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Jack Zaleski, Published May 10 2014

Zaleski: You know when the music is right

I’m preparing for my high school class reunion by visiting with friends and getting assurances they will attend. In one of those conversations, the music of our youth came up. A friend said: “Got a challenge for you. If you could pick one song from the ’50s, one from the ’60s and one from the ’70s – that still get to you when you hear them now – what would they be?”

Impossible. There’s too much good music from that era. Just three? No way.

But it only took a few days of listening to oldies radio, perusing my own collection and feeling a nostalgic jolt or two, to know when the music was right.

“Earth Angel,” The Penguins’ 1954 doo-wop hit, is at the top of my ’50s list. Indeed, it might be at the top of my list for all time.

The unadorned instrumentation and magic of the human voice are near perfect – without enhancements or multiple tracks or electronic manipulation. They sing with joy, reverence and respect for the love of a girl they see as an angel.

“I fell for you

And I knew

The vision of your loveliness.

I hope and pray

That someday

I’ll be the vision of your happiness.”

Simple, direct and beautiful. I love the song. I know an Earth Angel. I married her.

From the 1960s, I have to go with The Supreme’s 1964 hit, “Baby Love.” It’s a flat-out, passionate plea for lost love to be restored – a paean to youthful angst that asks “what did I do wrong” and how can I fix it? The plaintive lyric is introspective yet reaches out to a lost lover.

“Oooh baby love, my baby love

I need you, oh how I need you

But all you do is treat me bad

Break my heart and leave me sad

Tell me, what did I do wrong

To make you stay away so long.”

Sing it, Diana! Her distinctive voice takes me back to college, driving through New England snowstorms to see a girl I believed was the one. She didn’t see it that way. “Baby Love” still locks her eyes to mine.

Finally, from 1976, the lyrical and poetic “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart. Stewart, never a superstar, paints a compelling picture in words and music that speaks to every young man’s fantasy: meeting a mysterious woman in an exotic place and reluctantly at first, then eagerly, succumbing to her beauty and her charms.

“She comes out of the sun in silk dress running

Like a watercolor in the rain

Don’t bother asking for explanations

She’ll just tell you that she came

In the year of the cat.”

Whoa, what a heart-stopping vision. And it gets better, including a guitar and sax interlude near the end of the story/song that completes a lilting, fading tone poem.

What, you might ask, no Beatles? No Rolling Stones? No Beach Boys? No Ronettes? No Judy Collins? Love ’em all, but there is something about the three I picked that brings me back to them again and again. They still can move me.

You have favorites from that marvelous music era? Let me know.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521