‘”The real 1960s began on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 . . . It came to seem that Kennedy’s murder opened some malign trap door in American culture, and the wild bats flapped out.” –Lance Morrow, Time, 1983
It’s too much to say President Kennedy’s murder 47 years ago today changed everything, because in the modern world, no event short of collision with a rogue asteroid will truly “change everything.” (Remember how 9/11 was supposed to have done it?) But as Lance Morrow observed, the assassination signaled vast, hard, strange changes to come. From that day, the world seemed to accelerate, accelerate and fly apart at the same time, smashing long-cherished values, reopening long-settled questions, exposing to view like never before the random universe of fortune and tragedy in which we live. And the acceleration has never stopped.
But we’re about music here when we’re not about other things, and I spent some time last week looking at the Cash Box chart from November 23, 1963. One month earlier, Beatlemania had broken out in Britain; within six weeks, the storm would start to rise here in the States. And as the Cash Box chart makes clear, America was ready for a break in its musical history. The jolt we would receive from the British Invasion in the spring of ’64 would be just as transformative as the break in our cultural and political history that were forced upon us in November of ’63.
Take a look at the top 10: “I’m Leaving It All Up to You” is a tired retread of 50s pop; “Deep Purple” seems to exist in a historical moment of its own, looking neither backward nor forward. Even if you take the folk boom into account, “Dominique” is sui generis, and if it had come along even six months later, it’s doubtful whether anyone would have heard it. The Impressions maintain a sterling reputation largely among serious fans of historical bent; they never really made it into the good-times-great-oldies radio pantheon. (Only “Sugar Shack” managed that feat.) “Washington Square” and “Maria Elena” are instrumentals that might have hit at any point in the preceding decade. The Lesley Gore and Tommy Roe records were forgotten as soon as they dropped out of current rotation, and “Bossa Nova Baby” by Elvis is movie trivia.
Can we find five records out of 100 on this chart worth listening to again 47 years later? Find out on the flip.
11. “Walking the Dog”/Rufus Thomas (up from 14). Early Stax, on which the mightiness of Booker T and the MGs can already be heard. This was the first Stax project for superstar engineer Tom Dowd, who was shocked by the condition of the Stax studios on his arrival from Atlantic Records HQ in New York. When he asked for an alignment tape to adjust the heads on the recorder, he found that nobody had heard of such a thing. After Dowd ordered in some parts, the MGs began to jam. Rufus Thomas happened by, saw too many cars in the parking lot for a Sunday morning, came into the studio, and before long, “Walking the Dog” was done.
20. “Since I Fell for You”/Lenny Welch (up from 32). A timeless pop classic that was recorded by a few people before Welch got to it and many more after, but never better. He had first charted in 1960 with another standard, “You Don’t Know Me” (later made famous by Ray Charles), and would follow “Since I Fell for You” with a recording of “Ebb Tide.” He would return to the Top 40 in 1970 with a version of “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” and his last chart appearance would come in 1972 with another big-band era song, “A Sunday Kind of Love.” Shorter now: Lenny Welch, not a one-hit wonder.
32. “Louie Louie”/Kingsmen (up from 53). Nobody had better channeled the primal power of the beat up to this point in history, and nobody else would for a decade, until “Rock and Roll Part 2” came along, and this is still better. “Louie Louie” also inspired one of the strangest, funniest incidents in rock history—the FBI investigation into whether its unintelligible lyrics are obscene.
35. “Be My Baby”/Ronettes (down from 15). Although this was the Ronettes’ first hit and they would chart several more in the next three years, they were working in a style that would ultimately be swept away by the tide to come. With it would go Phil Spector, one of rock’s greatest stylists, although his “little symphonies for the kids” wouldn’t start to seem dated until the Beatles started making their own. “Be My Baby” opens with an iconic hook, so simple yet so perfect, guaranteed to make you eagerly anticipate what you’ve heard a million times before.
65. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”/Peter Paul and Mary (down from 58). The first of many, many cover versions of “Don’t Think Twice,” which had first appeared earlier in 1963 on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and the most successful charted version. I’m not sure where the following video comes from, but it will give you the flavor of PP&M at the height of their fame during the folk boom.