Category Archives: 1960

42) Elvis Presley – “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

So far on No Hard Chords, the King has managed to keep a nice solid score of 7 for his Hot 100 hits.  Neither “A Big Hunk o’ Love,” nor “Stuck on You,” nor “It’s Now or Never” are among Presley’s very best songs, but they’re all worthy entries at the top of the charts.  And then comes “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”  The part of the track that’s actually the song is sentimental but not bad.  It has a pretty melody well-served by Presley’s aching voice.  But the bulk of the single is a bizarre, spoken word piece of Shakespeare-referencing bad poetry that goes on forever:  “Now the stage is bare, and I’m standing there, with emptiness all around,” he whimpers as he stretches an already thin metaphor to the breaking point.  It would be understandable if the single were released during Elvis’s bloated Vegas years, but while he’s still young and (relatively) rocking, it’s an unusual choice, to say the least.  5

Hit #1 on November 28, 1960; total of 6 weeks at #1
42 of 965 #1’s reviewed; 4.35% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 05, 1960, 1961

41) Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs – “Stay”

 

 Compared with the elegant craftsmanship of “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stay” is a bit of a lark, a tossed-off fragment of a song more memorable for the piercing falsetto of Henry “Shane” Gaston than for the melody or lyrics.  That’s not a knock on the song at all – “Stay” has a freshness and energy that marked it as the modern alternative to the Great American Songbook.  The song seems to start in the middle before jumping to the coda rather suddenly, and in between it doesn’t quite adhere to a verse/chorus/verse pattern.  Add to that the blink-and-miss-it length of 1:37 (still the shortest song to top the Hot 100) and you have an anomolous entry at the top of the charts.  But “Stay”‘s ramshackle charm is precisely its strength.  Williams pleas to “stay… just a little bit longer” because “your daddy don’t mind, and your mommy don’t mind” come off as sincere (well, at least as sincere as a guy trying to coax a girl to break curfew).  But “Stay” is also deceptively complex.  The seemingly random bits of the song’s structure flow together smoothly, like a doo wop mini-suite.  And the voices of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs not only mesh well together, but also with the piano and drums that form the song’s foundation.  All these elements add up to a song that’s just the right palate cleanser between two courses of heart-rending ballads, a reminder that, above all, pop music is supposed to be fun.  7

Hit #1 on November 21, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
41 of 965 #1’s reviewed; 4.25% through the Hot 1o0

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Filed under 07, 1960

40) Ray Charles – “Georgia on My Mind”

 R&B rave-ups like “I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say” may have marked Ray Charles as an innovator, but it was covers of old standards and country tunes that made him a star.  That’s not to say that Charles had sold out in his bid to cross over to pop audiences. He had always been indebted to the sophistication of ’40s swing/jump blues icon Louis Jordan, and, no matter what he sang, his voice and phrasing were always distinctly Ray Charlesian.  Still, it’s no surprise that Charles’s first #1 hit is an old Hoagy Carmichael chestnut.  What’s more surprising is that  it had never been a major hit for anyone since its 1930 composition.  Charles claims the title of “definitive version” by the first chorus, the weariness in his voice expressing his restlessness on the long road back to Georgia.  The conflating of Georgia, a woman, with Georgia, the state, is a neat trick, done subtly enough that it adds extra depth to the song rather than being a corny gimmick.  But the overbearing backup singers and gaudy strings, surely included to appeal to white audiences, lessen the recording’s impact.  While “Georgia on My Mind” deservedly became one of Charles’s most famous songs, it’s a lot easier from a 21st century perspective to appreciate his more gospelly, organic-sounding versions from later decades.  Even with the syrupy production, though, Charles’s voice and piano always ring out, clear and distinct. 7

Hit #1 on November 14, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
40 of 965 #1’s reviewed; 4.15% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1960

39) Brenda Lee – “I Want to Be Wanted”

