In a tribute from the Country Music Hall of Fame, Stacey Wolfe
wrote that Don Gibson (1928–2003) was responsible "for writing at
least three of the most famous songs in country music history, for
helping to define the sound and studio style of modern country music,
and for releasing more than eighty charted records between 1956
Gibson's remarkable track record makes it ironic that he didn't
write "Sea of Heartbreak" – a #2 Country and #21 Pop charter, and
the second-biggest pop crossover hit of his long career (after "Oh
Lonesome Me"). The song was not a product of Nashville's Music Row
in Nashville but the work of New York pop lyricist Hal David (stepping
out from his legendary partnership with Burt Bacharach, inaugurated
in 1956) and a far less–renowned co–writer, Paul Hampton.
Hal David (born 5/25/1921 in Brooklyn, New York) was both an aspiring
writer and a trained violinist: As a journalism student at New York
University, he earned extra money playing on the "Borscht Belt"
circuit of Catskills hotels. After the end of World War II and his
discharge from the Army, Hal returned to civilian life and was encouraged
by his older brother Mack David to try his hand at song lyrics.
(Nine years Hal's senior, Mack David was an established songwriter
whose credits as a lyricist included "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So,"
with music by Duke Ellington, and "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't
Shine," recorded by Elvis Presley for Sun in 1954.)
Beginning in 1947, Hal David enjoyed modest–to–major success with
songs recorded by Sammy Kaye, Guy Lombardo, and Teresa Brewer. One
of Hal's first collaborations with Burt Bacharach, "I Cry More,"
was sung by Alan Dale in the teen exploitation movie Don't Knock
The Rock (1956). The team scored even bigger hits with songs for
Johnny Mathis, Marty Robbins, Guy Mitchell, and Perry Como; their
initial run ended in 1958, when Bacharach accepted Marlene Dietrich's
offer to be her musical director for a series of international concert
Hal David soon found new collaborators, and among these was an aspiring
singer/actor named Paul Hampton. Sources such as the Internet Movie
Database (IMDB) list the Oklahoma City native's birth year as 1945,
which would have made the precocious Hampton just 15 years old when
he co-wrote "Sea of Heartbreak" with Hal David. The alternate date
1937 is more credible, since other accounts describe Hampton as
a sophomore at Dartmouth College in 1957 when Mitch Miller signed
him to Columbia as a solo artist and issued his debut single.
"Classy Babe" b/w "Play It Cool" and subsequent releases for Columbia,
Top Rank, Dot, Cameo and Warner Bros. all failed to crack the Hot
100, but Paul Hampton founded more lasting success as a songwriter.
Hampton wrote songs for the English teen idol Billy Fury ("Like
I've Never Been Gone," #3 in the UK in 1963) and for the American
singers Johnny Tillotson ("I Rise, I Fall," #36 in 1964) and Gene
Pitney ("Donna Means Heart¬break," the flip side of Pitney's #21
hit "True Love Never Runs Smooth" in 1963). The ASCAP composers'
database lists some 60 titles written or co-written by Paul Hampton
including the theme song for My Mother The Car (NBC, 1965–1966),
one of the most critically reviled series in the history of American
television. Concurrent with his song¬writing activities, Hampton
studied acting in New York and went on to a long career of mostly
minor roles in film and especially television.
There are 60 Paul Hampton compositions in the ASCAP database, none
more lasting than "Sea of Heartbreak." The song has resurfaced on
the soundtracks of several films (including Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak
Ridge and Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy) and in versions recorded
by the Everly Brothers, Merle Haggard, Johnny Rivers, Charley Pride,
bluegrass stalwarts the Country Gentlemen, and rockabilly revivalist
Robert Gordon. A new generation of listeners was introduced to "Sea
of Heartbreak" when Johnny Cash recorded it with Tom Petty &
the Heartbreakers for his 1996 album Unchained. The singer's second
collaboration with producer Rick Rubin, Unchained was named Best
Country Album in the 40th annual Grammy Awards.
I was 18, I was on the road with my dad. One day, we were sitting
in the tour bus, talking about songs, and he mentioned a song, and
I said, "I don’t know that one." He mentioned another one, and I
said, "I don’t know that one, either." Then he started to get alarmed,
so he spent the rest of the day making a list on a legal pad, and
at the top he put "100 Essential Country Songs." And he handed it
to me and he said, "This is your education."
The genesis of Rosanne Cash's remarkable new album, The List, dates
back to that day in 1973-to a time before her eleven previous albums,
her 1985 Grammy and numerous additional nominations, her twenty-one
Top 40 country singles. She had just graduated high school and was
starting to write songs of her own when her father, the incomparable
Johnny Cash, discovered some gaps in her knowledge of American roots
"I think he was alarmed that I might miss something essential about
who he was and who I was," says Cash. "He had a deeply intuitive
understanding and overview of every critical juncture in Southern
music-Appalachian songs, early folk songs, Delta blues, Southern
gospel, right up to modern country music."
