Twenty-six years ago today, the original Stars on 45 medley of “Venus,” “Sugar Sugar,” and a bunch of Beatles songs was knocked out of the Number One slot on the Hot 100. But it had opened the floodgates for a medley craze that would produce some mighty odd records over the next year-and-a-half.
The craze began with Stars on 45, but there had been hit medleys long before producer Jaap Eggermont had the idea that made him rich. In the summer of 1969, Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys hit with a medley of six early rock ‘n’ roll hits (“Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Chantilly Lace,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Party Doll”) and took it to Number 21. (Their producer: Jimi Hendrix.) The disco era produced “The Best Disco in Town,” an insanely catchy and well-sequenced medley of mostly-1975 dance floor hits. It was released under the name of the Ritchie Family, a group of Philadelphia studio singers and musicians put together by Jacques Morali, and squeaked into the Top 20 in November 1976. (Morali’s next studio creation: the Village People.) Shalamar’s “Uptown Festival,” a medley of Motown songs, made it to Number 25 in June 1977. But it took the Stars on 45 to kick the craze into overdrive.
The Stars on 45 medleys, which imitated the original recordings, were only the beginning. It wasn’t long before somebody figured out you could make a medley from actual snippets of original recordings stitched together Frankenstein-like. (Technically, that’s the way the Stars on 45 records were made; the performers did not sing the songs in medley form.) “The Beach Boys Medley” of “Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Get Around,” “Shut Down,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ USA,” and “Fun Fun Fun” was the first of these to hit, reaching Number 12 in October 1981. It was only the Beach Boys’ second trip back into the Top 20 since the 60s. “The Beatles’ Movie Medley” was not far behind, promoting the Reel Music compilation (but not appearing on it). In May 1982, it reached Number 13. Elvis Presley wasn’t left out, either—“The Elvis Medley,” similarly assembled from actual Elvis tunes, reached Number 71 in December 1982. It also got some play on country radio.
(“The Beatles’ Movie Medley” remains the only Beatles single never to be released in a CD configuration. In fact, Parlophone refused to release it in Britain at all in 1982, calling it “tacky.” Demand for the song as an import from the States eventually forced the label’s hand.)
What follows, in the interest of keeping this post from running longer than the era it’s discussing, is a medley timeline:
June: The first Stars on 45 medley (which was officially titled, at the insistence of music publishers, “Intro Venus/Sugar Sugar/No Reply/I’ll Be Back/Drive My Car/Do You Want to Know a Secret/We Can Work It Out/I Should Have Known Better/Nowhere Man/You’re Going to Lose That Girl/Stars on 45”) hits Number One.
August: “Stars on 45 II,” featuring nine more Beatles songs, reaches Number 67.
October: “The Beach Boys Medley” hits Number 12. “More Stars on 45,” featuring a schizophrenic collection of 60s and 70 tunes, hits Number 55.
January: The second-most successful medley of all time in terms of chart performance, “Hooked on Classics,” reaches Number 10. It’s a collection of classical themes orchestrated by former Electric Light Orchestra member Louis Clark and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (Somebody posted a 10-minute extended version of this over at the Born Again 80s forum, which inspired me to do this post. And yeah, I listened to the whole thing.) Also: “Seasons of Gold,” a medley of Four Seasons tunes by Gidea Park featuring Adrian Baker, reaches Number 82. Oddly, Baker would become a member of the Four Seasons for a couple of years in the mid 90s.
March: “Memories of Days Gone By,” a medley of doo-wop songs rerecorded by Fred Parris and the Five Satins, reaches Number 71.
April: “Pop Goes the Movies” by Meco, featuring familiar themes from eight movies including Gone With the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, reaches Number 35. Meco was a natural for this kind of thing—he’d already released singles featuring music from Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Empire Strikes Back.
May: “The Beatles Movie Medley” reaches Number 13; “Stars on 45 III,” which was made up entirely of Stevie Wonder tunes and was actually the fourth Stars on 45 single, reaches Number 28. Thus, this month would seem to represent the peak of the medley’s pop-cultural reach.
June: The Frank Barber Orchestra’s “Hooked on Big Bands,” featuring tunes made famous by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, reaches Number 61.
July: “Hooked on Swing” by Larry Elgart and His Manhattan Swing Orchestra, which features several of the Miller tunes Frank Barber had done on his record along with other familiar swing themes, reaches Number 31.
December: “The Elvis Medley” reaches Number 71 on the pop charts and Number 31 on the country charts. (I was doing country radio during the medley craze, and if I’m recalling correctly, it didn’t really catch on there. We played “Just Hooked on Country” by Albert Coleman’s Atlanta Pops, but it didn’t make either the country or pop charts.)
And so, the medley craze was pretty much over by the end of 1982. Stars on 45 kept releasing singles, featuring ABBA, the Rolling Stones, and the Carpenters, but none of them made the Hot 100. Producer Jaap Eggermont spun off the Star Sisters, whose Andrews Sisters medley, a massive hit in several countries, was released in the States but didn’t chart. A group called Band of Gold was late to the party in December 1984 with a medley made up mostly of Stylistics songs entitled “Love Songs Are Back Again.” It got to Number 64, but didn’t reignite America’s passion for medleys.
Although the medley craze died down, it never died entirely. Channeling Stars on 45, Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’ 1989 hit “Swing the Mood” became necessary wedding-reception fodder throughout the early 90s; the Grease Megamix recycled tunes from the movie soundtrack for the film’s 20th anniversary in 1998. Today, the medley spirit lives on. Do-it-yourself music mashups proliferate all over the Internet, and there’s a great debate raging among artists and intellectual property experts over the practice of reimagining existing works of art to make new ones. Which is really just another form of medley-making.