The story goes that Top 40 radio was invented in Omaha, Nebraska, sometime between 1953 and 1955. The exact date has been lost to history, but here’s what’s supposed to have happened: Radio station owner Todd Storz was sitting in a bar one night and noticed that patrons kept playing the same few songs on the jukebox again and again. At one point, he watched a waitress come over and put her own change in the machine. He expected her to play something other than the songs she had been hearing all day–but she played some of the same ones. “I like ’em,” she explained to Storz. Thus was born the idea of playing the same hits on the radio, over and over. So Top 40 actually arrived before the full flowering of both teenage culture and rock and roll, but it’s impossible to imagine any one without the other two.
The handout survey of a particular radio station’s hits, used as a promotional tool, was not far behind. The oldest surveys in the collection of ARSA (Airheads Radio Survey Archive) date to 1956. One of them, the Shamrock Hit Parade from KXYZ in Houston, Texas, is from this week, 50 years ago, and here’s the Top Five. From half-a-century ago.
5. “Heartbreak Hotel”/Elvis Presley. It’s almost impossible for us to hear this the way people did 50 years ago–an echo-drenched, minor-key shout from Romantic Hell, which was located down at the end of Lonely Street. Everybody had heard songs about love gone wrong, but nobody had ever heard anything that sounded quite so desolate.
4. “Long Tall Sally”/Little Richard. Another record we can’t hear like they did. When gangster rappers and their thousand-yard stares scare the hell out of suburban parents, they’re only doing their take on what Little Richard did first, with that bizarrely pomaded hair, those wild eyes, and that pounding, scary music.
3. “The Wayward Wind”/Gogi Grant. What’s very interesting about these old charts is the juxtaposition between rock and roll and MOR. Even though the phenomenon continued well into the 1980s, it’s especially jarring in the early days. “The Wayward Wind” rocks not at all. It sounds like the theme to a splashy Technicolor western, with Gogi’s clear voice riding a big orchestra into the sunset.
2. “Moonglow-Theme from Picnic“/Morris Stoloff. This one is a movie theme. “Moonglow” was a song from the Swing Era, revived as the theme for the William Holden/Kim Novak movie, which was one of those “adult” pictures Hollywood started making in the mid 50s to counteract television.
1. “I’m in Love Again”/Fats Domino. That name, and the happy-go-lucky persona it implies, have served to diminish Domino’s historical importance–but he’s the guy who first contributed New Orleans gumbo to the rock and roll stew. This was his second major hit, after “Ain’t That a Shame,” with “Blue Monday,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “I’m Walkin'” yet to come.
After going missing for a while during Hurricane Katrina last summer, Domino was found unharmed, and was set to perform at this year’s New Orleans Jazz Festival a couple of weeks ago before bowing out due to health concerns. (Lionel Richie replaced him–no offense to Lionel, but you, sir, are no Fats Domino.)
Coming over the weekend: Another of our low-rent podcasts. Stay tuned.