Category Archives: 06

173) Johnny Rivers – “Poor Side of Town”

History credits the British Invasion with reintroducing rock and roll to the Americans who, failing to appreciate their good fortune, had chosen to discard or declaw it. Not only does this perspective underestimate the surf rockers, R&B artists and early garage rockers who mutated and perpetuated the genre – lest we forget, “Louie Louie” was a hit before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” – but it also overlooks the ’50s-style rockers who carried the flame. One of the leaders of the first rock and roll revival was Johnny Rivers, a white singer and guitarist from Louisiana who had been playing rock for nearly a decade before scoring his first hit, a version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” that climbed to #2 in amid the UK deluge of 1964. While Rivers built his career remaking familiar rock and R&B hits, he was closer in spirit to early Rolling Stones than Pat Boone redux. Rather than watering down the form, he emphasized the viscerality and rougher edges by recording his first several albums and singles live at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles – even as the tight band, female backing singers and clubby atmosphere ensured nothing got too out of hand. Rivers followed “Memphis” with a string of other Top 20 covers, including Harold Dorman’s “Mountain of Love” and Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son,” as well as the Steve Barri/P.F. Sloan original “Secret Agent Man,” originally recorded as the theme song for the imported and retitled UK TV series Danger Man.

Rivers’s sole number-one hit, however, was a conscious departure from the “go-go sound” that had made him famous. One of Rivers’s rare self-penned singles,“Poor Side of Town” updates the Righteous Brothers’ orchestral blue-eyed balladry by toning down the melodrama and adding a light Motown-ish groove. (He’d carry the formula to its logical conclusion on his similarly-arranged covers of “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and “The Tracks of My Tears” the following year). The storyline of the song itself is fairly standard stuff: poor girl leaves poor boy for rich guy; girl gets dumped; girl retreats back to the Poor Side of Town. As the poor boy, Rivers at first greets the girl’s return guarded and a little bitter: “How can you tell me how much you miss me/ when the last time I saw you, you wouldn’t even kiss me?” As the song progresses, though, he begins to soften and admit he still loves her, even as he acknowledges she’s settling (“I can’t blame you for tryin’/ I’m tryin’ to make it too”). Rivers recasts the title line at the end of each verse to chart the narrator’s emotional progression: from sarcasm (“welcome back, baby, to … ”), to melancholic longing (“it’s hard to find nice things, on … ”), to hope (“together we can make it, baby, from the poor side of town”). The song’s arrangement emphasizes the class divide, contrasting street-level rock elements (the gently stinging guitar, Rivers’s slack enunciation, the doo-wop “shooby-dooby” vocals) with a plush bed of strings and the serene, pure-toned vocals of The Blossoms.

“Poor Side of Town” finds Rivers experimenting with recasting rock and roll in a more “adult” format, perhaps inspired by the polished R&B/country blend of Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds recordings. Yet there’s also the sense that perhaps he and producer Lou Adler had overcorrected a little. Rivers’s tremulous phrasing hints at the complexity of reactions brought on by the girl’s return, but the overbright production threatens to blow out any emotional shading. Even if Rivers was attempting to emphasize the divide between the straightforward, authentic poor side and the empty gloss of the rich, the latter actually grows more dominant as it’s supposed to be fading in the rearview. The Blossoms’ role doesn’t seem quite worked out either. Despite getting two lines to themselves near the end, they’re not there to add the woman’s perspective but to reinforce the narrator’s – why else would they cooingly echo the charges of “plaything” and “overnight fling”?

