Pickled Priest Mixtape: Our Favorite Songs of 1968
This is the first mixtape I've made in this ongoing series where have no personal memories from the year in question. I did not go to the Monterey Pop Festival or serve in Vietnam or have an illegitimate kid with Diana Ross or shoot smack with James Taylor. So, the songs are less personal this time and not accentuated by memories or milestones. That said, many of the songs rank with the most important discoveries of my musical life. As always, the songs are ranked in descending order, but I am limiting these tapes to one song per artist.
Warning: Do not attempt to recreate this mixtape at home. It will not fit on a conventional 90 or 100-minute mixtape. Two of the songs alone eat up a staggering 27 minutes of tape!
26 "Soul Limbo" / Booker T & the MGs
We’re not members of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, but we expect to be awarded an honorary seat by the end of this tape for reasons that will be obvious shortly. Stax Records house band Booker T & the MGs are primarily remembered for “Green Onions,” their supremely groovy calling card, but few can name even one other song by the band, which is sad because there are so many other tasty soul grooves simmering in the pot. “Soul Limbo” stands out because it was unlike anything else the band had cooked up to date. By adding a little poi to their Memphis soul stew, they created an exotic island dish perfect for an oceanside luau. Booker T’s frolicking piano intro segues into some sweet Hammond B-3 fills, and the rest of the band falls in a conga line to create a party track perfect for the titular activity. For me, “Soul Limbo” equates to audio summer, wherever and whenever I need it.
25 "54-46, That's My Number" / Toots & the Maytals
The one time you can call someone Toots and not get pulled into HR. This reggae classic is another in a long tradition of prison songs. Someone had the nerve to toss our friend Toots in the slammer for marijuana possession back in the day, which seems more than a little hypocritical when you think about it. Shouldn’t all of Jamaica be in jail, then? But at least something great came from his incarceration. (Note: after his release he put out "54-46 Was My Number" which I find mildly interesting)
24 "Carolina In My Mind" / James Taylor
Sweet Baby James is associated with the sensitive singer/songwriter movement of the early 70s, but his debut full-length actually came out in the late-60s. As it turns out, people still hadn’t come down from their last literal or metaphorical trip yet, so despite excellent songs, the album flopped—which is a little surprising considering the implied support of none other than the Beatles, who famously signed Taylor as the first act to their vanity label Apple Records. (I urge you to check out the Taylor episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Record podcast for the absolutely unlikely and mind-boggling full story!) Taylor’s record did contribute to one of the Beatles most famous songs, though, as chronic plagiarist George Harrison nicked the first line of Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves” for his own classic “Something” for Abbey Road. (Several years later he was caught pilfering “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons for his own “My Sweet Lord.”) In our influencer culture today, it’s harder to explain why great songs, with such high-profile support, didn’t transcend circumstances (a John Lennon re-Tweet would’ve done wonders). Perhaps it was the album cover that turned people off—Taylor looks like a low-rent magician on break from a child’s party, all the way down to the squirting leaf on his lapel. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of great songs. Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” has stood the test of time (even being rewritten last week by Jimmy Fallon as “Going anywhere but my house in my mind”). The song reads as a simple homesickness, but the truth is Taylor was in rough shape at the time. The song was written in London at what turned out to be a major turning point in his career, but he was also actively fighting an addiction to smack. Taylor (in the Gladwell podcast) makes no bones about the fact that had his father not brought him back to North Carolina from New York City months prior, he may not have survived his habit. And you can feel that yearning for home soil throughout the peaceful, pretty-as-a-postcard depiction of life in his (adopted) home state. It’s a tribute to Taylor’s supreme mellowness that even strung out he could produce one of the most beautiful songs ever written.
23 "Hello, It's Me" / Nazz
Similar to James Taylor, Todd Rundgren’s first bow came prior to his 70s heyday. Originally released on the debut of his former band, Nazz, it was actually the B-side of that band’s first single (“Open My Eyes” inexplicably the A-side). Although re-recorded for his revered Something/Anything? album in 1972, his calling card (and has there ever been a calling card with a more appropriate title?) was originally released four years earlier.
