During the late ’50s, Ross Bagdasarian discovered that speeding up a song recorded on a tape recorder makes the singer’s voice high-pitched and funny-sounding. Scoring a pre-Hot 100 #1 with “Witch Doctor” in 1958 taught Bagdasarian (who used the name “David Seville” professionally) that this goofy tape effect could be parlayed into a hugely successful multimedia enterprise. So for his next hit, Bagdasarian expanded from the one sped-up “witch doctor” voice to three “chipmunks,” which he named Alvin, Simon and Theodore. He tapped into the lucrative Christmas songs market with an ode to the true meaning of Christmas: toys, bickering and petulance.
Depending on your point of view, the Chipmunks are either adorable or irritating. I tend more toward the latter camp. I admire Bagdasarian’s entrepreneurial skill but am eternally amazed that a one-joke enterprise is still going strong after 50 years – enough so that a hugely profitable movie was released last year, and four (FOUR!) Chipmunks singles made the 2007 Hot 100 (“Funkytown” charted highest at #26). Then again, the Alvin and the Chipmunks TV show was a staple of my youth, and “The Chipmunk Song” is one of those songs that would be intolerable any other time of year but which make me feel warm with nostalgia when Christmastime hits. Good thing for “The Chipmunk Song” that I’m reviewing it on December 15. Still, in terms of cartoon-related holiday classics, it’s no “Christmastime is Here” or “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” 5
“The Chipmunk Song” is still the only Christmas-themed single to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Witch Doctor” wasn’t Bagdasarian’s first #1 – he cowrote “Come on-a My House” with his cousin William Saroyan in 1939, which Rosemary Clooney rode to the top of the charts in 1951.
Bagdasarian also appears in the 1954 Hitchcock film Rear Window as the songwriter in the building opposite Jimmy Stewart.
Hit #1 on December 22, 1958; total of 4 weeks at #1
8 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.83% through the Hot 100
Even before the murder trial of Lana Clarkson (now in retrial phase), Phil Spector has long been one of the legendary eccentrics in pop. But despite bizarre tales of threatening wife Ronnie Spector with a gold-plated casket in the basement of their house and forcing Leonard Cohen to record Death of a Ladies’ Man at gunpoint, Spector’s reputation has remained bulletproof (er, so to speak). Even Thriller hasn’t maintained that level of veneration in the face of weirdness, and Michael Jackson’s never even (allegedly) killed someone. But while Jackson continues to release the occasional attempt at musical relevance to diminshing returns, Spector essentially stopped recording after The Ramones’ 1980 album End of the Century, thus constructing a buffer zone between his sacred canon and the bulk of the negative public attention against him* (Ronnie Spector’s autobiography Be My Baby was published in 1989, while Clarkson died in 2003). Perhaps more importantly, Spector’s studio quirks, such as his obsessive attention to detail and dictatorial control over the recording process, have been lauded as virtues by his disciples (some of whom share his unstable personality; cf. Brian Wilson).
But back before Spector was a gun-toting control freak, he was a 17-year-old aspiring songwriter, musician and singer. He enlisted a couple of friends to help record a song he wrote and pitch in a few bucks to cover studio time and reel-to-reel tape. The song, which borrows from a phrase on his father’s tombstone, has a simple melody and a nursery-rhyme cadence: “to know, know, know him, is to love, love, love him.” His famed Wall of Sound is in the embryonic state here, but more from lack of funds than lack of imagination. Spector’s already experimenting with a primitive form of double-tracking to add depth to the sound, and the backing vocals fill in the spaces that would later be occupied by lush orchestral arrangements. Spector would revisit this style a few years (and dollars) later with The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” before launching the sound that would make him probably the most imitated producer ever.