By the time Rivers released the accompanying LP (pointedly titled Changes), he and Adler had refined the use of lush instrumentation to add sophistication and poignancy without contradicting the emotional current.  In a way, Rivers’ mid-to-late ’60s records were no less experimental than what was going on in the rest of the rock world at the time – only rather than drawing from the avant-garde or expanding on roots genres (folk, blues, country), he was trying to see how much polish rock could take without losing its form. It might not have been as hip as what the British acts were doing, but it was perhaps more prescient of the direction mainstream rock was headed in the decade to come. 6

Hit #1 on November 12, 1966; total of 1 week at #1
173 of 1024 #1’s reviewed; 16.89% through the Hot 100

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164) Tommy James & the Shondells – “Hanky Panky”

If Sinatra really did call “Strangers in the Night” “the worst fucking song that I have ever heard,” then imagine the profanity he invented when he discovered what replaced it at the top of the charts. “Strangers” was schmaltz, but “Hanky Panky” epitomized the idiocy and trashiness that Sinatra detested about rock music. Its ascent was a rejection of everything Sinatra stood for. At least Dino had the courtesy of being dethroned by the demure, professional Supremes. Tommy James and the Shondells were a bunch of teenage nobodies; like Simon & Garfunkel, they’d split up long before their record was plucked from obscurity to become a surprise hit.  “Hanky Panky” sounds cheap, scratchy and dirty, built on relentless repetition of a single line (“my baby does the hanky panky”) and a distorted guitar riff. Whereas Sinatra seemed vaguely embarrassed by the triteness of “Strangers,” James and the Shondells embrace “Hanky Panky”’s stupidity as evidence of its primal truth. That the group never achieved the critical respectability of contemporaries like The Beatles and the Stones – who’ve since ascended in the pop firmament alongside Sinatra – makes their toppling of the Chairman all the more satisfying.

“Hanky Panky” began life in 1963 as a rush-written B-side for songwriters Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s project The Raindrops. The original is a bit of girl-groupish filler, a dance craze cash-in for a dance craze that didn’t actually exist. (Barry, talking later to Fred Bronson, said he considered it “a terrible song.”) The sole verse namedrops some of Barry and Greenwich’s inspirations: The Tokens, The Drifters, The Coasters. By the time the Shondells discovered the song the following year, it had passed from one garage band to another like a message in a game of Telephone, morphing in the process into a junior varsity “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” James, or someone else along the line, swapped out the vocal groups for a rough sketch of an encounter with an elusive  “pretty baby.” He sees her walking by herself and asks to take her home; he then insists he “never ever saw her.” Was she the invention of an oversexed imagination? Is he covering for something?

The Shondells’ reimagining of “Hanky Panky” may have been mildly risqué in 1964; when it finally became a hit in mid-’66, it was almost quaint. The buzzing guitar and James’s ripe delivery hint at the existence of sex without really being sexy – an adolescent fantasy (“I never saw her”?) rather than “Be-Bop-A-Lula”’s (or “Satisfaction”’s, or “Day Tripper”’s) matter-of-factness. James and the Shondells had stumbled on the prototype for bubblegum: bright, catchy and repetitious, with a hint of plausibly deniable innuendo. The band refined and developed the formula on their next several singles; compare 1968’s “Mony Mony,” which borrows elements from “Hanky Panky” but sets them in a more dynamic, better-constructed song. As such, “Hanky Panky” is essentially an amateurish and derivative first draft – albeit still more exciting than a hidebound tome like “Strangers in the Night.” 6

Hit #1 on July 16, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
164 of 1019 #1’s reviewed; 16.09% through the Hot 100

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137) The Supremes – “Back in My Arms Again”

After a taking few tentative steps toward independence with “Stop! In the Name of Love,” The Supremes retreat back into the arms of a man who may not be worth the trouble. But the narrator of “Back in My Arms Again” isn’t begging for her man not to leave her. She’s broken it off with him once before, but her pleas for him to come back have paid off. It’s not enough for her to take comfort in their reunion, though; no, she has to get all smug about it. “I listened once to my friends’ advice, but it’s not gonna happen twice,” she smirks, willfully ignoring that if everyone’s saying the same thing, they might have a point. But give her the benefit of the doubt: it is easy for them to say when they’re not the ones in love. The canon of popular music would be far slimmer without all the lovers who made it against the protestations of friends/parents/the world at large. But then our narrator needles her fellow Supremes by name, and all sympathy dissipates. Oh Diana, didn’t you “lose your love so true,” just like Mary? And isn’t calling Flo’s boy “a Romeo” engaging in the same judgmental gossip you’ve just spent two minutes dismissing? Suddenly, “Back in My Arms Again” starts sounding less like a love song than an anti-friendship screed, maybe even a precursor to the ’00s fascination with telling off haters.

