08/03/2013 05:44 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2013

The Melodies Linger On (Part I)

Jan Swafford's essay "The Most Beautiful Melody in the World" inspired me to ask my most popular-music-obsessed friends to name their favorite tunes.

The terms were simple: Pick a fave song from the last 50 years based solely on its melody. Simple, perhaps; but hardly easy. Separating a melody from its lyric -- and any particular vocal and arrangement -- is a tough job. But someone's gotta do it.

A few confident souls responded instantly, as though they'd been waiting years to be asked. The great Dion Dimucci says Pomus/Shuman's "This Magic Moment" is "a perfect song -- it's beautiful, wonderful, powerful, amazing and yet distinctive and memorable." Screenwriter/lyricist Jerry Leichtling chose Paul Simon's towering "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and theater producer Susan Dietz, still stuck on the cute Beatle, picked "Yesterday."

Others were more promiscuous. A&R whiz Gregg Geller writes, "I would choose "Dindi" or "Wave" or just about anything by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Whether happy or sad his tunes always put me in a Summer state of mind." KPCC radio host John Rabe was all set to pick (Jimmy Webb's) "MacArthur Park," but switched to Johnny Mandel's 'The Shadow of Your Smile." Why? "Because I can whistle it in 20 seconds and get the feeling of melancholy, beauty, regret." Songwriter/theater critic David Finkle said he'd be happy with anything by Webb, but "I suppose if pressed, I'd plug for "Didn't We?", "MacArthur Park" and/or "Wichita Lineman."

Writer Bill Wyman finds that "September Gurls," (Alex Chilton) is "anthemic and heart-bursting but delicate and vulnerable at the same time." For all-around music guy Bill Bentley "Eyes of the World" (Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter) "bounces and soars with the infinite hope of the cosmos." Author/famous ex-groupie Pamela Des Barres: "Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' exudes pointed finger 'in your face' reality laced with soaring rat tat tat provocative wonder."

Record mogul Danny Goldberg captured the essence of Michael Brown's "Walk Away Renee": "The melody arouses such wistful emotions in me even though I never can remember all of the lyrics." Publicist to the indie stars Cary Baker prefers Brown's "Pretty Ballerina": "Minor chords at every turn. An oboe and string quartet come in for a classical interlude then grinds to a pause. Michael Brown moves in for the second and final chapter of the ballerina saga."

RJ Smith, who wrote the book on James Brown, went country with Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings": It's so simple and full of sky space; it trails off into the distance, this song about departures." Writer/editor Will Swaim says Cat Stevens' "Here Comes My Baby" "has the quality of a round--the melody swirling in on itself -- so beautiful and somehow perfect that its work as a melody doesn't require resolution."

Public relations exec Hope Geller picked Mick Jones's "Waiting for a Girl Like You," calling it "Really pretty, fun to sing along with, goes up high in an unexpected way, kinda soulful at the end." Writer Jim Bessman says of Bacharach/David's"True Love Never Runs Smooth," "Hard to know how much to credit Gene Pitney's hit vocal or the typically glorious Bacharach arrangement, but the Bacharach melody itself is especially poignant."

CBS president/CEO and TV programming genius Les Moonves favored Fox/Gimbel's "Killing Me Softly" remarking that it's "Soulful, painful, mellow. Felt appropriate amount of sweetness and desperation at the same time." Lenny Beer, a man who knows his Hits, selected "From This Valley" from the new Civil Wars album. Author/filmmaker Nelson George went for classic soul: "My Girl" (Smokey Robinson/Marv Tarpin.) Actor/writer Jane Brucker picked the infectious "I Only Want to Be With You" (Mike Hawker, Ivor Raymonde, Luis Gomez Escola).

Legendary publicist/auto aficionado Bob Merlis selected "The Warrior" (Holly Smith/Nick Gilder), ex-punk rocker/psychotherapist Shari Foos picked Ray Davies' dreamy "I Go To Sleep," songwriter Robin Lerner chose Weatherspoon/Riser/Dean's "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" and film critic Ella Taylor voted for Leonard Cohen's stunning "The Future."

How to reckon with Brian Wilson? Start with another master, Jimmy Webb. The composer of some of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard, says,"One of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard is 'Warmth of the Sun.'" Nick Walusko, Wondermints co-founder and long-time key member of the Brian Wilson band writes,"Wouldn't It Be Nice": "from the child-like instrumental intro to the sophisticated vocal harmonies peaking at end of the song, it's a plea of hope and love constantly spiraling upward in a magical swirl." Write/emperor of cool Gene Sculatti says, "'Don't Worry Baby' needs neither a bridge nor a mid-song solo: just those chords, that harmony, the glassy push of that wave through the water."

Producer Paul Fox picked Wilson's gorgeous Caroline, No": "I love the sweetness, the air in the song, the way it touches you immediately." Writer/director and now UCLA prof David Leaf, who helped me enormously in putting together this survey, picks "God Only Knows" because "If the greatest melody writer of all time (that would be Sir Paul) says 'God Only Knows' is his favorite, how can I not agree?"

Triple-threat music man David Was selected Paul Simon's "American Tune" (1973), which is based on a Bach chorale from the 18th Century. But Mr. Was always tells it like it is (not was): Bach based his tune on a secular song written a hundred years before by a fellow named Hans Leo Hassler. (There's also this folky iteration with a Tom Glazer lyric.)

And in the end, The Beatles. Stay tuned for Part II, in which our correspondents struggle to articulate their awe of the melodies of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. And Harrison. And we'll hear from Lamont Dozier, Graham Nash, Dave Mason, Andrew Oldham and more.