Elvis continues his string of Euro-tinged pop songs with another pop reworking of a turn-of-the-century Neapolitan song – the previous being “It’s Now or Never.” While “Surrender” isn’t as novel or successful as that single, neither is it as embarrassing as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?“ Elvis again plays the Latin lover while showcasing his voice’s astonishing versatility. But the problem is that it’s not quite as thrilling as it feels like it should be. The piano charges forward, and the castanets clatter, but there’s no real “this is it!” moment. The closest point is Presley’s operatic “Be mine forever/Be mine tonight!” Finally, we hit the peak the whole song has been promising – but that’s the song’s end. I’m all for restraint in pop songs that build into great passionate statements, but it can’t be a valley that suddenly explodes into Mount Everest. “Surrender” is still enjoyable, but it’s missing that qualcosina. 6
Hit #1 on March 20, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
47 of 967 #1′s reviewed; 4.86% through the Hot 100
Chubby Checker’s second and final #1 is essentially a redux of “The Twist,” but with a new set of lyrics corresponding to yet another dance craze. What’s baffling is that “Pony Time” and “The Twist” weren’t even written by the same people, despite boasting the same tune and the same conceptual base (“let’s dance to the eponymous dance, which I will now explain for you in the lyrics”). Checker, always likeable, does a fine job with the material, but the problem’s the same as that of “The Twist”: it’s fun enough on the dancefloor, but musically it amounts to little more than a square dance caller’s directions formatted as 12-bar blues. Checker carved himself out a niche for these types of dance craze instructionals, with other hits including “The Hucklebuck,” “The Fly,” “Limbo Rock,” as well as “Let’s Twist Again,” “Slow Twistin’,” etc. “Pony Time”‘s distinguishing feature is its endearingly goofy lyrics: “Turn to the left when I say ‘gee’! Now turn to the right when I say ‘haw’! Now ‘gee’! Now ‘haw’!” (I’m pretty sure those directions pertain more to work horses than to ponies, but this ain’t hippology! It’s rock and roll!). So what does this amount to? A perfectly harmless song whose decline in relevance corresponds almost perfectly to the end of the eponymous fad. 5
Hit #1 on February 27, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
46 of 967 #1′s reviewed; 4.76% through the Hot 100
Poor Lawrence Welk. His TV show, still a staple of public television 17 years after his death, is perhaps the epitome of the squarest segments of Midwestern culture. Armed with an accordion and a flagrant disregard of cool, Welk and his preternaturally wholesome Musical Family waltzed through the old standards and novelty tunes that comprised his trademark “champagne music.” So it only fits that his #1 hit, despite sharing its title with the name of a city in India, is as whitebread as can be.
So Welk is an easy target. Still, there’s an endearing naffness to “Calcutta” that distinguishes it from similar chart toppers like “Theme From A Summer Place” and “Wonderland by Night.” Is it the maracas, the accordion, the harpsichord, the perky multigender voices babbling “la la la”? Maybe it’s the cloyingly catchy melody or the total absence of Eastern authenticity. I vote for all of the above, including the miscellaneous corny touches like the “cha cha cha!” rhythm that caps off the song. It’s more enjoyable than I’d expect anything attached to Welk’s name to be, but at the same time, it’s enjoyable in exactly the way you’d expect. Whether that enjoyableness is sincere or ironic is in the ear of the listener. 5
- The discrepancy between the title “Calcutta” and the total non-Indianness of the music is allegedly because the song derives from a European melody whose title sounds similar to “Calcutta.”
Hit #1 on February 13, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
45 of 967 #1′s reviewed; 4.65% through the Hot 100
This is the inauguration of the girl group age. Sure, The Chantels had scored a #15 hit in 1958 with “Maybe,” but it was The Shirelles whom everyone copied. Sub out the vocals in “Maybe” for those of a male doo-wop group and the record’s more or less the same. But listen to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and you hear the birth of a new genre. Lead singer Shirley Owens derided it for being “too country,” but it’s not exactly “El Paso.” The guitar and drums feel like rock and roll, the strings echo classic pop and the vocals are a tamer descendant of R&B. It’s this mix that would become the classic girl group sound, enlushened by Jack Nitzsche and Phil Spector and copied by any fly-by-night producer with a quartet of starry-eyed high school singers.
But “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” wasn’t just revolutionary sonically. The lyrics describe a common teenage dilemma rarely talked about, at least in early ’60s pop songs: does this guy really love you, or does he just want to sleep with you? ”Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure?” may not be explicit lyrics, but there’s no question as to what they refer. But it’s the song’s light touch, devoid of moralizing, that makes the lyrics so honest.
