Now that we’re almost to the end of 1963, what would you guess was the best-selling song of the year? Remember, there was a lot of classic stuff to hit the top of the charts in 1963: The Four Seasons’ best single, Jan & Dean’s take on The Beach Boys’ surf-ready harmonies and, of course, many of girl group’s best-loved songs. And yet, as you’ve surely figured out by now, that honor went to the largely-forgotten single in the video above. It isn’t that “Sugar Shack” is a bad song. But as blockbuster hit of the year, it’s an awfully unassuming track. In fact, it’s almost a perfect specimen of post-first wave, pre-British Invasion rock and roll. Basically, it’s a spunkier version of what your parents were listening to, with little of the raucousness that made rock so revolutionary. Which is probably why “Sugar Shack” was so successful: it gave teenagers an approved to spend their allowances, and parents had an inoffensive gateway into understanding their kids’ music.
That said, “Sugar Shack” does have one factor weighing heavily in its favor: the song’s innovative use of distorted bass. The record’s worth listening to at least once to check out the rough, crunchy sound that anticipates the fuzzbox’s reign over mid-late ’60s rock. While “Sugar Shack” isn’t garage rock, it’s arguably a precursor to Top 10 run of The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” two months later. Much like “Alley Oop,” “Sugar Shack” is an early harbinger of the harder, more psychedelic rock that would close out the decade. Shame the rest of the record is so tame. 5
- “Sugar Shack” is also infamous for being the record that kept “Be My Baby” from hitting #1 on the Hot 100 – but that didn’t prejudice my review, I swear.
Hit #1 on October 12, 1963; total of 5 weeks at #1
99 of 978 #1’s reviewed; 10.12% through the Hot 100
Stevie Wonder was a welcome chart presence throughout the ’60s and ’70s, releasing singles that tempered the balance between pop and soul without forsaking either. His best songs became instant classics, but even the minor singles display his able musicianship and joie de vivre. But if the first Stevie Wonder record you heard was “Fingertips Pt. 2,” I’m not sure you could foresee his role as one of the great American songwriters.
“Fingertips” (the first part) was composed to show off the 12-year-old prodigy’s skills on harmonica and bongos. The instrumental isn’t particularly catchy (at least in terms of the Hot 100), but Wonder’s already an electric showman. The audience loves him and he’s soaking it up, exhorting them to “stomp your feet, jump up and down, do anything you want to do!” Wonder spends the next few minutes applying his musical talents to the song at hand. By the halfway mark, though, Wonder’s abandoned the already-loose structure of the song in favor of a freeform jam and lots more shouting. “Everybody say yeah!” he cries. “Clap your hands just a little bit louder!” Surely this interplay with the audience was thrilling live. But on cold vinyl (or mp3), all that stands out are two minutes of goodbyes and a couple measures of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” played on harmonica. And yet, it was this second part of the recording that hit number one. That the “personality half” of the record triumphed over the “musical half” suggests that “Fingertips Pt. 2” succeeded strictly because of the nation’s fascination with Wonder, whether as a novelty or as a genuine new talent. But much like a live bootleg, “Fingertips Pt. 2” plays more like a tour souvenir – or an attempt to touch the hem of nascent pop nobility – than a record that demands repeat listens. 5
- I acknowledge in advance that my judgment is far from popular. Rest assured this is likely the lowest grade Wonder will see from me till, oh, the ’80s.
Hit #1 on August 10, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
96 of 977 #1’s reviewed; 9.83% through the Hot 100
In a post-Four Seasons world, where Motown artists regularly topped the charts, there wasn’t really a need for doo-wop anymore. Yet the genre had one last gasp with The Tymes and “So Much in Love,” a completely straightforward, completely forgettable single. “So Much in Love” returns doo-wop to its roots by going almost completely a capella – there’s nothing there but layers of vocals, finger snaps and seagull sound effects. The simplicity is refreshing, but it makes the record extra-dependent on clever lyrics or a catchy melody, neither of which is present here. Much like a beachside walk, it’s pleasant while it lasts – just don’t expect to remember it after the tide’s washed your footprints away. 5
Hit #1 on August 2, 1963; total of 1 week at #1
95 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.73% through the Hot 100
My first draft of this post was started on October 26, in hopes of rushing through the next 5 entries in time for Halloween. Obviously, I missed that deadline. But the reason I wanted to write about “Monster Mash” on or by Halloween wasn’t just so I’d have a cute tie-in. There’s an inherent difference in how you hear a holiday song during its corresponding holiday versus the rest of the year. No matter how much I love A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector
, I’m not about to listen to it in any month not called “December.” (Well, maybe Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans’ take on “The Bells of St. Mary’s” – it’s not explicitly Christmas-themed, and it is all kinds of soulful.) Listening to Christmas music, even good Christmas music, when it’s not Christmas just feels wrong. Maybe the excitement and festivity surrounding the holiday make the music sound better. I can certainly tolerate some not so great songs
during that time of year, either because of tradition or nostalgia. So it felt like it would only be fair to write about “Monster Mash” in its own milieu. To examine the song apart from Halloween – much less, during the winter holiday season, which already has more than its fair share of novelty tracks – would be judging it against a harsher standard than perhaps it deserves. Then again, the entire M.O. behind this blog is to judge these songs outside of their historical context to determine whether (I think) they’re actually any good by modern standards.
Unfortunately, the “Monster Mash” does take a bit of a hit apart from Halloween. It does have a few points to recommend it: a convincing pop arrangement (i.e., it actually works as a pop song, not just a parody of a pop song); Pickett’s spot-on imitations of Karloff and Lugosi; and the fact that it’s the only Halloween song to be successful in any commercial sense. This last point is perhaps the most important. Otherwise, how to explain the annual persistence of a Halloween record that is a) dated in its cultural references (have you ever danced the mashed potato? I haven’t, at least not intentionally) and b) not all scary? In fact, it’s anti-scary. It turns monsters into Peppermint Loungers. Then again, this genial, all-ages version of Halloween is exactly what has made “Monster Mash” an enduring tradition – and a song that’s difficult to hate. We only hear it a few days out of the year, in situations where we’re probably already having fun. Frankly, given the depths that Christmas pop regularly plumbs, we should be grateful to have our universal tune for Halloween be something that’s listenable, or at least not actively obnoxious. 5
Hit #1 on October 20, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
79 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.09% through the Hot 100
Ricky Nelson gets more chicks than you. All ethnicities, even (except Africans). He collects them as if they were so many stamps – a 1 centavo from Mexico, a 5 pfennig from Deutschland, licked once before being pasted in a philatelist’s notebook and left on the shelf. It’s abhorrent behavior, traveling around the world for the express purpose of making girls fall in love with you before shipping off to the next port. Ricky offers no apologies either – just a simple shrug, “I’m a travelin’ man,” my only love is the open road and my only lady is the sea. But somehow, Ricky has a way of making you feel sorry for him. The way he sings it, it’s not a boast but a lament. He’s condemned to spend his days dragged from one port to the next by his incessant wanderlust, the vast stretches of loneliness broken only by the rare comfort of another human being (who may or may not speak English, but who is at least pretty). Just as Ricky came out the victim of “Poor Little Fool,” despite his caddish ways, here too he spins the situation in his favor and demonstrates just how he charmed all those girls before breaking their hearts. It’s the singer not the song pulling the weight, but unfortunately even Ricky’s charisma can’t elevate it above mediocrity. 5
Hit #1 on May 29, 1961 for 1 week; repeaked on June 12, 1961 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
51 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 5.26% 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