From the soulful croons of Marvin Gaye to thoughtful lyrics from Carole King, the 1970s was an era of timeless music. But out of all the joyful and uplifting tunes, a few stand-out tracks broke our hearts. Whether it was a simple love song with a devastatingly sad story or heartbreaking tales of distress and woe, these 25 saddest songs of the 1970s will make you reach for the tissues.
1. One Less Bell to Answer, the 5th Dimension, 1970
If this desolate song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David doesn’t make you cry, I’m not sure you’re human. Released in 1970 on the 5th Dimension’s debut album, Portrait, One Less Bell to Answer reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Marilyn McCoo’s emotional vocals and the deceptively simple but heart-breaking lyrics make this song an absolute classic.
One Less Bell to Answer, Burt Bacharach and Hal David
2. Long, Long Time, Linda Rondstadt, 1970
Nobody sang a sad song better than Linda Ronstadt, and “Long, Long Time” was one of her saddest songs. Recorded in 1970 for Ronstadt’s first solo album, “Long, Long Time” is an emotionally charged ballad about the heartbreak of a lost love.
Linda’s vocals soar over a spare acoustic guitar, and lines like “I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine” send us all back to the memory of our first lost love.
Long, Long Time, Gary White
3. Vincent, Don McLean, 1971
You probably thought the title of this song was “Starry, starry night,” as that’s the haunting first line of this bittersweet retelling of the life of Vincent van Gogh. In McClean’s version, van Gogh is too beautiful for an uncaring world, and so he eventually takes his own life because the world he loves so much doesn’t love him back.
The words and music of this song are as haunting and beautiful as any of van Gogh’s paintings.
Vincent, Don McLean
4. Without You, Harry Nilsson, 1971
Harry Nilsson wrote and recorded One is the Loneliest Number, one of the saddest songs of the 1960s. However, Three Dog Night’s version became the hit recording we all remember today.
So, it seems only fair that Harry Nilsson would have a hit in the 1970s, singing a sorrowful song written and recorded by another band. “Without You” was written and recorded by Badfinger, but Harry Nilsson’s version became a number-one hit.
Nilsson’s version was raw and personal, and his desperate vocals stopped just short of sounding unhinged. You truly believed that this man didn’t want to live if he had to live without his lover.
In another sad twist, both of the writers of Without You, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, died by suicide. Harry Nilsson also died too soon, at age 54, from heart disease.
Without You, Pete Ham and Tom Evans
5. So Far Away, Carole King, 1971
This song seems like it’s simply expressing sorrow at being so far from someone she loves, But the regret with which she sings and the poignant piano chords clue us in to the fact that there’s more going on here than the lyrics of the song can say. We understand that the two lovers in this song are far away both in distance and emotionally.
The song’s arrangement is spare, with only three instruments, but somehow that makes the song even more powerful. A 22-year-old James Taylor played the guitar on the original recording of this song.
So Far Away, Carole King
6. Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast, Wayne Newton, 1972
Divorce started becoming more common in the 1970s, and the music reflected it. This song, written by Peter Callander and Geoff Stephens, portrayed the heartbreak of a man walking out on his wife, only to be followed by the little girl he was leaving behind.
He returns home to try again in his marriage because what kind of monster keeps going when his little girl is begging him to stop?
Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast, Peter Callander and Geoff Stephens
7. Taxi, Harry Chapin, 1972
If you think about sad songs from Harry Chapin, the first song that comes to mind is Cats in the Cradle, the old classic about a man who is just the world’s worst dad. But this melancholy ballad is even sadder.
Released in 1972 on Chapin’s album Heads & Tales, it’s a first-person story of a taxi driver picking up a late night fare who turns out to be his ex-girlfriend. Both are unhappy because they never followed the dreams they had when they were together.
She was going to be an actress but instead threw away her life to marry a rich man. (Of course.) And he was going to be a pilot, but ended up becoming a taxi driver instead.
Chapin debuted this song on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and received so much acclaim for his performance that Carson brought him back the very next night to perform the song again.