22 "Love Child" / Diana Ross & the Supremes
It may be an oversimplification, but I believe our world is separated into two factions: Motown people and Stax people. There are no absolutes, of course—many, including me, enjoy both. But if push came to shove, to which side would you lean? I imagine Motown would win that battle the vast majority of the time, but we’re among the minority that would take Otis Redding over Marvin Gaye, Mavis Staples over Mary Wells, and Carla Thomas over Diana Ross—mainly because we like our R&B smoked and smothered with BBQ sauce. Sure, Motown got gritty at times, but good luck getting the Supremes to baste the short ribs. Not happening. I appreciate the Supremes more than I love them. “Love Child” is an exception—part hit song, part college sociology term paper, all in one small package. Bastards of the world, stand up and be counted!
21 “Midnight Confessions” / The Grass Roots
This 60s smash about a man yearning hopelessly for another man’s girl pre-dates “Jessie’s Girl,” Rick Springfield’s similar tale of hopeless love, by over a decade. In this version, the man is only able to express his true feelings in secrecy (for some inane reason, it must be at the stroke of midnight) but if that’s what it takes to get a great pop song, I’m all for it.
20 "Wrap It Up" / Sam & Dave
“Wrap It Up” was the B-side of “I Thank You,” Stax Records’ first single of 1968. Personally, I would’ve made it the A-Side if I ran Stax in the late-60s (dream job!). Revived admirably by the Fabulous Thunderbirds in 1986, the original is still tops, with Double Dynamite ripping through the Dave Porter/Isaac Hayes gem (they were kicking them out at a dizzying rate at the time) with their trademark electrifying tandem vocals. Not their greatest single, but strong enough to make any list of killer soul sides and near the top of the Greatest B-sides list.
19 “Brief Candles” / The Zombies
An impossibly pretty—not to mention wise—song from the Zombies’ acclaimed (although not at the time) album Odessey and Oracle (no spell check in the 60s.) While the record did have a smash hit in “Time of the Season,” an acclaimed album track in “Care of Cell 44,” and even a bizarre first single inspired by the Vietnam war in “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914),” I’ve always gravitated to “Brief Candles,” which tells the tale of a breakup that is best for both parties—even if they don’t realize it yet.
18 “Running Out” / Mable John
Another sizzling soul single from the seemingly endless riches in the Stax vaults, Mable John’s “Running Out” works as the female perspective to “24 Hours,” the oft-recorded blues classic (my favorite version by Eddie Boyd) about a man who mistreats his woman, regrets it, and then pines for her return. (“You’ve been gone 24 hours / And that’s 23 hours too long.”) But Able Mable blows him the last kiss-off: “If you don’t believe I’m leavin’ / Just count the days I’m gone.”
17 “Can I Change My Mind” / Tyrone Davis
Chicago’s very own Tyrone Davis lasted quite a while as a singer, but had relatively few hits to show for it. Yet this song was the exception—a vintage soul tune about a called bluff where the lady gets the last laugh. Tyrone, in this case, should be called Toyrone, because he’s just been played with.
Editor's note: No, the song title doesn't have a question mark at the end. Artistic license, I suppose.
16 "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" / Jimi Hendrix
We’ve all heard enough about the rapidly changing face of rock and roll in the late 60s. No doubt, some mind-altering shit was going down. So, what could possibly be more threatening to an uptight society five years removed from Leave It To Beaver than a bunch of long-haired freaky people getting stoned to acid rock? I can thing of one thing: A bunch of BLACK afro’d freaky people getting stoned to acid rock. Indeed, Jimi Hendrix was nothing less than a shock to the collective nervous system of tightass white Americans everywhere. Witness Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire at the Monetery Pop Festival a year earlier. Witness the gatefold cover of Electric Ladyland covered in naked ladies (most of them white!). Witness his dizzying virtuosity, which reinvented what could be done with an electric guitar. Admittedly, it was a lot to take in. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is just a small taste of his voodoo medicine.
