Music for a 150th Birthday Party: A Century and a Half of Songs from the Los Angeles Public Library

Daniel Tures, Adult Librarian, Edendale Branch Library,
Albums covers collage with words Happy Birthday behind Central Library building
Happy 150th Birthday, Los Angeles Public Library!

Happy 150th birthday, Los Angeles Public Library! Way back in December 1872, Los Angeles officially founded its public library, which has grown bigger and better through the years, spreading out into a system that covers the city. Today our historic Central Library and its 72 branches serve the largest and most diverse population in the U.S.A., creating shared spaces with communities across the Southland to provide free access to information, education, technology, services, and programming.

We'll be celebrating our 150th birthday and looking back on our history in many ways this month. Here's one of them—a streaming Freegal playlist of songs that celebrate Los Angeles, libraries, local music legends, and the passing of many good years, with many more to come! Of course, no single playlist can include every L.A. musician and every song about the city, but we gave it the good old library try and came up with a very fun selection of representative tunes. Give it a listen!

Book cover for Happy 150th Birthday Los Angeles Public Library!
Happy 150th Birthday Los Angeles Public Library!

One of our playlist themes is, of course, libraries and books. We kick it off a neat little rarity of the sort that Freegal is the perfect place to find: a public service announcement by the Tokens all about libraries. The Tokens were a Brooklyn doo-wop group that hit it big in 1961 with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." As they remind us over a swingin' groove: "Today's public library is more than books, and if you haven't been there lately, you're missing plenty! Read, listen, look, take part and grow—and enjoy yourself at your public library!"

We offer several thematically appropriate movie soundtrack cuts, including one by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo called, "Trail to the Library" and another called simply "Library of Awesome." Had to include Elmer Bernstein's music from the library scene in Ghostbusters, which nominally takes place at the New York Public Library but was actually filmed in the old basement of our own Central Library downtown in 1983. Freegal also has several indie-rock tunes about libraries and library cards, including a delightfully rowdy celebration of all that is cool about the library by folk-punk chanteuse Kimya Dawson and rapper Aesop Rock.

The Ghostbusters meet the librarian ghost in the stacks of the New York Public Library
The Ghostbusters meet the librarian ghost in the stacks of the New York Public Library, which was really the basement of Los Angeles Central Library. Picture Courtesy of Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures

Tunes about books? We got 'em covered, starting with "Book of Love," the ebullient 1957 doo-wop hit by the unfortunately named Monotones, and moving on to the reliable dictum of Bo Diddley's "You Can't Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover." One of L.A.'s best 60s bands never to hit it big was Love, fronted by misfit genius Arthur Lee, who rocked up a menacing version of the Bacharach-penned gem "My Little Red Book." The Psychedelic Furs give us a new wave "Book of Days" and the Benny Goodman Orchestra do a nice version of "Close as Pages in a Book." Reggae singer Glen Ricks sings a sweet "Story Book," bluegrass mainstays Flatt & Scruggs honor "That Old Book of Mine," and we would be remiss not to include Bob Dylan's classic "My Back Pages" along with the soaring cover version by L.A. rock pioneers the Byrds. On one's 150th birthday, one cannot but appreciate the poetic words of Bob, looking back on the years gone by: "Ah but I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now..."

Fiction Department, Los Angeles Public Library
Fiction Department, Los Angeles Public Library

Being a Los Angeles institution for so many years, we must also celebrate our fair city in song. To work for, or to visit, the Los Angeles Public Library is truly a way to love L.A. Thus, Randy Newman's 1983 paean to the Big Orange, "I Love L.A." Sure, the lyrics are a little sarcastic, but we Angelenos need a sharp sense of humor to survive: "Everybody's happy / 'cause the sun is shining all the time / Looks like another perfect day / I love L.A. (We love it!)"

Often called the father of Chicano music, Lalo Guerrero set traditional Mexican rancheras to R&B-flavored rhythms in the 1930s and 40s, launching the definitive template for urban Latino sounds to follow. Born in Tucson in 1916, he relocated to Los Angeles in his teens and found huge crossover success as a singer and songwriter, starting in nightclubs and eventually touring far and wide and even appearing in Hollywood movies. His corrido "Los Angeles" is among the great homages to his adopted hometown, belting out swaggering pride in the city's Mexican heritage and community.

