Category Archives: 1961

63) The Tokens – “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

While Motown was helping African-American musical styles crossover to the mainstream, a group of Italian Brooklynites served as unlikely ambassadors for the music of the mother continent.  The Tokens’ adaptation of the 1939 song “Mbube” (“Lion”) by Zulu musician Solomon Linda weds South African vocal traditions with American doo wop with surprisingly successful results.  Pete Seeger had previously introduced the West to the song as “Wimoweh,” but The Tokens added English lyrics and a rock-inflected arrangement, the key ingredients that would transform the lilting melody and layered vocals into an American chart hit.   The resulting record, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” is far removed from Linda’s original but still respects the material, never sounding exploitative or culturally touristic.

But more important than a record’s authenticity is whether or not it is any good.  Before revisiting the track for this entry, I had remembered only its most basic elements (chanting, impossibly high male vocals, a sleeping lion) and its frequent appearances in pop culture of varying quality.  Because it’s a song about animals (strike one) filled with “nonsense” words (strike two) and beloved by children (strike three), it’s easy to dismiss it as a novelty tune.  But close listening reveals a record packed with great bits – lead singer Jay Siegel’s keening wails as de facto chorus, which later mutates into trills; the whirling female soprano, which sounds more like a theremin than a human voice; the unexpected melancholy, suggesting that the lion’s slumber is the end of something as well as a triumph; and, of course, the “wimoweh, a-wimoweh” backing vocals that are perhaps the record’s catchiest hook. This attention to detail is what elevates the song above a cartoony singalong – it’s no wonder that The Tokens would also find success as producers.  The elements fluidly unite to create an astonishingly thrilling record to listen to, one that’s a welcome reprieve from the increasingly bland pop that characterizes the rest of the early ’60s. 8

Hit #1 on December 18, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
63 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 6.49% through the Hot 100

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62) The Marvelettes – “Please Mr. Postman”

While Motown Records gets the credit of being the first African American label (in terms of the owner and the majority of the talent) to crossover into the mainstream, that’s not exactly true.  Ernie K-Doe had already hit the top of the Hot 100 with “Mother-in-Law,” written and produced by Allen Toussaint and released on Joe Banashak’s Minit Records.  Nevertheless, neither Minit nor any other R&B label that came before could compete with the cultural juggernaut that Motown would become.

The label had its first hit in 1959 with Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” released just a few months after the label’s founding in January.  “Money” may have may have been a little blusier than the “Motown sound” that would define the 1960s,  but compare it with contemporary “race music” – including John Lee Hooker’s nearly identical “I Need Some Money” – and it’s clear that Berry Gordy and co. were already on their way toward perfecting the balance between R&B swing and mainstream (white) rock/pop.  As a result, Motown would appeal to wider strata of the American listening public than all but a few black acts had before.  [The Beatles, who similarly rode the integration of popular music to legendary status, covered both “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Please Mr. Postman” on With the Beatles in 1963.]

No one could have been surprised that Motown would eventually have a Hot 100 hit – Gordy’s pop sensibilities and strict quality control had made sure of that.  Likewise, the public’s burgeoning infatuation with girl groups granted the label an easy “in” for the pop charts.  But Gordy’s version of the girl group sound was markedly different from what was beginning to make radio inroads.  The Shirelles and other black girl groups were essentially putting a gospel/soul spin on traditional pop songs, written by white songwriters (usually based in the Brill Building) and recorded by white producers (most importantly, Phil Spector).  “Please Mr. Postman,” on the other hand, started life as a blues song, rearranged and rewritten several times along the way until it mutated into the form that became a hit.  Instead of an orchestral Wall of Sound, the girls were backed by the loose-limbed and quick-witted Funk Brothers (including Marvin Gaye on guitar).  Most importantly, though, “Please Mr. Postman” was fun.  While doo wop had its share of novelties (cf. “Blue Moon”), the girls in taffeta had so far stayed serious.  Far from  Spector’s “little symphonies for the kiddies” or the fragmented soap operas that would define Shadow Morton’s work a few years later, producers Brian Holland (of Holland-Dozier-Holland) and Robert Bateman let The Marvelettes sound natural and relaxed.  The arrangement complements lead singer Gladys Horton, who doesn’t quite have the distinctive pipes of a Shirley Owens but has plenty of spunk to make up for it.  Like all Motown songs of this era, however, beneath the breezy melodies and loose harmonies is a record just as tight and professionally executed as anything released by a major label.

