Category Archives: 06

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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71) Mr. Acker Bilk – “Stranger on the Shore”

“Stranger on the Shore” might be otherwise forgotten, at least on this side of the Atlantic, were it not for a minor bit of trivia: the record was the first by a British artist to top the Hot 100.  But if the honorific in Mr. Acker Bilk’s name didn’t tip you off, this record doesn’t quite signify the launch of the British Invasion.  A clarinet-led instrumental recorded for a BBC television serial is about as far from rock and roll as one can get, at least on this side of Lawrence Welk.  It is, however, in keeping with the Hot 100’s anything-goes crapshoot of the early ‘60s, before the chart became dominated almost exclusively by whichever records teenagers were buying at the time.  (It wasn’t just 16-year-olds who gave Percy Faith nine weeks at number one.)  The raw, vibrant first wave of rock and roll that had emerged in the ‘50s was losing its footing, and it was far from a given that rock would rule the pop charts for the next several decades.  Just a few months earlier, Decca Records had rejected The Beatles, notoriously stating that “guitar groups are on the way out.” In retrospect, it’s easy to mock the label’s short-sightedness.  But given the state of the British and American charts, the decision was an informed one.   And after all, a successful invasion requires an element of surprise.

What separates “Stranger on the Shore” from most of the other easy listening fodder we’ve explored so far is that it works as a personal statement.  Regardless of whether or not you like “Theme from A Summer Place,” its bombast and glossy sheen mark it as a piece of film score for a major Hollywood motion picture.  “Stranger on the Shore,” on the other hand, started life as a melody composed independently by Bilk.  Originally named “Jenny” for his daughter, it only later ended up as the theme for the namesake TV program.  And unlike the previous instrumental chart-toppers, recorded by orchestras numbering in the dozens of instruments, “Stranger on the Shore” is essentially a solo showcase for Bilk’s expressive clarinet.  There are also some light strings serving as counterpoint, but they are far more restrained than what you’d hear on comparable recordings of the era.  This limited palette of instruments allows the composition to breathe, and lends the record a convincing air of loneliness.  A more complex arrangement would have undermined the emotional truth of being the title stranger, uncertain of one’s place in the new land and wistful for home.

The relative simplicity of “Stranger on the Shore” also makes it sound more modern than the other orchestral instrumentals that have turned up so far at number one, which in turn makes it easier for me to relate to it as a music listener definitely not of that era.  While it’s not a revolutionary record (unlike 1962’s other chart-topping British instrumental – more on that later), it’s one of the few easy listening singles we’ve covered that I actually find easy to listen to. 6

Hit #1 on May 26, 1962; total of 1 week at #1
71 of 971 #1’s reviewed; 7.31% through the Hot 100

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69) Elvis Presley – “Good Luck Charm”

Before the U.S. Army shipped Elvis overseas in 1958, he recorded a bundle of tracks to be parceled out as singles in his absence.  The intent was to keep him in the pop music scene so that he would still have a career when discharged – even the King of Rock and Roll couldn’t survive a two-year disappearance from the popular consciousness.  (That “A Big Hunk o’ Love” managed to hit #1 as late as August 1959 proves the savviness of that business decision.)  “Good Luck Charm” could be easily mistaken as a relic of these sessions, especially given the very un-rock and roll sound of his post-“Stuck On You” number ones.  Yet the fact that “Good Luck Charm” was recorded in 1961, not 1958, puts Presley in the same bind as Connie Francis – this is the sound of an artist whose enormous popularity shielded them from noticing that the pop audience was moving on to something else.

