In 1964, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers were hard at work in the studio with producer Phil Spector, crafting what would become the transcendent “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” In between takes, Spector unexpectedly ordered the deep-voiced Medley to sing the verses unaccompanied. Hatfield, who was accustomed to singing the lead along with Medley, felt slighted. “What am I supposed to do while the big guy is singing?” he demanded.
Spector, sensing that a gigantic hit was imminent, snapped right back: “You can go to the bank.”
In his new book, Anatomy of a Song, journalist Marc Myers takes the reader inside dozens of “Eureka” moments of musical transcendence—where, in dressing rooms and caves, on tour buses and at parties, a classic song is hatched.
From 2011-2016, Myers wrote a regular Wall Street Journal column, Anatomy of a Song, profiling the creation of some of the most noteworthy popular songs in the 20th century. His book collects 45 of those songs to provide what he calls an “oral history jukebox”—from the Isley Brothers and Loretta Lynn to R.E.M. and Jimmy Cliff.
Though it covers roughly a half-century of popular music, Anatomy of a Song maintains focus thanks to impeccably chosen song selections. Sure, plenty of crucially important songs are missing from the book. But as Myers insists in the forward, these 45 songs are “stand-ins for music’s major turning points.”
Myers does an exceptional job of not only spotlighting seminal early songs (like Little Willie Littlefield’s “K.C. Loving“), but also detailing how subsequent, revolutionary artists treated those same tunes. With time, songs like “K.C. Loving” became virtual standards, and witnessing the later covers by Little Richard, The Beatles, and James Brown perfectly illustrates the progression of R&B, rock, and pop art forms in the latter half of the century.
Myers constructed his song profiles through interviews with the major players, and presents the songs in a perfectly suited “firsthand account” style. When you’ve got Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Gladys Knight, and Smokey Robinson telling how they created some of finest pop songs ever, why bother with rewriting their words?
Great tales abound, like The Kinks recalling how they punctured their guitar amps with razor blades and knitting needles to “dirty-up” their sound, or John Fogerty borrowing Beethoven’s Fifth for the intro to “Proud Mary.” Loretta Lynn’s entire account of writing “Fist City” is a firecracker, much like the woman herself.
Readers will gain a new appreciation for music as a marketplace of ideas: how Bob Dylan’s talk-singing style on “Like A Rolling Stone” inspired The Four Tops’ to belt out “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” As a major jazz buff, Myers was surely eager to detail how The Doors appropriated John Coltrane’s extended jazz vamps for “Light My Fire,” and Jefferson Airplane channeled Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain on “White Rabbit.”
Many of the singers, songwriters, and producers delve deep into musical and recoding minutiae, talking shop about how gear was tweaked, studio and production techniques employed, mic placements and faders and alternate tunings used. Such details might fly over the head of non-musicians. Still, these details clearly meant a world of difference to the creators in crafting their hits, and Myers wisely includes them.
A recurring theme in many of the recountings is the incredible happenstance, coincidences, and happy accidents that led up to the hits. For all the talent and calculation involved in creating the songs, a lot came down to the right person, right place, and right time when musical genius crystallizes in a classic song. As Keith Richards says of “Street Fighting Man,” “It’s the kind of record you love to make—and they don’t come that often.”