Top 5: Not So Rare

History in context is a whole lot more interesting—and messy—than history as told by the history books. History books will tell you that the rock era began around 1955, and that the kids’ music ruled the world from that time forward. But take a look at the chart from KXYZ in Houston dated June 24, 1957. Does it look like rock ‘n’ roll is in charge to you? It might have felt that way to listeners at the time: the Everly Brothers, Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and Pat Boone were part of the first wave of rock stars, and many adults would have found their music obnoxious, even though it seems pretty tame now. But in 1957, there were far fewer radio stations than there are now, and stations playing music frequently went for mass appeal. So in addition to playing the latest rock ‘n’ roll hits, KXYZ programmed a great deal of “adult” music—much of which was just as popular with the kids as rock ‘n’ roll. Some examples:

2. “So Rare”/Jimmy Dorsey. Jimmy and his brother Tommy led two of the most popular bands of the big-band era, with hits going back into the 1930s. Between 1954 and 1956, they hosted Stage Show, a variety series on CBS-TV remembered now for featuring Elvis’ first national TV appearances. “So Rare” features Dorsey himself honkin’ rock-style on alto sax. He died while the record was running the charts, only a couple of weeks before this chart was issued.

7. “Send for Me”/Nat King Cole. If Nat King Cole had been alive to witness his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, he’d have found it a dubious honor. Despite the success of “Send for Me,” he was not a fan of rock songs or rock singers. In 1960, he made his feelings clear in his nightclub act, with a song called “Mr. Cole Won’t Rock and Roll.” (I strongly recommend you click the latter link. It’s great.)

10. “Old Cape Cod”/Patti Page. Like Nat and others of their ilk, Patti Page’s chart success was diminished by rock’s rise. Her music lacks the timeless quality of Cole’s ballads, but some of the songs from her early-50s heyday remain shiveringly gorgeous, “Old Cape Cod” chief among them, but also the classic “Tennessee Waltz,” one of the top singles of all time. Also recommended: “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte,” from the  Bette Davis psycho-killer flick of the same name. The song was in the Billboard Top 10 this week in 1965—right between the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” and “Ticket to Ride.”

12. “Whispering Bells” and 19. “Come Go With Me”/Del-Vikings. A group of Air Force soldiers stationed in Pittsburgh became the first racially mixed group to score a rock ‘n’ roll hit. They weren’t racially mixed at their formation, however—only after they’d won a worldwide Air Force talent contest with “Come Go With Me” did they add a white member, and on “Whispering Bells,” they have two. The Del-Vikings were everywhere in 1957, with various labels releasing various versions of various songs by various lineups with various spellings, either “Del-Vikings” or “Dell-Vikings,” and often with pictures on the cover that did not reflect the actual lineup on the records within. Much more here.

31. “Talkin’ to the Blues”/Jim Lowe. Lowe had come to New York as an aspiring singer and songwriter, and had bagged a left-field Number One hit in 1956 with “The Green Door.” He eventually became a successful DJ, hosting segments of NBC’s Monitor and doing a couple of different stretches on New York’s WNEW-AM. serving as program director during the 1980s. All the while, he continued to pursue a career in music, and has done so since his retirement in 1992.

It’s worth remembering, because we so often don’t, that history is far from a settled thing. That doesn’t mean we can make up our own facts—only that we need to be careful about how we interpret the facts can we agree on. So while 1957 looks to some people like the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s just as appropriate to see it as a transitional era, in a world rock had yet to conquer.

American Stardust

My post about “September Song” earlier this week got me thinking about the Great American Songbook. It’s a body of songs that became part of the shared experience of American culture starting sometime around 1930, give or take a few years. It encompasses the works of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and many others less well-known, songs made famous on Broadway, in the movies, and to a lesser extent on radio, songs that were interpreted and re-interpreted over the years by dozens, if not hundreds, of performers.

The Songbook’s importance began to shrink in the 1960s, with the rise of the singer/songwriter and the self-contained band. Pop and rock songs became identified with performers more than their composers, although a few such songs slipped into the Songbook, too: Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” comes to mind first, then Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life,” and you can probably think of others. But what’s the most recent song to make this transition? “Wind Beneath My Wings,” maybe? My point is that as the years go by, the Great American Songbook becomes less and less important in American popular culture. It’s not extinct yet—Rod Stewart has mined it for something like four albums, and artists from Boz Scaggs to Queen Latifah have recorded standards albums in recent years. But all of them, even Queen Latifah, were raised in an era when the Songbook still meant something in mainstream popular music. I wonder whether it still does. Precious few people under the age of 40 are buying Stewart’s standards records, I’ll wager. While some of us still dig performances of (and understand the importance of) songs like “Stardust,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Night and Day,” and “My Funny Valentine,” for millions more people, they’re just old songs nobody listens to anymore.

And so, an aging music geek wonders what the pop standards of tomorrow are going to be, or if there will even be such a thing. Perhaps the marketplace has become so fragmented that no song can generate enough critical mass to become part of the shared experience of millions. And if that’s true, we’re going to have to modify our definition of popular culture. It won’t be the same as it’s been since the concomitant rise of the film, recording, and broadcasting industries nearly 80 years ago.

I found myself listening to Nat King Cole’s 1957 recording of “Stardust” earlier this week. It’s been a particular favorite of mine for years, although I haven’t heard it in a long while. It opens with a verse not always included on recordings of the song (it’s not on Nelson’s version, for example):

And now the purple dusk of twilight time
Steals across the meadows of my heart
High up in the sky the little stars climb
Always reminding me that we’re apart

You wander down the lane and far away
Leaving me a song that will not die
Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the days gone by

Under the proper circumstances—the coming of autumn, for example—Nat’s reading of “Stardust” has staggering mojo. I don’t care who you are, or how old you are—if you can’t appreciate the poetry and feel the emotional power of Mitchell Parish’s words, you and I probably shouldn’t have lunch together anytime soon. And if you can’t dig Cole’s performance (and the beautiful melody written by Hoagy Carmichael), you might want to think about giving up music altogether.