Category Archives: 1963

102) The Singing Nun – “Dominique”

The common wisdom behind the American popularity of “Dominique” is that it satisfied the nation’s desire for gentle, comforting music in the days and weeks after President John F. Kennedy’s Nov. 22 assassination.  Yet the early 1960s, for the most part, had already been an era when softer music dominated.  Folk music and girl groups were in vogue, and easy listening still had a firm foothold atop the charts.  In fact, the Ur-garage record “Louie Louie” held the #2 spot behind “Dominique” for part of its run, so Americans were clearly also in the mood to rock.  So what was it that attracted American audiences to a French-language acoustic folk song about a Thirteenth-Century saint?

The United States has a long history of anti-Catholicism, stretching back to Puritan anti-toleration legislation and intensifying with the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century waves of Irish, Italian, Polish and Latin American immigrants.  Even as late as his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy faced prejudice from some Protestants who feared he would serve as a puppet of the Pope.  But with his secular presidency, personal charisma and glamorous family, Kennedy modeled the new face of Roman Catholicism, one that appealed to mainstream America.

Roughly coincident with Kennedy’s presidency was the Second Vatican Council, which sought to update and revitalize the Catholic Church by bringing in modern influences.  Pope Pius XII had issued the encyclical Musicae Sacrae in 1955, which endorsed the non-sacred religious music that was beginning to become popular.  Young novice Sister Luc-Gabrielle, who entered the Belgian Fichermont Convent accompanied by the guitar she called Sister Adele, was emblematic of Vatican II’s friendlier, more accessible image.  With the permission of the convent and Philips Records, she recorded an album intended to be distributed solely to Fichermont’s visitors.  Philips recognized the quality of the recordings and released them publicly.  “Dominique,” a tribute to St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order to which Sister Luc-Gabrielle belonged, became a huge hit internationally, even in predominantly-Protestant countries.

Despite its unusual origins, “Dominique” is no schmaltzy novelty single.  Sister Luc-Gabrielle’s pure soprano and genuine sense of joy in the material, complemented by the clean, simple production, makes for an engaging listen.  The melody is exceptionally sticky, and the hooky chorus (“Dominique, -inique, -inique”)  helps break the language barrier.  The song is a rare example of religious-pop that can be appreciated by a secular audience: there’s neither the explicit rectitude of traditional recordings, nor the limp pandering that would come to characterize Christian Rock.  Actually, “Dominique” has more in common with the old American folk songs then being revived by the likes of Joan Baez: the religious content is important, but it’s a given of the narrator’s life rather than a conscious choice of subject.

A record by a Belgian nun topping the American pop charts would have been a strange occurrence at any point in Hot 100 history.  But in the wake of the assassination of  the USA’s first and only Roman Catholic president, it seems oddly appropriate that the nation turned to a record by a nun about a saint.  It helped that the record’s gentle and pastoral sound fit in naturally with the folk records populating the charts.  At the same time, though, the folk revival’s insistence on looking backwards made it just as in danger of becoming calcified and esoteric as the Catholic Church had been pre-Vatican II.  With its clean production and upbeat spirit, “Dominique” was a clear alternative to the overly-reverent covers dominating the folk scene.  A nun may seem an unlikely exponent of modernity. Yet through both her religion and her music, The Singing Nun helped participate in the ’60s break from the past and push toward the future. 7

Hit #1 on December 7, 1963; total of 4 weeks at #1
102 of 979 #1’s reviewed; 10.42% through the Hot 100

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101) Dale & Grace – “I’m Leaving It Up to You”

It’s easy for the rest of America to dump on the South.  But despite poor standardized test scores and the occasional racist politician, Southerners can still console themselves with having produced many of the country’s greatest cultural contributions: the collected works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams; the golden standard for American comfort food; and, most pertinently, nearly every popular musical genre to originate in Twentieth century America – jazz, blues, country, and rock and roll.