Musically, it’s a step back from the more sophisticated “Stop!” as well, essentially reprising “Come See About Me” without the call-and-response vocals and crisp bounce. “Back in My Arms Again” would become even more redundant when the pre-chorus, one of the song’s best hooks, would be recycled for The Isley Brothers’ superior “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” the following year. The Supremes’ first three number-ones are still terrific singles, but (as with the boyfriend in the song) we know they can do better now, so it’s disappointing to watch them backpedal. Maybe that’s why “Back in My Arms Again” would end The Supremes’ streak of five number-ones in a row, after soundalike follow-up “Nothing But Heartaches” stalled at #11. If the girls were to regain their place at the top, they’d have to stop spinning their wheels and keep moving forward. 6

Hit #1 on June 12, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
137 of 1009 #1’s reviewed; 13.58% through the Hot 100

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133) Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders – “Game of Love”

While the British Invasion relied on British bands reinterpreting American forms of music, the ratio of “Americanness” (blues/country rave-ups, emphasis on the groove) to “Britishness” (polished, traditional pop song structures) could vary wildly depending on the band. At one end were groups like Freddie and the Dreamers, rockers more out of circumstance than conviction; at the other, The Rolling Stones, whose earliest singles betray a band convinced they were the reincarnations of the not-yet-dead Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders leaned closer to the latter end of the spectrum; both their hits (the other being “Groovy Kind of Love,” released later in 1965 after Fontana left the group) were even written by Americans. But unlike their compatriots, who drew from ’50s rockabilly and R&B, the Mindbenders adopted the trappings of the burgeoning garage rock scene.

Why the Mindbenders topped the charts when The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” didn’t is more likely due to the momentum of the British Invasion than because “Game of Love” is the superior record. Really, “Game of Love” isn’t even a garage rock song; it’s a compilation of garage rock archetypes strung together with only the loosest attempt at coherence. First up is the I-IV-V-IV semi-verse, which starts off sounding like a draggy “Louie Louie” before suddenly perking up (“Come on, baby!”) and tumbling into the chorus. This is the best part of the song because it features future 10CC-er Eric Stewart’s credible blues-rock riffing and has the two hooks everyone remembers: the lines “The purpose of a man is to love a woman/ And the purpose of a woman is to love a man” – lyrics so simple and direct it’s a marvel they hadn’t turned up before – and the octave-bounding call and response “LUH” “UV” “LUH” “UV” “LUHLUHLUHLUHLUHLUV.” Then “Game of Love” decides it wants to be a Bo Diddley tune for a few bars, because even though every frat-rock band in the United States played “Who Do You Love,” no one had made a hit out of it yet. The band switches off between faux-“Louie” and faux-Diddley again before veering right into a Beatles impression in the coda, just to remind everyone they were, in fact, a British Invasion band (even though U.S. garage rockers were equally capable of the same).

