The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)

From Weezerpedia
"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)"
The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn) cover
Single by Weezer
Album Weezer (The Red Album)
Released May 13, 2008
Recorded Spring 2007
Length 5:52
Label Geffen
Writer(s) Rivers Cuomo
Producer(s) Rick Rubin
Status Officially released
Live debut September 9, 2008
Stream Spotify
Apple Music
Weezer singles chronology
"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)"
"(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To"
Weezer (The Red Album) track listing
"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)"
"Pork and Beans"
Alternate cover
Cover of the iTunes single release
Cover of the iTunes single release

"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)" is the third single and second track off of The Red Album.



Writing process

In 2004, Rivers Cuomo began taking private music composition lessons from Bruce Reich at UCLA.[1] Some of the vocal harmonies written for "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" were originally composed for a focal counterpoint excercise from these lessons. Cuomo excitedly contacted Reich after the release of The Red Album, but was dismayed to learn that Reich had recently passed away.[1][2][3]

In describing his initial inspiration for the song, Cuomo has said, "I just had this really strong and kind of sudden conviction that I am sick of writing verse-chorus-verse songs. I've been doing it for so many years, that's what everyone else does; I wanna do something completely different."[3] Cuomo decided to instead write a song using the musical structure of theme and variations, as used in classical music, using different bands and musician styles (Slipknot, Jeff Buckley, Aerosmith, etc.) as the different variations. Cuomo intially also attempted to utilize different lyrical perspectives for each variation, but found the results too disjointed, and resolved to maintain the same persona throughout. Early alternate song titles in consideration included "Mack Daddy," "The Player," "Player 4 Life," and "The Ballad of Oswaldo Sánchez" (named for the Mexican soccer goalie). Cuomo was inspired by Sánchez after seeing him play the World Cup in 2006 despite Sánchez having just lost his father to a heart attack.[3]

Cuomo had difficulty writing the spoken word section of "The Greatest Man", and so contacted Rick Rubin to get examples of spoken word sections in pop songs. Rubin suggested Elvis Presley's rendition of "Are You Loneseome Tonight?," which Cuomo studied.[3] The lyrics for the spoken word section from "The Greatest Man" is derived from similar lyrics in Presley's song (which itself was partially derived from the play As You Like It by William Shakespeare).

At the time of the release of The Red Album, Cuomo called the song his favorite song on the album, and one of his favorite songs he's ever written.[4] Bassist Scott Shriner, in an interview, called the song "a masterpiece that includes ten different styles of music based around a common theme. It's awesome."[5]

The song's title includes the parenthetical "Variations on a Shaker Hymn," referring to the 1848 Shaker song "Simple Gifts," generally attributed to Joseph Brackett. As explained in the liner notes for the deluxe edition of The Red Album:

The subtitle of the song for "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived" is "Variations on a Shaker Hymn."
Rivers: Yes, actually, I didn't realize I was ripping off a shaker hymn. It wasn't until we were in the studio and Brian's mom came by one day and she heard us play "Greatest Man" and said afterward, "You know that melody sounds like this hymn we sing in church." So indeed we checked it out and it's very similar. I knew people were going to come at us after and say, hey you guys ripped off that hymn. So I put the credit in there off the bat.

Weezer (The Red Album) liner notes


"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" was recorded in the "War Room", a space backstage at the Malibu Performing Arts Center in Malibu, California. The band taped butcher paper to the mirrors to write down ideas and plans for recording songs. According to Brian Bell, the band used about 20 feet of butcher paper just for "The Greatest Man" and spent about as much time discussing how to record the song as they did actually recording it.[6] According to Cuomo, the band rehearsed the song for about a month before embarking on the Troublemaker Tour, and about half of the rehearsal process was dedicated to learning "The Greatest Man."[4]


Different sections of the song were inspired by specific artists, in the theme and variation style of classical music:

  1. Rap (0:35)
  2. Slipknot (1:00)
  3. Jeff Buckley (1:26)
  4. Chorale (1:51)
  5. Aerosmith (2:17)
  6. Nirvana (2:43)
  7. The Andrews Sisters (3:08)
  8. Green Day (3:33)
  9. Spoken word (4:06)
  10. Johann Sebastian Bach (4:37)
  11. Ludwig van Beethoven (4:54)
  12. Weezer (5:11)


"The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" was the first song from The Red Album to be released on iTunes, releasing as a digital single on May 13, 2008.

