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Top Ten Best Tribute Songs

Updated on January 10, 2013
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When a musician dies, other musicians often take to the stage to honor them with tributes, singing their songs or ones especially written for them. This happened recently when Whitney Houston died. Of all of the tributes to her, probably the most unusual and possibly most touching was Chris Cornell's live version of I Will Always Love You.

When a popular celebrity or public figure passes away, musicians often write song tributes for them. Though there are scores of these songs to choose from, I'm giving you my ten favorites here, in no particular order. If you think something should have made the list but didn't, feel free to comment!

10. Elton John - Candle in the Wind

This song has the distinction of having been dedicated to three different people at different times.

Candle in the Wind was originally written in 1973 as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962 at the age of 36. 'Goodbye Norma Jean, though I never knew you at all you had the grace to hold yourself, when those around you crawled.'

The original version of this song was released on John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road record in 1974, and was only released as a single in the United Kingdom, where it reached number eleven on the UK charts.

At the Farm Aid 4 concert in 1990, Elton John played this song as a dedication to Ryan White, an American teenager who was suffering from AIDS as a result of infected blood transfusions. White passed away the very next day.

In 1997, Elton John rewrote the lyrics to dedicate the song for a performance at the memorial service for Princess Diana, who died on August 31, 1997. This version of Candle in the Wind became Candle in the Wind 1997 and began with the lyrics 'Goodbye England's Rose, may you ever grow in our hearts, you were the grace that placed itself where lives were torn apart.'

Candle in the Wind 1997 has become the Guinness Book of Records certified highest selling single of all time by moving at least thirty-three million copies as of 2009.


9. Don McLean - American Pie

'Bye bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. Them goold old boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye - singin' this'll be the day that I die - this'll be the day that I die.'

American Pie was a single from Don McLean's 1971 album also called American Pie. Though the entire album was dedicated to Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, the single itself mentions no names. Fans and music industry professionals alike have their own theories on who this song is actually referring to.

McLean himself has resisted acknowledging the true meaning of this song. At one interview he quipped 'It means I never have to work again.' The song is generally assumed to be a tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, who were all killed in that plane crash in 1959, a date which is often referred to as The Day the Music Died, a phrase that does appear in American Pie's lyrics.. In an interview, McLean did admit that he learned of The Day the Music Died by reading the newspapers he was delivering as a kid, and the line 'February made me shiver with every paper I'd deliver' is in reference to the death of Buddy Holly.

Several artists have covered this song, most notably Madonna's version in 2000, which sold millions of copies but was panned almost universally by critics.

8. Metallica - To Live is to Die

Metallica's bass player, Cliff Burton was killed in a bus crash while on tour with the band in 1986. The lyrics '...cannot the Kingdom of Salvation take me home' are inscribed on Burton's memorial stone in Ljungby, Sweden, near where the accident occurred. The line is from the song To Live is to Die.

To Live is to Die is Metallica's tribute song for Cliff Burton, and appears on their 1988 album ...And Justice for All. Almost ten minutes long and mostly instrumental, the song has a spoken version of lines from the 1981 film Excalibur at the end. 'When a man lies, he murders some part of the world / These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives / All this I cannot bear to witness any longer / Cannot the Kingdom of Salvation take me home?' These lines were originally written by German poet Paul Gerhardt.

To Live is to Die, a phrase that Cliff Burton often used, is officially 9:58 long and features some work that Burton had written before his death. It is credited as the last song that was recorded which was written partially by Burton and is one of the few tracks where James Hetfield has played a guitar solo. It is also the only Metallica instrumental recorded with Burton's replacement, Jason Newsted.

7. R.E.M. - Man on the Moon

In 1992, the band R.E.M. released their smash hit album Automatic for the People. Included on the track list was one record that would become one of their most loved songs, Man on the Moon.

Man on the Moon was written as a tribute to comedian and actor Andy Kaufman, and the title was used for a 1999 semi biographical film about Kaufman, who died in 1984.