Three dozen years later, Cash has selected twelve songs from the
syllabus presented to her by her father and recorded her first album
of covers. Still, she remains a songwriter to her core, so she approached
each composition-from Jimmie Rodgers' "Miss the Mississippi and
You" to Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country"-in search of its
The result is a glorious range of sounds and moods, as rich and
complex as such Cash masterworks as Seven Year Ache, Interiors,
and Rules of Travel. A handful of truly special guests join her
for some of the recordings: Bruce Springsteen ("Sea of Heartbreak"),
Elvis Costello ("Heartaches by the Number"), Wilco's Jeff Tweedy
("Long Black Veil"), and Rufus Wainwright (Merle Haggard's "Silver
The idea for The List came about while Cash was on tour promoting
her 2006 studio album, the widely acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Black
Cadillac-a reflective song cycle about the loss of her father; her
mother, Vivian Liberto; and her stepmother, June Carter Cash. She
had held on to the original copy of the List for all those years,
but had never thought to do anything with it.
'It just didn't interest me," she says. "I learned all the songs,
but then I set on my own course as a songwriter, and set about separating
myself from my parents, as you do when you're young. When I was
writing the narratives for the Black Cadillac show, I had recently
found the List again, so I wrote about it. And virtually every show,
people started asking me. ‘Where's the List? What about that List?'"
Still, she resisted the idea of recording the classic songs herself.
Eventually, though, Cash decided that she needed a change after
Black Cadillac, a break from that project's emotional intensity.
On tour in Europe, she tentatively added a few songs from the List
into her set.
The response was immediate. "People were eating it up, like they
were hungry for these songs," she says. "And the import started
to sink in-that this was about me and my dad, but it was also about
a cultural legacy. These songs are as important as the Civil War
to who we are as Americans. Something clicked and I entered it full-bodied
then, with all my heart."
To complicate matters further, however, in 2007 Cash underwent surgery
for a benign brain condition. After a full recovery, she and her
husband, Grammy-nominated producer John Leventhal, got down to the
business of culling through the songs on the List and choosing the
ones that best fit her voice and her sensibility, and that added
up to the most complete story. Songs were attempted and scrapped;
others were in, then out, then back in again.
Some of the selections were straightforward. ("I've loved 'Silver
Wings' and 'Long Black Veil' since I was a kid," she says.) Others
proved more difficult for the singer to find her own point of entry.
Patsy Cline's recording of "She's Got You" is so iconic that Cash
was intimidated to take it on, before ultimately creating her own
glorious take. "Heartaches by the Number" felt structured and fixed,
but bringing in Elvis Costello helped her find a way to loosen it
"Girl from the North Country" had its own meanings, and its own
challenges, for Cash. "That song was so much about my dad," she
says. "I have those images of him singing it with Bob seared into
my mind, and I was afraid of it. I had to go back to Bob's original
version, which I actually don't know as well, and then approach
it as a folk song."
All of the thought, research, and experimentation that went into
each performance is immediately evident on The List. The revelation
of this album is hearing Rosanne Cash, for the first time, purely
as an interpreter. "I've never done a record just as a singer before,
so that was a bit jarring to me," she says. "But John kept pounding
home that that's what this record is really about. So then I kind
of got into it, and it was liberating-like 'OK, these aren't my
songs, I can just have fun and play with them.'"
Leventhal crafted a sound for The List that is surprising without
being self-conscious, familiar but not obvious. "This was the record
John has been waiting his whole life to make," says Cash. "He has
such extensive knowledge about roots music, and a deep, deep love
of Southern music. So writing these arrangements was a dream job
All of the couple's knowledge and talent was required for the timeless
blues "Motherless Children." They listened to dozens of versions,
recorded by everyone from Eric Clapton to obscure bluegrass musicians.
"We started putting lyrics together from different versions until
it was a bit more linear," she says. "We had to make a definitive
version of that song, and I think we did."
The closing song on The List, the Carter Family's "Bury Me Under
the Weeping Willow," may be the most personal choice of all for
Rosanne Cash. "Helen Carter was incredibly important to my growth
as a songwriter," she says. "In fact, she and Maybelle taught me
to play the guitar. So that song had a lot of emotional resonance
for me because of them-and June, too. I learned so much from them
and I had a real love for all of them, so that song is really kind
of a tribute to them."
With this ambitious project behind her, Cash says that, while she
has started writing songs of her own again, she hopes to do a second
volume of songs from her father's List at some point, and then make
sure that the full 100 songs are archived properly. She also points
out, though, that while she hadn't fully explored this priceless
gift from a father to a daughter, the songs on the List had always
been important to her own work. Rather than a break from her own
career, she looks at The List as something she needed to grow into
"It's not like I didn't know these songs before," she says, "so
their standard of excellence has been in the back of my mind all
along. That standard is something I'm always trying to reach."