Liberal Interpretation

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(Pictured: Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, 1968.)

They don’t make politicians like they used to.

Everett McKinley Dirksen represented Illinois in the House from 1933 to 1949 and in the Senate from 1951 to 1969, and was famed for what he said (“a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”) and how he said it, in a resonant voice that was once the embodiment of how a distinguished senator should sound. And that voice gave Dirksen an unusual distinction—the oldest person ever to put a record into the Billboard Top 30.

Late in 1966, the United States was embroiled in Vietnam and the antiwar movement was beginning to stir, but the country was not yet as divided as it would become. With troops in the field and debacle not yet apparent, millions of Americans of all ages still fell back on the reflexive patriotism we’re all born with, and in that atmosphere, Dirksen’s recording “Gallant Men” caught on. It hit the Hot 100 on December 24, 1966.

(The words to “Gallant Men” were written in the 1950s by a young man who had majored in economics at Fordham. At the time of writing, he was serving in the army, and was the announcer for the U.S. Army Band. Charles Osgood would spend the rest of his life behind one microphone or another, including 50 years at CBS radio and television.)

In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate from New York. As his brother’s political heir, he was one of the Senate’s most visible members, and undoubtedly a future presidential candidate. Imitating the Kennedy voice had already proven lucrative, as the success of Vaughn Meader and The First Family had shown a few years before. Now another group of comedians took that voice as raw material.

Chip Taylor had written the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Now he teamed with an actor named Bill Minkin to create a version of “Wild Thing” billed to Senator Bobby. A producer in the booth is heard to tell Bobby “this is an answer to Senator McKinley’s hit record.” He exhorts Bobby to “give it a little more liberal interpretation” but later says “not so ruthless, Senator”—a purported willingness to do anything to win was frequently cited by RFK’s critics—and Bobby himself tells Ethel to get all the kids out of the studio, a reference to his well-known large family. As novelty records go, it’s genuinely funny.

“Wild Thing” charted a couple of weeks after “Gallant Men.” On January 21, 1967, the two records sat side-by-side on the Hot 100, “Gallant Men” at #29, its peak position, and “Wild Thing” at #30. The latter would peak at #20 during the week of February 11.

What happened next was probably inevitable. Taylor and Minkin created a record billed to Senator Bobby and Senator McKinley, a version of “Mellow Yellow.” It spent a single week at #99 in March 1967. (The B-side of “Mellow Yellow” is called “White Christmas/3 O’Clock Weather Report,” a takeoff on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night,” done in the style of Bob Dylan and credited to “Bobby the Poet.” You have to hear it to believe it.)

In early 1968, Dirksen would win a Grammy for the album containing “Gallant Men,” and within the year he would record two other spoken-word albums. Minkin formed a comedy group called the Hardly-Worthit Players (the name a takeoff on NBC’s evening newscast, The Huntley-Brinkley Report). There would be one more Senator Bobby record, “Sock It to Me Baby,” but its timing was disastrous. It bubbled under the Hot 100 on June 15, 1968, by which time it has undoubtedly been yanked from every radio station that played it. Nine days earlier, RFK had been assassinated.

This post has been reboted from one originally appearing here on June 5, 2013, and I might now quibble with my statement about the relative lack of debacle in and division over Vietnam in December 1966. Also, I have been unable to determine whether anybody older than Dirksen has made the Top 30 since 2013. He was 71 when “Gallant Men” reached its peak. In 2013, a 96-year-old retired truck driver from Peoria, Illinois, named Fred Stobaugh won a songwriting contest sponsored by a local recording studio, and a recording of his song went viral, reaching #42 on the Hot 100. He’s the oldest person ever to make the big chart, a mark previously set by 85-year-old Tony Bennett in 2011. For what it’s worth, Louis Armstrong remains the oldest person to hit #1; he was 62 when “Hello Dolly” went all the way in 1964. It’s a little hard to believe nobody older hasn’t ridden some momentary wave of YouTube or social media virality to the top in the last couple of decades. 

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