Readers recommend playlist: your tribute songs

With musicians such as Elvis Costello, John Lennon and Lead Belly paying homage to their heroes, a reader picks from your suggestions

Here is this week’s playlist of songs picked by a reader from your suggestions, after last week’s callout. Read more about how our weekly readers recommend series works at the end of the piece.

There is an air of unabashed friendship to the song that starts our list of tributes. Blossom Dearie wrote Dusty Springfield with Norma Tanega, who had a close relationship with the singer. One can presume she knew Springfield well and thought much of her: “Petals fall from her glance ... Flowers float from her dance.”

The supremely gifted Bill Nelson comes over all Sacha Distel in Be-Bop Deluxe’s Jean Cocteau, which comes next. Distel was a fine jazz guitarist and would have been pleased with Nelson’s dreamy fills. The song highlights Cocteau’s artistic versatility and his mastery of various media, dubbing him “enchanter of souls”. It’s a thoughtful piece that drifts over its subject like flickering limelight.

It’s nothing new for songwriters to write a tribute to a parent (and we’ll have more of this later), but Elvis Costello’s Suit of Lights takes a sideways glance at the profession he shared with his father, singer Ross MacManus. Costello (born Declan MacManus) is aware that a repertoire is not to everyone’s taste. There are times when an audience needs Nat King Cole, not rock’n’roll, and the artist must adopt the stance of a matador, facing the charging bull with little more than his suit of lights and a microphone. Sound advice.

Listen to the tribute playlist on YouTube.

Orrin Keepnews ran a record company renowned for helping and encouraging musicians. He was immortalised by the Bill Evans Trio in Re: Person I Knew. Evans anagrammed Keepnews’s name, which on the one hand played as an in-joke, but on the other provided jazz fans with a handy mnemonic.

Names are figuring a lot this week. There is a Jean Harlow tribute cocktail – light rum and sweet vermouth – and the original plutonium blonde sported a lifelong nickname, the Baby. Kind of ironic when you consider that she never grew old enough to discard her less-than-perfect family connections. Dead at 26, the Blonde Bombshell of moving pictures, as Lead Belly’s tribute puts it, flew like a comet across the silver screen for too few years. This lively song is a celebration of her fast and furious life, despite the sadness of its opening line.

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker – Bird to his friends – was considered a high-risk performer with a mixed record for turning up for bookings. Consequently, his gigs at Birdland, the New York venue named after him, were few. The club, host to the cream of the jazz crop and a place for movie stars to see and be seen, has been memorialised in Weather Report’s tribute. Upon its release, the tune whipped up a fair amount of controversy among jazz purists due to its adoption of modern fusion elements, which made the piece more accessible to rock fans.

Jazz artist Charlie Parker in 1945
Flighty ... Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker in 1945. Photograph: AP

Estrella Morente’s father, the great Enrique Morente, died during the recording of Autorretrato, the album on which the next song first appeared. On it, Morente is accompanied by the unique guitar of Paco de Lucía, who had previously stated that he wouldn’t play with her until her voice had reached the level of emotion demanded by this particular form of Flamenco. Seguirillas de La Verdad is a testimony to the requirements the genre makes of a singer, but also to Estrella’s growing maturity – and Paco’s perfect judgment.

10,000 ManiacsHey Jack Kerouac approaches the author from a biographical stance, opening up his early history, his childhood and his education. Soon in, Jack meets his mentors, and the people into whose lives he inserted himself in order to document their ideas for an eager generation of post-second-world-war youngsters. There was as much purity in Kerouac’s writing as in Natalie Merchant’s voice, and a shared innocence. The lyrics sometimes emulate Jack’s speed-beat style, at others relaxing into wry glances towards the idealised, beatific few whom Kerouac orbited.

Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan was discarded from the album Infidels because Dylan considered it an unfinished demo, but it was eventually released on The Bootleg Series. The song is a deep meditation, a glimpse into the conscience of the US, that dips a toe into the waters of the nation’s soul. The legacy of slavery surfaces; there is violence there, and horror, and images that verge on pornographic. Above all, though, the song is imbued with an all-pervading sense of sorrow, plus the tribute: “No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell”.

Donovan’s House of Jansch is a fine tune, in which he adopts Bert Jansch’s finger-picking guitar style. As well as acquiring the technique, it sounds like Don has nicked Bert’s girl. Someone in the triumphant lyrics wanted Don’s “chocolate eclair” and he doesn’t sound too sorry to have obliged.

I Salute You Christopher by IAMX celebrates the life of the late writer Christopher Hitchens. The song refers to its subject as “St Christopher of the Truth” and honours the notorious antitheist, who took aim at some of this planet’s most revered icons, with lines such as: “The man in the sky is a tyrant and a lonely psychopath.”

Not many musicians allow their instruments to be handled by anyone but themselves, but roadie Bruce Berry was allowed to pick up Neil Young’s guitar and sing. Young lost friends to drug overdoses, and Bruce became one of them before being memorialised in Tonight’s the Night. The song is marbled with grief, although reality forces its way upwards, as if through gritted teeth, affirming that strength in shared pursuits, and particularly art, propels life forwards and into new areas of thought and creativity.

John Lennon said he lost his mother, Julia, twice: once at five when she left their home and once at 17 when she was killed by a drunk driver. At the time of her death, in 1958, Lennon was beginning to blossom as a musician. They had reconciled a few years earlier, when she passed her musical knowledge on to him. The BeatlesJulia (performed solo by Lennon) is as sad and wistful a song as you could imagine a rocker such as he writing. The words, some of which were borrowed from Khalil Gibran, a popular author among the counter-culturalists of the day, are heartbreaking, but it is a fitting tribute on which to end this playlist.

Not all songs appear on the Spotify list as some are unavailable on the service.

New theme: how to join in

The new theme will be announced at 8pm (GMT) on Thursday 4 May. You have until 11pm on Monday 8 May to submit nominations.

Here is a reminder of some of the guidelines for readers recommend:


George Boyland

The GuardianTramp

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