High school student Annette Kleinbard sings lead in a dulcet soprano, carefully measuring out each line and “oh” for the most precise phrasing. But when she hits the bridge, she casts her reservations aside. No longer is the song an ode to the boy who walks her home from class, but the frustrated expression of desire for someone who doesn’t reciprocate. This outburst only lasts for a few seconds before Kleinbard regains control, singing “he – was meant – for me – oh-oh, yes,” in the clipped vocals of someone steeling herself from the pain of rejection. Spector repeated the device of the desperate climax in many of his later “symphonies for the kids,” adding a level of depth that distinguished them from the scores of puppy love songs released in the early ’60s. No one can identify with a love song that’s too happy. 8
Annette Kleinbard would later change her name to Carol Connors and become a successful songwriter in her own right, including “Hey Little Cobra” (The Rip Chords), “With You I’m Born Again” (Billy Preston and Syreeta) and “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky).”
*That 2003 Starsailor single doesn’t count, as no one actually cares about Starsailor.
Hit #1 on December 1, 1958; total of 3 weeks at #1
7 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.73% through the Hot 100
“Tom Dooley” is in every folk guitar book in the world, or at least in all the ones I’ve come across. The song consists of only two chords, and it’s meant to introduce new students to switching from the I to the V minor while keeping the beat. But once that technique is grasped, old Tom is left hangin’ from the white oak tree, in favor of songs that people actually enjoy playing. Even worse than the tediousness of the song is the sense that “Tom Dooley” is a wasted opportunity. Many great folk songs have been written about a love triangle, or a murder, or an execution – “Tom Dooley” has all three, and is based on a true story at that. But instead, there’s nothing but the repetitious melody and the exactly nine unique lyrics over the course of three verses and a chorus. Even “poor boy, you’re bound to die” loses its impact when you hear it two dozen times. The weird syncopation in the chorus – “Hang down your head, Tom – Dooley!” – adds an awkward, boisterous note to an otherwise somber song.
The Kingston Trio attempts to break up the monotony by adding a dramatic spoken word intro that sets the song on the night before Dooley’s hanging. The trio’s real coup, however, arrives in the third chorus, when the voices twist in and out of each other in a three-tiered harmony that echoes the inner turmoil of a condemned man. “Hang down your head!” is no longer a sympathetic cluck from on-lookers, but a cry of desperation in the face of the gallows. It’s not enough to save “Tom Dooley” (the song or the man), but it’s a tribute to the last words of a dying man. 6
Hit #1 on November 17, 1958; total of 1 week at #1
6 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.62% through the Hot 100
My knowledge of Conway Twitty stems from two incidents as a young child. The first was a lengthy and frequent commercial for a Twitty hits compilation released soon after his 1993 death, featuring brief clips of songs like “Slow Hand” and his duet with Loretta Lynn, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (the fact that Loretta was from Butcher Holler, Kentucky, not my home state of Louisiana, as the song alleged, bothered my literal nine-year-old mind). The other was from music class at my elementary school, where Mr. C taught us “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie and informed us that while the character of Conrad Birdie was based on Elvis, the name was a joke on fellow singer Conway Twitty. I had a hard time imagining Twitty as anything but the bouffant-haired guy in an embroidered suit from the ’70s variety show clips featured in the commercial, much less a pop idol on par with Elvis. It wasn’t until I listened to “It’s Only Make Believe” for this blog that I heard the early rock ‘n’ roll(ish) incarnation of Conway Twitty.
Allegedly “Conway Twitty” was believed at the time by some to be a pseudonym for Elvis Presley. (As to why Presley would need a pseudonym to record material that sounded pretty much sounds like the rest of his catalogue, I’ve found no explanation.) Twitty’s voice itself doesn’t sound all that much like the King’s, but he fully embraces his shuddering vocal mannerisms. Each line of the verse is a step higher than the last, so by the time Twitty hits the chorus of “It’s OOOOOOONNNNLY MAAAAAAKE BELIEEEEEEEEVE,” he’s really bellowing it out. This tension from the building vocals matches the frustration of the lyrics, in which Twitty laments being with a partner who doesn’t love him the way he loves her. He holds out hope that she’ll one day return his affections, only to crush his rising hopes again and again with the recurring realization that all his prayers will never be answered. While the song falters in comparison to any of Elvis’s big hits, it’s still a powerful statement of love in vain. 6
Twitty’s real name was Harold Lloyd Jenkins, named by an uncle who was a fan of silent film comedian Harold Lloyd.
