(Pictured: Jeannie C. Riley with Johnny Cash on his TV show, 1969.)
For a reader of record charts, it’s an eye-popping sight, and not just because of the song titles. Fifty years ago today, on the Billboard Hot 100 for August 31, 1968, the top two are the same from the previous week: “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals and “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. At #3, it’s Jose Feliciano’s cover of “Light My Fire,” up from #4. “Hello I Love You” by the Doors is at #4, down from #3. “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge are at #5 and #6 respectively, up from #6 and #11 the week before. At #7 sits “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley, up from #81 the week before.
Not a typo. It was #81 the week before, and it made the biggest single-week jump in the history of the charts to that point.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” first shows up at ARSA on August 7 at WBAM in Montgomery, Alabama, but bigger stations got on it in approximately the same week, including WKNR and CKLW in Detroit, KXOK in St. Louis, and WSAI in Cincinnati. The next week, it got adds everywhere, and hit #1 for the first time at WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama, on August 16 and WNAP in Indianapolis on August 18. (At WSGN, it debuted at #1, and likely did so in other cities as well.) Before August 31, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” had already reached #1 in Detroit, San Diego, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Nashville. During the week of August 31, it hit #1 in Kansas City, Denver, Orlando, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and in other, smaller markets.
“Harper Valley P.T.A” needed two more weeks to budge “People Got to Be Free” from the #1 spot, moving to #4 and then #2 before reaching the top, but only for a single week, on September 21, 1968. On the Billboard country chart, it jumped from #75 to #23 in this week 50 years ago, reaching #1 on September 28 and staying three weeks. It went to #4 on the adult-contemporary chart during a 10-week run. It would be named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association, and receive a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.
Other labels rushed out competing versions, but Jeannie C. swept the challengers away. A version by Ricky Page was a significant hit in the Pacific Northwest, hitting #1 in Vancouver and making the Top 10 at both KJR and KOL in Seattle. King Curtis, who seems to have covered everything, made #93 with his version. Ben Colder, the comic persona of singer/actor Sheb Wooley, hit #24 country and #67 on the Hot 100 with a not-at-all-funny parody, “Harper Valley P.T.A. (Later That Same Day).” (A handful of other parody versions and covers are shown at ARSA.)
As the song climbed toward the top, it was being chased by a bigger hit: the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” which debuted on the Hot 100 at #10 on September 14, went to #3 the next week, and to #1 on September 28. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” held at #2 for three weeks before going 4-8-14-15-35 and out, absent from the chart dated November 23.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was too country for good times/great oldies radio. But in 1978, the song began a delayed afterlife, inspiring a theatrical movie starring Barbara Eden, which did $25 million at the box office. A TV series based on the movie (created by Sherwood Schwartz of Gilligan’s Island and Brady Bunch fame) and also starring Eden ran for two seasons starting in 1981 and played in syndication for a few years thereafter.
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” was written by Tom T. Hall and is based on Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” speeded up but with the same chords; Riley sings it with high-powered country sass. She won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance and was nominated for Best New Artist. She would have five more Top-10 country hits by 1972, but even after the hits stopped, she continued to tour and record both country and Christian music.
Jeannie C. Riley and Tom T. Hall are both still with us. She’ll be 73 this fall; he turned 82 last spring. Fifty years on, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” still sounds pretty great, especially when you hear it in this smokin’ hot, processed-for-AM-radio version.
Riley’s mark for biggest single-week jump would stand until the week of February 11, 2006, when “Breaking Free” by Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron went from #86 to #4. But chart methodology was different; it was the Soundscan era by then, with the streaming era soon to follow. Although the charts are far more volatile today, such giant jumps remain rare. There have been only about a dozen of them since 2006.