We’re Happening, Man

Here’s another installment of our expedition to the bottom of the Billboard Hot 100, looking for one-hit wonders who just barely scraped in. I’m keeping on with this series because it’s fun to research, and because a handful amongst the readership seems to dig it. We’re up to (down to?) at those who peaked at Number 93,  and we’ve got surf music, organ jazz, and psychedelia gone wild.

“Butternut”/Jimmy Heap (3/10/56, one week on chart). Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters were an eight-man big band from Texas—two guitars, bass, drums, piano, fiddle, pedal steel, and saxophone, with vocals. One online discography describes “Butternut” as “a Texas honky-tonk version of Martin Denny (complete with bird noises!).” Heap’s single “Release Me” was a hit on the country charts.

“A House, a Car, and a Wedding Ring”/Mike Preston (12/1/58, one week). This man has an interesting resume: Mike Preston started as a singer with a handful of hits in England in the late 50s. This single wasn’t one of them, although it was popular enough in the States to get him on the Dick Clark and Alan Freed TV shows. Preston emigrated to Australia and began an acting career, appearing for a season on the long-running Australian detective series Homicide in the early 70s, among other TV and movie roles. For a time in the 1990s, he was a member of the Flying Karamazov Brothers acrobatic troupe.

“Teenage Hayride”/Tender Slim (1/18/60, two weeks). An instrumental that became a Number-One hit in Buffalo despite its lesser performance on the national chart, “Teenage Hayride” is essentially a reworking of “Three Blind Mice.” You want trivia, you got it: The song ends with an emphatic “why not,” which might have been a tip of the hat to comic Dayton Allen, who used it as a catchphrase on radio and TV in the 40s and 50s.

“Summertime”/Chris Columbo Quintet (7/20/63, two weeks). Columbo was a jazz drummer who broke into showbiz with the Fletcher Henderson band in the 1920s and worked for more than 60 years, mostly in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His “Summertime” is a version of the Gershwin standard with Wild Bill Davis on organ, which you might dig if you are an organ freak like me.

There’s more organ music after the jump, plus a couple of mp3s.

Continue reading “We’re Happening, Man”

Top 5: Seven Months Along

(This post should have run last week, but I ran out of time to get it written—something that may happen again around here over the next couple of weeks.)

It was not uncommon for people to wave from snowbound farmsteads as the snowplow passed by, but it was a little unusual for anyone to come out and flag the driver down. But one farmer in rural Wisconsin did just that on a day shortly after Christmas 1959. He wanted the snowplow driver to know that it was very important that the road be kept clear, since his wife was pregnant and they might need to get to the hospital in town, four miles away. The driver didn’t know that the farmer’s wife was only seven months along. If he had, he might have wondered (as we might today when reading the story) why the farmer felt he had to do this. But the farmer was a first-time father, and he was leaving nothing to chance.

If the farm couple had a radio on during that snowy week—and they certainly would have—neither one of them would have heard much resembling rock and roll. And in fact, rock and roll was under assault during the winter of 1959-60, thanks to the payola scandals. Disc jockeys across the country were accused of taking payments and other gratuities in exchange for airplay. The scale of the payments made some commentators wonder if rock and roll has really been popular, or whether its presence on American radio over the last five years had been bought and paid for. But a look at the record chart reveals that if label and promoter payments had sparked the first wave of rock’s popularity—the one that birthed Elvis and Buddy Holly and Fats Domino and the like—the labels weren’t paying for that sort of thing anymore. The last chart of 1959 is dominated by MOR acts doing the sort of inoffensive music that has always proliferated on American radio—and that was considered a positive development by some. A week hence, a Los Angeles reporter would write, “The most important development of 1959, I feel, was the return of good music and the diminution of that terrible musical cancer known as rock ‘n’ roll.”  A representative example of what radio sounded like as the 1950s turned to the 1960s is the chart from WKBW in Buffalo, New York, dated December 25, 1959:

1. “Why”/Frankie Avalon (up from 2). Although Avalon and fellow Top-10 mates Fabian, Freddy Cannon, and Connie Francis had millions of teenage fans who also dug Elvis, Holly, and Domino, a record like “Why” had precious little to do with “Heartbreak Hotel,” “That’ll Be the Day,” or “Blueberry Hill.” By 1959, the record industry had figured out how to create convincing simulations. Avalon and Francis were inoffensive enough to appeal to adults; Fabian and Cannon were more raucous, but no more authentically rockin’.

11. “Mack the Knife”/Bobby Darin (holding at 11). Darin would still have been considered a rocker of a sort at this moment in history, with “Splish Splash” and “Dream Lover” not far in the rear-view mirror. “Mack the Knife” pointed the way to his Vegas-style transformation, and future hits like “Beyond the Sea” and “You’re the Reason I’m Living,” but those lyrics—Lotte Lenya, Lucy Brown, and that cement bag just a-droopin’ on down—make it as inscrutable as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and about as cool.

15. “Smokie (Part 2)/Bill Black’s Combo (up from 28). Black, with guitarist Scotty Moore, famously backed Elvis until 1957, then became the top instrumentalist in the country with a string of singles on the Hi label from Memphis. They’ve got a particularly unique sound, although they haven’t endured like other hits from the early 60s. Black himself didn’t, either, dying of a brain tumor in 1965, aged 39.

20. “Teenage Hayride”/Tender Slim (up from 26). Billboard described “Teenage Hayride” in November thusly: “. . . a cheerful instrumental that is accented with sound of crowd noises. Tune is a rocker that mounts in sound and excitement. It should find favor.” It did in Buffalo, where WKBW’s competitor, WBNY, charted it at Number One in December, although it made only Number 93 on the Hot 100.

27. “Down by the Station”/Four Preps (debut). A vocal quartet formed at Hollywood High School during the early 50s, the Preps came along at almost the same moment rock and roll rendered their sound out-of-date, although they managed to score a couple of sizable hits in the late 50s, “Twenty-Six Miles” and “Big Man,” in addition to “Down by the Station.” Their influence persisted, however, as their harmonies are said to have inspired Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The members went on to prosperous careers in television and music as  producers, songwriters, and/or sound engineers. Ed Cobb, for example, produced and/or wrote songs ranging from the Standells’ “Dirty Water” to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

I am not a good-enough writer to hide the fact that the expectant farm couple of 50 years ago was my parents, and the blessed event they were awaiting was me. I know that the radio was an important part of their lives, so I like to think I was exposed to radio from the womb. It would explain a lot.

“Smokie (Part 2)”/Bill Black’s Combo (buy Bill Black here)