Category Archives: 05

163) Frank Sinatra – “Strangers in the Night”

In 1965, Frank Sinatra celebrated his fiftieth birthday with two albums overtly taking stock of his past: A Man and His Music, a mostly re-recorded retrospective of his biggest hits, and September of My Years, a concept album about aging. Sinatra had never exactly gone away – he spent the early part of the decade starring in a string of movies (mostly Rat Pack throwaways, but also The Manchurian Candidate), and his three or four albums per annum regularly charted in the Top 20 – but his pop dominance of the mid-to-late ’50s had run its course. Sinatra’s semicentennial heralded a comeback, one of half a dozen over the course of his career. September became his first album to go Top 5 since 1961, spawning a Top 40 hit with “It Was a Very Good Year.” More importantly, Sinatra sounded invested in what he was singing for the first time in years: a personal, melancholy reflection on regret and growing older.

Perhaps that’s why Sinatra so resented “Strangers in the Night,” his hatred of it well out of proportion for a banal love ballad. September was Sinatra making an artistic statement; “Strangers” was one for the dinner show, guaranteed not to make the audience reflect on their life choices nor remind them of their nearing obsolescence. It worked: “Strangers” became his biggest single since the advent of rock and roll and cemented his comeback on the pop charts. Nelson Riddle, whose sensitive arrangements brought out the best in Sinatra on ’50s classics such as In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely, here layers the record with bombast and floridity. Despite his distaste for the song, Sinatra’s a pro – his phrasing is impeccable and his voice in fine form. Nevertheless, his delivery rings a bit hollow, his reading as rote as the arrangement’s emotional signposts (ritardando -> dramatic pause -> key change). The closest Sinatra gets to letting the curtain slip is in the famous “doodie-doobie-doo” outro, a parody of his trademark scatting that ebbs into tuneless blither.

At the very least, Sinatra must have gotten some satisfaction from having matched his pal/rival Dean Martin’s feat of topping the post-British Invasion charts, and for having displaced the type of music he despised. But like “Everybody Loves Somebody,” Sinatra’s hit remained at the top of the Hot 100 for a single week before being replaced by the rock- and R&B-influenced acts that had become the new pop norm. Music like Sinatra’s and Martin’s had become a niche market, consigned to its own Billboard chart: Easy Listening, where “Strangers in the Night” held the top spot for seven weeks. Sinatra would manage one more mainstream chart-topper, but not without the help of a younger singe arguably even more popular than him at the time. By the end of the decade, Sinatra was obliged to cover the softer end of the rock spectrum he had once maligned: songs by Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles, the new standards. 5

Hit #1 on July 2 1966; total of 1 week at #1
163 of 1019 #1’s reviewed; 16.00% through the Hot 100

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150) The Dave Clark Five – “Over and Over”

The Dave Clark Five were the first UK group to challenge The Beatles’ dominance of the US pop charts, launching “Glad All Over” into the Top 10 in March 1964. Nearly two years and 12 singles later (all but one of which went Top 40), the group finally scored their only number-one hit. Their solid chart run befits a band who built their career on steady quality and moderate talent rather than on surprise or innovation. They could sometimes bust out a great hook like the “DUN DUN” in the chorus of “Glad All Over,” or break out in a thrash as on “Bits and Pieces.” But even with their trademark “big beat” (not for nothing was the band named after the drummer), the group’s genial blandness always kept them a step or two below the thrilling highs of bands like The Beatles or the Stones.

In a way, The Dave Clark Five were the quintessential British Invasion group, schooled in vocal harmonies and Lennon-McCartney chord changes but without the distinctive personality and arty streak of the more enduring acts. Yet there was also a certain retro quality that set the band apart from the rest of the Invasion. While their peers were starting out in afterschool skiffle or blues bands, the group then known as The Dave Clark Quintet toured London-area military bases, playing lite jazz and dance pop in officer’s clubs. Even after the band switched to beat music, their prominent use of saxophone and commitment to unambitious rock and roll tied them to the ’50s long after most of their compatriots retired their Chuck Berry covers.

