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
“Lonely Boy” is a song tailor-made to appeal to female teenage fans, as blatant as Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” at constructing a narrative into which the girl can insert herself. Anka’s “got everything you can think of” (fame, money, talent, looks, the infatuation of thosands or millions of young girls), but all that he wants is “someone to love” (she could be you!). The idea of a successful performer willing to trade it all for love can be alluring, but could anyone really believe in Anka’s loneliness? His performance of the song on The Dick Clark Show is a put-on, full of wide grins and puppy dog eyes. These facial expressions mock the lyrics, accentuating the ridiculousness of Anka singing about his romance trouble to an audience that adores him.
The song opens with pulsing drums and surging strings that underline the melodrama of the lyrics. But although Anka’s sincerity may be doubtful, the theatrics of “Lonely Boy” are vastly preferable to the saccharine phoniness of “Venus.” Pop music is seldom judged on authenticity, anyway. What counts is the catchiness of the melody, the appeal of the production and the charisma of the performer. “Lonely Boy” checks all these boxes. And after all, maybe there’s nothing lonelier than being surrounded by a crowd. 6
- This is the last post for a few days as I’ll be out of town. I should be back either December 27 or 28. Merry Christmas (if you celebrate it) and good luck dealing with society coming to a dead halt (if you don’t).
Hit #1 on July 13, 1959; total of 4 weeks at #1
16 out of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.66% through the Hot 100
There’s very little accurate history in “The Battle of New Orleans,” despite its frequent appearance in my grade school history classes. But really, there’s not much else to interest kids in the War of 1812. Unlike the radical changes of the American Revolution or the Civil War, the War of 1812 was essentially a quarrel over territory and trade that ended with the U.S. looking pretty much the same as before. The 1815 Battle of New Orleans was one of the few points of interest: a bunch of scrappy, backwoods kids triumphing over the British army in the name of freedom. (Nevermind that the War of 1812 had ended already – news traveled slowly in the pre-telecommunications era.)
It’s this inspirational version of the Battle of New Orleans as the American Revolution, Part II that Johnny Horton sings about here. There’s no allusions to the horrors of war, or even death at all (unless you count that poor alligator who “lost his mind”). There’s not even much animosity toward the “bloody British” at all – this is as clean a war song as you’re going to find, more akin to the thrill of playing soldiers in the backyard than to the reactionary, jingoistic screeds Nashville often produces. Most of the credit here belongs to Horton, whose goodnatured vocals sell some of the cornier passages (“We fired up our squirrel guns and really gave them – well … “) and enliven the rest (the “they ran through the briars” sections in particular). His charm transforms what could have been a didactic novelty song into two and a half minutes of memorable country pop. 7
- “The Battle of New Orleans” was written in 1936 by Jimmie Driftwood, a high school teacher who wrote it to interest his class in the subject.
- Johnny Horton died in a car crash just over a year after “The Battle of New Orleans” topped the chart. His widow was Billie Jean Jones, who had been married to Hank Williams at the time of his 1952 death. In addition, both Horton and Williams played their last shows at the Skyline Club in Austin.
- According to Billboard, this is the top-ranking country song to appear in the first 50 years of the Hot 100.
Hit #1 on June 1, 1959; total of 6 weeks at #1
15 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.56% through the Hot 100
My first exposure to “Kansas City” was Wanda Jackson’s rollicking version on Queen of Rockabilly, where Jackson was anything but demure in her plan to nab a “crazy little fella.” Wilbert Harrison’s version is a little more low-key, based around a piano riff rather than electric guitar. “Kansas City” was one of the first songs by Leiber and Stoller, written in 1952 and so pre-dating the rock and roll. Harrison’s version carries it across the threshold.
“Kansas City” sounds at first like a boogie-woogie, with its 12-bar blues structure and walking bassline. But there’s a bit of yearning in Harrison’s voice straight from country music. While Jackson’s version is a party song about chasing boys and painting the town, Harrison’s is melancholy: “If I stay with that woman, I know I’m gonna die/Gotta find a brand new baby and that’s the reason why/I’m going to Kansas City.” He doesn’t sound entirely convinced that his plan’s going to work out the way he hopes. His “bottle of Kansas City wine” is there for solace, not for having a good time. This fusion of blues and country created rock and roll. Wild Jimmy Spruill’s brilliant but brief guitar solo toward the end of the song drives the point home, sounding like neither of the parent genres but only like rock itself, coming into its own. 8
- Wild Jimmy Spruill also provided the guitar solo for “The Happy Organ,” the previous entry on No Hard Chords.
- The YouTube video linked above plays not only “Kansas City,” but the B-side “Listen My Darling” and follow-up single “Goodbye Kansas City” (virtually identical to “Kansas City,” but now Harrison’s headed to New York City).
- Wilbert Harrison also did a pretty good version of previous entry “Stagger Lee” (view here).
Hit #1 on May 18, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
14 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.45% through the Hot 100