Hit #1 on November 10, 1958 for 1 week; re-peaked on November 24, 1958 for 1 more week; total of 2 weeks at #1
5 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.52% through the Hot 100
Tommy Edwards had a #18 hit with a pre-rock version of “It’s All in the Game” seven years before this rerecording topped the charts. The 1958 version makes a few concessions to rock ‘n’ roll, adding a thudding drumbeat and “duh doo, duh doo” backing vocals. Still, these are minor enhancements, far from The Elegants‘ embrace of rock as a method of updating an old sound. Edwards acts as omniscient narrator, advising a young lady that while her lover may be casually (or callously) inconsiderate, she should be patient and a wedding ring would be her reward. It’s not that Edwards’s voice is without emotion, exactly, but it’s so smooth as to lack any texture to allow the listener a way in. It doesn’t help that the song was originally an instrumental called “Melody in A Major,” with the tacked-on lyrics at times scanning awkwardly (“ALL in the WON-der-FUL GAME”) or making no sense (“caress your waiting fingertips”). Given the proliferation of covers this song produced by artists I admire (Van Morrison, Jackie DeShannon, The Four Tops), I want to think that one more listen will reveal the hidden delights hiding in “It’s All in the Game.” But then I listen again, and it doesn’t. 4
I don’t think I can write about this song and avoid mentioning its music trivia status as the only #1 pop single to be (co)written by a U.S. vice president. The aforementioned “Melody in A Major” was composed in 1911 by Charles Dawes, who served under Calvin Coolidge from 1925 to 1929. Which makes me wonder: are there any other charting pop songs (co)written by U.S. vice presidents? Heck, I’ll even expand it to U.S. presidents, speakers of the house, secretaries of state and justices on the Supreme Court.
Hit #1 on September 29, 1958; total of 6 weeks at #1
4 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.42% through the Hot 100
Given my love for ’60s girl groups, I guess it’s a little strange that I have no real use for doo wop. Structually, they’re pretty much the same – (mostly) anonymous groups of urban teenagers who relied entirely on their vocals to carry their adolescent love songs, even using “ooohs” and “lalalas” and “oh-whoa-whoas” to simulate the instruments they couldn’t afford. But where girl groups are energetic and catchy and fun, often I think of doo wop as part of a slow-moving, undifferentiated mass best suited for boomer nostalgia trips, or, at best, the primitive incarnation of the great soul groups of the ’60s like The Four Tops.
“Little Star” is a doo wop song sure enough, but it is doo wop that has met rock ‘n’ roll and decided it’s not so bad after all. The song opens a capella, with lead singer Vito Picone asking “Where are you, little star?” and the rest of The Elegants echoing “Where are you?” But then Picone bursts into the wordless refrain that soars into the night sky: “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-uh-oh-ra-ta-ta-ta-ta-too-oo-oo.” Doo-wop was built on great nonsense syllables like these. The drums and mild surf guitar kick in, giving the vocals a backbone and propelling the song forward. The lyrics riff on “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” but Picone’s sweetly optimistic vocals (and the terrific refrain) lend an unexpected emotional weight to the song. In addition to the instrumentation, “Little Star” alludes to rock ‘n’ roll through Picone’s Buddy Holly-ish inflections in the bridge: “Send me a luh-uh-UH-uh-uhve” is just one step away from outright hiccuping. “Little Star” resolves with with a return to the a capella opening, only this time the question has become an exclamation: “There you are, little star!” The song’s over in a flash, but the singer’s found his love and it’s time to move on. 7
Hit #1 on August 25, 1958; total of 1 week at #1
3 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.31% through the Hot 100
“Volare” is surely one of the strangest tracks to top the U.S. pop charts – not the song itself, which is typical ’50s easy listening, but the unlikely circumstances behind its success. Not only did the song debut at the 1958 Eurovision Song Contest, which Americans neither participated in nor watched, but Domenico Modugno’s performance only placed third. Yet somehow, the United States embraced “Volare,” awarding it not only the top space on the charts but also Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the first-ever Grammy Awards.