So yes, it’s a bit of a mess. And as much as I’d like to add “and so is rock and roll!” to that statement and slap a 10 on the end of this paragraph, something about “Game of Love” is a bit too disjointed and by-the-numbers, as if the different parts were pilfered from the discarded remains of pastiches that didn’t quite take. Wayne Fontana is an OK singer, and the Mindbenders are perfectly able rockers, but there’s no raw power or exuberance in the execution to make up for the lack of imagination. Which doesn’t keep “Game of Love” from being worthy of its place in permanent rotation on oldies radio, or stop it from sounding good coming out of tinny speakers. But compared with their fellow British rockers’ developing songcraft and the Americans’ commitment to attitude, it can’t help but feel distinctly second-tier. 6

Hit #1 on April 24, 1965; total of 1 week at #1
133 of 1008 #1’s reviewed; 13.19% through the Hot 100

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128) Gary Lewis & The Playboys – “This Diamond Ring”

So the British Invasion reinvigorated rock and roll, making it charts-worthy again. Inevitably, then, the Americans’ return to rock would hew closely to the Britons’ example. But whereas the best of the British Invasion brought something new to the table – The Beatles’ melodic hooks, The Animals’ fire and brimstone, The Rolling Stones’ snotty schoolboy attitude – the Americans were in the awkward position of having to relearn this whole rock-and-roll thing they had once invented. So, like kindergarteners who must trace the alphabet before one day composing their own sentences, Americans waded back into rock by mimicking the British – creating, in essence, a copy of a copy. At the same time, the vertically integrated Brill Building system wasn’t quite ready for a self-contained rock-and-roll band. As a result, the American music industry was forced to cobble together some sort of facsimile of a rock group, only without the head-butting of dealing with an actual autonomous band.

Enter Gary Lewis & the Playboys. They certainly weren’t the first American band plucked from obscurity in response to the British Invasion, but they were the first to score a number-one record. At least part of the credit can be attributed to the group’s frontman being the son of comedian Jerry Lewis. As “Gary & the Playboys,” the band earned a standing gig playing Disneyland every night, a position roughly commensurate with their level of talent. But producer Snuff Garrett, learning of Lewis’s lineage, rightly reckoned he could make junior a star, too. So Lewis’s mother paid for the recording sessions, and Lewis’s father used his connections to land the Playboys a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show before they even had a hit.

Nepotism may have granted the Playboys their entrée into the public consciousness, but swiped Beatlesisms made them stars. “This Diamond Ring,” co-written by the soon-to-be-legendary/infamous Al Kooper (along with lyricists Bob Brass and Irwin Levine), was originally recorded by Sammy Ambrose in its intended R&B/soul style, but failed to crack the Hot 100. Garrett repurposed the track for his new beat combo, emphasizing the elements borrowed from the nascent Lennon-McCartney catalogue: distinctive chord changes (e.g., vi-iii from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” among others); certain melismatic progressions (compare “if you find someone whose heart is true” from “This Diamond Ring” with “last night I said these words to my girl” from “Please Please Me”); and the blending of two voices singing in unison.*

Gary Lewis & the Playboys may have been a perfectly capable gigging band, but Garrett recognized that they were too green for the pop charts. As a result, the instruments on the record were played not by the Playboys, but by the Wrecking Crew – the same collective of LA session musicians that backed a huge chunk of the Hot 100, including the previous number-one.  Only Lewis’s vocals remain on “This Diamond Ring,” and even those were heavily overdubbed by studio singer Ron Hicklin. In attempting to ape the rawness of the British Invasion, Garrett produced a record as processed as anything by Phil Spector – moreso, in fact, as at least everyone in Spector’s stable could sing.

And yet, as derivative as it is, “This Diamond Ring” sort of works. It’s not a great record, by any means, and Ambrose’s version is the clear winner in quality, if not popularity. But 1965 is early enough in the game that even a Lennon-McCartney rip-off still feels fresher than most of the other recent records trying to pass for American rock and roll. Kooper’s twisty melody is easily the best part of the song, durable enough to withstand the Playboys’/Garrett’s bland interpretation, both despite and because of its borrowed Beatlesisms. Is “This Diamond Ring” as innovative as the best of the British Invasion records? Not at all, though it definitely beats out many of the other also-rans who scored chart-toppers in The Beatles’ wake. (Watch this space.) Nor is “This Diamond Ring” as indelible or well-crafted as many of its pop and R&B contemporaries. But for a nation feeling its way back into rock and roll? Baby steps. 6

*For further examples, see the introduction to David Brackett’s essential Interpreting Popular Music.

