For six unforgettable seasons, creator David Chase made music an integral part of the Emmy Award-winning drama The Sopranos. Mob boss Tony Soprano (the late, great James Gandolfini) was the show’s focus, and Chase used as a musical guide “any song that Tony would be listening to, that he would have on his radio station.”
“I’d put it this way,” Chase told Vice, “you can’t just have cool songs. The songs can’t all be good, because life isn’t like that. You listen to the radio and there’s a lot of shit. You go to your friend’s house and they put on something or you hear music from upstairs and go, ‘Oh, God, I can’t stand that!’ I’ve seen people do this, where every song is a cool song. It takes you out of the moment.”
- “Tush” by ZZ Top (Season 4 Episode 4 The Weight)
ZZ Top scored a Top 20 hit in 1975 with “Tush.” Fans have wondered if the reference is to the slang word for “buttocks.” Guitarist Billy Gibbons explains, with a reference to Texas rocker Roy Head of “Treat Her Right” fame.
“We were in Florence, Ala., playing in a rodeo arena with a dirt floor,” Gibbons told Rolling Stone. “We decided to play a bit in the afternoon. I hit that opening lick, and Dave Blayney, our lighting director, gave us the hand [twirls a finger in the air]: ‘Keep it going.’ I leaned over to Dusty [Hill] and said, “Call it ‘Tush.’
“Roy Head had a flip side in 1966, ‘Tush Hog.’ Down South, the word meant deluxe, plush. And a tush hog was very deluxe. We had the riff going, Dusty fell in with the vocal, and we wrote it in three minutes. We had the advantage of that dual meaning of the word ‘tush.’ It’s that secret blues language – saying it without saying it.”
“Tush” by ZZ Top
- “I Feel Free” by Cream (Season 1 Episode 12 Isabella)
With lyrics by Pete Brown and music by Jack Bruce, “I Feel Free” opened Cream‘s 1966 debut LP Fresh Cream. “I remember with Cream when we did ‘I Feel Free’ I just loved the original track,” Bruce told Ultimate Guitar. “Although it was done on four-track and I could hardly do all the stuff I wanted to do. Ginger [Baker] was very unhappy with the drum sound. He said, ‘You’ve got to do it again’ and I said, ‘I’m not doing it again. I just refuse to do it again.’ Because I said, ‘That one’s a hit. It’s a hit take and if you try to do another one you’d lose it.’ So we never did record it again.”
Eric Clapton revealed Bruce’s surprising inspiration in Uncut. “Jack brought with him an immense experience of classical and jazz and popular music. Believe it or not, when Cream was evolving its ideology of what we wanted the sound to be, the thing we were listening to most, apart from the blues, was Pet Sounds. Jack was very interested in Brian Wilson’s viewpoint, and saw it as the new Bach.”
“I Feel Free” by Cream
- “Rock On” by David Essex (Season 6 Episode 15 Remember When)
“Rock On” was the sole U.S. hit for David Essex, a huge star in Britain. Essex told The Scotsman that the 1974 Top 5 hit was one of John Lennon’s three favorite songs. “It’s such a weirdly original song; it still seems strange to me that they love it so much in America.”
Essex began his career as an actor, earning acclaim for his role in Godspell. “It’s funny, as in a way my first real hit, ‘Rock On,’ came out of this time and partly as a complete accident,” Essex recalled in Surrey Life. He met composer Jeff Wayne during this time. “Jeff Wayne was going out with one of the understudies in Godspell and I found out he worked in a studio; mainly on jingles. I’d already been writing material and so when we spoke, I said, ‘Well, you produce and I’ll write.’ We came out with ‘Rock On’ and away we went.”
Def Leppard produced a hard rock version of the tune in 2006, which has become a concert favorite.
“Rock On” by David Essex
“Rock On” by Def Leppard
- “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee & the Starliters (Season 6 Episode 16 Chasing It)
During the early 1960s musicians including Jimi Hendrix and the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere were members of Joey Dee & the Starliters. Dee co-wrote the band’s biggest hit, “Peppermint Twist.” The name was taken from one of the first discotheques, New York’s Peppermint Lounge, where Dee performed for more than a year.
“The success and the publicity that the Peppermint Lounge had received in turn created the need for me to write the song ‘Peppermint Twist,'” Dee told Classic Bands. “So, I like to think that we did this venture hand-in-hand and on a par basis. The Peppermint Lounge without the publicity would not have engendered the Peppermint Twist, and without the Peppermint Twist I don’t think the Peppermint Lounge would have had the longevity it achieved.”
The Times Square haunt became an instant phenomenon that sparked the discotheque craze across America. Celebrities like the Beatles, the Stones, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe flocked to the club. But Dee fondly remembers the music icon who performed in his band.