'Now, Andy did you hear about this one / Tell me, are you locked in the punch / Andy are you goofing on Elvis? Hey, baby / Are we losing touch / If you believed they put a man on the moon, man on the moon / If you believe there's nothing up his sleeve, then nothing is cool.'

The song talks about Kaufman's exploits and the Elvis Presley impersonation that was part of his comedy routine in the 1970s as well as addressing the popular conspiracy theory that Kaufman faked his own death.

Man on the Moon peaked at number 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, but it hit number two on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks, and number four on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks lists. It as also included on the soundtrack for the bio-pic in 1999. Automatic for the People went on to sell 3.5 million copies in the United States alone.

6. The Commodores - Night Shift

In the 1980s, the music scene was definitely changing. Hair metal was all the rage, rap was emerging as a dominant force and pop music was tearing up a new medium, known as MTV. In the mid-eighties, the Commodores, an R&B group who had been making hit records since the late seventies, found themselves without their lead singer, as Lionel Ritchie had quit the band to start up what would become a successful solo career.

In 1985, The Commodores released their first album without Lionel Ritchie or original bassist Ronald LaPread, called Night Shift. Though the band hired JD Nicholas to replace Ritchie, the Night Shift single featured drummer Walter 'Clyde' Orange on vocals. He also provided the vocal track for 1977's smash hit Brick House.

Night Shift was a tribute to pioneering artists Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, both R&B legends who died well before their times and whose losses were keenly felt by the musical community.

Marvin Gaye died at the hands of his father in an April 1, 1984 shooting. He was 44.

'Marvin, he was a friend of mine / And he could sing a song / His heart in every line.'

Jackie Wilson suffered a massive hart attack on January 21, 1984 from complications of pneumonia. He was 49.

'Jackie (Jackie, oh) you set / The world on fire / You came and gifted us / Your love it lifted us / Higher and higher.'

Night Shift peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and hit number one on the Billboard Hot Black Singles chart, both in 1985, and was The Commodore's biggest selling single after Lionel Ritchie left the band.


5. U2 - Angel of Harlem

U2's album Rattle and Hum was released in 1988 and is one of their highest selling records. It hit number one in several countries and has sold millions of copies. Track number ten is a little song called Angel of Harlem.

Angel of Harlem was tribute to American jazz great Billie Holiday, who died from pulmonary edema and heart failure on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44. Holiday had cirrhosis of the liver, was hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol, and died destitute and under arrest. Her life was as touched by tragedy and legal troubles as it was success.

Angel of Harlem references several famous New York City landmarks such as JFK airport, and WBLS Radio, as well as other jazz greats John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

'Birdland on fifty-three / The street sounds like a symphony / We got John Coltrane and a love supreme / Miles says she's got to be an angel.'

Holiday is mentioned as 'Lady Day.'

'Lady Day got diamond eyes / She sees the truth behind the lies / Angel.'

Angel of Harlem made it to number fourteen on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and has been covered by 10,000 Maniacs, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and The Persuasions among others and has been performed live by BB King's band.



4. Puff Daddy f. Faith Evans & 112 - I'll Be Missing You

Though this song had some rock fans up in arms, Puff Daddy (now known as 'Diddy') released this song as a dedication to his friend and client, Notorious B.I.G., who died in a controversial shooting on March 9, 1997.

The song borrows the tune from the classic Police song Every Breath you Take. It featured the chorus sung by The Police's singer, Sting, for the live version that was performed at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1997. There are several versions of the song, some of which feature a choir and some include classical music, as well as the popular American spiritual song 'I'll Fly Away.' Biggie's widow, Faith Evans, appears on the song as well, singing the chorus.

'It's kinda hard with you not around / Know you in heaven smilin' down / watchin' us while we pray for you / Every day we pray for you / Til the day we meet again.'

I'll Be Missing You was the first rap song to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. It also went on to sell over six million copies worldwide.



