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.)