Sadly, The Marvelettes wouldn’t have another #1, despite releasing a number of quality singles. Yet their success paved the way for Motown to become one of the top innovators in the girl group genre – which, in turn, launched the label into stratospheric heights and made soul one of the dominant genres in the pop charts. 8

Hit #1 on December 11, 1961; total of 1 week at #1
62 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 6.39% through the Hot 100

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61) Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”

It’s no surprise that, being a copywriter, I’ve been fascinated with TV commercials since childhood.  And as a lifelong music enthusiast (thanks, Dad), my absolute favorite ads were those ones for compilation albums put out by labels like Time Life Music, K-tel and Razor & Tie.  You know the kind – clips of retro artists performing a few lines from their most licensable songs, song titles scrolling down the screen, bookended by the booming announcer’s voice (almost always the same guy, no matter the label) commanding you to order it NOW: this compilation is NOT AVAILABLE IN STORES! The only thing better than the two-minute version of these ads that ran during local network programming were the half hour-long late-night infomercials hosted by a pseudocelebrity tangentially related to the subject of the compilation (e.g., “MTV’s Martha Quinn!”).  I devoured these ads, and can still sing huge chunks of the patchworked songs constructed from the bits and pieces of advertised hits.

So given my ardor for these ads, it was inevitable that I’d stumble across a wormhole in the advertising universe.  While watching one for “Legends of Country” or some such (opening track of the ad: “El Paso,” naturally), I noticed a familiar name in the caption under one of the grainy black-and-white.  “That’s not … the Jimmy Dean?” I asked in disbelief.  “Of course it is!” my mom replied.  The folksy spokesman familiar from the ads for his namesake packaged meats company was also, apparently, a legend of country.

Of course, those of us not alive when Jimmy Dean had his string of pop-country hits in the early ’60s can be forgiven for thinking of him merely as a sausage magnate.  Search YouTube for “Big Bad John,” and at least as many uploaders credit the song to Johnny Cash as to Jimmy Dean.  (Wikipedia says that Cash did cover the song at some point, but all the videos I found crediting Cash on YouTube use Dean’s original version.)  “Big Bad John” does share some traits with Cash’s contemporaneous hits, most notably the epic, baritone, spoken-sung narrative of tough Western men (e.g., “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “The Rebel – Johnny Yuma”).  Cash is a bit grittier, but Dean’s delivery is perfectly acceptable for this type of song.  In fact, the surprise is how capable a singer and songwriter Dean was. Musically,  “Big Bad John” is more than a little repetitive (although appropriate for a song about toiling miners ) and the chorus is nearly non-existent.  But overall it’s a worthy-enough song for a country hit, though why it overtook Cash on the pop charts is a mystery better left to writers more knowledgeable about this era in pop culture.  I also can’t say if Dean deserves the title of “legend of country.” What “Big Bad John” makes clear, however, is that Dean is more than just a born businessman with a hobby for singing. 6

Hit #1 on November 6, 1961; total of 5 weeks at #1
61 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 6.30% through the Hot 100

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60) Dion – “Runaround Sue”

It must have been disappointing to be a Belmont in 1961.  Lead singer Dion (the only one in the group who anyone knows the name of) bunks off and cuts his own record with The Del-Satins on backup, saying he needs singers who can rock.  Not only is it a pretty good record, but it hits #1.  While The Belmonts had a nice run of singles, they never managed to hit the top of the charts.

Most importantly, though, is the sound of the record.  “Runaround Sue” borrows a great deal from “Quarter to Three” (including a suspiciously similar melody) and throws in a little “Mack the Knife“-style rock swing.  What’s notable, though, is what it doesn’t sound like: doo-wop. Sure, there are a few touches here and there – the nearly a cappella intro, the “hey! hey! hum-ba-diddy-diddy” backing vox, Dion’s soaring lead vocals – but, honestly, this isn’t too different from what Elvis or someone else more schooled in straight-up rock and roll would perform.  1961 had been a pretty good year for doo-wop, including a #1 for The Marcels’ “Blue Moon.” But a canny performer like Dion was bound to notice a change was coming: black doo-wop groups were morphing into soul groups, while the charts were becoming increasingly dominated by solo teen idol-types.  “Runaround Sue” sounds like Dion testing the waters, seeing if he could survive on his own but retaining just enough of the trappings of doo-wop so that he could retreat back to The Belmonts if necessary.  He needn’t have worried – he had enough talent, as well as the right balance of sophistication and swagger, to carry on making hits for the rest of the decade.  As for the rest of The Belmonts – well, they weren’t as lucky. 7

Hit #1 on October 23, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
60 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 6.19% through the Hot 100

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59) Ray Charles – “Hit the Road Jack”

I can appreciate Ray Charles’s versions of standards and country ballads for their significance in music history (crossing race divisions in music) and for bringing Charles into the mainstream.  But if I actually want to listen to a Ray Charles record, I’m more likely to put on some of the electric mix of R&B and gospel that made him a legend.  “Hit the Road Jack” is one such record – in fact, the only one of his #1 hits to be in that style (after the Hoagy Carmichael cover “Georgia on My Mind” but before Charles’s next and final chart-topper).  “Hit the Road Jack” drips with early ’60s hipster cred, from the jazzy horns to the Kerouac reference to Charles’s signature Ray-Bans.  There are no over-emoting strings or session backing vocals here, just a smooth, swinging groove.

