5 Great Songs (You Might Not Know Were) Written in Philly
You mean they were singing about that expressway?!?
It may be hard to believe in these doggiest of dog days, but Philly is a highly inspirational place. We know because the city (and its environs) have long sparked the imaginations of musicians and writers, resulting in some truly for-the-ages songs. Here, five great ones you might not have realized were born right here.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem”
The words to this familiar Christmas carol were written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks, the six-foot-four-inch Episcopal rector at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. Brooks was inspired to pen his poem by a visit to the Holy Land a few years earlier. (He’d later move to Boston and become the bishop of Massachusetts.) The music we’re familiar with is by another Philadelphian, Lewis Redner, then the organist at Holy Trinity; he originally called the tune “St. Louis.” But he set Brooks’s words to it on Christmas Eve 1868, and it was sung for the first time at Holy Trinity the following day. It’s been a Christmas staple ever since.
“There’s a Small Hotel”
This musical number with lyrics by Lorenz Hart and tune by Richard Rodgers was inspired by the charming (and still existent) Stockton Inn in Stockton, New Jersey. Though cut from Jumbo, the show for which it was originally intended, the song instead found a home in On Your Toes (and another home, later, in Pal Joey). It’s been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald to Billy Paul to Petula Clark to Jerry Orbach of Law & Order fame. This recording by Jack Whiting is from the original 1937 London production of the show.
“Expressway to Your Heart”
Longtime Philly music moguls Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were mere babes when they wrote this hit for the Soul Survivors and produced the July 1967 album, When the Whistle Blows Anything Goes, on which it appeared. The song, with its horns-honking intro and freeway sound effects, was inspired by our very own Schuylkill Expressway and made it to number three on the R&B chart and four on the Billboard Top 100 that year. Jerry Garcia recorded a version, as did the Blues Brothers, and Bruce Springsteen sang it on his 2009 “Working On a Dream” tour. It was Gamble and Huff’s first big hit.
“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”
The lyrics to the spirited opener to Oklahoma were written at Doylestown’s Highland Farm, longtime home of Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II; he was supposedly inspired by the view of cornfields from the front porch. The music is by Richard Rodgers, who hung around Bucks County a lot. The 1943 musical, the first hit show by Rodgers and Hammerstein, ran for a record 2,212 performances, earned them a special Pulitzer Prize, and is still being performed today. The song became enormously popular; Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the original production for the New York Times, wrote that ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” changed the course of musical theater; in its wake, “the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable.” The song has been covered by Ray Charles, Nelson Eddy, Rosemark Clooney, James Taylor and a cast of thousands, including our dad, often, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Though a number of towns lay claim to it, Don McLean himself says this eight-minute-long chart-topper was written in Philly and first performed here when he opened at Temple University for Laura Nyro in 1971. Folks have been fighting ever since about the meaning of the obtuse song; McLean, when asked, once replied, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” When the original manuscript to the song was auctioned off in 2015 (for $1.2 million!), McLean wrote in the catalog that the song was about American life “becoming less idyllic.” Madonna, of all people, released a famously weird truncated dance-pop version in 2000.