“I hired Jimi Hendrix as my guitarist back in the mid-’60s. He had just gotten off the road with Little Richard. I lived in Lodi, N.J. at the time and I had him come out to my garage and audition. After the first five minutes I knew he was the guy for my band. My recollections of him were very pleasant ones. He was a wonderful team player, a fine guitarist, similar to Curtis Mayfield. He wasn’t experimenting with the guitar sounds and the feedback when he was with Joey Dee & the Starliters. That came slightly later. He was a wonderful human being and it was a tremendous loss when he died to the rock and roll community. I have nothing but good thoughts about Jimi.”
“Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee & the Starliters
- “Tom Sawyer” by Rush (Season 6 Episode 17 Walk Like a Man)
“Tom Sawyer” remains a concert favorite for Rush fans although the song only reached No. 44 on the Billboard charts in 1981. Co-writer Neil Peart credits lyricist Pye Dubois for the song’s theme. “His original lyrics were kind of a portrait of a modern day rebel, a free-spirited individualist striding through the world wide-eyed and purposeful,” Peart noted in the Backstage Club newsletter. “I added the themes of reconciling the boy and man in myself, and the difference between what people are and what others perceive them to be – namely me, I guess.”
Peart’s drums and Geddy Lee’s synthesizer provide the song’s spark but Peart says the song is tough to play live. “Our song ‘Tom Sawyer’ is a perfect example of a song that is a complete challenge for me to play years after the record came out, because it’s difficult physically and mentally,” Peart explained in Modern Drummer. “As far as people air drumming along at shows, I take that as a compliment that they like the fills. I spend a lot of time trying to be able to come up with the right fills, so if they’re enjoyed by the audience that way, terrific.”
“Tom Sawyer” by Rush
- “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” by the Greg Kihn Band (Season 5 Episode 6 Sentimental Education)
One of the memorable parts of Greg Kihn‘s “Breakup Song” was the “nuh-uh-uh” that tagged each line of the verse. Kihn told Something Else! that the improvisations were a happy accident.
“I didn’t do my homework. I didn’t have enough lyrics for the whole song. In the rehearsal, I was just singing ‘uh uhs’ and ‘nah nahs’ and ‘la las.’ Anything to take up space, figuring I would come back later and write in the lyrics. So I went in to do the vocals, and Matthew Kaufman – who produced it – was kind of sneaky. He would say, ‘Hey man, this is just a work vocal. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to re-record it. Just lay one down so we know what we’ve got here.’ So you’d go out and kind of wing it – and then that would be the vocal that he’d use. So, literally, I was singing the ‘nuh-uh-uh’ parts in the hopes that maybe the next day I would write lyrics.
“The fact that you just go out there and wing it, that’s what made it so good. If I had gone back and written the lyrics into those lines, that would have just been another song.”
“The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” by the Greg Kihn Band
- “Jim Dandy” by LaVern Baker (Season 3 Episode 5 Another Toothpick)
“Jim Dandy” by LaVern Baker was a ’50s R&B and pop hit. David Chase chose the original over Black Oak Arkansas’ cover for The Sopranos. Black Oak vocalist Jim Mangrum used the moniker “Jim Dandy” before he recorded the song in 1973. Magnum explained in No Depression that Memphis DJ George Klein, a close friend of Elvis Presley, put The King in touch with him.
“I was in the studio one day and George Klein called and told me that Elvis was gonna call me in two hours. I was asking George what I did wrong. I knew he kept up with everything happening in the Memphis area. Was I in trouble? What the fuck did I do, you know? George said, ‘No, he’s impatient. There’s something you have to do and he’s tired of waitin’ on you. He’s gonna call you and he’s gonna tell you.’ And I said, ‘Oh shit, what’s this all about?’
“He called me in exactly two hours and he wanted me to do this song by LaVern Baker called ‘Jim Dandy’ from 1957 when I was nine years old and right around the time my daddy started callin’ me Jim Dandy. And I said, ‘You don’t say no to the King of Rock and Roll.’ And what I said was so corny! Why did I say that for? So he told me that ‘rock and roll was created by a disc jockey for his own pocketbook, I play rhythm and blues, gospel, and country, and there ain’t but one King and I ain’t him.’ But the coolest thing he said at the end of the phone call was, ‘You know, Jim Dandy, it comes through us, not from us. We just got the best seat in the house.'”
“Jim Dandy” by LaVern Baker
“Jim Dandy” by Black Oak Arkansas
- “Carrie Anne” by the Hollies (Season 1 Episode 7 Down Neck)
“Carrie Anne” was a Top 10 hit for British Invasion band the Hollies in 1967. The tune was written by bandmates Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks and Graham Nash. In his autobiography Wild Tales, Nash explains that the song was first titled “Hey Mr. Man.”