 Apologies for the delay in getting around to “I Want to Be Wanted.”  I suspect three factors: a sudden influx in work due to the real start of a new semester, blowing my wad with the lengthy “Mr. Custer” post and not being particularly inspired by Brenda Lee’s second number one.  If this were a middling single, that wouldn’t be much of an issue – compare its good points with its bad points and blame its overall blandness for the short entry.  The problem is that I actually like ‘I Want to Be Wanted” quite a bit.  I think it does a better job than the (quite good) “I’m Sorry” of establishing Lee’s persona: the little girl with the big voice that can sometimes mask her insecurities.  Really, though, this is just another solid Brenda Lee single.  That shouldn’t be taken as a dismissal, but a sign of the uniformly high level of quality present in her early ’60s records.  The song itself may or may not be that great, and the production is pedestrian though not overbearing.  But Brenda herself is always believable, with a powerful yet vulnerable voice that set her apart from her contemporaries. (Wanda Jackson had the power and Connie Francis the vulnerability, but neither of them could convey both simultaneously.)  Before writing this post, I thought that the most difficult songs to write about were the boring ones that give you nothing to say, either positive or negative.  Turns out it’s the good ones that just aren’t special. 7

Hit #1 on October 24, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
39 of 965 #1’s reviewed; 4.04% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 07, 1960

38) The Drifters – “Save the Last Dance for Me”

(Apologies for the video – it’s the only one I found on YouTube that used the original recording.)

The ascendance of “Save the Last Dance for Me” almost seems to be a bit of overcompensation on the part of the American listening public.  After “Mr. Custer,” anything would have been an improvement, but instead we get one of the best records of 1960 and an instant classic.  The proto-Wall of Sound arrangement (there’re rumors that Leiber and Stoller’s protegee Phil Spector may have had a hand in the recording) is the absolute summation of the bittersweet lyrics.  The brisk, dance beat shuffle of the percussion in the verses (“You can dance every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight”) is offset by the stirring strings that sweep in during the chorus.  “But don’t forget who’s taking you home, and in whose arms you’re gonna be,” Ben E. King sings, his assertive rasp keeping things from getting too sappy.   It’s an eloquent statement of pure love, one that’s patient and understanding, never jealous or arrogant. 9

Liner Notes

  • Doc Pomus, the song’s lyricist, walked on crutches as a result of childhood polio.  He was allegedly inspired to write the song by his own wedding, having watched his wife dance with his brother in his place.

Hit #1 on October 17, 1960 for 1 week; repeaked on October 31, 1960 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
38 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.94% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 09, 1960

37) Larry Verne – “Mr. Custer”

The great film critic Roger Ebert has a rule for rating movies: even the really, really bad get half a star.  The rare bestowal of zero stars is reserved only for “movies that are artistically inept and morally repugnant.”  I’ve borrowed Ebert’s mindset for my ratings on this blog – no matter how poor it is, it’ll usually manage to scrape up a 2.  For a 1, though, the song must not be only bad but offensively terrible.  I don’t necessarily mean offensive in the sense of espousing a racist or sexist message, but offensive in the sense of so aggressively bad that everyone behind the song must have been determined to drag down the overall quality of American popular culture.  This isn’t the everyday badness of  insipid lyrics or cheesy production, but something darker: pop antimatter, the pure absence of any redeeming elements and complete disregard for creating a listenable product.

At this early stage in reviewing the Hot 100, I have rated 36 singles, with a median score of 6 and a mode of 7.  Based purely on statistics, these rankings are a little higher than expected.  But each single that’s topped the charts has had to pass through a number of gates to get there – production, distribution, airplay, popular consensus, and so forth.  One would assume that a song chosen at random from a list of Hot 100 chart-toppers would be of a higher quality than a song randomly chosen from all songs released in the U.S. from 1958 to the present.  (This isn’t to say that all songs that top the Hot 100 are necessarily of a higher quality than all non-#1’s, but that they generally adhere to a more consistently high level of quality than any random song you’d find on the street.) This gate-keeping is obviously present in the film industry as well, which is why Ebert hands out four stars to movies by the fistful each year, yet doles out bagels only once in a blue moon. (A search of all reviews on rogerebert.com reveals 809 movies given top honors and only 59 rated zero stars.) It’s not because there are masses more great movies made than terrible ones (as Sturgeon’s Law states, 90 percent of everything is crap), but that the true no-star movies, your Manos: Hands of Fate-s, never make it far enough up the ladder for a wide public, and thus critics, to see it.  One would expect the same in the cluttered world of popular music.

