Many people consider Cleveland the home of rock and roll, after all, the Hall of Fame is there. Credit usually goes to Cleveland DJ Alan Freed for playing blues, swing, doo-wop, and rhythm and blues music on his radio show, uniting black and white audiences.
Exposing more listeners to rock music meant that the genre took off quickly, and it’s no surprise that Cleveland has spawned many songs about the town. Here are ten of the best songs about Cleveland.
1. “Cleveland Rocks” by Ian Hunter
Ian Hunter was part of Mott the Hoople, a band that Cleveland heartily supported in the 1970s. It was during a period when the coastal metropolitan areas of the United States seemingly turned their pierced, punk noses up at glam rock.
Hunter had an affection for the city and its connection to the birthplace of rock and roll and bristled at the idea that L.A. and New York were cool places, but Cleveland wasn’t.
So he wrote “Cleveland Rocks” and released it on his 1979 album “You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic.” It became a favorite of the city’s population.
Since then, the band Presidents of the United States of America covered it for The Drew Carey Show theme song. Today, it gets regular play at Cleveland sporting events.
2. “The Heart of Rock and Roll” by Huey Lewis & The News
While this song only mentions Cleveland near the end, and it lists many other cities, Lewis himself said that he wrote the song for two reasons: the Allan Freed connection and in reference to a show in which the band played there.
Before the show, Lewis and his band scoffed at the idea that Cleveland audiences were better than their hometown fans in San Francisco. After the gig, Lewis wrote this song, originally titled “The Heart of Rock and Roll Is in Cleveland.”
It was released as a single in 1984, part of the 1983 “Sports” album that spawned five top-ten hits, one of which was “The Heart of Rock and Roll.”
3. “Cleveland Blues,” by Sonny Stitt
The only reference to Cleveland in this song is the title, but that’s because the song is a blues instrumental (all twelve minutes of it).
Stitt, a gifted saxophonist that many considered the heir apparent to Charlie Parker, recorded “Cleveland Blues” in 1957 for his “Only the Blues” album.
Parker was accompanied by names like Roy Eldridge on the trumpet, Stan Levey on drums, Ray Brown on bass, Herb Ellis on guitar, and the legendary Oscar Peterson playing the piano.
4. “Cleveland Is the City,” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
Starting with an R&B-infused version of “Cleveland Rocks,” the song “Cleveland is the City” segues into the characteristic rapid-fire rap from Bone Thugs.
The text tells of a seemingly harrowing life growing up in the city, with mention of cops, weed, guns, and violence, but it’s still an ode to the group’s hometown. They are, after all, the biggest rap act to hail from the Forest City.
5. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot
The freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in November of 1975 in Lake Superior, and the entire crew of 29 was lost. The loss of the ship quickly passed into legend when no one could ascertain the real cause of the disaster.
Gordon Lightfoot took the tragedy as an inspiration and wrote this song that would become a classic hit. He fictionalizes some interactions on the ship to great effect, changing some of the facts.
It’s a Cleveland song because Lightfoot sings that the ship was on its way to Cleveland when in reality, it was bound for Detroit on its final voyage.
Still, the song reached number two in the United States and remains one of Lightfoot’s biggest hits.
6. “Cuyahoga” by R.E.M.
The alternative music darlings of the 90s released “Cuyahoga” in 1986, the fourth track on “Life’s Rich Pageant.” Singing about the titular river around which Cleveland was built, singer Michael Stipe protests the theft of the land from Native Americans and the subsequent abuse of that land.
The Cuyahoga River was such a polluted mess through most of the 20th century that it caught on fire on several occasions. The last fire, in 1969, became something of a rallying cry for environmentalism, still in its infancy back then.
Stipe’s singular voice is unmistakable here, and he uses it well, painting a sad picture of loss and seemingly irreparable damage.
7. “Ohio” by The Black Keys
More about the state of Ohio than the city of Cleveland, this song by the Akron-based duo still qualifies. The band members grew up less than an hour’s drive from the 216, so the chances are that Cleveland gets covered in the song.
Their anthem-style gospel shout about the rolling hills and Ohio being the place they love the most leads one to surmise that the tribute includes Cleveland.
“Ohio” was released as a bonus track accompanying the band’s 2010 album “Brothers.” Unfortunately, it didn’t chart, as it was only available via download from the band’s website or as a 7″ vinyl single, but Clevelanders have embraced it.
8. “Look Out Cleveland” by The Band
“Look Out Cleveland” doesn’t quite have the narrative punch of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” but it does feature rock legends, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm.
There’s also The Band’s signature drive and rollicking joy lurking behind every note. It warns of a big storm that will hit Cleveland and Houston, painting a picture of the brewing storm and reactions to it.
“Look Out Cleveland” was part of The Band’s self-titled 1969 second album. The same album contained the megahit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but Clevelanders might prefer “Look Out.”
9. “Cleveland Is the Reason,” by Kid Cudi
Although this song doesn’t have profound symbolism, Kid Cudi uses this catchy rap song to declare that Cleveland is the reason he’s cool.
It’s an older track included in Cudi’s mixtape from 2008 and one of his first songs. Since it’s not currently available on any streaming services, it doesn’t get a lot of plat. Still, it’s a nice homage to the iconic experimental rapper’s hometown.
10. “Cleveland the Polka Town” by Frankie Yankovic
Frankie Yankovic was the polka king, using his accordion prowess to popularize ethnic dance through much of the 20th century.
“Cleveland Polka Town” is notable because Cleveland boasts its own polka style with slower tempi and smoother dance moves.
Yankovic was a Cleveland native, so he knows what he’s talking about when he sings about settling down there.
Summing Up Our List Of Cleveland Songs
We arguably couldn’t have had rock music without Cleveland, so it’s fitting that so many songs about the city should exist.
Sure, Cleveland has had some N.B.A. success and a made a few splashes in the N.F.L., but music may be Cleveland’s most significant legacy.
It’s where the term “rock and roll” became a mainstream term, and as evidenced by the catalog of songs about it, Cleveland tends to leave a lasting impression.