(Pictured: Peggy Lee. That’s showbiz glamour right there.)
The other day Peggy Lee’s “Fever” came up on shuffle while I was avoiding work I should have been doing, and as I listened to it, I thought to myself, “Hot damn, this is one fabulous record.” That’s something I have believed for years, but on that day, the imperative of avoiding work led me down a Peggy Lee rabbit hole.
Little Willie John recorded “Fever” in 1956. A number of singers recorded it thereafter, so it was a reasonably well-known song by 1957. One night, Lee’s bass player, Max Bennett, was playing in a club when a member of the audience requested it—and ended up teaching them the two chords the band needed to play it. Bennett liked it well enough, but he didn’t know the Little Willie John version, and the only recording he could find was by pop crooner Ray Peterson. Neither he nor Lee cared much for that version, but she thought that it could be reshaped into a torch song for her nightclub act. Bennett said it was Lee’s idea to strip it down to bass and drums.
Lee opened at the Copacabana in February 1958, a major engagement after four or five years away from the New York nightclub scene, and “Fever” was part of her act. She had no plans to record it, but audience response indicated that she was on to something. She sang it on TV in April, and when a disc jockey in Canada played the TV recording on his show, people loved it. When Lee went to Los Angeles for a recording session in May, “Fever” was one of the tracks laid down. It became a hit, reaching #8 in Billboard and #6 in Cash Box late in August of 1958. It even made Billboard‘s R&B charts. The song also got two Grammy nominations for the inaugural awards, including Record of the Year.
It would be 11 years before Lee returned to the charts in a major way, with a performance even more unusual than “Fever.”
In 1968, Jerry Leiber, inspired by a German short story, wrote a set of lyrics titled “Is That All There Is?” He and Mike Stoller worked them into a song for a British TV special. Its first version on wax was by Leslie Uggams, but Lieber and Stoller were shooting higher. “We wanted a record of the song interpreted by someone who understood this genre,” they wrote. At one point, they thought the song’s German roots might make it a good fit for Marlene Dietrich, but she declined. They sent it to Barbra Streisand’s manager, but he didn’t even bother to forward it to Barbra (who would eventually want to know why it hadn’t been offered to her). Finally, they thought, “How about Peggy Lee?”
Leiber and Stoller gave Lee a demo after she performed at the Copa one night in 1968; she would later say that the song read like the story of her life. She cut it in January 1969. Leiber said a single take of the song, take 36, was one of the two greatest performances he’d ever heard in a studio—but the engineer had failed to start the tape. (Take 37 became the master, although bits were spliced in from earlier takes.)
Capitol Records didn’t want to release “Is That All There Is?” as a single, thinking it was very much out-of-style for 1969. But the label had several artists it wanted to place on The Joey Bishop Show (a late-night competitor with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin). Bishop agreed to take them on if he could get Peggy Lee too; she agreed to go if Capitol would release “Is That All There Is?” Thanks to exposure on the Bishop show, the song became a hit, charting in September and rising to #11 on the Hot 100 50 years ago this week. (In the Top 10 that week: “Suspicious Minds,” “Come Together,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Sugar Sugar,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “And When I Die,” and “Something.”)
Hitting when it did makes “Is That All There Is?” an oddly appropriate epitaph for the 1960s. Lee did not read it as fatalistically as it is possible to do—as existentially bleak as Leiber intended. After each disappointing experience, she resolves to “just keep dancing.” Maybe there will be more . . . next time. As so we went on into the 1970s, thinking exactly the same thing.
(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
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: John Williams takes a break, 1980.)
The success of the Star Wars theme on records made it a no-brainer for labels to release music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind after that film became the latest blockbuster hit in November 1977, especially considering that a musical theme—five notes the aliens use to communicate with Earthlings—is a significant part of the movie. “Theme From Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” credited to conductor John Williams, first showed up at ARSA in mid-December 1977 and made the Hot 100 on the chart dated December 24. In January it made the Top 10 in cities from Bangor, Maine, to Tacoma, Washington. Its highest placing was #2 at WKHM in Jackson, Michigan, in early March. On the Hot 100, the John Williams version spent two weeks at #13 as February turned to March 1978.
Meco’s “Theme From Close Enounters” had a similar profile, hitting local surveys in mid-December and the Hot 100 on January 7, 1978. It got somewhat fewer adds than the John Williams version, although plenty of Top 10 rankings. Its highest local placing was #5 at KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, in mid-February. But it would get only to #25 on the Hot 100 dated February 18, 1978. It tries to recycle the “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” vibe, but doesn’t really get it. The Williams version, from the original score, is much more compelling.
The original Close Encounters soundtrack album made #17 on the Billboard 200. Meco’s Encounters of Every Kind got up to #62; apart from its movie-theme single, the rest of it was made up of originals and a couple of big-band covers.
After Close Encounters, neither Meco nor John Williams was done charting. Williams followed his Close Encounters success with the iconic theme from Superman, credited like “Star Wars (Main Title)” to the London Symphony Orchestra. It spent four weeks on the Hot 100 in February 1979, making #81. Meco would return to the Top 40 three more times, with “Themes from The Wizard of Oz” (#35, November 1978), “Empire Strikes Back,” a medley of the Darth Vader and Yoda themes from the Star Wars sequel (#18, August 1980) and “Pop Goes the Movies (Part 1),” a medley of familiar themes from Gone With the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, Goldfinger, and others (#35, April 1982).