I wasn’t alive when “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was released, so I don’t know how controversial it was on its release. The Shirelles’ prom-dress elegance and the conflicted nature of the song’s lyrics must have gone a long way toward gaining mainstream acceptance. But I think it was the innovative fusion of musical styles and the resonance of the subject matter that made the song a #1 hit and all-time classic. 9
- “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was the first #1 hit by Brill Building songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
Hit #1 on January 30, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
44 of 967 #1′s reviewed; 4.55% through the Hot 100
It’s interesting to have these occasional reminders that rock and roll didn’t kill the old easy listening tunes completely, that parents and grandparents still exerted enough financial influence to outbuy the teenagers every so often. It’s hard to really rate “Wonderland by Night” because it is simultaneously so different from what I expect in a pop song and yet sounds so similar to a number of other elevator music tunes. The false beginning promises a rambunctious start – those wailing horns, the arrested count off (“One! … One! … One!”, or at least that’s what I think they’re saying) – before settling into mid-tempo blandness. It’s very close to “Theme From A Summer Place“: they’re both pleasant enough while playing, but I can’t imagine anyone rushing out to buy them, especially in the numbers needed to fetch a spot at the top of the Hot 100 for three weeks. Then again, I wasn’t an adult record buyer in 1960, so I’m clearly not the target audience. But hey, at least it’s better than the other Kaempfert-composed song that’ll top the charts in 1961. 4
Hit #1 on January 9, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
43 of 965 #1′s reviewed; 4.46% through the Hot 100
So far on No Hard Chords, the King has managed to keep a nice solid score of 7 for his Hot 100 hits. Neither “A Big Hunk o’ Love,” nor “Stuck on You,” nor “It’s Now or Never” are among Presley’s very best songs, but they’re all worthy entries at the top of the charts. And then comes “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” The part of the track that’s actually the song is sentimental but not bad. It has a pretty melody well-served by Presley’s aching voice. But the bulk of the single is a bizarre, spoken word piece of Shakespeare-referencing bad poetry that goes on forever: “Now the stage is bare, and I’m standing there, with emptiness all around,” he whimpers as he stretches an already thin metaphor to the breaking point. It would be understandable if the single were released during Elvis’s bloated Vegas years, but while he’s still young and (relatively) rocking, it’s an unusual choice, to say the least. 5
Hit #1 on November 28, 1960; total of 6 weeks at #1
42 of 965 #1′s reviewed; 4.35% through the Hot 100
Filed under 05, 1960, 1961
Compared with the elegant craftsmanship of “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stay” is a bit of a lark, a tossed-off fragment of a song more memorable for the piercing falsetto of Henry “Shane” Gaston than for the melody or lyrics. That’s not a knock on the song at all – “Stay” has a freshness and energy that marked it as the modern alternative to the Great American Songbook. The song seems to start in the middle before jumping to the coda rather suddenly, and in between it doesn’t quite adhere to a verse/chorus/verse pattern. Add to that the blink-and-miss-it length of 1:37 (still the shortest song to top the Hot 100) and you have an anomolous entry at the top of the charts. But ”Stay”‘s ramshackle charm is precisely its strength. Williams pleas to “stay… just a little bit longer” because “your daddy don’t mind, and your mommy don’t mind” come off as sincere (well, at least as sincere as a guy trying to coax a girl to break curfew). But “Stay” is also deceptively complex. The seemingly random bits of the song’s structure flow together smoothly, like a doo wop mini-suite. And the voices of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs not only mesh well together, but also with the piano and drums that form the song’s foundation. All these elements add up to a song that’s just the right palate cleanser between two courses of heart-rending ballads, a reminder that, above all, pop music is supposed to be fun. 7
Hit #1 on November 21, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
41 of 965 #1′s reviewed; 4.25% through the Hot 1o0
R&B rave-ups like “I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say” may have marked Ray Charles as an innovator, but it was covers of old standards and country tunes that made him a star. That’s not to say that Charles had sold out in his bid to cross over to pop audiences. He had always been indebted to the sophistication of ’40s swing/jump blues icon Louis Jordan, and, no matter what he sang, his voice and phrasing were always distinctly Ray Charlesian. Still, it’s no surprise that Charles’s first #1 hit is an old Hoagy Carmichael chestnut. What’s more surprising is that it had never been a major hit for anyone since its 1930 composition. Charles claims the title of “definitive version” by the first chorus, the weariness in his voice expressing his restlessness on the long road back to Georgia. The conflating of Georgia, a woman, with Georgia, the state, is a neat trick, done subtly enough that it adds extra depth to the song rather than being a corny gimmick. But the overbearing backup singers and gaudy strings, surely included to appeal to white audiences, lessen the recording’s impact. While “Georgia on My Mind” deservedly became one of Charles’s most famous songs, it’s a lot easier from a 21st century perspective to appreciate his more gospelly, organic-sounding versions from later decades. Even with the syrupy production, though, Charles’s voice and piano always ring out, clear and distinct. 7
Hit #1 on November 14, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
40 of 965 #1′s reviewed; 4.15% through the Hot 100