Fittingly, the group’s sole US number-one was a cover of a song first released in 1958, the flipside of Bobby Day’s hit “Rockin’ Robin.” The Dave Clark Five’s “Over and Over” sticks relatively close to the original, apart from adding a harmonica break and changing Day’s line “everybody went stag” to the stupid-brilliant “everybody there was there.” Instead of boogie bounce and Day’s nuanced delivery, though, their version emphasizes the bash of Clark’s drums and the blast of Mike Smith’s voice. What this take on “Over and Over” gains in rock and roll power, it loses in personality. Which, contradictory as it may seem, makes it the ideal choice for The Dave Clark Five’s number-one: it’s a perfectly competent, somewhat unexciting record by a perfectly competent, somewhat unexciting band.

With “Over and Over,” The Dave Clark Five became the last of the original run of British Invasion groups to score a number-one. Meanwhile, American garage bands were reclaiming the movement’s back-to-basics approach, while the more ambitious UK acts began expanding into harder, folkier or psychedelic strains of rock. Even as “Over and Over” became a hit, it also felt vaguely like an anachronism. The Dave Clark Five wouldn’t return to the Top 10 for another year and a half, scoring one last big hit with “You Got What It Takes” (another ’50s cover) before disappearing from the US charts altogether. Like the other British Invasion acts who wouldn’t or couldn’t keep up with the decade’s rapidly-shifting tastes, The Dave Clark Five found themselves left behind by the ’60s rock culture they had helped create. 5

Hit #1 on December 25, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
150 of 1015 #1’s reviewed; 14.78% through the Hot 100

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141) Herman’s Hermits – “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”

One of the things that makes the pop charts more fascinating than carefully curated lists of “important” records, like Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, is all the junk that filters through. That’s not an insult — junk may not be particularly well-written, and it’s often annoying, but at its best it embodies the careless vitality that makes rock and roll so exciting. The very fact that junk hits aren’t so-called timeless classics makes them snapshots of the transient tastes of a lost age. And for one week in 1965, the single that best captured the state of American pop taste was a 17-year-old English kid and his beat group covering an old music hall hit. Less than two minutes long, consisting of little more than three choruses and a time-killing guitar solo, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” feels barely substantial enough to pass for a B-side. Like “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” before it, the single didn’t even merit release in Herman Hermits’ native country. (Unlike “Mrs. Brown,” this doesn’t feel like an oversight.) But the record’s exotic Cockneyisms, old-timey flavor and unshakeable chorus were enough to buoy it to the top of the US charts in August. What better time for a nice repetitive song that takes no effort to learn quickly than the mind-dulling heat of late summer? It’s cheerful and a bit funny and tailor-made for group singalongs. Eventually it’ll wear out its welcome, but it’s so slight that it can be cast aside without guilt.

Certainly there are better records — better Herman’s Hermits records, even — more deserving of the number-one spot. But compared with the horrors of past novelty chart-toppers, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” is downright pleasant. The band is charming enough, Peter Noone doesn’t oversell the joke, and the whole thing ends quickly. Better a tossed-off piece of junk than a record that’s ponderous or bloated or a self-serious attempt at social relevance. Squint and you can maybe even detect the seeds of punk in its stripped-down insouciance — after all, the Ramones did quote “second verse, same as the first” in “Judy is a Punk.” But is “Henry VIII” a good record? Even the band probably thought of it as nothing more than a bit of filler that got lucky. 5

Hit #1 on August 7, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
141 of 1011 #1’s reviewed; 13.95% through the Hot 100

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132) Freddie and the Dreamers – “I’m Telling You Now”

When Freddie and the Dreamers first had a UK #2 hit with “I’m Telling You Now” in 1963, no one bothered pressing copies for the U.S. market. Cut to two years later, the middle of the British Invasion, and suddenly the record’s bright guitars, close harmonies and prominent use of the bVII chord made for passable filler between Beatles singles. The Dreamers lacked The Beatles’ muscle and groove, though, much less their musical complexity and ambition. Instead, Freddie and the Dreamers drew inspiration from the simple melodies, broad humor and professionalized merriment of the English music hall tradition. This theatrical element carried over into the band’s ridiculous appearance: a puckish young (but not that young) man in Buddy Holly glasses, flailing with loopy energy, backed by what appeared to be a gang of Mancunian wide boys (or mysterious shadow people, depending on what clip you’re watching). Freddie Garrity’s stage routine – spastic leaps, maniacal cackling, a “dance” called the Freddie (see video above) – evinced a desperation to entertain that was sort of winning, if a little exhausting. This was a group that made no pretentions to hipness or sex appeal. Beneath that guitars-bass-drums set-up – an inevitable byproduct of the beat era – lurked the souls of Christmas panto performers.