Of course, some Trojan horses still manage to sneak through these gates.  As your guidance counselor advised, “Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s right.”  We’ve already seen a few cases of songs whose baffling popularity belies their overall lack of quality.  But at least the cloying sentimentality of “Why” or “Teen Angel” was tolerable (if unpleasant), versus the blatant submediocrity of “Mr. Custer.” Of course, the song is packed with musty sterotypes about Native Americans (war whoops, Indian drums, references to scalping and “redskins”), but the most offensive part of the song is how completely unfunny it is.  It’s a comedy record without a modicum of comedy.  The premise of the tune is that one soldier in General Custer’s unit at the Battle of Little Bighorn is afraid to fight the Indians.  Not a bad launching point for a song, but “Mr. Custer” goes nowhere with it.  There’s no punchline, no twist, nothing clever at all in the entire song.  Sample lyrics: “Look at them durned Indians/They’re runnin’ around like a bunch of wild Indians-heh heh heh.” Oh, the hilarity.  And yes, the “heh heh heh” is actually part of the lyrics – it’s like a laugh track in song form, but even worse because Verne (or at least his character) is laughing at his own terrible non-joke. 

While the lyrics are the most blatantly offensive part of the song, they’re only the tip of this crap iceberg.  There’s Verne’s mugging “comedy voice,” the off-key offspring of Droopy and a Clarence Ashley beset with acute appendicitis.  And the lack of melody, harmony and any other sort of tunefulness.  Don’t forget the “sound effects” of flying arrows, which sound like someone sucking through his dentures – because nothing says funny like sound effects!  When the simultaneously weak and overbearing male choir is the highlight of your song, perhaps your song needs a bit of revising.  Although I think even a team of song doctors would have trouble doing surgery on a patient that’s D.O.A.  So I’m a little startled that I’m handing out a 1 before a 10, but you can’t always pick ’em.  I still haven’t listened to all of the hundreds of #1’s that haved peaked since this song’s puzzling, yet mercifully brief, stay atop the chart.  However, I fully expect (and desperately hope) that “Mr. Custer” is the Hot 100’s absolute nadir. 1

Hit #1 on October 10, 1960; total of 1 week at #1
37 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.84% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 01, 1960

36) Connie Francis – “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own”

 Unfortunately, most of Connie Francis’s best songs never topped the Hot 100.  Sure, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool” was cute, but I’d much rather write about “Who’s Sorry Now?” or “Stupid Cupid.”  “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” is a solid chart entry, but there’s not much really memorable about it.  It’s a slow, faux-country mope, so thick and sticky that it feels like a hot, humid evening in August.  Connie’s double-tracked vocal, the drums, the instruments, are all so heavy that it’s almost oppressive.  The production matches the lyrics – Francis yearning to leave a relationship but unable to break away – but it also makes the song lack the pep of her previous chart-topping rumination on the cruelty of love.  While Francis is inarguably one of the great female singers of the rock and roll era, her voice’s naturally languid quality is the main element weighing the song down.  Perhaps Brenda Lee’s would have been a better choice.  Lee’s clear, strong voice could could slice through the haze, with her permanent sob adding the missing emotional note.  Still, the right singer can only do so much to improve a merely passable song. 5

Hit #1 on September 26, 1960; total of 2 weeks at #1
36 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.73% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 05, 1960