Johnny Cash

Top of the Pops: An Encyclopedia of Dads in Song

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 06.15.11 in Collections

Dad. Daddy. Papa. The Old Man. Padre. Dozens of different names, all of them referring to the same guy — the one on the receiving end of countless well-meaning ties and mugs every year from grade school on up. There are almost as many different kinds of dads as there are names for him and, over the course of the last century or so of music, we've seen just about all of them. Did your dad saddle you with a strange name in a well-meaning attempt to make you stronger? Did he glance disapprovingly at his watch every time you snuck in after curfew? No matter your dad's personality, there's almost certain to be a musical analog.

And so, in honor of Father's Day, we present this Encyclopedia of Musical Dads. From the responsible papas to, well, the less so, you'll find them all on display in this feature. Which type of dad did you have?

The Childless Dad

His Best, Volume 1

Chuck Berry

"Memphis, Tennessee" It's unlike any other song written and performed by Chuck Berry, who normally concerned himself with teens living life to the fullest. "Memphis, Tennessee" is cried by a decidedly adult victim, and a decidedly victimized adult. Chuck's voice mixes panic, anguish and moral certainty as he implores the operator to help him locate his six-year-old daughter, separated from him when her mom "tore apart our happy home." Between the decisive beat, rubbery guitar and tender vocals, he leaves no doubt as to who's at once the Daddy and Daddy-o of '50s rock. John Morthland

The Disapproving Dad

She's So Unusual

Cyndi Lauper

"Girls Just Want To Have Fun" It was the MTV anthem heard 'round the world. Cyndi Lauper's new-wave ode to hedonism was a fluorescent polka-dotted kiss-off to the squares of her parents' generation. The dad in "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" is the fuddy-duddy, the stick in the mud, always worried about bedtimes and career goals, never grasping that life is one big confetti-filled party. The ubiquitous MTV video featured Captain Lou Albano the charismatic pro-wrestler with the rubber band facial piercings as Cyndi's father. The casting of the playful WWE star was a new twist on the song's disapproving dad sure, Albano gamely played the spoilsport, shaking his head and wagging his finger, but it was clearly an act. At any given moment, it seemed, Albano's party pooper of a father was on the verge of abandoning all decorum and joining in the fun. Maris Kreizman

The Soul-Crushing Stage Dad

Summer Days (And Summer Nights) (2001 - Remaster)

Beach Boys

"I'm Bugged at My Ol' Man" Comedy, right? The joke track from Summer Days (and Summer Nights!) is a fake doo-wop song about the Beach Boys' dad punishing them, complete with off-key backing vocals ("gosh, it's dark!") and mock-dramatic Elvis-isms. Except the more you know about Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson's sadistic, controlling father/manager/publisher Murry, the more it sounds like a cry for help. "I ripped up my wardrobe and I'm growin' a beard/ Oh when will they let me come out?" Brian whoops. A few years later, he'd confine himself to his room, grow a beard and get too big for most of his wardrobe. Murry didn't even have to tell him to: the damage was already done. Douglas Wolk

The Overthinking Dad

New York

Lou Reed

"Beginning of a Great Adventure" A positive pregnancy test starts the mind racing, and while mom puts her mind to practical matters, the dad-to-be is sometimes left spinning his wheels. Reed confronts potential fatherhood with a barrage of possibilities; vanity and neurosis battle it out as Reed imagines having "a little me or he or she to fill up with my thoughts" and while he's at it, why not 10? His then-wife Sylvia chimes in with the titular phrase, reminding Reed that birth is only the beginning, and what comes after is too unpredictable to waste time looking ahead. Perhaps not surprisingly, Reed didn't end up having kids he and Sylvia divorced, and he later married fellow musical eccentric Laurie Anderson but if he had, he'd have discovered that raising a child is too blissfully exhausting to leave much room for thought. Sam Adams

The Bait and Switch Dad


Pearl Jam

"Alive" As if the pistol-packing kid in Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" video wasn't enough of a reminder that Eddie Vedder wasn't hugged much as a child, "Alive" is the first installment in the frontman's Mamasan trilogy, a fun-loving tale of incest, murder, and capital punishment. In this particular episode the others are Ten's prickly opener, "Once," and the solemn b-side, "Footsteps" Vedder blends fact and fiction by way of the day he found out "daddy" was in fact his stepfather. Oh, and that his real dad was long dead. Heartwarming stuff for sure, especially considering its enduring status as a frat-party staple. Andrew Parks

