most popular songs

Whether you are a longtime veteran of your local music scene, a recent music school graduate, a hired gun working for a national act, or an aspiring independent artist, you all have something in common – that being a life centered around music. This life of music will lead you into many different performance situations. Like many of my musician friends, I have found myself in a plethora of musical situations over the years; including top 40 bands, rock bands, blues bands, national acts, and start-up original projects, to name a few. I’ve played at festivals, mud bogs, weddings, frat parties, blues jams, jazz jams, open mics, on the Grand Ole Opry, and of course, in nightclubs and bars, the latter being be the arena in which I have probably performed the most.

If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that you can never have a big enough repertoire. Back in my Berklee days, one of my guitars instructors once told me “You should start building your repertoire of standards. Not only will it help you find your musical voice, it will come in handy down the road”. Twenty-something years and thousands of gigs later, I’ve really come to understand the scope and importance of his words.

Unless you play nothing but your own original music, most live music situations will involve playing a night of cover material, and in my mind, this is a noble cause. The audiences of your typical local bar are usually folks that want to hear some “feel-good music” – familiar, often danceable party tunes that will help them forget about life’s hardships. Before the world had ever heard of “The Beatles”, they were a working cover band, as was Aerosmith, Huey Lewis, and many others.

By the time I entered my nightclub performance years in the late 80s, there was already a few decades of recorded popular music to pick from. Some consider this time period (50s through the 70s) to be the golden era of recorded music.  This era gave birth to many songs that are still big crowd-pleasers, those certain tunes that always have a positive impact, no matter what the demographic. While the following decades would add more songs to this pool, it seems that the golden era provides the bulk of what we consider “classic hits” and standards. Over the years, many people have put together lists of the most covered songs, the most popular songs, the greatest hits of all time, etc. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine released a list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Upon scrolling through this list I saw many songs that I had played in different bands and situations over the years.

After cross-referencing that list with the song lists of several modern day cover bands, and comparing that with my own personal experiences, I have come up with a list of what I consider to be songs that every working musician should know. This list is by no means definitive or official; it’s simply my take on the most commonly requested classics, songs that many cover bands have in common, and songs that are often played when guest musicians sit in. Many of these songs are thoroughly worn out and greatly overplayed. Some might argue that many of these tunes have been beaten to death, while others might call this list “Dead Songs That Kill Bands”. Nevertheless, if you are planning on a lifetime of musical performance, knowing these songs, at the absolute least, will come in handy at some point.

Aint no Sunshine Bill Withers
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg The Temptations
All along the Watchtower Jimi Hendrix
All Right Now Free
Blue Moon Of Kentucky Patsy Cline
Born to Be Wild Steppenwolf
Breakdowm Tom Petty
Brick House The Commodores
Broken Wing Martina McBride
Brown Eyed Girl Van Morrison
Can’t Get Enough Bad Company
Crazy Patsy Cline
Crossroads Cream
Drift Away Dobi Gray
Feelin Allright Joe Cocker
Folsom Prison Blues Johnny Cash
Free Bird Lynyrd Skynyrd
Friends in Low Places Garth Brooks
Georgia Ray Charles
Gimme Three Steps Lynyrd Skynyrd
Good Hearted Woman Waylon Jennings
Hard to Handle Black Crows
He Stopped Loving Her Today George Jones
Hit Me With Your Best Shot Pat Benatar
Honky Tonk Woman Rolling Stones
I Feel Good James Brown
Johnny B Good Chuck Berry
Knock on Wood Eddie Floyd
Knockin on Heavens Door Bob Dylan
Last Chance For Mary Jane Tom Petty
Little Sister Elvis Presley
Long Train Runnin’ Doobie Brothers
Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Waylon Jennings
Margaritaville Jimmy Buffet
Me and Bobby McGee Janis Joplin
Mony Mony Tommy James & the Shondells
Mustang Sally Wilson Pickett
Old Time Rock and Roll Bob Seger
Piece of My Heart Janis Joplin
Pink Houses John Mellencamp
Play That Funky Music Wild Cherry
Pride and Joy Stevie Ray Vaughn
Red House Jimi Hendrix
Redneck Girl Gretchen Wilson
Respect Aretha Franklin
Roadhouse Blues The Doors
Rock ‘n Roll Led Zeppelin
Satisfaction Rolling Stones
Save a Horse Ride a Cowboy Big and Rich
Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay Otis Redding
Some Kind of Wonderful Grand Funk Railroad
Soulman Sam and Dave
Stand by Your Man Tammy Wynette
Standin On Shaky Ground Delbert Mcclinton
Statesboro Blues Allman Brothers
Stormy Monday Allman Brothers
Summertime Billy Holiday
Superstition Stevie Wonder
Sweet Home Alabama Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Chair George Strait
The Joker Steve Miller
The Thrill Is Gone BB King
Tush ZZ Top
Twist and Shout The Beatles
Walkin’ After Midnight Patsy Cline
What I Like About You The Romantics
Wonderful Tonight Eric Clapton
Workin’ Man Blues Merle Haggard
You Really Got Me The Kinks
You Shook Me All Night Long ACDC

Here are a few of what I consider to be the benefits of having a big repertoire of standards:

Requests. If you ever wind up playing some cover gigs, which many musicians do at some point, “standards” will often get requested, and you might find your band “winging” these songs to please audience members. This even happens with national acts.

Sitting in. Having a big repertoire of standards will give you some common ground when sitting in with a band. Back in my New England nightclub days, when friends would sit in with my bands, we would play standards. The same was true when I would sit in with their bands. In Nashville today, sitting in is one of the best ways to build your reputation as a player. Even when superstars sit in, it seems they often choose classic hits or standards over their own material.

Big Tips. If you already play in a cover band, knowing the most popular classics can help you earn some extra tips. I can’t think of how many times someone has said “I’ll give you guys $20 if you play Sweet Home Alabama again.” (Make it an even $50, and it’s a done deal!)

Song Structure. These songs were hits for a reason, and it’s not a coincidence that people still like to hear these songs decades after they were released. Whether it is your desire to be a great performer or a songwriter, internalizing some of these classic hits will teach you song form and structure, and give you perspective about what strikes a chord with the masses.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this list. Are there some songs you feel I missed? Are there songs on here that you think don’t belong? Wherever your musical path might lead, always do your best to smile when playing Mustang Sally, and never accept less than a $20 to play Free Bird!