Historically, fathers doesn’t get as many songs penned about them as say, songs about romance, or even songs about mothers. There is something about the relationship between fathers and their children that often lends itself to appreciation in a quieter, less unspoken way.
That being said, there are still countless songs that musicians have released over the years, either in tribute to their father or to the children that they have fathered. So, without further ado, here are ten classic songs for your 2017 Father’s Day playlist.
1. Mockingbird – Eminem (2004)
Eminem‘s personal battles with his mother and his ex-wife have long been documented in his music. The volatile emcee has made a career out of cleanin’ out his closet on record, even when it painted him in an unflattering light. But the other common trope of Em’s music, and one that has only gotten stronger with time, is his relationship with his daughters Hailie and Alaina.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the 2004 single “Mockingbird.” Over a restrained instrumental, Eminem speaks on the struggles he faced being a good father with lines like “All the things growing up as Daddy that he had to see / Daddy don’t want you to see” and “Daddy’s here to hold you through the night.”
Eminem later discussed the song in an interview with Rolling Stone: “When Mom was on the run they didn’t understand it, and I’m not the greatest talker in the world, especially when I’m trying to explain to two little girls what’s goin’ on with someone who’s always been a part of their life and just disappeared. So that was my song to explain to them what was goin’ on, probably the most emotional song I ever wrote.”
2. Papa Was A Rolling Stone – The Temptations (1972)
Granted, “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” is not about the most upstanding father in the world. The song finds The Temptations taking the role of siblings who are questioning their mother about their deceased father. Lyrics like “Papa was a rollin’ stone / Wherever he laid his hat was his home/ And when he died, all he left us was alone” paint a somber picture of a father who never had time for his children and instead lived a destructive lifestyle.
Lyrically, it’s a bit of a grim tale. Sonically, however, there’s little denying the wondrous funk that drives the song. Producer Norman Whitfield gave The Temptations with one of the most psychedelic instrumentals to ever come out of Motown, and the result was a stone cold classic.
It peaked at #63 on the Pop Charts in 1972, and was later included in the Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
3. My Father’s Eyes – Eric Clapton (1998)
From funky to tragic, this Eric Clapton ballad ranks among the most touching tributes ever given by a father to his child. Clapton’s son Conor died at the age of 4 after accidentally falling out of an apartment window in 1985. In his grief, the guitarist wrote “My Father’s Eyes,” a song that detailed the emotional toll of losing a child: “Sailing down behind the sun / Waiting for my prince to come / Praying for the healing rain / To restore my soul again.”
“My Father’s Eyes” saw substantial success when it was released in 1998, peaking at #5 on the Adult Contemporary Charts and earning Clapton a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance.
Still, the lasting impact of the song is in it’s lyrics, a point that Clapton affirmed in his autobiography: “In it I tried to describe the parallel between looking in the eyes of my son, and the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood.”
4. Isn’t She Lovely – Stevie Wonder (1976)
Has there even been a more joyous ode to fatherhood? A centerpiece on Stevie Wonder‘s magnum opus Songs In the Key of Life, “Isn’t She Lovely” was written in tribute to his daughter Aisha Morris, who was born on February 2, 1975. And it’s clear from the opening moments– which features audio of a baby crying– that Wonder is caught up in the magic of being a father: “Less than one minute old,” he sings, “I never thought through love we’d be / Making one as lovely as she / But isn’t she lovely made from love.”
Wonder speaks for new fathers everywhere through his lyrics, and he even brings on his daughter Aisha at the end to lend to the exuberantly happy tone to the song. “Isn’t She Lovely” only peaked at #23 on the Adult Contemporary Charts in 1976, but time has proven this to be one of Wonder’s most beloved compositions.
5. Father and Son – Cat Stevens (1970)
This folk rock classic was originally intended to be part of a musical called Revolussia, which singer Cat Stevens masterminded with actor Nigel Hawthorne. Due to a lack of financial backing, however, and Stevens’ bout with tuberculosis, the plans for the musical fell through in 1969. Still, “Father and Son” remained– a conversational tune between a young, idealistic man looking to break free and father who tells him to “relax” and take life as it comes.
