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: 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.)