The difference between Presley and Francis, though, is that Elvis had changed his sound.  His three previous number ones sported the influence of the European ballads and arias that he had discovered while posted in Germany, each one more baroque and melodramatic than the last.  But once you’ve released a hit single featuring a rambling, faux-Shakespearean spoken-word monologue, there isn’t much higher on the bombastometer you can go.  So like so many bands who follow a bloated sophomore album with a stripped-down, back-to-basics “return to form,” Elvis sought refuge grounded in the sound that had initially made him famous.  But, as many of those bands have found, it’s difficult to recapture that raw spark once you’ve lost it.  Which isn’t to say that “Good Luck Charm” is bad – it’s perfectly capable – but compare it with “A Big Hunk o’ Love” and the latter has a vitality, a freshness, that the former lacks. This is Elvis treading water as much as it is a return to his roots.

Like Francis’s “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,” “Good Luck Charm” signals the end of Elvis’s reign atop the pop charts – with one exception, which scraped in during the twilight hours of the ’60s. He would continue to record some great singles, many of which charted high – “Return to Sender,” “Blue Christmas” and “Viva Las Vegas” among them – but these would be overshadowed by his decreasingly meritorious movie career and the mediocre-to-terrible singles that soundtracked it, many of which actually were leftovers from his pre-Army sessions. But unlike Francis, the King of Rock and Roll would successfully rejigger his sound – and, with it, reclaim his throne at the top of the Hot 100. 6

Hit #1 on April 21, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
69 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 7.11% through the Hot 100

Ray Charles’s versions of standards and country hits are records

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67) Connie Francis – “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You”

While researching this entry, I was surprised to learn that Connie Francis had the most successful chart run of any female solo singer of the 1960s.  Over the 40 years since the decade ended, collective cultural rewriting of the ‘60s has caused it to become associated with singers like Janis Joplin, Diana Ross, and Grace Slick – but all three of those spent most of the ‘60s in groups, and only Ross had any real pop chart success.  Still, successful solo artists Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield all spring to mind as more representative of the period’s pop landscape.  Yet it was Connie Francis who had three Hot 100 #1’s.  So why has her chart impact become diminished in retrospect? For one, her three most iconic hits (“Who’s Sorry Now,” “Stupid Cupid” and “Where the Boys Are”) are not the three that topped the charts (“Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” and “Don’t Break the Heart the Loves You”).  But what probably played a larger part was timing: her final #1, “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,” hit in 1962, before the pop cultural megalith of “the ‘60s,” as it has been redefined and recast, actually began.  (Which, for someone who wasn’t alive during the decade, doesn’t really start until The Beatles invade America.)

Further, Francis’s singles often owed more to the Great American Songbook than to contemporaneous pop and rock and roll.  Her first success, “Who’s Sorry Now?,” was a cover of song first published in 1923.  And the more singles she released, the more her records grew indebted to pre-rock sounds.  The rockabilly-lite kick of early hits like “Fallin’” and “Lipstick on Your Collar” was almost completely absent by the ‘60s, replaced by smooth strings and echo chamber production.  Now Francis just needed an original hit that would become every bit the classic that “Who’s Sorry Now?” had been when she recorded her version of it.  Therefore, she hired Benny Davis and Ted Murry, two former Tin Pan Alley songwriters whose greatest successes dated from decades earlier.  The result was “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,” a record that finds Francis’s voice in typically lovely form, but in a style that already feels a few years out of date.  The slick countryish pop of Connie Francis and Brenda Lee was being replaced on the pop charts by urban girl groups and brighter, punchier arrangements.  It doesn’t help that “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You” lacks personality – it’s pretty much the standard pop-country ballad ca. 1958, complete with requisite woozy spoken word bit.

The single that replaced Francis atop the Hot 100, also by a solo female singer, is clearly inferior, but the outmoded details of “Don’t Break the Heart” – and Connie Francis herself – stand out in stark contrast.  In her mere four years as a chart presence, Francis had a steady run of quality singles, and she would continue to have great singles afterward (1964’s “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” in which she adopts the girl group sound that had displaced her, is a particular highlight). Connie hadn’t changed, but the pop charts had moved on. The ‘60s would continue – or start – without her. 6

Hit #1 on March 31, 1962; total of 1 week at #1
67 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 6.91% through the Hot 100

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65) Gene Chandler – “Duke of Earl”

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

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