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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

“American Girl”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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