Main Street vista
Main Street vista, [ca.1937]. Herman J Schultheis Collection

More odes to L.A. that you can rock out to on this playlist: X's anthemic "Los Angeles," as well as Pixies frontman Frank Black's blazing ditty of the same title, UK art-punks The Fall's hilariously minimal "L.A." (most of the lyrics are just chanting those two letters), and Arlo Guthrie's "Comin' Into Los Angeles" ("bringin' in a couple of keys"). Johnny Moore's Three Blazers inspired Nat 'King' Cole and Chuck Berry with their jump blues sound in the 1940s; their "Los Angeles Blues" is a stone classic. And the late great jazz singer Joe Williams croons a deliciously jaded salute to local amenities, "It's such a thrill to see the Rams or Dodgers play…"

Vertical sign of the Los Angeles Theatre
Vertical sign of the Los Angeles Theatre, [1961]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

One of the great Chicano rock bands of the 60s, Thee Midniters cackle maniacally on a trip down "Whittier Boulevard"—which is also a good route to take to visit the Robert Louis Stevenson library, our very first branch to open and still going strong since 1927. Local legends Los Lobos cruise in the other direction on their way to a "West L.A. Fadeaway."

 Los Lobos concert
Los Lobos concert, [1988]. Photo credit: Leo Jarzomb, Herald Examiner Collection

Speaking of iconic local musicians, we feature a festival of them. Starting way back with Gene Autry, the singing cowboy movie star who owned both KTLA and the Angels baseball team, through the decades to the hardcore blitz of Darby Crash and The Germs, all the way up to the kaleidoscopic soundscapes of beatmaker Flying Lotus, the many moods of great L.A. music are here.

 Darby Crash with skateboard
Darby Crash of the musical group Germs holds skateboard, April 1980. Photo credit: Gary Leonard

Certain noteworthy music scenes demand special recognition. In the 40s and 50s, Central Avenue running south from downtown, was lined with jazz and blues clubs, and boasted the hottest nightlife west of Harlem, attracting everyone from mobsters to movie stars. Most of the clubs on Central are long gone, but they once fostered the West Coast jazz sound and the careers of just about every great local jazzman, including Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy, Gerald Wilson, Big Jay McNeely and many more. Fiery blues singer Etta James was a lifelong Angeleno, represented here by her classic "Something's Got a Hold On Me" and also a newer tune. Hear me out—I know it sounds unlikely, but Etta's cover version of Simply Red's hit "Holding Back the Years" from her 2006 album All the Way is not only on theme but also stunningly soulful, uniting the disparate worlds of 80s UK groove and classic blues in a way I hadn't previously thought necessary. Give it a spin and tell me if I'm crazy...

Buddy Collette with his flute
Buddy Collette, composer, arranger, teacher, and master of alto and tenor sax, flute, and clarinet. Collette is seated and holding his flute in a recording studio. Photo dated: September 28, 1956. Photo credit: Blake Dudly, Herald Examiner Collection

Young Ritchie Valens (born Valenzuela) kicked off L.A. rock in the late 50s with an electrifying run of singles before his life was cut tragically short in that infamous plane crash at age 17. The Beach Boys, led by non-surfing wunderkind Brian Wilson, defined the Southern California sound in the early 60s, getting pleasantly weirder after their stardom peaked towards the end of the decade. L.A. rock got darker and heavier with bands of the Sunset Strip and beyond, especially Jim Morrison and the Doors (whose "Enciende Mi Fuego" you can enjoy here), as well as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. A breezier, folkier sound emanated from Laurel Canyon, epitomized by Joni Mitchell, The Mamas & The Papas, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The backlash to the mellow Laurel Canyon sound came a few years later with the Southern California hardcore punk scene, led by gnarly bands like Black Flag (represented here by "The Process of Weeding Out," a title that might resonate with librarians updating the shelves) and The Minutemen. Not long after, the west coast's fertile hip hop scene got its start, over time producing such visionary talents as Ice-T, Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples, Kendrick Lamar, Nipsey Hussle, and the inexorably lovable Snoop Dogg. Many alternative Southland bands and musicians have been inspired by local punk and hip-hop, including Rage Against the Machine, Ozomatli, Beck, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose song "Give It Away" is in funk-punky agreement with the library ethos of resources freely offered. And new L.A. musicians are always on the rise, including R&B iconoclast Frank Ocean and meteoric luminary Billie Eilish, who is said to be an enthusiastic library fan—perhaps the hip and happening Arroyo Seco library is the branch nearest her Highland Park home.

 Ice-T and Tone-Loc
Actors and rappers Ice-T and Tone-Loc at a party in Los Angeles. Herald Examiner Collection

Making it to 150 years is cause for celebration! Our playlist has many tunes with a theme of partying and festivity, beginning with Earth Wind & Fire's "Celebrate" from their chart-topping album Gratitude. Maurice White may have started the band in Chicago, but they've been a dazzling L.A. institution since relocating here in the early 70s. Eminent local accordionist "Weird Al" Yankovic achieves a heroic level of wackiness on his frenetic original composition "Happy Birthday." Not only has Al somehow outlasted most of the rock stars whose songs he's satirized, but he's also an Angeleno to the core—the title of his surprisingly proficient 2006 hip-hop album is Straight Outta Lynwood, which is where he grew up. (Lynwood's library is part of the county system; the nearest city library is the wonderful and fun-loving Alma Reaves Woods branch in Watts.) Alvin Cash and the Fatback Band give up the funk in order to remind us that it is officially "Party Time." Even dour English punks The Stranglers propose "Let's Celebrate," and Detroit funk-rock ensemble Rare Earth declare their singular intention on the monumental "(I Just Want to) Celebrate."