Dad, the Invisible Conscience

Twelve Nights In Hollywood

Ella Fitzgerald

"My Heart Belongs to Daddy" Most people narrowly avoid wrongdoing by hearing the voice of their paterfamilias chiding gently in the back of their head, but in this smoky, sultry Cole Porter-penned classic, it sounds like Ella Fitz still manages to get away with plenty while pledging her filial loyalty. So whether she's making eyes on the golf course or inviting some boy up to, ahem, "dine on [her] Finnan Haddie" (Google it), at the end of the night it's off they go because surely papa wouldn't approve of anything further. That the song was a favorite of strippers in the '30s is little wonder: what better setting to work out such complicated daddy/daughter issues? J. Edward Keyes

The Drunken Dreadlocked Dad

"Don't Sell Daddy Anymore Whiskey" On Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus's 1979 album Love Thy Nieghbor, Jamaica's greatest practitioner of Nyabinghi (a form of devout Rastafarian music propelled by batteries of thundering hand drums and chanted vocals) enters the ethereal haze of dub reggae master Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark recording studio. Ras Michael recasts a country-and-western standard and turns it into a slow trance, each drum hit scattering into dark space. Told from the viewpoint of a child, he pleads with a shopkeep to not sell to his deadbeat alcoholic father as "I know it will take him away." Listeners, too, will float down whiskey river. Andy Beta

The Conscientious Dad

The Undisputed Truth

Brother Ali

"Faheem" There was a nasty divorce and a contentious custody battle. Then there were days of sleeping on the floor, mouse droppings in the toys, and separation anxiety when dad went to work, sometimes away for days or even weeks, on tour. Brother Ali runs down the story in less than three minutes, directly addressing his son Faheem with explanations that plead for forgiveness (even as you hear that there was no other way) and string together couplets like pearls as the beauty of his love comes forth. "I fed you, changed you, read to you, bathed you/ I'm not trying to hold that over your head/ I'm saying thank you." There are eight stanzas in all, and in every one an essence of fatherhood is rendered with a penetrating insight that isn't cloying or mawkish. It makes similarly conscientious dads proud of their circumstance, and is a high point in Brother Ali's treasure trove of hip-hop keepers. Britt Robson

The Not-Quite Dad


George Michael

"Father Figure" One of the greatest chart-topping ballads of its decade is arguably its strangest, which, of course, accounts for much of its enduring appeal. Originally conceived as a dance track, George Michael situates this 1987 hit halfway between the boudoir and the chapel, and the devotional arrangement contrasts with the strong suggestion that the object of the former Wham!-ster's affections is major jailbait: "Sometimes love can be mistaken for a crime," he reasons between requests that his beloved "Put your tiny hand in mine." Similarly, his vocal performance vacillates between offering comfort and carnal knowledge, tenderness and taboo. It was obvious even a decade or two before his famous indiscretions that George was more interesting in playing Daddy than actually being one and that's just how we liked it. Barry Walters

The Loving Dad

Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute To The Songs of Shel Silverstein

Various Artists

"Daddy What If" In 1974, Bobby Bare and his son Bobby Jr. recorded the Shel Silverstein-penned duet "Daddy What If," in which six-year-old Junior asks, "Daddy, what if I stopped loving you?" and Senior responds, "The grass would stop growing, the sun would stop shining and the wind would stop blowing." In 2010, Junior rerecorded the track with his young daughter Isabella, as a tribute to Silverstein, and it's arguably even more precious than the first (especially if you watch the video). Laura Leebove

The Deranged Dad

The Slim Shady LP


"'97 Bonnie And Clyde" On pretty much the sketchiest "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" ever committed to tape, Eminem invites his baby girl along into the studio for some unique multitasking. While her real-life mother thought she was enjoying a day at Chuck E. Cheese, Em and daughter Hailie were recording a duet where the pair tie a rock around mommy's "footsie" and release her into the lake with a playful "wheee!" Hailie coos, laughs, cries and even adds a haunting "mama!" while patient dad explains the blood stains. The jury is still out on whether this is artistic genius or low-level child abuse. Christopher R. Weingarten

