“New York now leads the world’s great cities in the number of people
around whom you shouldn’t make a sudden move.”
– David Letterman
(Editor’s Note: As this list curates songs from the folk/classic rock realm, it does not feature Frank Sinatra’s classic “Theme From ‘New York New York,” though that has been added here to kick things off in style).
- “New York Groove” by Ace Frehley
“New York Groove” was a Top 20 hit for New York’s own Ace Frehley in 1978. The former KISS guitarist included the song on his self-titled solo album, released simultaneously with solo LPs by the other members of the band. “New York Groove” was written by British singer-songwriter Russ Ballard, a former member of Argent, and first recorded by glam-rock band Hello.
“A lot of people think I wrote ‘New York Groove,’ Frehley told Classic Rock. “It’s not a myth that I’ve perpetuated, but that’s the way it is. I wish I would’ve wrote the song, though. I would’ve made a lot more cash out of it!”
Ballard said he came up with the song on a New York-bound flight. “While I was sitting on the plane I got out a pen and paper and started thinking of the phrase ‘back in the New York groove.’ That’d be a good title for a song, I reckoned; the whole idea of someone going back to New York and singing about the experience.”
Frehley resists bragging about having the only hit to come out of the KISS solo LPs. “It didn’t feel like I was getting one over on the other guys in KISS, it’s just something that happened. I was lucky that it came out as good as it did. I never really listened to the other three solo records, although I did put Gene’s on once. When I heard his version of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star‘ I had to pull it off the turntable [laughs].”
“New York Groove” by Ace Frehley/KISS
“New York Groove” by Hello
- “New York City” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Like 1969’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “New York City” was a contemporary account of events in the life of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The song was included on the 1972 LP Some Time in New York City; its cover resembled a newspaper’s front page.
“New York City” was written in 1971 shortly after the couple decided to move to Greenwich Village. The song includes references to Frank Zappa, activist Jerry Rubin, street musician David Peel, backing band Elephant’s Memory and Lennon’s ongoing battle with the government to remain in the U.S. “I love it, and I hate it,” Lennon explained in Rolling Stone. “America is where it’s at. I should have been born in New York, I should have been born in the Village, that’s where I belong. Why wasn’t I born there?
“I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village. That’s where I should have been. It never works that way. Everybody heads toward the center, that’s why I’m here now. I’m here just to breathe it. It might be dying and there might be a lot of dirt in the air that you breathe, but this is where it’s happening. You go to Europe to rest, like in the country. It’s so overpowering, America, and I’m such a fuckin’ cripple, that I can’t take much of it, it’s too much for me.”
“New York City” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
- “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon & Garfunkel
Paul Simon wrote 1970’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” during Art Garfunkel‘s trip to Mexico to act in the Mike Nichols film Catch-22. Garfunkel says that his months-long absence helped convince Simon to dissolve the duo. “Mike held me in Mexico for like four and a half, five months,” Garfunkel told Song Talk.”And I should have really said to him, ‘You don’t need me this long. I’ve got work in New York.’ The fact that it turned out to be that many months was frustrating. And that’s probably what meant to Paul that it’s going to be tough to continue this way.”
The song is sung to “Tom,” an allusion to their earlier collaboration. “A very winning song, and Paul’s lovely lead vocal has a lot of heart,” Garfunkel said in the Daily Mail. “He and I came from Queens – we were 11 years old when we met and we both looked at the other as the livewire in the neighborhood. Our first band was called Tom and Jerry, hence why he’s singing to ‘Tom,’ and then I went off to film Catch-22 in Mexico, so he’s ‘the only living boy in New York.’ There’s something very together about us in this song. It’s sweet.”