 Hit #1 on February 20, 1965; total of 2 weeks at #1
128 of 1003 #1’s reviewed; 12.76% through the Hot 100

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107) Louis Armstrong – “Hello, Dolly!”

“While Broadway compositions tend to become more complex – like People in Funny Girl – the bulk of U.S. listeners seem to be resigned to, and even to prefer, the slap-bang rock-’n’-roll-style trash with which they are deluged.” –Tom Prideaux, Life magazine, Aug. 7, 1964

“It may dawn on you that Hello, Dolly! is a pretty dumb-dumb show, all in all.  But what were you expecting? A Hard Day’s Night?” –Judith Crist, New York magazine, Jan. 12, 1970

That The Beatles were to fall from the top of the Hot 100 was inevitable; that they were to be replaced by Louis Armstrong was surely a relief.  Who could begrudge the legendary trumpeter and vocalist, the man who epitomized jazz, scoring his first number-one after recording for nearly half a century? With “Hello, Dolly!,” Armstrong became the oldest musician to top the Hot 100 (at 64), won his only competitive Grammy and garnered the best sales of his career. The record sparked a revival of interest in Armstrong, ultimately leading to a recognition of his place in the popular music canon.  So it’s only fitting that The Beatles were succeeded by one of the few musicians whose impact on the Twentieth century matched their own.

Also fitting: “Can’t Buy Me Love” being replaced at #1 by another ersatz jazz number.  Whereas The Beatles blended their swing influences with rock and roll, creating an exciting but familiar sound in the process, “Hello Dolly!” is markedly less adventurous, all showtune despite its dixieland brass.  After 14 weeks of The Beatles, conventional pop listeners were ready to take back the charts.  The record is all nostalgia: for the eponymous musical’s turn-of-the-century setting, for the dixieland rendered obsolete by experimental jazz (and rock), and for Armstrong’s long career as the good-time ambassador of American popular song.  Never mind that the song itself is slight and was neither written nor recorded with the intention of becoming a hit.  Hello, Dolly! composer Jerry Herman had intended “It Only Takes a Moment” to be the musical’s break-out number; Armstrong, who recorded the tune at his manager’s request, forgot “Hello, Dolly!” existed until concert audiences began requesting it.  Despite his status as a hired gun, though, there isn’t a moment on the record where Armstrong doesn’t sound completely invested, as if “Hello, Dolly!” were the equal of “Basin Street Blues” or “St. James Infirmary.”  It’s his enthusiasm and charm (“Hello, Dolly/This is Louis, Dolly”) that imbues the song with a level of likeability it probably doesn’t deserve.  After the dizzying highs of The Beatles, a showtune at#1 could have been a crash back to earth.  Instead, “Hello, Dolly!” is a small victory for a legend – one who helped make rock and roll possible. 6

Hit #1 on May 9, 1964; total of 1 week at #1
107 of 982 #1’s reviewed;10.90% through the Hot 100

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94) Jan & Dean – “Surf City”

As wicked as the snarl of a surf guitar sounds on an instrumental, I’ve never been able to embrace songs about surfing.  My beach-going is limited to childhood summer trips to the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  Even if I had grown up within commuting distance of the Pacific Ocean, though, my wussiness, fair skin and distaste for/fear of popular people ensured that surfing would not have been one of my chosen pursuits.   Surfing was reserved for beautiful teenagers thousands of miles, and maybe even a few decades, away.

