With the beginning of 2009 in the real world comes the close of the ’50s on No Hard Chords. And so the decade ends not with a bang, but with a wimp: Frankie Avalon scores his second #1 of the year with a tune even sappier than “Venus,” one so corny and syrupy that Karo practically drips off it: “I think you’re awfully sweet/Why? Because I love you/You say I’m your special treat/Why? Because you love me.” If that hasn’t triggered your gag reflex, then you either have a stronger stomach than me or you haven’t heard the tinkly, cutesy production. The nadir of the song is the part featuring an anonymous female voice cooing back the first verse (“I’ll never let you go/Why? Because I love you”), with Avalon interjecting “Yes, I love you!” and “Yes, you love me!” It feels a little cruel to pick on Avalon, a talented guy who understood the value of marketing himself to the teenybopper segment. But no one saddled with such a toothless song and a smothering production can escape unscathed. 2
Hit #1 on December 28, 1959; total of 1 week at #1
23 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.39% through the Hot 100
“Heartaches by the Number” is a fundamental case of mismatch between the singer and the song. Earlier in the year, Ray Price had a hit with a honky-tonkish version of it on the country charts. Price masterfully balanced the ache in his voice from the trials he’d been put through with just enough dogged optimism to keep it from being another tear-in-my-beer wallow. Guy Mitchell’s pop version, on the other hand, cans the ambivalence that made Price’s version interesting. But instead of a maudlin slog that might be expected of a song titled “Heartaches by the Number,” Mitchell’s version is inexplicably peppy. His cover is an excuse for the pop singer to play dress-up in a cowboy hat and neckerchief, tacking on cheesy faux-C&W accoutrements such as a cheery lonesome whistle and a mild drawl (as in, he drops the g at the end of “coming”) . His crooning, closer to low-rent Bing Crosby than to Hank Williams, is so divorced from the lyrical content that he may as well be singing phoenetically. Mitchell was never one of the greats, but he was perfectly acceptable on easy shuffles like “Singing the Blues.” “Heartaches by the Number,” though, falls so far out of his element that he nearly tarnishes a sterling tune. 4
Hit #1 on December 14, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
22 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.28% through the Hot 100
Our first repeat offenders on No Hard Chords don’t have the record to match pop chart recidivists like Elvis Presley, Paul Anka or Bobby Darin. As I wrote in the review of “Come Softly To Me,” The Fleetwoods were a high school vocal trio who managed to concoct an amateurish yet endearing pop sketch, charming record buyers enough to snag a spot at the top of the charts for a week. Somehow lightning struck twice for The Fleetwoods, at least commercially. Their next release also managed to top the Hot 100, interrupting the nine-week run of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” for a single week. “Mr. Blue” sounds more polished than “Come Softly to Me,” but suffers for it. They still have more personality than, say, The Browns, but the professional songwriting and production muffles their awkward charm. Still, the song has a pleasant tune, if a little slight, and lead singer Gary Troxel’s sweet but not schmaltzy voice adds the right note of melancholy without going into Ankaland. But perhaps the most memorable element is Si Zentner’s trombone, wandering lonely as a cloud. 6
Hit #1 on November 16, 1959; total of 1 week at #1
21 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.18% through the Hot 100
When “Stagger Lee” topped the charts despite its cheerful glorification of homicide, it at least had the defense of being rock and roll. No matter how lovey-dovey or innocent the presentation was, rock still had an undercurrent of immorality. This was music whose very name celebrated wild dancing and/or sex, and was popularized by questionable young men who snooped around late-night juke joints. But jazz-pop, that most easy-listening of genres, was normally unsullied by any untoward subject matter. Louis Armstrong had taken “Mack the Knife” to #20 three years before Bobby Darin, but he sang of Macheath almost through the eyes of an admiring kid who dreams of one day attaining his power and influence. Murder is just a byproduct of becoming the de facto king of the town.