Freddie and the Dreamers had a brief but fruitful career in the UK, banking four top 10 hits in just over a year, but were unable to duplicate this success in the U.S. The follow-up single, “Do the Freddie,” topped out at #18 in June. By the time the group released “Send a Letter to Me” three months later, they had fallen out of the Hot 100 for good. Never the most versatile of bands, the Dreamers were swiftly elbowed aside by their tougher, more innovative compatriots. Even their niche as kings of the Northern-vowelled music hall revivalists would soon be usurped by a band with stronger material and a teen idol frontman. Of all the records that topped the Hot 100 in 1965 (admittedly, an exceptionally good year), “I’m Telling You Now” has sustained the least amount of cultural endurance. The Dreamers’ true legacy is as a foil for the “real” British Invasion rockers, the kind who went on to create critically beloved albums and show up from time to time on the cover of Mojo. But while Freddie and the Dreamers were a cut-rate rock band, their strong visual identity and catchy songs opened them up to listeners who might otherwise have been indifferent to the British Invasion.  For older listeners, Freddie and the Dreamers were a throwback to the golden age of vaudeville. For kids, they were an elementary education in rock and roll. 5

Hit #1 on April 10, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
132 of 1008 #1’s reviewed; 13.10% through the Hot 100

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123) Bobby Vinton – “Mr. Lonely”

Bobby Vinton was a solitary figure in early ’60s pop.  He was born too late to be one of the classic crooners, but he was a little too old to fit in with his fellow teen idols.  He wanted to be a bandleader more than a singer, and his music bears few traces of contemporary influences – but his best record is a rock ballad.  His taste in material regularly see-sawed between the sublime (“Blue Velvet”) and the soporific (“Roses Are Red [My Love],” “There! I’ve Said It Again”). “Mr. Lonely,” one of Vinton’s rare writing credits, is one of the better ones, even if it doesn’t quite scale the heights of “Blue Velvet.”  Unlike “Roses” and “There,” the material doesn’t carry the bulk of the blame.  Instead, it’s Vinton’s singing that’s the problem.  He overemotes, particularly through the second half of the song, choking up during the verses as if staying alive long enough to sing the next line is some sort of unbearable burden.  Like Paul Anka’s “Lonely Boy,” the record comes off at best as insincere, at worst as parody.  It’s as if fame led Vinton and Anka to forget what loneliness really feels like, so they overcompensated with quivering sobs and self-pitying lyrics.  (Compare with Roy Orbison, whose perpetual melancholy always seemed sincere – perhaps because it also seemed like he was always trying to fight it.)

Even though it was released as a single in 1964, “Mr. Lonely” actually appeared on the same album as “Roses Are Red (My Love)” way back in 1962 – a lifetime in terms of the early ’60s pop discography. (For reference, Vinton put out five more studio LPs and a greatest hits compilation between the album Roses Are Red and the single release of “Mr. Lonely.”)  Appropriately enough for the backwards-looking pop star, his final number-one was a leftover from a time before the British Invasion, when easy listening and American pop ruled the charts.  Unlike most of his peers, Vinton continued to have a steady stream of mid-chart hits through the rest of the ’60s, sometimes scoring the occasional Top 10 single.  He wasn’t a teen idol any longer – the definition had changed and, besides, it’s not a good look past 30.  But of all the wholesome, smiling Bobbys, he was the last man standing. 5

Hit #1 on December 12, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
123 out of 995 #1’s reviewed; 12.36% through the Hot 100

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111) Peter & Gordon – “A World Without Love”

The Beatles’ trio of early 1964 hits proved that, despite the group’s teen idol status, they were capable of producing truly great material.  “A World Without Love,” on the other hand, showed that Beatlemania could make a hit of even a weaker record with a “Lennon/McCartney” credit.  Like “Love Me Do,” “A World Without Love” was a Paul McCartney composition that predated The Beatles.  But where “Love Me Do” is adolescent in the best sense of the word – raw, direct, effortlessly cool – “World Without Love” is freshman poetry navel-gazing.  McCartney rejected it as sub-Beatles standard, instead passing it on to his girlfriend Jane Asher’s brother Peter and his new folk duo.