Of course, Brian Wilson didn’t surf either.  Neither did most Beach Boys fans, I’d wager.  But Wilson’s genius (well, one of his geniuses) was recognizing what surfing represented to millions of landlocked young people: endless summers, freedom from parents, girls in bikinis.  The premier statement of surfing as metaphor for teenage paradise is “Surf City,” a track Wilson co-wrote with Beach Boys tourmates Jan & Dean.  The lyrics detail the few things every guy could dream of: a set of wheels, a surfboard and “two girls for every boy.”  This last item seems particularly necessary, as it’s repeated several times throughout the verse and chorus.  That Surf City’s male-favorable ratio garners far more mentions than surfing does just proves the analogy of surfing is more important than the activity itself.

But it isn’t just the lyrical content that’s reminiscent of Wilson’s work with The Beach Boys.  Jan & Dean’s falsetto vocals were supplemented with backing singers to approximate the other band’s melodically-shifting, multi-part harmonies.  The resulting effect is somewhat eerie: a Beach Boys #1 before the Beach Boys actually had a #1.  Yet “Surf City” also works on its own terms as the feel-good hit of the summer – even if that summer is far away from any beach. 6

Hit #1 on July 20, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
94 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 9.63% through the Hot 100

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85) Paul & Paula – “Hey Paula”

Leaving all issues of authenticity in pop music aside (as I promised to do just yesterday), there are some things that are hard to fake convincingly.  One of these is naïveté.  I don’t mean music characterized by foolishness or a lack of sophistication, but the sincere, uncynical type of songs that only be produced by non-professionals not yet molded to industry standards.  This guilelessness is a large part of what gave records like “Come Softly to Me” and “Please Mr. Postman” their charm.  The vocals may not be refined, the lyrics a bit facile, the production low-budget, but there’s an honesty there that’s stands out alongside more polished, conventional fare.  This isn’t to say that naïve music is inherently better than its radio-ready counterpart, merely that it can be an appealing change of pace.

Compare “Hey Paula,” a ballad written and performed by a couple of  Texas college students, with Steve Lawrence’s “Go Away Little Girl“: both take on the subject of young love.  But although the former’s simple arrangement and endearingly clunky lyrics mark it as the work of amateurs, it is all the sweeter and more believable for being something two (quite talented) kids might actually sing to each other.  “Go Away Little Girl,” on the other hand, doesn’t have a sincere note in the whole record.  Even if the love depicted in “Hey Paula” is as artificial as the duo’s noms de musique, the latter’s strict adherence to pop formula comes across as smug, creepy and dull.  “Hey Paula” also has an ace up its sleeve with the voice of Jill Jackson (our “Paula”), whose manages the rare feat in pop of being technically proficient yet seemingly unschooled.  Like “Hey Paula” itself, her singing is enchanting because its loveliness is seemingly by chance. 6

Hit #1 on February 9, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
85 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.71% through the Hot 100

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75) Neil Sedaka – “Breaking Up is Hard to Do”

“Breaking Up is Hard to Do”: A Journey

Day 1: “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” is one of those oldies that I’ve heard a thousand times, but I never really paid attention to it before.  And for something I was expecting to be yet more teen idol pabulum, it’s surprisingly listenable.  Sedaka’s voice is a little on the wrong side of chipmunk, but the man sure knows how to throw a song together.

Day 4: Starting to warm to this quite a bit more than I expected. It’s usually easy to dismiss the Brill Building’s efforts with white male singers (cf. Bobby Vee).  In this case, it helps that Sedaka is a legitimate songwriter with actual hits to his name, including  some of Connie Francis‘s best records (“Stupid Cupid,” “Fallin’,” “Where the Boys Are”).  He may not have the looks of a teen idol, but knowing how to write to his strengths was enough to make him a star.

Day 9: A pop song with no hooks can scarcely be called successful.  But can a song be too catchy? The answer, clearly, is yes.  In Nick Hornby’s music essay collection Songbook, he cites Dave Eggers theory that what makes people want to listen to songs over and over is the song’s puzzle, something slightly different that their brains want to play with.  But when a song gets lodged in your head, playing itself over and over, it quickly wears out its welcome.  A puzzle is all about the journey; once solved, it either is forgotten or becomes a nuisance. Despite my mild initial enthusiasm over “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” it’s beginning to fall into the latter category.

