The greatest love songs arise from the greatest passion, and that passion can emerge from a limitless number of situations and relationships, real and imagined. Above all, they are written and sung by one — and only one — person to an equally unique individual, about a single experience of love like no other. These verses come when words or melodies on their own will not suffice, and the overpowering sense of love — or, perhaps, the equally overpowering lack of it — consumes a soul and demands to be heard. The source of that passion is the specificity of the person singing it — her voice; the person she is singing it to — his ear; and what just happened to make her sing it to him now. What springs forth is a universal expression that we can all relate to: The greatest love songs allow the many to plug into a dialogue between lover and beloved and experience the infinity of love.
Take Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which you will find on just about every list of the greatest love songs ever written. It is one of the best-selling and most award-winning singles of all time. Whether it’s the virtuosic, soaring vocals of Whitney Houston (1992); the elegant, tender endearments of Parton (1974); the soulful power of Linda Ronstadt (1975); or one of many other performances — at some point, somebody will make you feel the love. Surprisingly, Parton’s love song wasn’t written for a lover — she wrote it as she left her partner and mentor, Porter Wagoner. She had started her career with Wagoner, and when she wanted to go out on her own, he didn’t want to let her go. “There was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going,” Parton recalled in an interview in 2011. “So, I thought, ‘Well, why don’t you do what you do best?’ ... I went home and out of a very emotional place in me at that time, I wrote the song ‘I Will Always Love You.’”
Parton played it for Wagoner, who was so moved he cried and said he would let her go — as long as she allowed him to produce the song. She did, and it soared to No. 1 on the country chart. It was a transformative moment in her life, shared with a person of great consequence to her. “I Will Always Love You” meant one thing to her, another to him, and something different to each person who has heard it. It exemplifies the individual experience of a singer and a listener, composing an expression that speaks to the hearts of many.
“I Will Always Love You” is not my favorite love song, though Dolly Parton is one of my favorite songwriters and singers. My favorite love songs possess the same specificity of “I Will Always Love You” and bear two additional qualities: They are embedded in the creative occurrence of love, and are sung from lover to beloved.
Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” released in 1976, rejoices in the birth of Wonder’s daughter Aisha, as he shares the gift of her life with his partner, Yolanda, to whom he sings directly: “Londi, it could have not been done, without you who conceived the one.” “Isn’t She Lovely” brings us into the awe of love, tracing flashes of joy. In the first moment of the song, we aurally witness Aisha’s birth, with intensely beating drums, surfacing into a crescendo of harmony and the sound of a newborn crying. We then hear the stirring, sweet sounds of a toddler saying, “Feed me,” and the heart-melting moment of bath-time play. Most powerfully and beautifully, the line that ends each of the three verses — “Isn’t she lovely, made from love,” transports the listener into Wonder’s rhapsody. Like Parton’s song, Wonder’s communicates who he is, whom he is singing to, and what just happened to make him sing this song right now. “Isn’t She Lovely” achieves something further, as Wonder celebrates the joy of love — its creativity, humor, and hope.
The same is true of Linda Creed and Michael Masser’s “The Greatest Love of All,” an expression both mighty and tender that originally was recorded by George Benson in 1977 for the movie The Greatest (a Muhammad Ali biopic) and brought to the top of the charts by Whitney Houston in 1985. Creed wrote the lyrics as she faced breast cancer — she hoped to tell her children what she wished for them and how to live their lives without her. Though the song was inspired by individual experience, what is conceived each time it is sung and heard is a universal cognition of the power and fortitude of self-love: “Learning to love yourself, is the greatest love of all.”
“Isn’t She Lovely” and “The Greatest Love of All” are two of my favorite songs, and fixed into my heart, because of life events that connect me to them.
“My Funny Valentine,” written in 1937 by Rodgers and Hart, will always be one of my most favorite love songs. I cannot choose from among the performances by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Chet Baker. The three are incomparable. In my imagination, I know who is singing; I feel as if it is being sung to me; I can, in an instant, recall experiences that will bring it into the now. The song celebrates the joy, creativity, and humor of love; and is sung from lover to beloved. And, finally, I have a history with it. “My Funny Valentine” was my grandparents’ song.
My grandparents epitomized the idea of true love to me. Some of my earliest memories include that song: My grandpa walking up to a band and slipping the bandleader a bill to play it, the light in my grandmother’s face when it started to play, watching them dance and look at each other with adoration and devotion sustained over decades. I have an audible memory of the band’s vocalist singing it to them — that’s my favorite version, the one recorded in my head. It holds a history of love, and the moment of love, simultaneously for me. It makes me feel the infinity of love.
We all have different favorite love songs and different versions of those favorites. Even if we have the same favorite recording of the same song, each one of us will hear it differently as it plays, and therefore it is not the same. It distinguishes itself from all others as it transports from lips to ear. We have our own histories, which fill the spaces in a song. The greatest love song is one in which lover and beloved can relate through the past, present, and future; where they can approach the creativity of love as we all bear witness to it — and sing along.
Singer/songwriter Ruth Gerson — called “an underground songwriting master” by the San Francisco Chronicle — writes and teaches voice in the Bay Area. She will tour the United States this summer with her family band.