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Song Stories

“Chain Gang”

Sam Cooke | 1960

Inspired by Sam Cooke’s running into a chain gang of prisoners while on tour, the song pays homage to their hard work. Cooke was reportedly so moved by the plight of the prisoners that he and his brother gave them cartons of cigarettes. In exchange, the R&B crooner got his second-biggest hit, a song that hit Number Two on the pop charts. "Chain Gang" has lived on in tributes such as the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang," with its prisoner chant that echoes Cooke's original. The song also changed the life of one Rod Stewart. "I heard Sam Cooke singing this on the transistor radio," he told Rolling Stone. "Up until then, my whole world was Eddie Cochran and Woody Guthrie."

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Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

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