Dancing at a backyard party
Dancing at a backyard party, [1959]. Shades of L.A.: Filipino American Community

The library couldn't have made it 150 years without the public—the people of Los Angeles, on both sides of the counter, growing and learning together. We've made a great team for many years, and we're going to stick together for many more to come! Is this getting corny? Undoubtedly so, but anyway, the passing of time and the good years together are perennial themes of popular songs, and some of those songs can be enjoyed on this playlist.

Willie Nelson has written so many standards that he has long since transcended the bounds of mere country music to enter the rarefied realm of the Great American Songbook. Or in Gram Parsons' coinage, Cosmic American Music. Songs like Willie's 1962 "Funny How Time Slips Away" are such consummate expressions of their wry, heartfelt subject matter that they have been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin. We include here his own version and an equally great interpretation by Al Green. Al is himself no songwriting slouch when it comes to this theme: his timeless hymn to fidelity through the years, "Let's Stay Together," is also here.

No clock-watchers here
No clock-watchers here, just members of Las Benevolas of the Assistance League planning their 'Time For Fun' party to be held Saturday night. They are, from left, Mmes. Richard McWhorter of Encino, Carl A. Stutsman Jr., and Leslie L. Howell, both of North Hollywood, [1961]. Photo credit: George Brich, Valley Times Collection

North Carolina R&B singer Wilbert Harrison struck gold in the 60s with two variations on this theme: "Let's Work Together," later covered as a dirty blues by Canned Heat, and a rewrite, "Let's Stick Together," which Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry recycled into a vicious glam stomp. The fabulous Emotions disco it up with "Time Is Passing By," UK electronic producer Atjazz (aka Martin Iveson) throws down a danceable "We're Still Here," reggae DJ Prince Jazzbo toasts to "Good Memories," and rocksteady mainstay Delroy Wilson sings a honeyed "I Remember." Billy Ward and The Dominoes get in the swing with "(You Grow) Sweeter As the Years Go By". The Carpenters made Roger Nichols' and Paul Williams' "We've Only Just Begun" into an obligatory wedding tune—here we offer a tougher version by Mark Lindsay, frontman of garage-rock combo Paul Revere and the Raiders, from his 1970 album Silverbird. We like to think that after 150 years, we too are just getting started.

Grecian beach beauties welcome the New Year
Grecian beach beauties welcome the New Year, view 2, [ 1933]. Eyre Powell Chamber of Commerce Collection

Herman Hupfield's "As Time Goes By" almost didn't make it into Casablanca. He originally wrote it for a 1931 Broadway show called Everybody's Welcome, which was enjoyed at the time by young Murray Bennett. In 1940 Bennett and Joan Alison wrote a play called Everybody Comes To Rick's , about an expat Casablanca nightclub owner who winds up helping a Czech resistance fighter escape the Nazis along with his girlfriend, who happens to be Rick's old flame. One of its key scenes was centered around Hupfield's nostalgic theme. Warner Brothers bought the play and turned it into a film, but after shooting was finished, composer Max Steiner decided he didn't like "As Time Goes By," which Dooley Wilson plays on piano in character as Sam, and pushed to reshoot those scenes with a different tune. However, Ingrid Bergman had already cut her hair short for her next role, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The new haircut nixed any possibility of a reshoot, and the rest is cinema history.

Our playlist features an uptempo version of "As Time Goes By" by Clyde McPhatter as well as a languorously sentimental one by Harry Nilsson, always a Hollywood nostalgic since his first job as an usher at the old Paramount Theater downtown. Nilsson sang his own droll, old-timey compositions in a tenor voice so winsome that the Beatles themselves were outspoken admirers, even to the point of considering asking him to join the band. Though he never enjoyed the success many of his contemporaries did, Harry's fanbase has been growing steadily since his passing in 1994—this documentary is a good way to get to know the singer everybody's talkin' about.

 Music Department's "Piano Room", Los Angeles Public Library
Music Department's "Piano Room," Los Angeles Public Library. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

The Los Angeles Public Library is all across the city; wherever you are, there’s a branch nearby. Thus we close with "All Across the City", an alto saxophone ballad by Paul Desmond from the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and with Liberace playing the Beatles "Here, There and Everywhere" in his own inimitable style. Happy 150 years, and here's a toast to 150 more!

round 150 logo on purple background