Day 11: Breaking into my thoughts is apparently quite easy to do. Up to 22 hours of my day are spent with the song on auto-repeat in my brain (I’ve managed to eke out about 2 hours of mostly uninterrupted sleep). Is there ever going to be an escape from it? Hard to say for sure. To block it out, I’ve been listening to as many other catchy songs as possible.  Do you have any suggestions for counteracting powerful earworms?

Day 12: DOWN is up. DOOBY is DOOBY. DOWN DOWN is COMMA COMMA.

Day 38: Eventually, weeks after listening to it for the last time, I’ve found relief.  I’m tempted to fail it completely, but I’ve had worse stuck in my head (though perhaps nothing more persistent).  Still, whatever small pleasure I may have gotten from the song is vanished. I must say goodbye, and sadly I cannot give this love another try – I fear too much for my sanity.

Day 60: Listened to it again for the first time in a few weeks.  It’s not so bad! It checks all the boxes that a pop song should, with verses so catchy it doesn’t need a chorus. So perhaps I was being a bit hysterical.  Just to be safe, I’ll hand it a 6 – with the caveat that I’ll never listen to it again as much as I did for this post.

Hit #1 on August 11, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
75 of 975 #1’s reviewed; 7.69% through the Hot 100

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72) Ray Charles – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”

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In American culture, blues and country are viewed as operating on opposite ends of the race spectrum.  Charley Pride aside, country is still the whitest genre in pop; and before the Brits co-opted the blues in the 1960s, it was almost exclusively an African-American art form.  Musically, though, the line between the two genres is a blurry one. In the early 20th Century, black and white musicians essentially played the same songs, and primitive country and blues versions sit together comfortably on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Early country legend Jimmie Rodgers, who shot to fame with his series of (appropriately named) “Blue Yodels,” was cited by Howlin’ Wolf as a formative influence.  Likewise, Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” and “Rock Island Line” have been covered at least as many times by country singers as blues musicians.

Yet by 1962, when Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, country and blues had become firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness as “different,” both from each other and from the mainstream.  Part of this divide was due to marketing (“race records” versus “hillbilly music”); part was due to decades of natural musical evolution, especially once name stars became established and emphasis shifted to recording original compositions over old folk tunes.  So when Ray Charles decided to record an album of country covers, the general reaction was surprise, to say the least.  And when the album became successful, it was hailed as groundbreaking.  Charles’s record was perceived as a powerful statement during the Civil Rights era, uniting black and white audiences and illuminating the shared roots of blues and country in American folk music.  It also, rather unexpectedly, was the record that proved country music had a place in mainstream pop.

“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the biggest hit from Modern Sounds, illustrates the record’s template.  There’re no steel guitars or exaggerated accents here, just Charles crooning the ballad in his usual Southern drawl and playing his jazz/gospel piano.  The result is that it sounds like a Ray Charles song, not a gimmicky cover.  Current listeners unaware of the record’s history may not even realize that it had ever been a country song.  And if the record had been merely Charles, his band and his backing singers, The Raelettes, it would have been a knockout.  Later live versions (such as this one) demonstrate how great the song could have sounded if recorded with Charles’s usual set-up.  Instead, in a bid to make the single even more appealing to white pop audiences, it’s slathered in strings and a backing chorus that sounds too formal and restrained for either R&B or country.  “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is still an impressive record, but one that sounds a bit too dated and straitlaced.  And when viewed as part of Charles’s legacy as a whole, it also marks the point where he became less concerned with being an R&B innovator, and more concerned with appealing to the mainstream. 6

Hit #1 on June 2, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
72 of 972
#1’s reviewed; 7.41% through the Hot 100

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