The Inspirational Dad

Dangerously In Love


"Daddy" Love letter "Daddy" was secretly written out of the watchful eye of Beyonc's father/manager Matthew Knowles. Maybe if he oversaw it like the 14 other tracks on her solo debut it wouldn't have crossed that line from "heartfelt tribute" to "a little creepy." "Daddy" is syrupy in a Lauryn Hill way and maintains a vintage cool (though "vintage" means "Mariah Carey-meets-Boyz II Men"), but nothing sings louder than the ultimately sweet but also a little unnerving line, "I want my unborn son to be like my daddy/ I want my husband to be like my daddy." Christopher R. Weingarten

The Missing Dad

The Dynasty


"Where Have You Been?" Jay-Z normally cuts a pretty cool figure on record; when pain pokes through, it's in sideways glints. But there are rare moments in his catalog, usually tucked away near the ends of his albums, where his guard drops completely, to stunning results. "Where Have You Been," the final track to his glitzy, expensive-sounding 2000 posse album The Dynasty, finds Jay and Philly bruiser Beanie Sigel raging at their absentee fathers. Beanie Sigel raps his verse through audible tears, but Jay condenses his hurt into diamond-hard, chillingly direct anger: "I would say, 'My daddy loves me and he'll never go away'/Bullshit; do you even remember December's my birthday?/Do you even remember the tender boy that you turned into a cold young man?" The chorus, a hauntingly off-key children's chorus of "Daddy, where have you been?," solidifies it as one of the most emotionally raw moments in Jay's catalog. Jayson Greene

The Parolee Dad

"Daddy's Come Home" Before he was known as King of the Honky-Tonks in the 1970s, Gary Stewart joined forces with Riley Watkins, Jim Noveskey, and Jim Snead in the late '60s for this obscure rip-snorter of country-fried rock, Grandma's Roadhouse. Songs abound about funky tarpaper shacks, Grandma's homemade buttermilk, barnyard animals and fields of green (wink, wink). But then there's this, a queerly upbeat tune about a blue jean boy anticipating the return of his father from a 15-year prison sentence. There's an audible joy in becoming a man with his ex-con father, rather than staying with his mother and her"friends." Andy Beta

The Musical Dad

Song For My Father

Horace Silver

"Song for my Father" Jazz pianist Horace Silver grew up hearing his father play folk songs from his native Cape Verde, the archipelago off West Africa. Decades later, Silver wrote a catchy hard bop number with a melody reminiscent of dad's old favorites. "Song for My Father" became Silver's biggest hit, and fathered two more. Steely Dan recycled its irresistible two-note bassline into "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," and the melody informs Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." Which goes to show: success has many fathers. Kevin Whitehead

The Emotionally Detached Dad

Emmylou Harris Anthology: The Warner/Reprise Years

Emmylou Harris

"To Daddy" It's hard not to feel for the mother at the center of this Emmylou Harris weeper. While the dad, who, it seems reasonable to assume from the lyrics, spoke about five words a week came and went without so much as grunting a "thank you," Ma Harris cared for the kids, cooked, cleaned and generally fulfilled the roles of both. Is it any wonder he should wake up one day to find, in place of his wife, a note, explaining that he was left to fend for himself while she went out in search of "the love she [needed] so badly?" That she waited until the kids were grown to do so was her final act of kindness to a man who didn't deserve half that. J. Edward Keyes

The Absentee Dad

The Essential Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

"A Boy Named Sue" There's absentee fathers... and then there's the kind of guy who vanishes shortly after saddling his young son with the egregiously effeminate name of "Sue." The dad's Darwinian reasoning behind the humiliating handle is that the kid will have to "get tough or die" in his absence. But since the option of shelling out a few bucks at the county courthouse for a legal name-change apparently never occurs to father or son, the stage is set for a bloody reunion. Dan Epstein

