. “Truck Driver’s Blues,” Cliff Bruner and the Texas Wanderers, 1939.
Bruner had a major hit with this Ted Daffan song – the very first trucker-country tune ever. – J.N.L.
96. “Superman,” The Clique, 1969
Long before Michael Stipe and company got a hold of it for Life’s Rich Pageant, this was a B-Side for a Houston bubblegum pop combo called The Clique. – J.N.L.
97. “Houston,” Dean Martin, 1965.
The biggest hit ever with “Houston” in the title is this lounge-y little Western-tinged ditty from the pen of Port Neches’s Lee Hazlewood. – J.N.L.
98. “Baby Come Back,” Player, 1978.
This Yacht Rockin’ smash managed the feat of wedging its way between “Stayin’ Alive” and “How Deep Is Your Love?” atop the pop charts during a period of Total Bee Gees Hegemony. More lately, the song has often resurfaced in films and has been immortalized in The Simpsons. (Homer calls the lost baby hotline to report Maggie’s disappearance and is placed on hold – “Baby Come Back” is the hotline’s song of choice.)
JC Crowley, the song’s co-writer and co-singer, is a native Houstonian and Lamar High grad. After Player got benched, he went on to a middlin’ country career in Nashville before moving to Southern California. – J.N.L.
99. “Drift Away,” Dobie Gray / Uncle Kracker,1973 / 2002.
Great song with one of the most pleasant choruses ever. Gray, a Brookshire native, straddles the line between country, soul and soft rock as only a native Texan can. – J.N.L.
100.“Houston Oilers,” Mack Hayes, 1978.
United the city as perhaps no other song has or will. Hayes went on to pen a similar Astros tune called “Go Go Astros” that many of you might recall from the orange rainbow, Jose Cruuuuuuuzzz years. – J.N.L.
Songs were selected on several criteria. First, there’s “Houston-ness,” by which we mean an indelible tie to the Bayou City. Songs composed by Houstonians are all eligible, though natives and long-term residents of the city scored higher than transients in this regard. For example, two-thirds of the principal members of the Geto Boys were born and raised here and remain in the city, while Willie Nelson spent three short, though creatively productive, years living in Pasadena. Thus the Geto Boys are more “Houston” than Willie.
Other ways to qualify include being signed to a Houston label (the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, for example), if the song is about Houston no matter where the author came from or if the song was recorded here. If a song combines several factors, it obviously scores higher in Houston-ness than those with fewer.
As for the aesthetics, this was not strictly a popularity contest, of course; it isn’t merely based on what Houston songs sold the best. It also had to be both a great tune and at least somewhat historically important. And finally, to make the top 20, a song has to be at least five years old. True classics need at least a little time to prove themselves as such. – John Nova Lomax