The song was released as a downloadable track for the rhythm video game Rock Band on June 24, 2008, along with the songs "Troublemaker" and "Dreamin'."

The song was performed live as the finale of the Spike Video Game Awards, which aired on December 14, 2008. The performance featured a marching band drummer, a women's choir, and musician Dave Kushner (formerly of Velvet Revolver) on rhythm guitar. Rivers Cuomo wore a white suit with no shoes.


This section requires expansion.

Known recordings

Performer(s) Title Filename Date of recording Recording location Length Appeared on Notes
Rivers Cuomo The Greatest Man That Ever Lived The Greatest Man that ever Lived.mp3 June 21, 2007 6:04 Alone X: The Red-Raditude-Hurley Years
Weezer The Greatest Man That Ever Lived April-October 2007 Malibu Performing Arts Center, Malibu, CA 5:52 Weezer (The Red Album)
Rivers Cuomo The Greatest Man That Ever Lived November 25, 2008 Fingerprints, Long Beach CA 8:02 Not Alone: Rivers Cuomo & Friends Live at Fingerprints

Music video

In late 2008, it was reported that a music video for "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" was planned with director Spike Jonze[7] (who previously directed music videos for "Undone - The Sweater Song," "Buddy Holly," and "Island in the Sun"). Ultimately, an official video never materialized. The song was used in the Warren Miller documentary Children of Winter, from which a segment was released as a music video on Weezer's official YouTube channel in late 2008:[8]

A low-budget video, featuring the band lip-syncing the song with a boom-box, was filmed when the band was selected as MTV's Artist of the Week:



You try to play cool like you just don't care
But soon I'll be playin' in your underwear
I'm like a mage with the magic spell
You come like a dog when I ring your bell
I got the money and I got the fame
You got the hots to ride on my plane
You're givin' me all that I desire
Cuz down with me I'm takin' you higher

I'm the baddest of the bad
I'm the best that you've ever had
I'm the tops, I'm the thing
All the girls get up when I sing, yeah
I'm the meanest in the place
Step up, I'll mess with your face
I don't care where you are
Look up and follow the star

Ohh, I'm gonna tear down the wall
I may not be here when you call
So best be givin' me your all, ooo

After the havoc that I'm gonna wreak
No more words will critics have to speak
I've got the answers to the tangled knot
Sleep tight in your cot

Ohh baby, I've been told that I'm goin' crazy
Ohh baby, but I can't be held down
Ohh baby, somehow I'm keepin' it steady
Ohh baby, I'm tearin' up this town

Hey, this is what I like
Cut my heart with a martyr's spike
Hey, this is nothing new
I've got more than enough for you

I can take on anybody, I can do my thing
I don't wanna hurt nobody but a bee has got to sting
I'm 'a fix it if you mix it up
Talk smack then I'm a'gonna shut you up

I am the greatest man that ever lived
I was born to give
I am the greatest man that ever lived, oh

Somebody said all the world's a stage
And each of us is a player
That's what I've been trying to tell you
In Act I, I was struggling to survive
Nobody wanted my action dead or alive
Act II, I hit the big time
And bodies be all up on my behind
And I can't help myself
Cuz I was born to shine
And if you don't like it, you can shove it
But you don't like it, you love it
So I'll be up here in a rage
Till they bring the curtain down on this stage

I'm the greatest man that ever lived
I'm the greatest man that ever lived

I am the greatest man that ever lived
I was born to give and give and give
I am the greatest man that ever lived

I am the greatest man that ever lived
I was born to give

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Rizov, Vadim. "Rivers Cuomo" A.V. Club. 27 January 2009.
  2. Cuomo, Rivers. Mister Rivers' Neighborhood. 6 September 2020. Archived by Wayback Machine 15 July 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Rivers Cuomo interview with KROQ, "Rivers Cuomo - Greatest Man" YouTube Archived from original:
  4. 4.0 4.1 Rivers Cuomo interview with KROQ, "Rivers Cuomo - Greatest Man 2" YouTube Archived from original:
  5. Titus, Dale. Warwick Bass Survival 101. 2008. Archived by Wayback Machine
  6. Weezer (The Red Album) Deluxe Edition liner notes.
  7. Freedman, Pete. "How To Piss Off A Member Of Weezer: Brian Bell isn't so hot on comparisons between past Weezer records and the latest" Dallas Observer. 15 October 2008. Archived by Wayback Machine. 12 November 2008.
  8. Weezer. "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived - Weezer & Warren Miller" YouTube. 29 November 2008.