“The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon & Garfunkel
- “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones‘ “Honky Tonk Women” topped the charts in July 1969. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote its predecessor, “Country Honk,” while on vacation at a ranch in Brazil in late 1968. In the 2016 concert film Olé! Olé! Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America, Richards explains how it happened. “What do you do on a ranch and evening is coming up and you got a couple of guitars?” said Richards. “Suddenly, Hank Williams came to mind, and maybe that’s retrospect or not … I think we were kicking around old country songs.”
New York gets its due in the lyric, “I laid a divorcee in New York City / I had to put up some kind of a fight / The lady then she covered me in roses / She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”
“Country Honk” became the electrified “Honky Tonk Women” when guitarist Mick Taylor replaced Brian Jones, who was fired from the band. The song’s inspiration, Richards says, was one of Jagger’s live-in girlfriends. “Let’s not forget the honky tonk woman herself, Cathy James. Great friend of the whole band,” Richards said.
“And her friend Candy,” Jagger added. “Candy I never got to,” said Richards.
“Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones (with Sheryl Crow)
“Country Honk” by the Rolling Stones
- “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel
Billy Joel wrote 1976’s “New York State of Mind” when he returned home after three years of struggling to launch his career in Los Angeles. “Once in a while you’d come across a song that was Promethean,” Joel explained in American Songwriter. “It just sprang out of nowhere and got written in 15 minutes like it dropped from the sky. ‘New York State of Mind’ was like that – got written in fifteen minutes, half an hour. I can’t necessarily tell that it’s going to be a hit record, but I can pretty much tell that it’s going to have some life to it. Like ‘New York State Of Mind,’ I recognized right away that that could be a standard.
Joel told Billboard that New York, after all, is where he got his start. “When I was starting out, I was playing in Greenwich Village at all those little folk clubs, the Bitter End, the Gaslight, Top of the Gate, all those clubs back in the late ’60s, early ’70s where a lot of artists cut their teeth: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. That’s where I kind of made my bones, and I always was able to go back to New York and play in different venues, I must have played every venue there is in Manhattan and the New York area. Yeah, I guess there’s a definite bond between me and other people in the area.”
“New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel
- “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell
Although Joni Mitchell wrote “Chelsea Morning” as an ode to New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the song’s roots were planted 100 miles south. “I wrote that in Philadelphia after some girls who worked in this club where I was playing found all this colored slag glass in an alley,” Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times. “We collected a lot of it and built these glass mobiles with copper wire and coat hangers. I took mine back to New York and put them in my window on West 16th Street in the Chelsea district. The sun would hit the mobile and send these moving colors all around the room. As a young girl, I found that to be a thing of beauty. There’s even a reference to the mobile in the song. It was a very young and lovely time … before I had a record deal. I think it’s a very sweet song, but I don’t think of it as part of my best work. To me, most of those early songs seem like the work of an ingénue.”
Judy Collins released her popular version of “Chelsea Morning” in 1969. Chelsea Clinton confirmed in a 2012 Tweet that Bill and Hillary Clinton named her after London’s Chelsea neighborhood and the Judy Collins track.
“Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell
“Chelsea Morning” by Judy Collins
5, “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful
“Summer in the City” was the Lovin’ Spoonful’s biggest hit, a No. 1 song in the sweltering New York summer of 1966. The band, led by singer-songwriter John Sebastian, came out of New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene. Sebastian says his brother Mark provided the inspiration for the tune. “I had a wonderful collaboration with my brother Mark,” Sebastian told Music-Illuminati. “He had written a song, and when I heard the chorus I said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing! I want to go and sort of work on the front end.’ It already was a good song – I just wanted to make it more tense, so that when that chorus hits, it’s as open as its chords invited you to be.
“Then [bassist] Steve Boone contributed the middle – I guess you could call it like a middle-eight section, that was pivotal because then we got all these ideas about putting traffic on it. I think we really were referring to ‘An American in Paris,’ the Gershwin piece, because he uses the instruments of the orchestra to create that section that’s traffic.”
“Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful
- “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits
Tom Waits has written songs that have struck gold for other artists. Waits originals include Bruce Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl,” the Eagles’ “Ol’ 55” and “Downtown Train,” which gave Rod Stewart a No. 3 hit in 1989.
Stewart told the Guardian that when he hears a great song, he reworks it to fit his signature style. “For instance, I’m sure Tom Waits wouldn’t mind me saying this – Tom’s ‘Downtown Train,’ I realized there was a melody there in the chorus, and it’s beautiful, but he barely gets up and barely gets down to the lower notes, so I took it to the extreme. That was a case where I brought the chorus alive.”
Waits seems unconcerned that interpretations of his songs have had greater commercial success than his own. “It’s all good, y’know,” Waits explained in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “If somebody is doing your tunes, that means there’s something in there that someone else was able to recognize. It wasn’t so very personal. That’s the trick. Anybody does your song, it’s a good thing.”
“Downtown Train” by Tom Waits
“Downtown Train” by Rod Stewart
- “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder
“Living for the City” was Stevie Wonder‘s 1973 groundbreaking Top 10 hit. The song tells the story of a young black man who arrives in New York from “Hard Times, Mississippi” and is soon set up and busted for drugs. “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City,'” Wonder revealed in the book Higher Ground. “I was able to show the hurt and the anger, you know. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”
“The thing about Steve’s music is that it’s not just about, you know, love and how much I love you baby, or I lost you baby and now I found you baby,” co-producer Robert Margouleff told WGBH. “The material is really about the social condition and the fabric of our society. For example, ‘Living for the City’ has that beautiful little vignette in it of the drug bust, the innocent kid who comes to New York and walks across the street and finds himself arrested. That is very much like a talking book, it’s a sound picture.”
“Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder
- “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed
In a New York Times story, Lou Reed described the era that spawned “Walk on the Wild Side” as “a very funny period with a very funny group of people doing almost the same thing without anyone knowing anybody else.”
He wasn’t kidding. The real-life characters of the song were regulars at the Factory, Andy Warhol’s New York studio. Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis were drag queens; Little Joe was actor Joe Dallesandro; and Sugar Plum Fairy was actor Joe Campbell. “Walk on the Wild Side” was also controversial because of its references to drugs and prostitution. Although RCA Records released an edited version, DJs preferred the original, a 1972 hit.
Reed, who died in 2013, told Mojo, “I know my obituary has already been written. And it starts out, ‘Doot, di-doot, di-doot …'”
“Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed
- “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan recorded “Positively 4th Street” in 1965 backed by some of New York’s top musicians: keyboardist Al Kooper, guitarist Mike Bloomfield and Harvey Brooks on bass. It was Dylan’s indictment of the pretentious people of the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene. “I want to needle them,” Dylan said during a 1965 press conference. But musicians like Joni Mitchell were inspired by the song.
“Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street,’ that particular song showed me, I remember thinking ‘the American pop song has finally grown up,'” Mitchell said in Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now. “You can sing about anything now. ‘You’ve got a lot of nerve to be my friend.’ Just in that statement was a different song than any I had ever heard. And when I heard ‘Positively 4th Street,’ I realized that this was a whole new ballgame; now you could make your songs literature. And I began to write. So Dylan sparked me.”
In Chronicles, Volume One, Dylan revealed that his favorite cover was by Johnny Rivers. “When I listened to Johnny’s version of ‘Positively 4th Street,’ I liked his version better than mine. I listened to it over and over again. Most of the cover versions of my songs seemed to take them out into left field somewhere, but Rivers’s version had the mandate down – the attitude and melodic sense to complete and surpass even the feeling that I had put into it. When I heard Johnny sing my song, it was obvious that life had the same external grip on him as it did on me.”
“Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan
“Positively 4th Street” by Johnny Rivers
Need more to get you back in a New York groove? Check out our photo gallery of where rock stars lived in New York City back in the day.
The musicians featured include Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Madonna, Joey Ramone, Lady Gaga and others.