(Pictured: the Four Lads harmonize, 1955.)
Although there are better dates, a lot of authorities date the birth of the rock era to 1955, specifically when “Rock Around the Clock” became a national hit. But if a new era had really begun that year, it wasn’t a clean break from the era before. Take as an example the Billboard Top 100 singles chart dated November 2, 1955. It’s the first week for this new chart, which incorporates sales, airplay, and jukebox play into a single big chart, even though Billboard will continue to publish those separate charts for a couple of years yet. On this new chart, Pat Boone and the Platters are in the Top 10, and a handful of other records have an early rock ‘n’ roll sound, but the chart is dominated by the kind of pop music that had been popular since big-band jazz fell out of fashion after World War II: songs by solo vocalists and vocal harmony groups, and orchestrated instrumentals.
The domination is led by one song in particular. Six versions of “Autumn Leaves” appear on the 11/2/55 chart. The biggest and best-known version, by pianist Roger Williams, is at #2 in this week. The new Top 100 has cleared the way for five other versions to debut: by Steve Allen (#44), Victor Young (#54), Mitch Miller (#64), Jackie Gleason (#67), and the Ray Charles Singers (#77).
As we saw with a March 1956 chart a few months back, it was common for multiple versions of the same song to chart at the same time. For example, the Top 100 shows four versions of “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”: the Four Aces at #1, Don Cornell at #30 (a Top-10 hit the previous week down so far this week thanks to the new methodology), David Rose at #60, and Woody Herman at #79. Two versions of “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” are in the Top 10. Other songs heard in multiple versions include “At My Front Door,” “Only You,” “He,” “Black Denim Trousers,” “Seventeen,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Suddenly There’s a Valley,” and several others.
The song from this chart best known to the non-geek population today might be Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage,” thanks to its use as the theme song for the TV show Married With Children. A regular reader of this blog would certainly know the Platters’ “Only You” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline,” as well as “Ain’t That a Shame,” although probably the Fats Domino version and not so much the one by Pat Boone. “I Hear You Knocking” would be more familiar in versions by Smiley Lewis and/or Dave Edmunds than the one by Gale Storm. I would like to think that anyone with a decent appreciation for the history of American popular music would know “Autumn Leaves,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and at least two others: “The Yellow Rose of Texas” by Mitch Miller and “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. “The Yellow Rose” had been #1 earlier in 1955, and “Sixteen Tons” would be massively popular as 1955 turned to 1956, with eight weeks leading the Top 100 and 10 weeks at #1 on the country chart.
(Although he’s largely forgotten today, Tennessee Ernie Ford—a conservatory-trained singer who started as a radio announcer in the 40s—was a big star from the 50s to the 70s, with many country hits, a couple of TV shows and many guest appearances, and some successful gospel albums.)
And then there’s “Moments to Remember” by the Four Lads. The Lads were first heard on record backing up Johnnie Ray on his enormous 1951 hit “Cry.” Between 1954 and 1958, they would hit the Top 10 seven times. You may know a couple of those songs, if not their specific performances: “No, Not Much” and “Standing on the Corner.” “Moments to Remember” was their biggest hit. It’s one of those records I most likely heard before I knew it; I first became aware of it as a little baby disc jockey thanks to the radio show Sunday at the Memories.
The deeply nostalgic “Moments to Remember” was popular in September, October, and November, and that could not have been a coincidence. Autumn is a season when we’re reminded that all in our lives is fleeting, and it makes time run in reverse. Amid the shades of bygone days, places, and people crowding close around, “Moments to Remember” sounds very much like The Truth:
Though summer turns to winter
And the present disappears
The laughter we were glad to share
Will echo through the years
(Pictured: singer Helen Forrest with trumpeter and bandleader Harry James, 1945.)
Well here’s a cool artifact: the first Cash Box Disc-Hits Box Score, dated October 30, 1944. It ranks 45 songs by title, and lists the various recordings of each. Originally, the magazine listed all of the versions of each song in current release; it looks as though the website compiling the lists is showing only the biggest versions, as determined by rankings on concurrent Billboard charts. Some observations follow about the hits from 75 years ago today:
—We do not always grasp just how popular Bing Crosby was during the Second World War, but this chart shows it. Crosby also has nine songs on the list, two with the Andrews Sisters and the rest solo. Among the solo selections are some positively iconic performances: “Swinging on a Star,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby).” Bing displays his versatility on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (Ma’ Baby),” which is also listed in a hit version by original soul man Louis Jordan with his Tympany Five. (Jordan’s is way better, though.) And Bing’s “Going My Way” is the title song from the movie that had come out in May, and which would earn Crosby an Oscar for Best Actor the next year.
