When “Hey! Baby” topped the Hot 100, the harmonica was still a novelty. The instrument hadn’t really been heard on popular records until the emergence of Chicago Blues just a few years prior. While the harmonica would become a staple of rock radio, thanks to British blues, garage and Dylan, in 1962 musicians were still experimenting with how to apply the instrument to country and pop. Much of the harmonica’s allure derives from its accessibility: it’s the instrument even a busking hobo can afford, a day laborer can master, an incarcerated criminal can respect. Its status as weapon of choice of the poor and disenfranchised, as well as its decidedly coarse sound, means that just a few blasts can automatically add gritty authenticity to a song. The harmonica is best experienced as a burst of brash punctuation, a contained blast of fury or lust or braggadocio or melancholy. What it’s not is a melodic instrument. Go beyond a few rough puffs or a short riff, and it’s about as effective and pleasant to listen to as an ambulance siren sonata.
Of course, there are some great exceptions, some of which we’ll visit on this blog. “Hey! Baby,” however, is a pretty standard example of an early ‘60s attempt to bring the mouth organ to the pop charts (cf. early Beatles singles). The lack of subtlety in Delbert McClinton’s harmonica playing is aggravated by two factors: first, it’s pushed up too far into the mix, making it even more dominant; and second, it has to do nearly all the heavy lifting on the record. Like or loathe McClinton’s harmonica work, at least it is worth discussing. Bruce Channel’s song, however, never lives up to the energy that the harmonica insists is there. Channel seems to be writing a Louisiana Hayride version of a Buddy Holly song, but without Holly’s knack for a memorable lyric or an unexpected arrangement. What does redeem “Hey! Baby” is some vague yet definite quality of geniality which has made it a favorite of sporting events and nostaligists; it’s not likeable, exactly, but it is firmly not-hateable. 4
Hit #1 on March 10, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
66 of 970 #1′s reviewed; 6.80% through the Hot 100
Dion jumping ship from The Belmonts may have been symptomatic of pop’s drift toward rock and roll, but doo wop wasn’t dead yet. Though “Duke of Earl” is billed as a Gene Chandler solo record, it’s actually built on the layered vocals of The Dukays. It’s Chandler’s former group that provides the song’s big, memorable hook, the chants of “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl” that lay the foundation for Chandler to sing the “real” song over. That The Dukays are uncredited on the record is a grave injustice. The vocals of Chandler himself are so smooth as to be almost slippery, with none of the intriguingly ragged edges or creases of a Ben E. King or similar talent. Nevertheless, “Duke of Earl” doesn’t aspire to be more than an elegant, romantic song, and Chandler’s voice is appropriate for the material. But there’s no doubt that it’s the relentless “Duke-Duke-Duke” backing vocals, among the most memorable in the history of the Hot 100, that are what took the record to #1. The simple trick of giving real words to the previously doo wop nonsense syllables points to the reconfiguration of doo wop into something else (even if the phrase “duke of earl” still doesn’t make much sense). Although Chandler never again achieved a hit quite as big as this one, he spent the rest of the decade promoting musicians such as Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions who would further the course of doo wop’s transition into soul. So while “Duke of Earl” itself may be little more than a middling ballad well sung, its production marks it as a notable milestone in the evolution of popular music. 6
Hit #1 on February 17, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
65 of 970 #1′s reviewed; 6.70% through the Hot 100
Where there’s a fad, there’s bound to be a whole bandwagon full of copycats and also-rans. After The Tokens‘ three-week reign atop the Hot 100 was a return visit of an old chart-topper: Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” which had peaked previously in 1960. This second run of “The Twist” was triggered by adults finally discovering the dance in nightclubs, most prominently the trendy Peppermint Lounge in Manhattan. The wave of enthusiasm for the Twist was even stronger this go-around, fueled by hipsters’ deep pockets and the plethora of Twist-themed product churned out to satisfy the public’s demand for hip-swiveling music. These cash-ins ranged from Checker’s attempt at staving off the inevitable (“Let’s Twist Again”), to recasting hits in the Twist-idiom (The Marvelettes‘ “Twistin’ Postman”), to creating “original” songs inspired by the dance craze (the best of which include “Twist and Shout” and “Twistin’ the Night Away”; the worst of which are lost to history).
It’s rare that one of these shadow records bests the one that instigated the fad, but “Peppermint Twist” proves the exception. The Starliters’ record is fresher and more immediate and features a pretty good guitar solo; unlike “The Twist,” I can imagine people actually listening to this for the quality of the music. Checker’s hit, first recorded in 1959, was already starting to show its age by 1962. (The Starliters’ lyric “I got a new dance and it goes like this/And the name of the dance is the Peppermint Twist” is somewhat specious.) The Starliters made two prescient choices that helped cement the success of “Peppermint Twist.” First, they updated the sound, upping the tempo and adding a more refined lounge rock swing, a la Dion’s “Runaround Sue” – appropriately enough, they were the house band at the Peppermint Lounge. Second, and more importantly, they rushed that mother out. Not only did they get in while Twist Fever was at its peak, but they beat out all other comers (including Checker’s own follow-up). If you can’t be first, you may as well be second and better. 6
- Although the record label spells the band’s name as the “Starlighters,” the band itself spelled it “Starliters” (thus the discrepancies in spelling in this entry).
- “Peppermint Twist – Part 2″ was the instrumental B-side to the record.
Hit #1 on January 27, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
64 of 970 #1′s reviewed; 6.60% through the Hot 100
While Motown was helping African-American musical styles crossover to the mainstream, a group of Italian Brooklynites served as unlikely ambassadors for the music of the mother continent. The Tokens’ adaptation of the 1939 song “Mbube” (“Lion”) by Zulu musician Solomon Linda weds South African vocal traditions with American doo wop with surprisingly successful results. Pete Seeger had previously introduced the West to the song as “Wimoweh,” but The Tokens added English lyrics and a rock-inflected arrangement, the key ingredients that would transform the lilting melody and layered vocals into an American chart hit. The resulting record, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” is far removed from Linda’s original but still respects the material, never sounding exploitative or culturally touristic.
But more important than a record’s authenticity is whether or not it is any good. Before revisiting the track for this entry, I had remembered only its most basic elements (chanting, impossibly high male vocals, a sleeping lion) and its frequent appearances in pop culture of varying quality. Because it’s a song about animals (strike one) filled with “nonsense” words (strike two) and beloved by children (strike three), it’s easy to dismiss it as a novelty tune. But close listening reveals a record packed with great bits – lead singer Jay Siegel’s keening wails as de facto chorus, which later mutates into trills; the whirling female soprano, which sounds more like a theremin than a human voice; the unexpected melancholy, suggesting that the lion’s slumber is the end of something as well as a triumph; and, of course, the “wimoweh, a-wimoweh” backing vocals that are perhaps the record’s catchiest hook. This attention to detail is what elevates the song above a cartoony singalong – it’s no wonder that The Tokens would also find success as producers. The elements fluidly unite to create an astonishingly thrilling record to listen to, one that’s a welcome reprieve from the increasingly bland pop that characterizes the rest of the early ’60s. 8
Hit #1 on December 18, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
63 of 970 #1′s reviewed; 6.49% through the Hot 100
Filed under 08, 1961, 1962