The solo female vocalist is Margie Hendricks, Charles’s one-time mistress and mother of one of his 12 children.  She rips into Charles with a voice fiery enough to make any man back away, tail between legs.  Well, nearly any man.  Charles responds to Hendricks with the seemingly contrite “Well I guess if you say so/I’d have to pack my things and go,” but his voice is an aural wink.  They’ve been through this before, and she always relents.  Or maybe this time it’s for real, but she’s an unwitting pawn in his scheme to go out on the road.  Either way, Charles is the one in charge here.  The song may be about a woman throwing out her no-good man, but Charles makes it all about him – just like he does with all of his very best songs. 8

Hit #1 on October 9, 1961; total of 2 weeks at #1
59 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 6.09% through the Hot 100

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58) Bobby Vee – “Take Good Care of My Baby”

Gerry Goffin and Carole King are rightly recognized as being one of the best songwriting duos in pop (even the more-celebrated  Lennon and McCartney covered “Chains”).  But for every “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which gave voice to the conflict and confusion of being a teenager in love, is another track that doesn’t quite scale those heights:  specifically, the gloopy, toothless “Take Good Care of My Baby.”  The lyrics tell the story of a guy whose girl has left him for another guy.  Fair enough. But instead of trying to get her back or just bidding her farewell, we get a passive-aggressive plea – sure, you can have her, but if you get bored or whatever, he’d like her back, please.   Oh, just remember – take good care of HIS baby.

Part of it may be personal prejudice – in general, I think girls are better suited to singing this kind of pop than guys are.  Maybe I could appreciate the song better if it were boomed out by Shirley Owens or another girl group singer (though it still wouldn’t be a classic).  Bobby Vee’s voice is a little too pinched and nasal, his delivery too earnest and vibrato-laden, to be appealing.  “Don’t be stupid, don’t be limp/No girl likes to love a wimp,” The Mo-Dettes sang in “White Mice.” There’s a fine line between adorably sensitive and just pathetic. Unfortunately, this record falls into the latter category. 4

Hit #1 on September 18, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
58 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 5.99% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 04, 1961

57) The Highwaymen – “Michael”

My first guitar lesson happened in my dad’s tiny studio apartment (which, coincidentally, was behind my elementary school).  I would have been about eight years old, maybe nine, between the time when my parents divorced and Dad married my stepmom.  Under the dim lighting absorbed by the concrete walls, he shaped my hand into a C chord, my first three fingers stretching  across the frets.  This was the first chord of the old folk song and spiritual “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” Although maybe it wasn’t a C chord – if it were, then I would have had to also play an F, and teaching grade schooler barre chords on their first lesson is just asking for trouble.  Then again, maybe that’s why I didn’t pick up a guitar again until I was in high school.

Even if I don’t remember the chord, I remember the song. “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” had long been one of my favorite songs to sing at Vacation Bible School and the like, although there are actually few blatantly religious references in the lyrics. There’s “milk and honey,” “River Jordan” and “hallelujah,” but nothing that explicitly marks it as Christian.  (And while, in retrospect, I can recognize that the “Michael” of the title is probably the archangel, I just thought of him as my also-named dad.)  What stuck with me, though, was the music.  Although I hadn’t yet studied music theory, I knew that it didn’t sound like many other songs.  It was too sad, and the melody didn’t resolve itself in the most obvious way.  Its closest relative was “Kumbaya,” but that song was too simplistic.  “Michael,” despite being nothing but four chords and two melodic lines, never got boring or felt too cloying. Plus, it had boats in it. Kids love songs about boats (cf. “Barges,” “Day-O,” “Miss Susie Had a Steamboat”).

So, given all of this, The Highwaymen’s flat reading of the song is a disappointment.  What should be soulful is overly somber, what should be graceful instead plods along mechanically.  It doesn’t seem quite fair to ding them too harshly – this Wesleyan University group  is clearly more professional, polished and technically proficient than most college kid folkies of the time (excepting Joan Baez).  Still, if there’s one genre less concerned with professionalism, polish and technical proficiency than punk rock, then it’s folk.  What counts is the way the performance makes you feel – and for this record, there’s little but a faint feeling of boredom. 4

Liner Notes

  • These Highwaymen should not be confused with the infinitely more kick-ass country supergroup comprising Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.

Hit #1 on September 4, 1961; total of 2 week at #1
57 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 5.88% through the Hot 100

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