Growing up in Louisiana, it was a given that my native state was special, even compared with the rest of the South.  After all, we invented jazz and produced Louis Armstrong, Lead Belly and Jerry Lee Lewis, just for starters.  Seemingly every part of the state contributed something to the musical landscape.  Southwest Louisiana birthed Cajun music and zydeco, New Orleans is home to an uncountable number of jazz and R&B legends, and North Louisiana’s ties to country music stretch back to at least the ’40s.

But what of Baton Rouge, the capital city and my hometown?  Arts and culture has never been its strong point, especially when compared to the vibrancy of New Orleans and Lafayette.  Still, it has managed to produce at least one terrific number-one single.  The final installment in our 1963 trilogy of male-female duets, “I’m Leaving It Up to You” is also the best.   The song’s little more than three choruses and a bridge, but its economy is what makes it work.  This is a song about heartbreak.  Verses would just belabor the point.

Baton Rouge may not have a definitive identity of its own, but the steady immigration of Louisianians into the capital city has made it a composite of the state’s diverse cultures – Louisiana in miniature.  Likewise, “I’m Leaving It Up to You” borrows elements from New Orleans R&B (the backbeat and instrumentation) and honky-tonk (the aching, country-accented vocals).  The strings are even reminiscent of Cajun fiddling.  The result is seamless, the natural product of musical cross-pollination rather than a conscious effort at mixing genres.  This seeming effortlessness, from the minimalist song structure to the heartfelt vocals, gives the record a genuine, timeless quality.  But despite reaching #1 and being covered a handful of times, “I’m Leaving It Up to You” has unfortunately never quite become the standard that its level of quality would imply.  But if my hometown were to be represented by one pop song, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. 8

Hit #1 on November 23, 1963; total of 2 weeks at #1
101 of 979 #1’s reviewed
; 10.32% through the Hot 100

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100) Nino Tempo and April Stevens – “Deep Purple”

Over the first five or so years of the Hot 100, rock and roll and teen pop records shared space with easy listening instrumentals and versions of classic pop songs.  There were certainly some adults buying rock records, and teenagers who were fans of Lawrence Welk, but as a rule the two demographics kept to themselves.    But around 1963, inspired by the success of artists like Bobby Vinton, labels began engineering singles specifically to appeal across demographic lines.  The formula was simple: find teen idol types and record them singing either standards (“Blue Velvet“) or new songs that could pass for standards (“Roses Are Red [My Love]“). Meanwhile, “Hey Paula” had also sparked a trend for male-female duets.  It was only logical that a single combining the two could potentially become a hit.

“Deep Purple” dated back to the 1930s and had been recorded in a variety of styles in the intervening decades. Nino Tempo and April Stevens were siblings (real last name: Lo Tempio) already established in the entertainment world – Nino a saxophonist and former child actor, April a singer who’d had a few hits in the ’50s.  For their recording of “Deep Purple,” the pair jacked up the standard’s tempo and sang over a bed of harmonica, drums and piano instead of a big band.  Still, there are no attempts to radically alter the song – with one exception.  During the second half, Nino sings softly while April drawls the same lyrics just slightly ahead of him.  Her purr is so extreme that it would put Marilyn Monroe to shame, and goes a long way toward making the record sound more seductive than it really is.  As a result, the record was a respectful, sprightly version of an old song with just a hint of sex appeal added (which, to modern ears, is still a little too much for a sibling duet).  The whole package appealed to both sides of the generation gap, with the old guard even bestowing a “Best Rock & Roll Recording” Grammy on the duo.  Of course, the record’s connections to rock and roll were tenuous at best, but at least the establishment was trying.  “Deep Purple”‘s cross-generational gimmick now sounds dated and a little clumsy, even if it’s still revived from time to time.  Then again, the record was never intended to be inducted into any sort of rock canon.  It’s merely another version of a familiar hit, its greatest ambition to appeal to a wide range of record buyers for a few weeks in 1963. 5

Liner Notes:

It took (only!) 15 months to get through the first 100 number-ones.  In case you haven’t been around the whole time, here’s a brief overview to bring you up to speed:

  • The average rating was 5.94, with more than a quarter of the tracks earning a 7.  The top-rated track was Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” while the lowest-rated was “Mr. Custer” by Larry Verne.  Both records are also the only ones yet to earn a 10 and a 1, respectively.
  • On reflection, there were a couple of songs that I rated unnecessarily low.  Most egregiously, I dismissed Connie Francis’s “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” as “passable.” I now think it’s one of her best songs, although I still haven’t gotten over the stifling production.  In second is “Quarter to Three” by Gary U.S. Bonds, which I rated favorably but under-enthusiastically.
  • On the flip side, there are also those tracks I graded too kindly.  I’m not sure how I ended up handing Paul Anka a (mildly) positive rating.  Given that “Lonely Boy” was post #16, I’ll blame beginner’s jitters.  (Also, I’m still conflicted about “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.”)

The next 100 posts will be covering one of the most exciting periods in pop history.  Here’s hoping it won’t take another 15 months to get through them.

Hit #1 on November 16, 1963; total of 1 week at #1
100 of 978 #1’s reviewed; 10.22% through the Hot 100

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99) Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs – “Sugar Shack”

Now that we’re almost to the end of 1963, what would you guess was the best-selling song of the year? Remember, there was a lot of classic stuff to hit the top of the charts in 1963: The Four Seasons’ best single, Jan & Dean’s take on The Beach Boys’ surf-ready harmonies and, of course, many of girl group’s best-loved songs.  And yet, as you’ve surely figured out by now, that honor went to the largely-forgotten single in the video above.  It isn’t that “Sugar Shack” is a bad song.  But as blockbuster hit of the year, it’s an awfully unassuming track.  In fact, it’s almost a perfect specimen of post-first wave, pre-British Invasion rock and roll.  Basically, it’s a spunkier version of what your parents were listening to, with little of the raucousness that made rock so revolutionary.  Which is probably why “Sugar Shack” was so successful: it gave teenagers an approved to spend their allowances, and parents had an inoffensive gateway into understanding their kids’ music.

That said, “Sugar Shack” does have one factor weighing heavily in its favor: the song’s innovative use of distorted bass.  The record’s worth listening to at least once to check out the rough, crunchy sound that anticipates the fuzzbox’s reign over mid-late ’60s rock.  While “Sugar Shack” isn’t garage rock, it’s arguably a precursor to Top 10 run of The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” two months later.  Much like “Alley Oop,” “Sugar Shack” is an early harbinger of the harder, more psychedelic rock that would close out the decade.  Shame the rest of the record is so tame. 5

Liner Notes:

  • “Sugar Shack” is also infamous for being the record that kept “Be My Baby” from hitting #1 on the Hot 100 – but that didn’t prejudice my review, I swear.

Hit #1 on October 12, 1963; total of 5 weeks at #1
99 of 978 #1’s reviewed; 10.12% through the Hot 100

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98) Bobby Vinton – “Blue Velvet”

In my review of “Roses Are Red (My Love),” I made no secret of my distaste for that single’s amateurish lyrics, hackneyed musicianship and simpering vocals.  And although “Blue Velvet,” Bobby Vinton’s second number-one hit, sounds remarkably similar on a cursory listen, it far exceeds its predecessor.  At first, I feared that my enjoyment of the namesake movie had colored my attitude toward the song.  But after a few dedicated listens, the indisputable superiority of “Blue Velvet” made itself obvious.  Even the songs’ origins offer clues.  “Blue Velvet” was already a tested standard by the time Vinton recorded it, with Tony Bennett scoring a hit with it a decade earlier.  “Roses Are Red,” on the other hand, was plucked from a pile of rejected demos.  “Blue Velvet” also has a darker edge than Vinton’s previous hit – even discounting David Lynch’s penchant for exposing the malevolent undercurrents of pre-Beatles pop.  This isn’t a cooing ballad to a girlfriend, it’s something more ambiguous. Vinton’s girl has left him, but he doesn’t explain whether it was a break-up or a death.  I suspect the latter, as  the song’s final verse seems a touch morose for the end of a relationship:

But in my heart there’ll always be
Precious and warm, a memory
Through the years
And I still can see blue velvet
Through my tears