“We were rehearsing for a tour at Albert Hall. Marianne Faithfull was on the bill. We’d known her since she was 16, an insanely stunning woman. She was brilliant at image, pretty good voice.
“The sight of her raised my fucking blood pressure, and gradually ‘Hey Mr. Man’ morphed into ‘Hey, Marianne … what’s your game now, can anybody play?’ But we chickened out. We didn’t have the balls to sing ‘Hey, Marianne,’ so we made up a name that we’d never heard before: Carrie Anne.
“We nailed that track in one session. You can hear the confidence in our voices in the way we pounced on those lyrics. The harmonies surge forward from the opening notes, building right to the crescendo that segues into the verse. It’s a nicely polished performance. And then we had the solo played by a steel-drum busker whom [producer] Ron Richards found on the street, that little calliope flourish that winks at the whole affair.”
“Carrie Anne” by the Hollies
- “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash (Season 5 Episode 7 “In Camelot”)
By the time “Rock the Casbah” became a Top 10 hit for the Clash in 1982, drummer Topper Headon had been kicked out of the band because of his heroin addiction. Headon wrote the musical base for “Rock the Casbah” with lyrics about missing his girlfriend. “It was tough,” Headon told Rolling Stone. “In 1983 Pete Townshend paid for me to come to Los Angeles to have the electric box treatment for heroin addiction. And while I was there the Clash were playing the US Festival and ‘Rock the Casbah’ was all over the radio waves. Of course it hurt. The good thing about it was that we all ended up friends afterwards anyway.”
Joe Strummer was inspired to write new lyrics after Clash manager Bernie Rhodes criticized the band’s long tracks by asking, “Does everything have to be as long as a raga?”
“I got back to the hotel that night and wrote on a typewriter, ‘The King told the boogie men / You gotta get that raga drop,'” said Strummer. “I looked at it and for some reason I started to think about what someone had told me earlier, that you get lashed for owning a disco album in Iran.”
“Rock the Casbah” by the Clash
- “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer (Season 4 Episode 9 Whoever Did This)
Written by Albert Hammond and Carole Bayer Sager, “When I Need You” was a No. 1 smash for Leo Sayer in 1977. Sayer told Rock Cellar how he made the song his own.
“I’d get boxes of records given to me. There was a lovely lady, Carol Pincus, at Motown’s publishing company Jobete. She turned up with a box of songs and in there was a ballad. She’d listened to me singing and she thought this might be suitable. She was damned right.
“We couldn’t afford to bring my ex-wife Janice over with me so I would speak to her on the trans-Atlantic phone every other night and tell her I loved her but the lines were so shit in those days. This song comes along and all the words are what I want to say to Janice. I wrote down the lyrics and phoned her. I said all these words and she cried. It was all so emotional. She said, ‘That’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever said to me.’ I said, ‘Well it comes from a song.’ She said, ‘You have to record this song.’
“It was the second big hit after ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.’ Some people thought it was a peculiar choice because it was a completely different song but I didn’t mind. It showed how I could sing ballads as well.
“We were encouraged to be as wild and creative as possible and surprise our audience, always be one step ahead of your audience. Now you’re not supposed to. Now we all got to be bloody Katy Perry. Which is dull for me.”
“When I Need You” by Leo Sayer
- “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey (Season 6 Episode 21 Made in America)
Journey‘s Top 10 hit in 1981 reached epic status when it was chosen by David Chase for the final scene of The Sopranos. The episode’s final cut to black raised the question: Was Tony Soprano killed? Chase explained the selection process to the Directors Guild of America.
“Tony’s flipping through the jukebox; it’s almost like the soundtrack of his life, because he sees various songs. No matter what song we picked, I wanted it to be a song that would have been from Tony’s high school years, or his youth. That’s what he would have played. When I wrote it, there were three songs in contention for this last song, and ‘Don’t Stop Believin” was the one that seemed to work the best.
“I love the timing of the lyric when Carmela enters: ‘Just a small town girl livin’ in a lonely world, she took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.’ Then it talks about Tony: ‘Just a city boy,’ and we had to dim down the music so you didn’t hear the line, ‘born and raised in South Detroit.’ The music cuts out a little bit there, and they’re speaking over it. ‘He took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.’ And that to me was [everything]. I felt that those two characters had taken the midnight train a long time ago. That is their life. It means that these people are looking for something inevitable. Something they couldn’t find. I mean, they didn’t become missionaries in Africa or go to college together or do anything like that. They took the midnight train going anywhere. And the midnight train, you know, is the dark train.
“Life is short. Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it’s really worth it. So don’t stop believing.”
“Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey (The Sopranos Final Scene)
And here’s this Top 11 list in handy Spotify format: