Friday Five: February 1964

February 1964 was the start of Beatlemania. So let’s start there…

5. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles
I wish I was alive in 1964 (and old enough to remember) to have gone through cultural phenomenon that was the arrival of The Beatles in the US.  It all started here, with the song that hit #1 on February 1 and stayed there for the next seven weeks. It was the Fab Four’s first US #1.  They landed in the US on February 7 and made history with their appearance on Ed Sullivan (they were so big that Sullivan had them on again that same month!).  In March they’d knock themselves out of the top spot when “She Loves Me” started a two-week run at #1.  It was replaced by “Can’t Buy Me Love” which stayed on top for five more weeks. In total, The Beatles had the #1 song in the country for all of February, March, April, and one week of May.

4. “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” by Major Lance
Honestly, I’ve never heard this song before. I haven’t even heard of this song before. But it was #1 on the R&B charts when the Beatles hit the top of the pop charts, so it deserves at least a mention. After listening, I think it was misnamed. Should have been “Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm, Mmmm.”

3. “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earle
A classic tune that really didn’t do much for the mainstream music audiences of 1964.  It only made it to #44 on the hot 100.  But it had some life on the R&B charts, where it peaked at #3.  It didn’t do much upon it’s release in the UK either, but upon its re-release in 1969 it became a top 10 hit in the UK.  The Rolling Stones famously re-made the song in 1986.

2. “Talking About My Baby” by the Impressions
A simply wonderful song by one of the most-under-rated vocal groups of the era.  The Impressions were such a sweet sounding vocal group, with a deep arsenal of talents (including Curtis Mayfield).  This song, a much smaller hit than their bigger tunes, peaked at #2 on the R&B charts.

1. “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen
Wikipedia has a short history of the song, which is important to know.  The Trashmen were a Minneapolis-based garage band. The song peaked at #4 on the pop charts in February 1964. It’s about as raw and frenetic as any song you could imagine. It’s such a nice contrast to hear something like this——a big step in the continual emergence of surf rock that’s also such a messy thing compared to the typical pop traditions of the day——making a huge splash. Maybe the messiness is kind of a harbinger of the coming of The Beatles who are way cleaner in every way but whose edges reflect at least a bit of the core of something like this.


Friday Five: February 1963

5. “Up on the Roof” by the Drifters
Another gorgeously written song by husband and wife duo Carol King and Gerry Goffin, one that really captures some of the feelings of youth. The Drifters made some great music in their day. This isn’t their best but it’s a reflection of all the things they did so well——sweet melodies, rich instrumentation, and great vocals.  This one is carried by the one-of-a-kind voice of Rudy Lewis, who would die the next year of an overdose at the age of 27. It peaked at #5 in February 1963.

4. “Walk Like a Man” by The Four Seasons
Frankie Valli’s falsetto voice is contrasted with the lyrics——”Walk like a man, talk like a man”——but there’s so much goodness happening here that I think it’s easy to miss the irony and just get sucked in to the mix of sounds.  I’m a big fan of the drums at the start with their signature harmony work emerging into the tune. It peaked at #3 in February before hitting the top spot the following month.

3. “Two Lovers” by Mary Wells
Mary Wells played a big part of in defining the “female sound” in early Motown. Her smoky voice and reserved but skilled vocal choices are her hallmark. She reached the top of the R&B charts with this hit, written by Smokey Robinson. It’s one of those clever lyrical ballads with an ending that’s a surprise twist.

2. “You Really Got a Hold on Me” by The Miracles
If I knew more about music I’m sure I could say something intelligent about what’s going on in this song. Musically it has this drag that feels almost too real and too un-sanitized to be part of the “Motown sound,” something I associate as being black music packaged for white audiences.  There’s something so compelling and sexy about this song. Smokey Robinson is a master of the art and those skills are certainly front and center in this R&B chart-topper.

1. “You Are My Sunshine” by Ray Charles
It topped the R&B charts in January 1963 and was working its way back down the charts in February. It’s a familiar song——one of the most recorded in music history——but when Ray Charles gets a hold of it it sound like something we’ve never heard before. His small changes in phrasing and in music——he turns it into a R&B song AND gives us a big band interlude AND gives us the vocal wonderment of the Raelettes——make this hard not to find interesting on some level. It’s the lead track off his second volume of Modern Sounds in Country Western Music, a historic pair of albums mixing white music and black music at the height of the Black Freedom Struggle.

Friday Five: February 1962

5. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley
If you’re an Elvis fan, it’s one of the greatest love songs ever recorded. The King started the month at #2 on the pop charts with this ballad, which is where it topped out. It was from the soundtrack to Elvis’ favorite of his movies——Blue Hawaii——where it shared musical space with other timeless classics.

4. “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” by Barbara George
Barbara George started the month at #1 on the R&B charts with this, her first and biggest hit. There’s something irresistibly early 60s about the sound, both musically and vocally.

3. “The Twist” by Chubby Checker
I think the twist is the biggest dance move of the 60s. Hell, it might be the biggest of the century. Chubby Checker made it that way with his cover of Hank Ballard’s 1959 tune. Chubby Checker hit the #1 spot with it the first time in 1960. Two years later he’d do it again when “The Twist” topped the pop charts at the start of 1962. By February it was on the decline at #3 but it’s who can deny that remarkable achievement.

2. “Baby It’s You” by The Shirelles
Two weeks in a row and we have something from The Shirelles. I don’t know what it is about this song but, as a kid, it always sounded elegant to me. It might be the vocal harmonies and the interjection of “sha-la-la-la-la” at just the right time. Maybe it’s the echo effect. Now, it’s the graceful elements mixed with the harsher elements (rough lead vocals at the start, crazy organ in the middle) that attract me. The tune peaked at #3 on the R&B charts in February 1962.

1. “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler
I wasn’t alive in the 60s but, from my outsider’s position,  this is easily one of the greatest songs of the decade.  It’s probably in my top 100 of all-time. It’s flawless and iconic. One of those perfect creations that becomes synonymous with its time.  It topped both the pop and R&B charts in February 1962.

Friday Five: January 1961

1961 was a good year, a good year indeed. And the first month of that year brought us some classics.

5. “All in My Mind” by Maxine Brown
If Maxine Brown was a stock in 1960, you would have sunk all your money into her. Why she never made it big is a mystery but she did make quality R&B songs for a decade starting with this song——which she wrote——released late in 1960. She peaked at #2 on the R&B charts (only #19 on the Hot 100 pop charts. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Ms. Brown is still with us, too. She’ll turn 80 this summer.)

4. “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” by Elvis Presley
Iconic. And there’s a good story behind it, too. The King recorded the song starting at 4:00AM on April 4, 1960. It was the last song recorded as part of his Elvis is Back! album, his first after leaving the Army. Presley wasn’t pleased with his work and thought he couldn’t do the song justice. His producer (Steve Sholes) convinced him to do another take by saying that the Jordanaires had messed up by bumping their microphone stands. The King obliged, and that take (only #3) was what we have. (Apparently, at the very end of the song you can be hear somebody stapling the pages of Elvis’ contract.) It started the month at #1 and sold a couple of million copies. (Since we’re on it, the King is, of course, dead.)

3. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles
The King started the month at the top and the Shirelles closed it out. I guess the way to the top of the charts in January 1961 involved asking a question. The group (Shirley Owens, Micki Harris, Doris Coley, and Beverly Lee) met as teenagers——they all attended Passaic High School in New Jersey, where they started performing. After a few years of recording and touring, they released “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (written by Carol King and her husband Gerry Goffin) and had their first of many hits. It was the first #1 single by an African American, “all-girl” group. (They would only reach #1 one other time, with 1962’s “Soldier Boy.”) The Shirelles paved the way for the wave of “girl groups”—The Chiffons, The Ronettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and, of course, The Supremes—all of who came later. For my money, this is one of the best of the decade. (Owens and Lee are still kicking. Coley passed in 2000 and Harris died tragically while performing on stage in 1982.)

2. “Angel Baby” by Rosie and the Originals
I almost left this one out, only because I’ve written about it so many times. But I just love it too much. It’s one of the archetypal Chicano oldies, recorded by a half-white, half-Chicana teenager (she was 15) from the San Diego area. It peaked at #5 on the pop charts but it lives in generations of Chicano families to the present-day. (Rosie Hamlin passed away in 2017 at the age of 71.)

1. “Shop Around” by The Miracles
“Shop Around” is historic on two fronts——it was the first hit for Smokey Robinson (the lead singer of The Miracles who, with Motown-founder Berry Gordy, wrote the song) and the first hit for Motown Records. It topped the R&B charts in January, where it stayed for 7 weeks. It hit #5 on the pop charts that month, too, before peaking at #2 in February. The first million-seller for the Detroit company, the song opened the door for what became the most legendary home of R&B music of the era. I often like to think how as tens of thousands of African American young people (mostly college students) were taking over the segregated lunch counters of Woolworth’s across the South, they were also making this song #1. There’s nothing inherently political about it, but still… (Smokey was practically a baby when he hit it big. He’s only 78, and still performs.)

Friday Five: January 1960

5. “I’ll Take Care of You” by Bobby Bland
A mainstay of the late 50s/early 60s R&B charts, Bobby Bland was a blues singer with a softer touch than most. His skills, honed on Beale Street with contemporaries like B.B. King and Junior Parker, are all over this minor hit which peaked at #4 on the R&B charts in late January 1960.

4. “Talk that Talk” by Jackie Wilson
One of the greatest of the early era, Jackie Wilson’s voice, passion, and energy are among the foundations of modern “soul” music. This minor hit harnesses (in both senses of the word) a lot of his signature attributes into an orchestral-backed single that peaked at #3.

3. “El Paso” by Marty Robbins
Country star Marty Robbins started the 1960 calendar year sitting atop the Billboard “Hot 100” with this, his biggest crossover hit and most well-known song.

2. “Be My Guest” by Fats Domino
New Orleans raised Fats Domino is one of the foundational sounds of rock ‘n roll. His first hit—”Fat Man”—was released in 1949, when he was only 21. It is often cited as the first million-selling record of the rock ‘n roll era. He’d have even bigger hits once the that era got firmly established, songs like “Ain’t that a Shame” and his signature “Blueberry Hill.” By 1960, his biggest hits were behind him but in songs like this one (which peaked at #2 on January’s R&B charts) we can see how the “Fats Domino sound” had become something of a recipe for both him and his record label.

1. “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning
This one-hit-wonder hit it big with this tragically sad song of teenage love and death. Written by Mark’s sister and brother-in-law, the song was released in October 1959 to very little support. As the story goes, many radio stations refused to play it because it was too depressing. But the kids loved it! It peaked at #4 in January 1960 before hitting the top spot in early February, where it sat for two weeks.

Friday Five: January 1959

It’s a brand new year so let’s try a brand new way of doing things. Each week I’ll move year-by-year and post 5 songs that cracked the Billboard top 5 for the month in which I post. Why don’t we start with 1959 because, well, why not?

5. “One Night” by Elvis Presley
The King started 1959 at the #5 spot with this song, originally recorded by Smiley Lewis in 1956. Lewis’ version begins “One night of sin / Is what I’m now paying for,” a line too suggestive for RCA and Elvis’ handlers. The cleaned up version was released in ’58 and peaked at #4 before working it’s way downward in the following year.

4. “Sixteen Candles” by The Crests
Comprised of three African Americans, an Italian American, and one Puerto Rican, The Crests were the first interracial doo-wop group to achieve any chart success. This song was their biggest hit, reaching #4 in January 1959 before peaking at #2 the following month (they were kept out of the top spot by the next song on this list). I suspect we’ll see some cinematic representation of the 50s more than a century from now (or whatever cinema becomes by then) where this song will be played. I’m not sure that make its timeless but, rather, more “time bound” and iconic.