3. Alannah Myles - Black Velvet

There have been many songs about Elvis Presley, who died on August 16, 1977. Back to Tupelo by Mark Knopfler, Elvis and Andy by Confederate Railroad, Elvis Presley Blues by Jimmy Buffett, and The Day Elvis Died by Boxcar Willie are all about Presley. Bush referenced him in their hit Everything Zen. Billy Joel also says his name in the 1989 hit, We Didn't Start the Fire. Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, mentioned her famous father in Lights Out and Nobody Noticed It. One of the very best Elvis Presley tribute songs, however, is Canadian singer Allannah Myles's 1990 hit record, Black Velvet.

Written in 1988 and appearing on Myles's 1990 album also titled Black Velvet, the song was a standout on the pop charts and referenced Presley's popularity.

'Every word of every song that he sang was for you / In a flash he was gone, it happened so soon, what could you do?'

The song also talks about Presley's effect on his fans and his undeniable Southern roots.

'Mama's baby's in the heart of every school girl / Love me tender" leaves 'em cryin' in the aisle.'

Black Velvet went on to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1990, and won Myles a Grammy. Interestingly, this song was Myles's only number one hit. Though she would go on to release four more albums plus a greatest hits compilation and continues to make music, she has never managed to duplicate the success she found with Black Velvet.

2. George Harrison - All Those Years Ago

On December 8, 1980, the world lost one of it's most successful, influential and beloved musicians when John Lennon was murdered outside The Dakota apartment building in New York City. His death shocked the masses and the world mourned his loss.

His death was likely felt most keenly by his former Beatles band mates, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The latter wrote and recorded All Those Years Ago as a tribute to Lennon.

The song itself had been written before Lennon's death and was originally intended as a song for Ringo Starr's 1981 album Stop and Smell the Roses. Starr did record the song, but ended up not using it on his record. After Lennon's death, Harrison rewrote the lyrics as a tribute to his fallen band mate.

'We're living in a bad dream / They've forgotten all about mankind / And you were the one they backed up to / The wall / All those years ago / You were the one who imagined it all / All those years ago.'

For All Those Years Ago, Paul McCartney and his wife Linda provided backing vocals, and Ringo Starr provided the drum track. The song was released on Harrison's album Somewhere in England in 1981, and peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

1. Black Label Society - In This River

Another victim of senseless murder, Pantera and Damageplan guitarist Darrell 'Dimebag' Abbott was shot and killed while performing on stage on December 8, 2004 in Ohio. One of Dimebag's closest friends was Zakk Wylde, founder of the band Black Label Society. Though In This River was written prior to Dimebag's murder, Wylde has since dedicated the song to his friend.

'Withdrawn I step away / Just to find myself / The door is closed again / The only one left / This storm that's broken me / My only friend / In this river all shall fade to black / In this river ain't no coming back / In this river all shall fade to black / Ain't no coming back.'

The music video for In this River shows Wylde and Abbott as childhood friends, though they did not actually meet until their adult years. The fictional Abbott and Wylde jump into a river, with only Wylde emerging. Wylde has said that the river in the video and the song is a metaphor for life and death.

In this River is the fifth track on Black Label Society's 2005 album Mafia, and was the third single released from the record. It made it to number thirty-two on Billboard's Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart in 2005 and is still beloved by metal fans the world over.

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    • sweetjamieblueyes profile image

      Jamie Sykes 4 years ago from Lewisville, North Carolina

      Not going to lie, in all my years and musical knowledge, I did not realize "Black Velvet" was about Elvis. If I did, I forgot. Which is a good possibility considering my memory span is like a goldfish.

      Not surprised at your number one, thought. :)

    • Georgie Lowery profile image
      Author

      Georgianna Lowery 4 years ago from Slaton, Texas USA

      sweetjamieblueyes,

      Don't feel bad. I listened to Type O Negative's song Black Number One dozens of times before I realized that it was essentially about hair dye. ;)

    • Shelly Steele profile image

      Shelly Steele 4 years ago from Toledo, Ohio

      I was listening to Glenn Beck one day at work (I'm odd...I listen just to find out if he's even more paranoid than I am...he's just on a higher level and totally different topic). Anyway, he was saying that American Pie was a political song that was pretty much warning us of what was about to happen.

    • profile image

      Name 2 years ago

      Okay, first of all American Pie should be much higher on this list. Also, where is "Pride" by U2???

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