In the hands of The Beatles, one could imagine “A World Without Love” as sort of a lesser “Yesterday,” Paul’s showcase but with his bandmates keeping the sentimentality in check.  Peter & Gordon, on the other hand, are all soft voices and tasteful guitar plucking, sounding very much like the easy-listening folk pop of the pre-Beatles era.  To be fair, though, “A World Without Love” would be weak regardless of who recorded it.  The middle eight (“So I wait, and in a while …”) doesn’t resolve itself satisfactorily, and the lyrics veer toward overwrought cliché.

Still, “A World Without Love” isn’t a terrible song.  McCartney clearly recognized its potential to become a hit, or he wouldn’t have shopped it around.  That The Beatles discarded it anyway is testament to the band’s level of quality control.  “A World Without Love” actually marked the second time a song rejected by The Beatles became a number-one record.  After the group refused to release the professionally-written “How Do You Do It” as their first single, Gerry and the Pacemakers took it to the top of the charts in the UK.  By rejecting those two songs, The Beatles were making an artistic statement rare in the rock and roll era: that staying true to one’s standards and crafting a high quality discography is more important than grubbing for hits.  What The Beatles chose not to record was just as important to their mythology as what they did. 5

Hit #1 on June 27, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
111 of 982 #1’s reviewed; 11.30% through the Hot 100

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100) Nino Tempo and April Stevens – “Deep Purple”

Over the first five or so years of the Hot 100, rock and roll and teen pop records shared space with easy listening instrumentals and versions of classic pop songs.  There were certainly some adults buying rock records, and teenagers who were fans of Lawrence Welk, but as a rule the two demographics kept to themselves.    But around 1963, inspired by the success of artists like Bobby Vinton, labels began engineering singles specifically to appeal across demographic lines.  The formula was simple: find teen idol types and record them singing either standards (“Blue Velvet“) or new songs that could pass for standards (“Roses Are Red [My Love]“). Meanwhile, “Hey Paula” had also sparked a trend for male-female duets.  It was only logical that a single combining the two could potentially become a hit.

“Deep Purple” dated back to the 1930s and had been recorded in a variety of styles in the intervening decades. Nino Tempo and April Stevens were siblings (real last name: Lo Tempio) already established in the entertainment world – Nino a saxophonist and former child actor, April a singer who’d had a few hits in the ’50s.  For their recording of “Deep Purple,” the pair jacked up the standard’s tempo and sang over a bed of harmonica, drums and piano instead of a big band.  Still, there are no attempts to radically alter the song – with one exception.  During the second half, Nino sings softly while April drawls the same lyrics just slightly ahead of him.  Her purr is so extreme that it would put Marilyn Monroe to shame, and goes a long way toward making the record sound more seductive than it really is.  As a result, the record was a respectful, sprightly version of an old song with just a hint of sex appeal added (which, to modern ears, is still a little too much for a sibling duet).  The whole package appealed to both sides of the generation gap, with the old guard even bestowing a “Best Rock & Roll Recording” Grammy on the duo.  Of course, the record’s connections to rock and roll were tenuous at best, but at least the establishment was trying.  “Deep Purple”‘s cross-generational gimmick now sounds dated and a little clumsy, even if it’s still revived from time to time.  Then again, the record was never intended to be inducted into any sort of rock canon.  It’s merely another version of a familiar hit, its greatest ambition to appeal to a wide range of record buyers for a few weeks in 1963. 5

Liner Notes:

It took (only!) 15 months to get through the first 100 number-ones.  In case you haven’t been around the whole time, here’s a brief overview to bring you up to speed:

  • The average rating was 5.94, with more than a quarter of the tracks earning a 7.  The top-rated track was Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” while the lowest-rated was “Mr. Custer” by Larry Verne.  Both records are also the only ones yet to earn a 10 and a 1, respectively.
  • On reflection, there were a couple of songs that I rated unnecessarily low.  Most egregiously, I dismissed Connie Francis’s “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” as “passable.” I now think it’s one of her best songs, although I still haven’t gotten over the stifling production.  In second is “Quarter to Three” by Gary U.S. Bonds, which I rated favorably but under-enthusiastically.
  • On the flip side, there are also those tracks I graded too kindly.  I’m not sure how I ended up handing Paul Anka a (mildly) positive rating.  Given that “Lonely Boy” was post #16, I’ll blame beginner’s jitters.  (Also, I’m still conflicted about “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”)

The next 100 posts will be covering one of the most exciting periods in pop history.  Here’s hoping it won’t take another 15 months to get through them.

Hit #1 on November 16, 1963; total of 1 week at #1
100 of 978 #1’s reviewed; 10.22% through the Hot 100

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