3. “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price
It’s a song about a real life event——the 1895 Christmas night murder of a man (Billy Lyons) by a St. Louis pimp (“Stag” Lee Shelton) all over a Stetson hat. A song evolved over time, “corrupting” the name of the assailant into we have now. Lloyd Price’s version would reach the top spot the following month but it peaked at the #5 position in January 1959. As a young teenager I loved to listen to this on an old 45 my folks had. Even then it sounded like a game changer to me. I can only imagine what this sounded like in 1959.

2. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters
This is why you slow dance. The Platters reached #1 with this gem in January 1959. It was originally written for a musical named Roberta in 1933 and had grown into something of a standard over the next two decades for everyone from Glen Miller to Nat King Cole. The Platters were already established after hits like “Only You” and “(You’ve Got) The Magic Touch” when they started reworking older tunes and making them their own. The widow of the original composer stirred some controversy when she expressed her displeasure with the reboot of her husband’s work by a rock ‘n roll group. It’s a peak into the window of time when rock ‘n roll meant something bad.

1. “Donna” by Ritchie Valens
How can I not put this at my top spot? The seventeen-year-old Chicano named Richard Valenzuela had a professional musical career that lasted less than a year. He only released three singles in his lifetime. The first was a song he wrote, “Come On, Let’s Go.”  It was his first hit record (the B-side was the Lieber/Stoller song “Framed”). His second was this song, a tune he wrote about the girl he loved. The B-side was “La Bamba,” Valens’ reworking of a Mexican folk ballad. Side A peaked at #3 in January 1959.  On February 2, Valens (along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. “The Big Bopper”) would perish in a plane crash.  “Donna” would peak at #2 a couple of weeks later.  “La Bamba” at #22.

Friday Five: December 1968

If I had more time to write here, I would have written a lot more about 1968. This year was the 50th anniversary of a so many significant events, whether we’re talking about history (MLK and RFK assassinations, Chicano walkouts, repression at Tlatelolco, Nixon election) or culture (Elvis’ “comeback” special, the release of 2001, the start of “60 Minutes” and the end of “Batman”).

So, in honor of the many anniversaries I didn’t commemorate, let’s give props to my 5 favorite songs from albums released 50 years ago this month.

5. “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder
The title track of Stevie Wonder’s tenth studio album is a pop gem from a period when he seemed to record those on a regular basis. Stevie was only 18, but he was already a veteran of the industry. His legendary greatness was still to come, but his brilliance was still on display in these and other tunes.

4. “Something in the Way She Moves” by James Taylor
The source of inspiration for George Harrison’s “Something” a year later (Harrison actually takes his first line from Taylor), this song was from James Taylor’s debut album, released on Apple Records (the Beatles label). This album version is different than the single track that plays today.  He had better ahead of him, but this flirts with perfect a couple of times.

3. “Anything” by the Mothers of Invention
When we moved to Claremont, there was this old man with a super long beard who just hung around the Village everyday. He’d say hi to folks on most days, but he could keep to himself, too. What stood out most, was that when my infant son would see him, even from a block away, he’d start to freak out like he was staring down a hungry dire wolf. That man was Ray Collins, the Pomona-born, original member of the Mothers of Invention, what would become the band most associated with Frank Zappa’s early career. The album Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is the last Collins participated in (he actually left before everything they recorded became “the album”), and it’s one of their most interesting. An homage to 50s/60s doo-wop, the songs (especially under Collins writing) are little bits of Chicano culture from a non-Chicano guy who grew up in a very Chicano area. The conceit of the album is that they’re a group called Ruben & the Jets. Early pressings had that band listed as the talent on the 45 records.

2. “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears
The bands eponymous second album, released December 11, was their biggest hit. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1970 (it was released to late in ’68 for the ’69 awards) and generated three hit singles, this one included.  This is my favorite of their songs, an audio panoply of 1968.

1. “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones
Beggar’s Banquet was released in December 1968, the latest album in a string of albums where the Rolling Stones top themselves each time. Upon listening you’d easily say this band is at the top of their game. You’d be right, too, until you’d hear their next. While some of the best was still to come, there’s a 1968 sound here that feels pretty special.