—Helen Forrest had sung with the Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Harry James big bands between 1938 and 1943, and she won Down Beat magazine’s award as best female vocalist in 1942 and 1943 before starting a solo career. On this chart, she has three songs, all in the Top 10, including “It Had to Be You” and “Together” with Dick Haymes. Haymes is actually on the chart four times, with Forrest and with his own “How Blue the Night,” and also singing uncredited with Harry James on “I’ll Get By.” James is on the chart three times himself, with “I’ll Get By” and “Estrellita,” plus “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me,” backing Frank Sinatra.
—The Stan Kenton Orchestra has three hits on the chart. Kenton was a successful sideman who had formed his own band in 1940, and eventually become famous for pushing the boundaries of jazz with the album Artistry in Rhythm and a number of records he dubbed “progressive jazz.” Not much sounds more like the 1940s than “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine,” with Anita O’Day singing the verses and the band, in ragged unison, singing the refrain.
—The Mills Brothers are on the chart twice, with “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “Til Then.” They had a long string of hits starting in the early 1930s that didn’t slow much until the mid 50s. (They were still hitting as late as 1968, when they appeared on the Hot 100 three times, and “Cab Driver” went all the way to #23.) Also charting twice is the King Cole Trio, with “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You.” In addition to “It’s Funny to Everyone But Me,” Sinatra scores a second hit in this week with the far-better-known “Night and Day.” The top big bands of the day are represented twice as well, including Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, and Tommy Dorsey.
—Some of the lesser acts doing big business in 1944 include Betty Hutton, who is remembered today as a movie star; she had played opposite frequent Crosby co-star Dorothy Lamour in And the Angels Sing earlier that year and would co-star with Bing himself in Here Come the Waves at year’s end; the Merry Macs, a Midwestern harmony group that occasionally backed Crosby; and the Pied Pipers, who sang with the Tommy Dorsey band and Frank Sinatra, and who could count Jo Stafford (also with two hits on this chart) as a former member.
—This chart has a lot of World War II flavor: not just with “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Lili Marlene,” Louis Jordan’s “G.I. Jive,” and Johnny Mercer’s “Duration Blues,” but at #1: “I’ll Walk Alone,” with popular versions by Dinah Shore, Martha Tilton, and Mary Martin.
I’ll always be near you wherever you are each night
In every prayer
If you call I’ll hear you, no matter how far
Just close your eyes and I’ll be there
I’ve said before that hearing songs like these on the radio at home while a loved one was fighting far away must have been either an incredible comfort or completely unbearable. Given the wide popularity of “I’ll Walk Alone,” I’m betting on the former.
What happened at Deadspin this week felt kind of familiar to me, and to other radio people, I’ll bet.
The short version if you haven’t been following: the site got new owners earlier this year—rich dopes who have experience in online publishing but little actual success at it—and they issued a “stick to sports” edict, although Deadspin was years evolved beyond its creation as an independent sports website into a politics and culture magazine with a wide ambit and a unique point of view. It was home to legitimately great writers, including Drew Magary, David Roth, and Albert Burneko, tenacious journalists including Diana Moskovitz and Laura Wagner, and a crew of brilliant bloggers. The site’s most recent editor, Megan Greenwell, quit in August (and set fire to her bosses on her way out the door); after this week’s latest “stick to sports” edict, deputy editor Barry Petchesky pinned Deadspin’s best non-sports posts on the front page and got fired for it. Within 48 hours, most of the other writers had hit the door, and Deadspin, a site I have visited several times a day for over a decade, was dead.
Any radio person who has been through a station sale probably can feel pains of sympathy for what the Deadspinners have been going through.
Understand first of all that I get it, and my radio colleagues who have been through it get it: when you own the company, you can do whatever you want with it. But it happens time and again, as it happened at G/O Media (owners of Deadspin and other sites including Jezebel, the Root, and the sadly shuttered Splinter, the news site the private-equity dopes terminated last month), and at radio stations from here to West Overshoe: new owners come in with a set of prejudices and the intent to act on them. They look at what the place is doing, and they say, “This can’t be working,” which often translates to, “I don’t like this, which means it’s wrong.” Or they say—and this is closer to what happened at Deadspin—“I’m going to do this thing even if it makes no sense to you, because I’m playing a game of nine-dimensional chess you can’t understand.”