Of course, “Blue Velvet” could be interpreted either way, which is surely why it appealed to Lynch. This mysteriousness gives the record a haunting quality and a certain intrigue that would be lost if it were more literal. Even the standard early ’60s pop production doesn’t sound quite as heavy-handed as usual, and the faint chimes (bells? marimba? xylophone?) add a subtle pensive quality.  In short, this is how you introduce adult contemporary to a new generation: make it soothing but wistful, romantic but ghostly. 7

Hit #1 on September 21, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
98 of 977 #1’s reviewed; 10.03% through the Hot 100

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97) The Angels – “My Boyfriend’s Back”

It’s not surprising that one of the first crop of girl groups was called The Angels.  After all, the genre’s style (at least in the early years) was built on sweet, pure voices singing about innocent love.  “My Boyfriend’s Back” is perhaps the ultimate distillation of what a girl group named “The Angels” should sound like. In fact, if the group hadn’t had a hit with “Til” two years earlier, it would seem like the group’s name was coined expressly to tie in with the 1963 single’s subject matter.  After all, “My Boyfriend’s Back” is a statement of chastity and fidelity.  When the titular boyfriend leaves for unexplained reasons, our narrator isn’t even tempted by her suitor’s nightly advances.  Her moral fortitude endures, even after the rejected suitor spreads lies about her conduct.  She may not be St. Catherine, but her sullied reputation makes her the closest thing to a  modern-day high school martyr. “Angel” though she may be, our narrator nevertheless relishes the comeuppance soon to be inflicted on her aggressor.  Our narrator and her boyfriend’s faith in each other is unshakable, and his righteous vengeance is just.  Yet, all the while, these heavy themes are buoyed along on the back on a tune so light and frothy that it could be a toothpaste jingle.  Which, of course, is the cardinal rule of successful pop: sing anything you want, just as long as it’s catchy.  “My Boyfriend’s Back” could have been overwrought and self-pitying; instead, it’s got a sense of humor, a dance-worthy beat and lyrics that beg to be sassed-along with. 7

Hit #1 on August 31, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
97 of 977 #1’s reviewed; 9.93% through the Hot 100

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96) Little Stevie Wonder – “Fingertips Pt. 2”

Stevie Wonder was a welcome chart presence throughout the ’60s and ’70s, releasing singles that tempered the balance between pop and soul without forsaking either.  His best songs became instant classics, but even the minor singles display his able musicianship and joie de vivre.  But if the first Stevie Wonder record you heard was “Fingertips Pt. 2,” I’m not sure you could foresee his role as one of the great American songwriters.

“Fingertips” (the first part) was composed to show off the 12-year-old prodigy’s skills on harmonica and bongos.  The instrumental isn’t particularly catchy (at least in terms of the Hot 100), but Wonder’s already an electric showman.  The audience loves him and he’s soaking it up, exhorting them to “stomp your feet, jump up and down, do anything you want to do!”  Wonder spends the next few minutes applying his musical talents to the song at hand.  By the halfway mark, though, Wonder’s abandoned the already-loose structure of the song in favor of a freeform jam and lots more shouting.  “Everybody say yeah!” he cries. “Clap your hands just a little bit louder!” Surely this interplay with the audience was thrilling live.  But on cold vinyl (or mp3), all that stands out are two minutes of goodbyes and a couple measures of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” played on harmonica.  And yet, it was this second part of the recording that hit number one.  That the “personality half” of the record triumphed over the “musical half” suggests that “Fingertips Pt. 2” succeeded strictly because of the nation’s fascination with Wonder, whether as a novelty or as a genuine new talent.  But much like a live bootleg, “Fingertips Pt. 2” plays more like a tour souvenir – or an attempt to touch the hem of nascent pop nobility – than a record that demands repeat listens. 5

Liner Notes

  • I acknowledge in advance that my judgment is far from popular. Rest assured this is likely the lowest grade Wonder will see from me till, oh, the ’80s.

Hit #1 on August 10, 1963; total of 3 weeks at #1
96 of 977 #1’s reviewed; 9.83% through the Hot 100

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