Lines like ‘Why must you go and make this decision alone?” stand out as evocative of the father’s perspective. “Father and Son” would go on to peak at number two on the UK Singles Chart in 1970.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1973, Stevens spoke on the many interpretations the song has provoked over the years: “Some people think that I was taking the son’s side. But how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too? I was listening to that song recently and I heard one line and realized that that was my father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father speaking.”
6. Just The Two Of Us – Will Smith (1997)
In 1997, Will Smith could do no wrong. He was the biggest actor in the world with box office hits like Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), and his music career continued to soar with the chart-topping album Big Willie Style. He was essentially untouchable. That being said, Smith decided to expose a more sensitive side of himself on the single “Just The Two Of Us,” which was a tribute to his first son Trey.
Built around a buttery sample of the Bill Withers song of the same name, Smith details his heartwarming journey with Trey, from the moment he was born to the ways in which he reminds the rapper of his younger self. “Always tell the truth, say your prayers / Hold doors, pull out chairs, easy on the swears,” he raps, “You’re living proof that dreams do come true / I love you and I’m here for you.”
The song went on to become one of Smith’s biggest hits, peaking at number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Just The Two Of Us” was also released as a children’s book.
7. Unforgettable – Natalie Cole & Nat King Cole (1991)
The 1951 rendition of “Unforgettable” remains a masterpiece of romantic songwriting. With the swooning lyricism of songwriter Irving Gordon and the sultry vocal delivery of Nat King Cole, it’s not hard to understand why it is still instantly recognizable for listeners today. But Cole’s historical ties to the song would be given a second life in 1991, when his daughter Natalie Cole released the album Unforgettable… With Love.
Cole’s rendition of “Unforgettable” combined her original vocals with those of her late father, and spun the sentiment of the song to reflect a more familial sense of love. The results? A smash hit that would go on to win Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 1992.
After Natalie Cole passed in 2015, several publications pointed listeners in the direction of “Unforgettable”– a duet that truly lives up to its name.
8. Papa Don’t Preach – Madonna (1986)
“Papa Don’t Preach,” like so many of Madonna‘s defining hits, deals with controversial subject matter. The song is about a young girl who tells her father that she is pregnant and refuses to have an abortion or give up the baby for adoption. “You should know by now that I’m not a baby” she sings to her father, before explaining that what she needs right now is “some good advice, please.”
The song tackles side of the father-daughter relationship that’s rarely explored in pop music, and where it succeeds is in just how heartfelt and realistic it feels. Despite all her mistakes, and her refusal to compromise, she is still going to her father for advice, believing that he will know what to do. After all, what are fathers for?
“Papa Don’t Preach” became a gigantic hit in 1986, peaking at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Today, it is considered one of Madonna’s most artistically mature songs.
9. Daughters – John Mayer (2005)
The rare song that addresses family from an outside perspective, “Daughters” is a plea to fathers everywhere to nurture their daughters during childhood. John Mayer takes this angle to say that this crucial relationship will affect the types of relationships daughters will have with men when they are adults. And though Mayer himself is not a father, he reportedly drew inspiration for the song from an unnamed ex-girlfriend.
“On behalf of every man / Looking out for every girl,” he croons over a gentle guitar melody, “You are the God and weight of her world / So fathers, be good to your daughters.” Mayer was reportedly unsure that such an intimate song would be an effective single, and released it as so only because someone close to him said it would work.
“You’re not always right,” he said in an interview with the Berkley College of Music, “So it’s important to assemble a team of people that are more right than you are.” At the 2005 Grammy Awards, “Daughters” won Song of the Year.
10. Dance With My Father – Luther Vandross (2003)
No song better captures the importance and emotional weight of a father’s love than “Dance With My Father.” Luther Vandross based the song on his personal experiences, of his own father, Luther Vandross Sr. who died when the singer was still a boy.
It was a topic that Vandross had never written about during his career, and the sheer emotional weight of his words speak for themself: “If I could steal one final glance / One final step / One final dance with him / I’d play a song that would never, never end / ‘Cause I’d love, love, love / To dance with my father again.”
Vandross’ mother Mary Ida reflected on the song with Ebony magazine: “I was amazed at how well Luther remembered his father, how we used to dance and sing in the house. I was so surprised that at 7 1/2 years of age, he could remember what a happy household we had.” Despite little promotion (due to Vandross’ failing health), “Dance With My Father” took home the Grammy Awards for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Song of the Year in 2004.
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