It doesn’t have to be new owners. It can be new bosses brought in by old owners. I know of a radio station where a new boss announced that he would curtail the amount of live sports the station was doing, because nobody was listening and they couldn’t sell it. This was before he’d bothered to look at the revenue figures, which proved that they could sell it, which in a non-measured market is all that matters. I know of another station with a specialty show that made money like there was a printer in the basement, but a new manager wanted to kill it because he couldn’t understand its appeal. Years ago, I got fired for the simple reason that a new boss wanted his people. That the new people were not as talented never entered his mind.
Deadspin’s owners do not understand that recaps of the World Series or some shit, no matter how engagingly written, were not what kept people coming back to the site. And that’s what makes this so absolutely maddening, and what makes it so maddening to we radio types when new owners or managers take over and start messing with a proven product. The evidence for what works is right the fuck in front of you—why are you unable to see it?
Megan Greenwell wrote: “A metastasizing swath of media is controlled by private-equity vultures and capricious billionaires and other people who genuinely believe that they are rich because they are smart and that they are smart because they are rich, and that anyone less rich is by definition less smart. They know what they know, and they don’t need to know anything else.” [Italics mine.] But you don’t have to be rich, necessarily, to think this way. It’s enough to believe you’re smart because you have been told that you’re smart—even if it’s only yourself who has done the telling—and that anyone who isn’t you is less smart. And so you will, with eyes wide open, make decisions based on your own perceived smartness and discount the real-world evidence that is, and let me repeat this, right the fuck in front of you.
TL, DR: so long, Deadspinners. You were awesome. A lot of us out here feel your pain, wish you well, and look forward to following you wherever you land.
The “answer song” goes back to the dawn of recording. In the first decade of the 20th century, Pioneer Era artists Arthur Collins and Billy Murray recorded songs that responded to earlier records of their own. But those might just as easily be seen as sequels. Answer songs seem more properly to be responses to one song and artist by a different artist. We have mentioned a few answer songs at this website in the past: Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay,” which answered Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go”; Jody Miller’s response to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” “Queen of the House”; “Dawn of Correction,” the response to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”; and “Harper Valley P.T.A. (Later That Same Day).” One of the most famous answer songs came in 1952, when Kitty Wells responded to Hank Thompson’s huge country hit “The Wild Side of Life” with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”—an answer arguably more famous than the record to which it responds.
(You can see Wikipedia’s whole list of answer songs here, which contains some you probably wouldn’t expect, didn’t know, or disagree with. And yes, some answer songs are more properly termed parody versions, but that’s a hair I’m not splitting today.)
The answer-song phenomenon was particularly strong in country music. There’s one we haven’t mentioned yet, and one that’s absent from Wiki’s list.
In 1974, Paul Anka spent three weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 with “(You’re) Having My Baby.” I’ve written about it here and elsewhere, and so there’s no need to rehash how it gathered haters practically from the moment of its release, and it still has them today. While “(You’re) Having My Baby” was still riding high on the Hot 100, an answer to it entered Billboard‘s country chart: “I’m Having Your Baby,” by a singer from Florida named Sunday Sharpe.
“I’m Having Your Baby” is basically a gender-flipped version of Anka’s original: “Didn’t have to keep it / Didn’t have to go through it / I could have swept it from my life but I couldn’t do it.” In the end, the lyrics work somewhat better in the mouth of a woman than they did coming from a man, but only just a bit and not enough to redeem them entirely. That said, the record is, in mid-70s Nashville style, extremely well-made (which is something I’ve said about Anka’s original, too—his was recorded at FAME Studios and produced by Rick Hall). “I’m Having Your Baby” would rise to #11 in an eight-week run on the Billboard country chart. It has seven listings at ARSA; KERE in Denver charted it as high as #6; KLAK in Lakewood, Colorado, ranked it as #98 for all of 1974.
Sunday Sharpe—that’s her real name—looks to have released her first album in 1971. In 1973, she got a bit of airplay with a song called “Everything I Touch Turns to Sugar.” After her answer hit in 1974, she tackled another Paul Anka song, “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” although it didn’t make the national charts. In 1976, “A Little at a Time” rose to #18 nationally. She was a guest on the country music TV show Hee Haw several times during the mid 1970s, but by 1977, her recording career was pretty much over.
Today, Sunday Sharpe is still with us, in her 70s, living in Florida. and working as a novelist.