In 1980, Chapin released a follow-up song to Taxi (Sequel) where he revisits the lives of his characters. Harry is now a successful musician, and his ex-girlfriend Sue has left behind her affluent life to find happiness in a working-class lifestyle.
Taxi, Harry Chapin
8. Time in a Bottle, Jim Croce, 1973
Time in a Bottle was written in 1970 and featured on Croce’s debut album, “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” But it was released as a single and became a hit after Jim Croce’s untimely death in a helicopter crash in 1973.
Time in a Bottle was a pensive ballad with a mournful minor key melody. The song lyrics, “But there never seems to be enough time, To do the things you want to do once you find them” are especially heartbreaking when you realize that Croce would be dead less than five years after he wrote the song.
Time in a Bottle, Jim Croce
9. She’s Gone, Hall & Oates, 1973
Nobody can turn heartbreak into a stirring anthem like Hall & Oates. One of the few Hall & Oates songs to be a true writing collaboration, She’s Gone highlights how beautifully they harmonized together. If you thought Darl Hall is the only good singer in Hall & Oates, then you haven’t heard this song.
The song starts simply with both men singing in falsetto harmony and builds to an explosion of pain, with each man trading lines. The ending of this song always gives me chills.
She’s Gone, Daryl Hall and John Oates
10. Jolene, Dolly Parton, 1973
You can’t talk about the song Jolene without mentioning that Dolly Parton wrote this song and I Will Always Love You in the same day. Dolly has written so many good songs; she’s one of the best songwriters of our generation.
But she would still deserve all the songwriting accolades if she had written only this one song. I’m one of many people who believe Jolene is the perfect song.
The song shows Dolly at her most vulnerable. Her man is in love with Jolene, and Dolly knows she can never compete with Jolene’s beauty. All she can do is beg Jolene to leave him alone for her.
I love this song for two reasons. First, it’s one of the few songs between a lover and her rival that doesn’t paint the other woman as a low-down, man-stealing skunk. Instead, it points out Jolene’s desirability: “Your beauty is beyond compare, With flaming locks of auburn hair.”
Second, Dolly’s vocals genuinely illustrate how heartbroken she is to think of her man leaving her for Jolene. You can feel the pain in every line.
Jolene, Dolly Parton
11. Billy Don’t Be a Hero, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, 1974
The British band Paper Lace and Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods both had hits with this song in 1974. Still, the Bo Donaldson version was the biggest hit in the U.S. Their version was a number-one hit in 1974, and I vividly remember it being played repeatedly on the radio that summer.
The song tells the story of Billy, who has enlisted in the army against the wishes of his fiancee. She begs him to play it safe and not be a hero so he can return to her and they can marry. Of course, he doesn’t. (They never do.)
Billy Don’t Be a Hero was #8 in the Rolling Stone Reader’s Survey of The Worst Songs of the 1970s. (Harsh!) But someone was buying this record. The single sold over three and a half million copies.
Billy Don’t Be a Hero, Mitch Murray and Peter Callander
12. Best of My Love, The Eagles, 1974
The end of any love affair is heartbreaking, but perhaps the saddest breakups of all are the ones where both partners tried their best to make it. Best of My Love captures that feeling perfectly.
Recorded for the iconic album, On the Border, Best of My Love was The Eagles’ first Number One hit. The song features The Eagles’ impeccable harmonies and a wistful melody.
Best of My Love, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and J. D. Souther
13. Run Joey Run, David Geddes, 1975
I can’t think about Billy Don’t Be a Hero without remembering Run Joey Run, the equally melodramatic hit of summer 1975. The narrator, Joey, tells of his distraught girlfriend, who calls him one night, warning him not to come over because her dad is furious and threatening to kill Joey. (It’s never said, but heavily implied that Julie is pregnant, and that’s why her father is so angry.)
Like Billy of Billy Don’t Be a Hero, Joey doesn’t listen and instead high-tails it over to Julie’s house. Julie’s father sneaks behind him to try to kill him, but Julie screams, “Watch Out!” and steps in front of Billy to protect him.
