Hey, Baby – They’re Playing Our Town Song

May 18, 2024

Have you ever stopped to consider how much of contemporary music, across genres, is tied to a specific city or region? I have. That’s because I feel it is my sworn duty, as a professional and probing journalist, to think about these peculiarities. It also helps that sitting before a laptop with a blinking cursor that dares me to arrange a jumble of English letters into coherent sentences always strikes terror in my soul.

Since I just cleverly typed the word `soul’, into the discussion, that’s a great launching point into our first city. Let’s travel northeast, to the Great Lakes region and the city of Detroit. The home of the legendary Motown record label that guided the careers of the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.

Geographically speaking, Detroit (metro area population 4.4 million), slopes gradually from northwest to southeast on a till plain featuring lots of glacial and lake clay. However, the most important natural resource are its people, like the aforementioned souls who, literally, put the city on the map. Simply dig up an old Motown record label and see for yourself.

Moving right along, let’s continue our trek by driving 282 miles southwest via Interstate 94 to Chicago. The Windy City boasts a metro area population that tops 9.4 million, third-largest in the nation. Not too many years after Frank Sinatra popularized the Windy City as “my kind of town,” a band with its roots firmly planted along the shores of lake Michigan, burst onto the record charts. Originally known as Chicago Transit Authority, the band was later forced to shorten the name following a legal challenge from the city.

Like the major Motown stars, they were a veritable hit factory, clocking chartbusting singles like ‘Twenty-Five or Six to Four’, ‘Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is’, and ‘Old Days’. Of course, I’m not requiring you to memorize all the names of their hits. What’s truly important is that you memorize that Chicago lies on a flat glacial plain on what used to be the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Someone told me notorious mobster Al Capone’s body was dumped into Lake Michigan. Or maybe he’s with Jimmy Hoffa under the goal post in the Jersey Meadowlands? All vital geographic nuggets.

Let’s keep steady on our westward track which leads to our closest big town of Denver. At 5,280 feet high, it’s nestled on the western slice of the High Plains, hugging the Front Range on the east. The song, ‘Rocky Mountain High’, needs no introduction. The lyrics in the acoustic folk music hit, “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before” were immortalized by singer-songwriter John Denver. Fun fact: His real name was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., but that wouldn’t have the commercial gravitas that `Denver’, his favorite place, held. When he died in 1997 at 53 in a plane crash, Denver was living in Aspen, but ‘Rocky Mountain High’, ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’ and ‘Annie’s Song’ live on forever on Spotify, or, in my case, on vinyl.

Call me a heretic, but let’s slide down the Atlantic coast, past New York, past Philly, past Baltimore and DC, all the way (almost as far as Havana) to Miami. Yachts! Jet skis! South Beach! ‘CSI: Miami’! It shimmers on a broad plain between the Everglades on the west and Biscayne Bay to the east. The Gold Coast, with a metro population of over 6 million, turned out a motherlode of musical acts. Among them, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, KC and the Sunshine Band, and others. Fun fact: KC, the leader of the group that reigned during the disco era, has a real name: Henry Wayne Casey. But, like John Deutschendorf’s being reimagined as John Denver, `Henry Wayne Casey and the Sunshine Band’ didn’t reflect the go-go lifestyle of Miami. Maybe the guy who invented the pocket protector had that name.

In the end, as was the case with Tony Bennett and his cable-car-riding heart in San Fran, you can be assured that Mikis Theodorakis would breeze through crafting specialized lyrics for every business containing the word ‘Zorba’.


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