15 “What a Man” / Linda Lyndell
14 “A Man and a Half” / Wilson Pickett
Two amazing soul singles with a common theme. The first, ho hum, yet another underappreciated Stax/Volt cut from the relatively unknown singer Linda Lyndell (revived, via sample, on Salt-n-Pepa’s 1993 Top 5 hit “Whatta Man”); the other, a cocksure Atlantic single by one of the greatest soul shouters of all time. In a strange twist of fate, the songs are forever linked. Although made separately, they tell a similar story from both sides of the same sexual equation. Wilson Pickett, pre-dating boastful rap songs by over 15 years, spends the entirety of “A Man and a Half” regaling us with “no brags, just facts” in relation to his sexual prowess. Linda’s “What a Man” tells it from the highly-satisfied female’s perspective. While Wilson claims “I can make you feel better than you’ve ever felt before,” Linda replies “Another ounce of his love / And I think I’m gonna slip, lose my grip, and do back flips.” Strangely, both songs also use a camel analogy to demonstrate their points. Wilson, so virile he could outlast a camel in the desert, while Linda does the “camel walk” in her sleep (is that what I think it means?). And if that isn’t enough to tie these songs together, Linda even claims her new lover can do any dance, including the “Funky Broadway,” which, as we all know, was a song made famous by none other than, you guessed it, that man-and-a-half himself, Wilson Pickett!
13 “Who’s Making Love” / Johnnie Taylor
Other than Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor and the Staple Singers were arguably the two most important artists in the second life of Stax Records, which started in mid-1968. Most everything Stax released prior to that date was distributed by Atlantic Records and in one of the worst contractual agreements of all time, control of past Stax songs reverted back to Atlantic Records on a set date leaving Stax to start a new catalog from scratch. To their credit, Stax didn’t sit still. Although they didn’t reach the heights they achieved during the Otis Redding era, they did manage to produce a goldmine of vintage soul singles, many of them as great as before, but hampered by the loss of marketing muscle. Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” was one of those classics that did break huge and rose to be a Top 5 hit on the pop charts and a #1 hit on the R&B charts. The song exposed a long-standing male double-standard, with Johnnie pointing out, to the delight of ladies everywhere, that while a man is out womanizing, the ladies aren’t just sitting home doing the dishes. (“Now tell me/Who’s making love to your old lady/While you were out making love?”)
12 “Sister Ray” / The Velvet Underground
11 “Madame George” / Van Morrison
As we’ve already said, music in the late 60s was making some people very, very nervous. It’s easy to see why. If you mark the conventional birth of rock and roll as the year 1955, it would’ve turned 13 in 1968. A little more than a decade removed from the “scandalous” sounds of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Pelvis, and we’re already dealing with a spaced-out, rebellious teenager who’s hanging around with God-knows-who doing God-knows-what! No matter how hip some parents were in the late 60s, I can imagine the reaction they would have had upon hearing “Sister Ray,” a song littered with drugs, guns, transvestites, oral sex, murder, and other implied debauchery of untold raunchiness, coming from behind their child’s bedroom door. If this was rock & roll at thirteen, it’s no wonder some predicted its premature death (famously, Lester Bangs). Why wouldn’t you expect to soon find its naked, track-marked corpse in some back alley in uptown New York? After all, where do you go after “Sister Ray”?
“Madame George,” on the other hand, is rock & roll pushing beyond its conventional boundaries in almost all ways, both musically and lyrically. In truth, it’s not rock & roll at all. Yes, you’re still getting a transvestite in the bargain*, this one substantially less ostentatious—at one point he’s/she’s even spotted playing dominoes in drag—how tame can you get? Morrison’s Astral Weeks album was unlike anything that came before it, with “Madame George” a slide show of youthful memories randomly assembled into a free-flowing poem set to improvised pseudo-jazz. How and where does this album fit into music history? I like to think of it as a permanent outlier. (Its free-form nature actually very similar to the “Sister Ray” sessions where a frustrated engineer reportedly pushed “record” and went to lunch). But where the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat was still grounded in traditional rock & roll, Van was all about following some elusive muse. He didn’t know exactly where it would take him at the time, which is what makes it so magical. Even today, it incites my mind to wander down Cyprus Avenue taking in the sights, looking for a glimpse of Madame George.
*Van, a prickly bastard, has said Madame George was not a transvestite, but just an amalgam of different characters present in his memory. While this may be true, like Dylan, he’d often say things to fuck with people and take them off the scent of any real discovery (either artistic or personal), choosing to let the music remain ambiguous. Based on a straight reading of the lyrics, however, it does support the distinct presence of an actual Madame George, playing dominoes in drag.
10 “My Baby Specializes” / William Bell & Judy Clay
The pace at which Stax was working in 1968 is mind-boggling. While we’re of the opinion that William Bell is one of the most underappreciated soul singers ever, he should’ve rightfully been given second billing on this undervalued Judy Clay solo gem. (No doubt Stax knew his association would sell more records.) A couple songs ago, we were enjoying Wilson Pickett’s bedroom braggadocio and Linda Lyndell’s corroborating testimony, but this time we’re moving to the bedroom on a more conservative—read monogamous—basis. Red states rejoice! Judy claims her main man has “a love degree / When it comes to satisfying me.” And, I assume it goes without saying that he graduated Magna Cum Louder.*
*Yes, a subtle shout-out to the Hoodoo Gurus’ 1989 album of the same name!
9 “Big Bird” / Eddie Floyd
Written while stuck in London’s Heathrow Airport as he was trying to get back to the states for Otis Redding’s funeral, this song’s “Get on up big bird!” chorus may just be Eddie willing his plane into the air. But I like to think he’s actually watching Otis himself ascend into the heavens. Maybe it’s both. Either way, the majestically escalating horn chart seems capable of carrying anything as high as it needs to go—even the notoriously sizeable Otis Redding (they didn’t call him the Big O for nothing). I gotta believe Otis would’ve been thrilled to ride into the skies behind such muscle. (The wicked guitar licks, supplied by Booker T. Jones, no less, only fire the engines that much hotter.) In the end, it was disguised as a love song, but to me it will always be about brotherly love. (Also noteworthy from 1968: William Bell’s “A Tribute to a King,” a soulful eulogy for the Big O that will leave you in tears.)
8 “The Christian Life” / The Byrds
No doubt a straight take on the Louvin Brothers’ country classic, but I’m still sensing irony in them there hills. See Top 10 List #2 for the full story.
7 “The Village Green Preservation Society” / The Kinks
We love the vintage early singles that launched the Kinks, but we truly adore the later-period, quirky Kinks tracks the most—the songs that sketch scenes from the daily lives of pretentious, sniveling Brits. And nobody did it better. There were some stellar throwback singles released by the band in 1968—“She’s Got Everything” being my favorite—but this was the year the boys went full-frontal British (for you younger folks, think of a 60s version of Pulp). This tale is an accounting of the shenanigans of the Village Green Preservation Society, a local committee dedicated to preserving whatever their drunken hearts desire at the moment. Among the items on the agenda: Donald Duck, Vaudeville, Variety, strawberry jam, draught beer, custard pie, Dracula, little shops, antique tables, virginity, and, of course, the preservation society itself!
6 “Think” / Aretha Franklin
It’s a tribute to the kind of year Aretha had in 1968 that I didn’t choose a song from what many consider to be one of the greatest soul albums ever, Lady Soul. Aretha Arrives was released a mere five months after Lady Soul in 1968 and it was still only June! (A live album, Aretha in Paris, arrived in October of that same year.) Aretha co-wrote the song that would be one of her signature tunes, partly due to her scene-stealing performance of the song in the Blues Brothers movie in 1980, but mostly because the concept is universal (Think! Is that too much to ask?) and the vocal one of the Queen’s all-time best (which is saying something). This was an easy choice—didn’t even have to think about it.
5 “Helter Skelter” / The Beatles
Already demented in its own right, “Helter Skelter” sadly got an additional boost of menace via its association with the Manson Family murders in 1969. But despite Bono’s ridiculously pretentious claim during their Rattle and Hum concert movie that U2 was going “to steal it back” from Charles Manson, the Beatles never really lost it. As recently as a 2011 show at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Sir Paul not only still had complete ownership of the song, he crushed it like he was back at Abbey Road in the late 60s.
4 “Long Walk to D.C.” / The Staple Singers
Could the Staple Singers have, in their wildest dreams, thought they’d see a black president in their lifetime when they added this Homer Banks song to their Soul Folk in Action record in 1968? Maybe not, but that wasn’t going to stop them from becoming the musical voice of black America for years to come. Somehow not mentioned alongside the great Staple Singers tracks (it’s not even on their Greatest Hits), on “Long Walk to D.C.,” Mavis Staples turns in one of the most underrated soul performances of all-time. And coming on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just a few months before, the song couldn’t have made a clearer statement. We’re coming to Washington now, or maybe forty years from now, but know one thing for sure: We ARE coming.
3 “Street Fighting Man” / The Rolling Stones
The first thirty seconds of “Street Fighting Man” are among the greatest in rock and roll history. The Stones were masters of the song opening; how to really grab the listener and not let go. Based on true events in Paris, where a street fighting revolution was in full swing, we find the Stones lamenting the fact that they can’t mix it up on the streets of London in order to provoke change. How terrible to come from somewhere where there is a dignified, rational response to conflicts! Maybe that’s why they became the world’s most dangerous rock band onstage. What else can a poor boy do?
2 “America” / Simon & Garfunkel
1968 was a great year for music, but a devastating one for the United States. The Vietnam War (via January’s Tet Offensive) was in full swing, a second Kennedy was assassinated, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, causing riots in cities countrywide. In their own way, Simon & Garfunkel helped many in the country through the transition. With contemplative lyrics, mellifluous vocals, and simple yet sophisticated melodies, they were the calm in the storm and, in a way, managed to soothe the pain. “America” was a song that celebrated the wonder of living in a free land, while simultaneously expressing a feeling of helplessness. At the end, when the man admits to his sleeping girlfriend, “Kathy, I’m lost…I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,” it’s almost as if he’s speaking for everyone all at once.
1 “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” / Otis Redding
This one hurts. Mainly recorded on November 22, 1967 (with some additional studio work done on December 6 and 7), we came remarkably close to not having “Dock of the Bay” in the soul lexicon at all. A mere two days after Otis’s last recording session, his plane plunged into the icy waters of Madison, Wisconsin’s Lake Monona. A month later, Stax issued his last recording, which became a posthumous #1 hit (actually, the first posthumous #1 ever). The song finds Otis contemplating the state of his life and he’s not happy about it. It soon becomes readily apparent why he needed 3,000 miles of space to find solace. He stares into the Frisco Bay (another world from his home in Macon, Georgia) watching boats sail in, watching them sail out, resting his weary mind, overwhelmed by life’s demands. Many have used the song in similar ways, to drift away from their problems for a short while, to lament things not going as planned, to seek some form of shelter from the storm. Sadly, it’s one of those songs which has had some of its majesty eroded via repetition. But give it another listen and reconnect with its original intent. Focus on the voice. It conveys so much in such a short time. Many years later, on a different lake in Wisconsin, I sang this very song to my one-year-old son (whose middle name is Redding) as we lounged in a hammock together. As I sang the song to him (poorly), he for some reason locked eyes with me the entire time almost like he knew he would forever have a small symbolic connection to Otis (he was tired and/or confused more likely). Either way, I took it as confirmation of a genetic predisposition to the power of Otis’s music. Three years later, when my second son was born on September 9th, Otis’s birthday, I couldn’t rationalize away the divine connection any longer. Otis was sending me a message of some sort whether he knew it or not. There has always been something in Otis’s voice calling to me and this is just one of many times he has done so.
See you in another year soon. Until then, stay in the present.