“Empire Strikes Back” had about the same number of listings at ARSA as “Theme From Close Encounters,” and it hit the Top 10 in a similar number of cities. (It gets to use real Star Wars sound effects, for which Lucasfilm gets label credit.) Nevertheless, if you remember hearing it on the radio back then, you’re ahead of me—although it’s not terrible. “Pop Goes the Movies (Part 1)” was nicely positioned in the spring of 1982 to take advantage of the medley craze. Meco also put themes from Shogun and Return of the Jedi onto the Hot 100, as well as the novelty “What Can You Get A Wookiee For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb),” credited to the Star Wars Intergalactic Droid Choir and Chorale, from the 1980 Star Wars Christmas album, which was a real thing that happened.
According to Allmusic.com, Meco retired from music in 1985 and later became a commodities broker. His Allmusic bio notes that in college, he played trombone in a trio with Chuck Mangione and Ron Carter, and he later arranged Tommy James’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” He’s still with us, and will turn 80 in November.
John Williams was composing TV themes in the late 1950s before moving to film scoring. He first charted with the original soundtrack version of Jaws, which made #32 in September 1975. He scored practically every major Steven Spielberg film, the original three Star Wars films and some of the later sequels, plus Superman, The Witches of Eastwick, and other Oscar-winners. He’s still at work, scoring the next Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker, which is due out in December. Not bad for a man who’s 87 years old.
Thank you for joining me on this overly deep dive into movie music radio hits of the late 70s and early 80s. If you have read this far, take $5 out of petty cash.
(Pictured: a silvery moon, sailing along.)
From the earliest days of recording, instrumental music was always popular. During the 30s and early 40s, jazz was America’s favorite form of popular music. But as the big-band era faded and jazz evolved in ways that some fans couldn’t follow, the instrumental acts that were left standing, by 1950 or so, were largely pop acts.
While these acts still released singles, the 10-inch and later the 12-inch long-playing album were an even-better format for them. The coming of consumer stereo in 1958 created a market for them that hadn’t existed before. Early adopters wanted to buy records that would sound good on their new systems. They weren’t the kids buying 78s or 45s by Elvis, Pat Boone, and the Everly Brothers; they were their adult siblings, or their uncles and fathers. For those older consumers, the content of the records was secondary to the sonic experience they created, but if the tunes were familiar, so much the better. Thus the market for instrumental music exploded. (What’s known as “space-age pop,” a genre with several offshoots, developed during this period.)
There are any number of bandleaders one might write about in this period: some had been sidemen in big bands, others had been arrangers or composers. One of the most prolific was involved with a lot of other people’s hits and released dozens of albums and singles under his own name: Billy Vaughn.
During the first half of the 50s, Vaughn had been a singer. He later became an A&R man, arranger, and conductor at Dot Records, where he was responsible for a boatload of cover recordings, often the white versions of R&B hits, including many of the most famous by Pat Boone. (If it was on Dot in the 50s and it wasn’t by Lawrence Welk, chances are Vaughn was involved.) At the same time, he was releasing records under his own name. He charted a remarkable 36 albums on the Billboard album chart between 1958 and 1970. He also charted 28 singles between 1954 and 1966.
Here is your Billy Vaughn Top Five:
5. “A Swingin’ Safari” (1962). I have written quite a bit in recent months about songs I heard before I knew it, songs that played on my parents’ radio and lodged in my head, so that when I heard them years later, they came with a set of pre-loaded associations. “A Swingin’ Safari” likely came to me from both the radio and the TV: it was the theme song for the original Match Game, which ran from 1962 to 1969.
4. “Raunchy” (1957). The cover versions Vaughn arranged and produced at Dot sanded the edges off the originals, and his “Raunchy” is no exception. It tones down both the guitar twang of the Bill Justis original and the rock beat of the Ernie Freeman version. But there was room on the radio for all three to make the Top 10, all in December 1957.
3. “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” (1956). The most unusual record in Vaughn’s catalog is “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a two-part, six-minute tale of Western adventure and existential philosophy narrated by voice artist Ken Nordine. Nordine would later be famed for the creation of what he called “word jazz.” In the 70s he narrated a series of iconic commercials for Levis, and he died this past February at age 98.
2. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” (1958). If you didn’t recognize “A Swingin’ Safari,” maybe you know “Sail Along, Silvery Moon,” an alto-saxophone duet performed to a medium-tempo rock ‘n’ roll beat. The “duet” is actually one guy, Los Angeles studio musician Justin Gordon, overdubbing himself. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” was the original B-side of “Raunchy” and followed it up the Billboard chart in early 1958.
1. “Melody of Love” (1955). This old-fashioned, sentimental tune was first heard in 1903. Vaughn’s recording of “Melody of Love” was the biggest of five versions that hit simultaneously in early 1955; the Four Aces and Frank Sinatra cut vocal versions.
Bonus Track: “Wheels” (1961). Although other Vaughn singles charted higher than “Wheels,” I suspect it’s better known today (to the extent that Vaughn is remembered at all) than all but “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” and “A Swingin’ Safari.”
In any period of music history, there are always records that escape the generalizations we make when narrating that history. The pop instrumentals of the 50s and 60s—by the Billy Vaughns of the world—are among the most frequent escapees.