Julie’s dad accidentally shoots Julie instead of Joey, and she falls to the ground, saying in her last words, “We’re going to get married, Just you wait and see.”
Men, listen to your women, and we’ll all be safer!
Run Joey Run, Paul Vance and Jack Perricone
14. At Seventeen, Janis Ian, 1975
If you ever cried in your room over unrequited love or felt the pain of being excluded from a group, then I’m sure you’re familiar with At Seventeen. Janis Ian worked on this intensely personal song for three months and was concerned about releasing it as a single because she worried no one else would relate to it.
The haunting melody complements the earnest lyrics without seeming trite or over-emotional, and Ian provides a bit of hope when she references “Ugly duckling girls like me.” Ugly ducklings, as you know, grow into swans.
At Seventeen, Janis Ian
15. I’m Not Lisa, Jessi Colter, 1975
In a way, I’m Not Lisa is a follow-up song to Jolene. I’m Not Lisa describes how it feels to be with a man who’s pining over someone else.
In this case, Jessi’s man is still in love with Lisa, who left him years ago. (When researching this article, I was shocked to discover that the character’s name in the song is Julie. I always thought her name was Jessi, like Jessi Colter.)
Like Dolly Parton’s Jolene, Jessi Colter’s vocals make us feel every bit of the pain she’s feeling. She’s begging her lover to get past his heartbreak and see the woman in front of him who loves him.
I’m Not Lisa, Jessi Colter
16. Landslide, Fleetwood Mac, 1975
Can we all agree that 1975 was the peak year for sad songs written by women? Landslide’s lyrics sound like the song is about a failed relationship. However, Stevie Nicks said she wrote the song after her album with Lindsey Buckingham, Buckingham Nicks, failed commercially, and she felt everything in her life was “sliding down.”
The lyrics reflect the uncertainty and sadness Nicks was feeling at the time, with such classic lines as “Oh, mirror in the sky, What is love? Can the child within my heart rise above?” The song’s arrangement is simple, yet effective, featuring a gentle acoustic guitar and quiet background vocals.
The song feels authentic and genuine. It’s no wonder Landslide was a massive hit for Fleetwood Mac and remains a concert favorite to this day.
Landslide, Stevie Nicks
17. Kiss and Say Goodbye, The Manhattans, 1976
This song starts with “This is Got to Be the Saddest Day of My Life,” so I had to include it. This heartwarming tale of a cheating husband forced to stop seeing his mistress shot to the top of the charts after it was released in 1976. It was a number-one hit for The Manhattans and only the second single to go platinum.
I might poke a little fun at the song’s plot, but I can’t deny its greatness. The spoken word introduction sets the stage, and then The Manhattans’ lead singer, Gerald Alston, steps in to amp up the drama with his soulful tenor.
Watch the video for this song, as it’s an iconic example of classic R & B dancing. The outfits are “chef’s kiss” as well.
Kiss and Say Goodbye, Winfred Lovett
18. Don’t Leave Me This Way, Thelma Houston, 1976
One of the few examples of a sad disco song, Thelma Houston’s powerful voice drives home her anguish and longing as her lover prepares to leave. The disco beat makes the song feel frantic and desperate but also compels you to get up and out on the dance floor.
Don’t Leave Me This Way became a gay anthem during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s when so many in the gay community lost loved ones in the worst way possible.
Don’t Leave Me This Way, Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert
19. Weekend in New England, Barry Manilow, 1976
Nobody can sing a sad song like Barry Manilow, and “Weekend in New England” is perhaps his saddest. The song tells the story of a man back home in the city after an idyllic weekend with his lover, wondering when he’ll be able to see her again.
We never find out why the lovers must be apart, only that he doesn’t know when – or even if – he’ll be able to see her again. Manilow’s signature crooning conveys his yearning to see his lover again and discover how their story will end.