On a related topic, as I was digging into record charts from the fall of ’74 looking for Sunday Sharpe, I noticed one of the countriest song titles I’ve ever come across, a real song and not a parody, “Between Lust and Watching TV” by Cal Smith:
Somewhere between Playboy magazine
And next Tuesday night’s PTA
Somewhere between a honky tonk queen
And what all the dog did today
If a wife and a lover could be one and the same
What a beautiful world this would be
And there would be us somewhere between lust
And sitting home watching TV
“Between Lust and Watching TV,” which reached #11 nationally, was written by Bill Anderson. It was Smith’s followup to his #1 hit “Country Bumpkin,” the eventual CMA Single of the Year for 1974, a classic weeper that is at the same time a fine example of country-music storytelling.
I have been in and out of country radio quite a bit over the last 40 years, and you can take it from me: they ain’t makin’ anything like these songs anymore.
(Pictured: Diana Ross.)
Everybody’s got a creation story, and I’ve either told mine or referred to it many times: in the fall of 1970, I had to ride the school bus for an hour every morning, and after the driver put WLS on the bus radio, I was gone. I loved the music, and I loved the sound of radio, and it took me no more than four months from that fateful day to decide, “I want to do that.”
So when I put on the American Top 40 show from October 17, 1970, it was with two thoughts: A) I probably won’t need to write about this show because I’ve written about this season so much already and B) I’m gonna end up doing it anyway, and I’ll need to find some new stuff to say.
38. “Ungena Za Ulimwengu (Unite the World)”/Temptations
37. “Do What You Wanna Do”/Five Flights Up
36. “Deeper and Deeper”/Freda Payne
35. “Stand by Your Man”/Candi Staton
34. “Super Bad”/James Brown
33. “Lucretia MacEvil”/Blood Sweat and Tears
This stretch of better than 20 minutes is evidence for why a lot of Premiere Radio Networks affiliates don’t run the early 70s shows. You need to be a bit of an antiquarian to remember these songs. And no, Casey didn’t try giving the Temptations title in Swahili; he settled for “Unite the World.”
EXTRA: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/Rolling Stones. For some reason, Casey decided to review the top five from a random week in July 1968 at this point in the show, and he did it in a decidedly odd manner, mentioning #5, then #1, then #4, then #2, and finally #3, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” This is the kind of weird little oddment we frequently hear on the earliest shows (and this one is the 13th since the show premiered in July), and it’s one of the things I love most about them.
32. “Our House”/Crosby Stills Nash and Young
31. “It Don’t Matter to Me”/Bread
30. “God, Love, and Rock and Roll”/Teegarden and Van Winkle
29. “That’s Where I Went Wrong”/Poppy Family
28. “Somebody’s Been Sleeping”/100 Proof Aged in Soul
27. “Joanne”/Michael Nesmith
26. “Groovy Situation”/Gene Chandler
Narrator: “It was in this portion of the program that Jim knew he’d have to write about it.” These songs put me back on the bus, listening to Larry Lujack play the hits every morning, and I’m gonna need a minute.
21. “El Condor Pasa”/Simon and Garfunkel
18. “Still Water (Love)”/Four Tops
13. “Express Yourself”/Charles Wright
5. “We’ve Only Just Begun”/Carpenters
We get some FM-radio Casey on the show, where he drops his voice into a soft, late-night register to introduce “Still Water” and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and while introducing “El Condor Pasa,” to recite a bit of the lyrics. Meanwhile, when he talks up the introduction to the Charles Wright record, he calls it “Express Yo’self.”
11. “Indiana Wants Me”/R. Dean Taylor. Today, it’s easy to hear that this is weapons-grade 70s cheese. Ten-year-old me, who had taken the weekly Batman cliffhangers so seriously only a few years before, was all in on the melodrama of “Indiana Wants Me.” He loved her, he committed murder for her, and he just wants to get a message to her one last time.
7. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”/Diana Ross. Will say again: I don’t think there’s much in popular music that’s more straight-up thrilling than Diana’s last spoken bit in this song, the way it builds to “just remember what I told you the day I set you free.”
6. “Candida”/Dawn. I’m sorry, but Jim is not available to take your call. Please leave a message and he will return your call when he gets back from 1970.
EXTRA: “Make the World Go Away”/Eddy Arnold. “Make the World Go Away” is a lovely countrypolitan record and was a big pop hit in 1965, but even in 1970 it was a little incongruous between “All Right Now” and “Green Eyed Lady.”
2. “Cracklin’ Rosie”/Neil Diamond
1. “I’ll Be There”/Jackson Five
Words fail. These songs and the others from the fall of 1970 made me. Without them, I’d be here in 2019 as someone else entirely.