But why “Volare”? The single version of the record differs significantly from the Eurovision performance in the video above. In both, the ascending tinkle of the piano that opens the track promises mystery, as does Modugno’s nearly a capella delivery of the first verse. In the single version, when the snare drum kicks in during the chorus, the song loses its magic. In the Eurovision version, however, Modugno’s cries of “Volare! Oh-oh! Cantare! Oh-oh-oh-oh!” make the song soar. The arrangement of the Eurovision version also fits better than the single’s, although both abuse cliches of mid-century soft jazz recordings to the point where the song sounds no different from something your average ’50s salesman might half-hear at Sunday brunch. What sells “Volare” is Modugno’s singing – hushed in the verses, bursting free in the chorus, and always delivered with utmost sincerity. As the song’s composer, he knew how to best show off the power of his vocals. What’s missing is a melodic reason why we should listen. 5
“Nel blu dipinto di blu” translates as “in the blue painted blue.” While I don’t know Italian well enough to comment on the lyrics, that line isn’t too promising.
One of only a handful of non-English language songs to hit the top of the charts. The next #1 in this category won’t happen for another five years. (No spoilers)
Hit #1 on August 18, 1958 for 1 week; re-peaked on September 1, 1958 for 4 more weeks; total of 5 weeks at #1
2 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.21% through the Hot 100
Ricky Nelson may have been the guy for whom the term “teen idol” was invented, but this track is relatively rocking for a 1958 #1. Rather than a schmaltzy Pat Boone knock-off, “Poor Little Fool” is a credible country-pop-rock hybrid in the vein of The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream.” Nelson’s vocals are mournful without being overwrought and rueful without being bitter. He bemoans a tease with “carefree devil eyes” who breaks his heart for seemingly no reason but sadistic pleasure. Being dumped for the first time may hurt (especially when it’s the day after you confess your love), but Nelson recognizes that this is only one speedbump in his romantic travails. He starts the song with a confession of his own: “I used to play around with hearts that hastened at my call,” he sings with zero trace of guilt in his voice. By the time the song’s over, he acknowledges the sting of his mischief catching up with him but offers no apologies. He’s too busy pitying himself for being the “poor little fool” beaten at his own game.
Nelson worshipped Carl Perkins, and it shows in the Sun Records-lite shuffle and country-crooner backing vocals. Perkins would have pumped it up to a rockabilly rave-up, however. Maybe Roy Orbison could have done a slow-ballad take, voice warbling with heartbreak and sorrow as he confessed his romantic sins (as both sinner and sinned against). Either way, the track would be more effective than Nelson’s neither-here-nor-there tempo. “Poor Little Fool” also suffers from a repetitive verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that cries out for a middle eight to ratchet the song up to a level of convincing emotion, whether regret or contempt. As it is, the song just sort of plods along for two and a half minutes – but the plod is pleasant enough while it lasts. 6
Written by a teenage Sharon Sheeley, frequent songwriting partner (“Break-a-Way,” “Dum Dum,” “You Won’t Forget Me”) with my much-loved Jackie DeShannon. Sheeley was also the fiancée of Eddie Cochran, breaking her pelvis in the 1960 taxi crash that led to his death.
Part of the pop tradition of “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” songs – cf. that track by The Marvelettes, “Conquest” by Patti Page. Others?
Hit #1 on August 4, 1958; total of 2 weeks at #1
1 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.10% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.