You can’t listen to this song without tearing up if you’ve ever been in the kind of limbo you experience when you’re forced to part with the person you love,
Weekend in New England, Randy Edelman
20. Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot, 1976
One of the things I love about 70s music is the diversity of topics during that time. Pop music typically focuses on love and romance between two people, but the 70s gave us hits about a boy’s love for his pet rat, the treatment of Native Americans, and a disco version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
So, why shouldn’t Gordon Lightfoot write a sad song about the tragic wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a freight ship that sank in Lake Superior in 1975, killing all 29 men aboard? And why wouldn’t that song reach #2 on the Billboard Hot 100?
The song is a straightforward retelling of the events aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, as Gordon Lightfoot imagined they took place. He set the tale to an old Irish Dirge he remembered from his childhood, which gave the song a foreboding and somber feel.
Lightfoot said he wrote the song because he didn’t think the story got enough attention when the ship went down in 1975.
Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot
21. Telephone Line, Electric Light Orchestra, 1977
Telephone Line follows the same basic plot as other songs in the genre: the narrator wants to call a lost love to apologize and reconnect but cannot get through. (In this case, no one will pick up the phone.) He ends the song by begging the operator to give him more time.
However, the haunting melody, Jeff Lynne’s plaintive vocals, and ELO’s lush orchestration turn the old trope from a sad song into an operatic masterpiece of despair and sorrow.
Fun fact: the telephone ringing at the beginning of the song was created on the synthesizer after Lynne called an American phone number to listen to what it sounded like when it rang.
Telephone Line, Jeff Lynne
22. On and On, Stephen Bishop, 1977
This melancholic ballad beautifully conveys the despair of a man who believes the world is an endless cycle of sorrow. (It just goes on and on.) You can feel the longing in Bishop’s voice as he sings, and the sweet and straightforward melody pulls at your heart.
The lyrics to this song are pure poetry, and the line “puts on Sinatra and starts to cry” might be the saddest lyric ever written.
On and On, Stephen Bishop
23. Dust in the Wind, Kansas, 1978
Kansas’ guitarist, Kerry Livgren, wrote the song “Dust in the Wind” after reading a Native American poem that inspired him to reflect on what was truly important in life. The band was doing well at the time, but he realized that all their success and material wealth would mean nothing once they had died and become just “dust in the wind.”
This could have been an inspiring song encouraging listeners to look for what’s truly important in life. However, the dirge-like melody and Steve Walsh’s mournful vocals convey a feeling of “nothing really matters because we’re all going to die.” Fun!
Dust in the Wind, Kerry Livgren
24. Don’t Cry Out Loud, Melissa Manchester, 1978
“Don’t Cry Out Loud” tells the story of “Baby,” who doesn’t want life to pass her by. So, she takes up with a clown and joins the circus, only to find that her dreams come crashing down when the circus moves on. But thanks to the advice of the song’s singer, Baby learns to hide her feelings and, “if you should fall, remember you almost had it all.”
Like “Dust in the Wind,” this song could be inspirational if it wasn’t such a downer. Manchester belts out the song like she’s pouring out a lifetime of disappointment and the lyrics offer no hope for a brighter future. We’re just told, “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”
Nevertheless, I loved this song and sang along with it loudly when it came on the radio. Of course, I didn’t understand what this song meant because I was a child. But I appreciated the emotion behind it then, and I still do now.
Don’t Cry Out Loud, Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager
25. Just When I Needed You Most, Randy VanWarmer, 1979
I love this song because it was inspired by two events we can all relate to: VanWarmer’s girlfriend broke up with him, and his car broke down. If you’ve ever experienced the one-two punch of an upsetting break-up followed by an equally upsetting life event, you can understand how easily that can lead to “Now, most every morning, I stare out the window and I think about where you might be.”
VanWarmer understood why the song appealed to people, saying, “It’s happened to everyone. That emotion is universal…I always hoped the record wasn’t wallowing in self-pity and it had some redeeming value, and I guess it does.”
I would disagree just a bit with what he said. The song is absolutely wallowing in self-pity, but sometimes, that’s just what you need most.
Just When I Needed You Most, Randy VanWarmer