Darin, though, sings as though he is Mack. Moreover, he relishes every murder he’s committed, pleasure dripping from his words like blood dripping from the teeth of a shark. This Macheath isn’t the gangland businessman who needs to put rivals in their place, but the refined sociopath who’d stab you with a smile and still have clean gloves for dinner at the most expensive restaurant in town. He’s the ladykiller with a line of women waiting to take their place across the table and in his bed. And despite Darin being best known for sugary pop hits like “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover,” he so embodies the elegant killer that he slashes the teen idol label in just three minutes. Later covers of may have used freshly translated lyrics with more graphic descriptions of Mack’s misdeeds, but few have matched Darin’s disturbing exhilaration. 8
Hit #1 on October 5, 1959 for 6 weeks; re-peaked on November 23, 1959 for 3 weeks; total of 9 weeks at #1
20 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.08% through the Hot 100
If the organ is my favorite musical instrument, as I wrote in the post on Dave “Baby” Cortez, then for a long time my least favorite was the steel guitar. The twangy, whiny sound was part of the reason, but mainly it just always seemed too obvious. Sticking steel guitar into a song was shorthand for “tragedy” in country songs or for “country” in rock songs (and, I suppose, shorthand for “Hawaii,” but that doesn’t really come up as much). Over the past few years, though, I’ve reclassified steel guitar into the category of “lethal when mishandled, but also has acceptable uses,” alongside saxophone and recorder.
“Sleep Walk” is one of those occasions where steel guitar works, perhaps because doesn’t fall victim to any of the cliches of the instrument. It’s there to add a benignly eerie feeling, like seeing the familiar parts of your house turned unearthly through the gauze of insomnia. The minimal drums and electric guitar are the still of the night, interrupted but not disturbed by the somnambulist weaving through the shadows. The yearning melody line implies that this sleepwalker stirs from romantic longing, whether from temporary separation from a lover or from unrequited desire. It was this combination of spectral atmospherics with earthly concerns, though not quite as poignant as the description may suggest, that enchanted teenagers well familiar with mooning over their crushes while the rest of the house slept. 6
Hit #1 on September 21, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
19 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.97% through the Hot 100
Listening to a song in an unfamiliar language can be freeing. For me, bad lyrics can render an otherwise great song unlistenable. But as long as the singer, the production and the melody work, foreign-language lyrics can be clunky or insipid or cliched with me none the wiser. If an English-language version of the song is recorded with bad lyrics, though, a puzzle emerges: were the lyrics this poor in the original or did the poetry get lost in translation?
“The Three Bells” is an English rewrite of the French-language song “Les Trois Cloches,” first recorded in the mid-’40s by Édith Piaf. The lyrics center on the triptych of church bells that chime at the birth, marriage and death of a man (“Jimmy Brown”) in a secluded village. I suppose the concept of the song is the circle of life, or how one incident can mean something different at various points throughout a person’s life, but “The Three Bells” only does half the work: listing the title events and expecting that to be enough. I’m relieved there’s no final “here’s what we really mean” verse, but at the same time commenting that bells ring during three important life episodes isn’t enough of an observation to base a song around. The third-person narration that focuses exclusively on these three events in Jimmy Brown’s life adds a layer of distance that makes him seem more like a didactic illustration than an actual human being.
The Brown family are capable singers, if not particularly inspiring. Their “country” singing (actually closer to The Fleetwoods than to Johnny Horton) neither improves nor detracts from the song, but is just there to carry it along. The melody is easy enough to listen to, but not particularly memorable. And so it all comes back to the lyrics. “The Three Bells” isn’t terrible, just flat and a little trite. Whether “Les Trois Cloches” offers greater philosophical insight, I can’t say. But at least the French lets me imagine that it might. 4
Hit #1 on August 24, 1959; total of 4 weeks at #1
18 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.87% through the Hot 100
“A Big Hunk o’ Love” hasn’t really persisted as part of the Elvis Canon, at least not to the degree that previous #1’s such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock” or the trio of 1960 chart toppers to be discussed have. It’s a pretty standard rockabilly-blues number, the type Presley had cut while at Sun Studio a few years earlier. It’s suprisingly raw, with a clattering piano and unhinged vocal more reminicent of Jerry Lee Lewis’s pre-Myra Gale Brown singles of 1957-58 than with Presley’s contemporaneous hits. “A Big Hunk o’ Love” is a barn burner while playing, but its energy is the only real memorable thing about it. Still, it’s a tribute to Presley’s musical charisma and the thrilling distinctiveness of this “real” rock and roll that even an average Elvis single is more exciting than most of the hits sharing space on the charts. 7
Hit #1 on August 10, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
17 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.77% through the Hot 100