The Remorseful Dad


Loudon Wainwright III

"Hitting You" Sometimes a song really is a short story. The oft-comic, even-more-oft confessional singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III made an ill-considered swat at his daughter in the car (he was driving, she was misbehaving in the back) into a sobering domestic tragedy set to acoustic guitar rather than the pages of The New Yorker. By the end, father and daughter are cohabiting "like two people who are through." The line he keeps coming back to is also the line that lingers long after the song is over: "I knew right away it was too hard/ And I'd never make it right." Michaelangelo Matos

The Outraged Would-Be Dad

Just As I Am

Bill Withers

"I'm Her Daddy" Pop-song fathers usually come in two forms: 1) dastardly absentee (see "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," or about 6,547 others) or 2) sappily devoted daddy (see: "Butterfly Kisses"). Trust Bill Withers to calmly throw out this blueprint. The man never saw a gender norm he didn't know how to bend gently under the weight of his deep, warm, baritone, and "I'm Her Daddy" is a case in point. It's a song about a man who has never known his daughter but he's not up late at night, penning a tear-stained letter to the little girl he abandoned over a bottle of Jack. Rather, he has dropped in on an old flame after having learned he has a daughter with her he was never told about. He demands angrily to be a part of her life: "Did you give her one of my pictures?/ Does she carry that picture with her?/ Does she say it to the babysitter and say, 'See that man? That's my daddy/ You should have told me, Lucy." Score one for outraged decency. Jayson Greene

The Too-Loving Dad

Love On The Beat

Serge Gainsbourg

"Lemon Incest" Only in France could a song about incest reach No. 2 on the pop charts and stay there for a month. It's not so much that the lyrics are disturbing: Taken out of its context, "L'amour que nous ne ferons jamais ensemble est le plus beau" ("The love we'll never make together is the most beautiful") is a grand slam in eloquence, the sort that's made this master Gallic songwriter a role model for the likes of Beck. What signifies even if you don't know a word of French or know that Gainsbourg cast his actual daughter Charlotte, then only 12, as his singing partner is that he's put her in the awkward position of straining for notes she can't comfortably reach, and that this musical metaphor unnerves just like its subject. Sometimes sticking out your hand for something you can't have is nearly as transgressive as actually grasping it. Barry Walters

The Newly Infatuated Dad

Songs In The Key Of Life

Stevie Wonder

"Isn't She Lovely" Only a genius could write a six-and-a-half minute song about a daughter who was less than 60 seconds old. Not even the baby-in-the-bathwater sound effects could kill the joy that proliferates from Songs in the Key of Life's smash 1976 single-that-never-actually-was. (Wonder forbade Motown from separating this instant standard from its parent album.) The skipping rhythm implies the child that Stevie's newborn Aisha would soon become; the melody circles around to suggest radiant wholeness, and the harmonica solo is by even Wonder's standards exceptionally ecstatic. At the height of his musical sophistication, the former child star could still celebrate youth by playing like one. Barry Walters

The Hardest Working Dad in Show Business

20 All Time Greatest Hits

James Brown

"Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" Out in the pale suburbs in the summer of 1965, the grunts and phrases of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" seemed like tweets from what was still the Other America. We sussed a black nationalist code what was the new breed thing? to which we weren't privy, but to which we sure could dance. (L.A.'s Watts district, where "bag" meant "problem," exploded in riot the week "Papa" peaked on the pop charts.) The dances James Brown mentions, including the Mashed Potatoes and the Twist, were all relics of junior high. Maybe that was the point: Even the hippest dad was going to be a step or two behind the kids. Or maybe he was saying, "ain't no drag" if we'd stop thinking so hard, and just move. Or just listen, and discover what the word "work," in all of its possibilities, really meant. Wayne Robins

The Trust-Fund-Supporting Dad



"Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car" Paris Hilton was only 12 years old in 1993, but she already had an unofficial theme song with this industrial-rock banger a scathing takedown of daddies who bail out their troubled little girls with the swipe of an AMEX. U2's groove is coiled and fierce Larry Mullen Jr.'s screwed-and-chopped beat flirts with techno and Edge lays down one of his nastiest guitar riffs ever but it's Bono who steals the show. The peace-loving philanthropist who, two years prior, called out for universal love on "One," is in full-on bitch mode here and it works. "Daddy won't let you ache/ Daddy gives you as much as you can take," he cackles. "A-hasha-la." Kevin O'Donnell