BARRY LEVINE: Why we recall the lyrics and melodies

OLD ROCKER: Oldies but goodies always stay with you

“Earth angel, earth angel

Will you be mine?

My darling dear

Love you all the time

I’m just a fool

A fool in love with you”

— Lyrics to “Earth Angel” by The Penguins

I recently pulled a CD with hits from 1954 and 1955 from my collection and it contained, among others, The Penguins’ Top 10 hit “Earth Angel” from 1954. That’s 60 years since that rock ‘n’ roll classic hit the charts.

The Penguins were a Doo-Wop group best remembered for “Earth Angel,” their only Top 40 hit and one of the first rhythm and blues songs to cross over onto the pop charts. “Earth Angel” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and had a three-week run at No. 1 on the R&B chart.

I hadn’t heard it in years and years. But immediately the lyrics and melody began flowing, and I started singing along with The Penguins. Fortunately, nobody else was home. There’s a funny thing about listening to the “oldies but goodies.”

You might not have heard a song for 30 or 40 years or more, but when you do, you immediately remember the lyrics and melody, the performer or performers who made the record and the approximate year it hit the charts.

Yet if you were asked academic questions from 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, you’d probably answer with a blank stare. If you need an explanation for that, ask somebody who has worked in both music and academia.


Steve Preston

Steve Preston worked in Top 40 radio for WALG starting in 1978 and returned to the station when it went to an all-talk format in 1998. After teaching at Albany Middle School, he moved to Darton State College to become the director of the college’s writing center.

The 52-year-old educator has specific ideas about the recall/forget syndrome. “Back in 1983, Howard University professor Howard Gardner developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences. His theory basically said that we all have at least eight different intelligences and that these are all developed to some extent — some more so than others — in each person. One of these is ‘musical.’

“Music helps us remember things. Sometimes it triggers a memory; you can hear a song you haven’t heard in many years, yet within the first few notes you can recall practically every detail of a time and place associated with that song.

“Further, music is often used as a mnemonic device by educators. The purpose of a mnemonic device is to assist in translating information into a form that the human brain can remember better than it can in its original form. Consider this: If I gave you a list of 26 random names of items and asked you to repeat that list back to me — in the exact order in which it was given to you — you would probably feel overwhelmed and start coming up with tricks to help you memorize the list. Yet most of us have already done this! We took 26 names of alphabet letters … in alphabetical order … and set it to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” That’s the way most of us learned the alphabet!

“So, it isn’t surprising that we are able to remember the words of songs we knew from 40-50 years ago, but can’t remember other things from that time period. With music, the melody acts as the mnemonic device to help trigger the memory. Things that we were exposed to but didn’t link to some kind of memory-triggering device get lost in our brains!”

A native of New Jersey, Preston said he listened to all types of radio stations in New York and Philadelphia when growing up. He said he did not begin to label songs as “oldies” or “currents” until he began working as a DJ at WALG. “That’s when I found that I tended to prefer the oldies. I also had two older sisters who influenced my listening habits,” he explained.

When asked who his favorite singers were, he quickly responded, “The Beatles and Beach Boys are probably my all-time favorites. Depending on my mood, I am all over the map. I love Frank Sinatra, the Kingston Trio and Eric Clapton … and the list goes on and on.” He also has special “go-to” songs as his favorites. “I love ‘Surfer Girl’ by the Beach Boys for sheer beauty and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ by The Beatles for its energy. But that’s today. … Ask me again on another day, and I’m liable to say ‘All Day and All of the Night’ by the Kinks or ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ by Sinatra.”

Happy anniversary, Bruce

It was 30 years ago on Wednesday that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” album was released. The album altered things for “The Boss,” changing him from a star to a superstar and a pop culture icon.

Side A of the album consists of “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Cover Me,” “Darlington County,” “Working on the Highway,” “Downtown Train” and “I’m on Fire.”

Side B includes “No Surrender,” “Bobby Jean,” “I’m Going Down,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “My Hometown.”

If those songs sound familiar, they should. Seven were released as singles and made the Top 10,

“Born in the U.S.A.” was Springsteen’s seventh studio album and was a departure from his normal sound. While its predecessor, the dark and acoustic “Nebraska,” featured songs of pessimism and isolation, the lyrics to “Born in the U.S.A.” had signs of hope in the daily fight of the ordinary American citizen. “Born in the U.S.A.” was 1985’s best-selling album in the U.S. and Springsteen’s most successful album, selling 15 million copies in the U.S. and 30 million worldwide. The seven Top 10 singles tied the record set by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and matched by Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814.”

Barry Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.