Note: As a bit of a change (one of the many I’ve had on this site), I’ve decided to broaden the perspective of this blog a little bit. Instead of being strictly about film, I’m also going to incorporate some overviews of music I’m listening to, books I’m reading, or TV I’m watching. As it stands, movies are still the biggest part of my life, but I think honing my skills on writing about other forms of media could only be beneficial. This first post will be about Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 songs of 1957.
As the above introduction implies, I am embarking on new personal challenge. In an attempt to get a somewhat good snapshot of popular music from the past fifty years or so, I want to try to listen to every song of the Billboard Hot 100 for each year since its conception – every year from 1957 until 2014. Yes that’s right – I’ll be listening to 5,700 songs overall, many of which will be first-time listens for me. For each list I complete, moreover, I want to write up a post covering some of the best songs, worst songs, and generally notable songs of that particular year. In tradition with the film-related posts that I have made in the past, I’ll go over some worthwhile highlights from the list, ending with my personal top five overall. I would love to go over every single song from the year, but that would simply eat up all my free time that I simply don’t possess. Also, at least for this year, there are a bunch of songs that would be difficult for me to write anything of worth about, simply because I don’t care for them at all. Finally, I’m not going to pretend that I know very much about music as a whole (I have a lot of informational gaps, especially in comparison to actual music critics), so I’m sure that I’ll make some factual errors along the way.
Obviously, I’ll start by covering Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1957.
The musical climate of pop music from 1957 – if this chart is any indicator – seems to be mainly composed of classic rock ‘n’ roll and country music, with the occasional doo-wop and R&B artist. In any matter, the vast majority of these songs ran at under three minutes long, making its listen-through a relative breeze. I was pleased to see that some of my favorite musicians were present on this year’s list: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, LaVern Baker, and Fats Domino, among others (although I’m saddened to see that “Lucille”, one of my favorite 50s songs, didn’t make the list).
As a whole, it’s not a bad list at all. While I certainly didn’t love most of what I listened to, I also didn’t outright hate much of it either. I will say, however, that I tend to be really picky when it comes to country music; therefore, I wasn’t too hot with the entries by Ferlin Husky, Jim Reeves, and Patti Page. A little less surprising, however, was the male dominance that rears its head. This list only contains seventeen women across twelve entries out of 100, the highest ranking song by a woman being Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” at #12. It’s no news to me that the music scene – especially in rock music – has always been a boys’ playing field, but actually applying numbers to this disproportion is always disheartening. Here’s to hoping this improves somewhat in later lists!
Just a year prior to this list, Elvis Presley had premiered into the American landscape, forever shaking up the visibility of rock ‘n’ roll within the public eye. 1957, therefore, continues this trend; in fact, it seems that was the year of Elvis and Pat Boone. Elvis had six songs in the Hot 100 of that year, while Pat had five. They also each have two songs each in the top ten, both of them occupying the top two spots. There’s no doubt that they were pretty huge stars in their day, but I would argue that Elvis’ music holds up the best. While I can’t say that I’m the biggest fan of Elvis (his entries “Too Much” (#9) and “Loving You” (#98) are rather boring), there’s no denying infectious catchiness of “Jailhouse Rock” (#16) and “All Shook Up” (the #1 single of 1957). However, to this date, there hasn’t been a single Pat Boone song that didn’t take a painful effort to get through, checking the time marker every few seconds to see how much time I had to endure in the song. This includes all five of his entries on this list – in particular, “Remember You’re Mine” (#88) and “Don’t Forbid Me” (#6) are simply borderline creepy. His #2 entry, “Love Letters in the Sand” isn’t particularly terrible, however. Still, I can’t see myself getting into that fellow anytime soon at all.
Another interesting note for this year is that there were many duplicates on the list – two entries of the same song covered by two separate artists. These entries include “Raunchy” (Ernie Freeman (#86) and Bill Justis (#55)), “Dark Moon” (Bonnie Guitar (#77) and Gale Storm (#29)), “Around the World” (Victor Young (#75) and Mantovani (#65)), “Marianne” (The Hilltoppers (#68) and The Easy Riders (#37)), “Butterfly” (Andy Williams (#36) and Charlie Gracie (#31)), and “The Banana Boat Song” (The Tarriers (#26) and Harry Belafonte (#15)). Many of these entries feature rather unique variations of the regular source material and for me, there was usually one of the two that I preferred much more than the other. “Marianne” is already one of the catchier songs of the 50s calypso craze, but somehow the twangy guitars in The Easy Riders’ cover seems to fit it better than the bongo drums in The Hilltoppers’ version. Moreover, Bill Justis’ rendition of “Raunchy” feels a lot more cleaner and bouncier overall than Ernie Freeman’s, which seems to struggle at finding a sense of true identity for itself. It might also be interesting to note that Justis’ version was the very first rock instrumental hit to chart in the US, surely setting an example for others to come in the future.
One of my very favorite new discoveries I’ve uncovered from this musical journey so far is Joe Bennett & the Sparkletones and their song “Black Slacks”, which falls right at #100. I haven’t been able to find out very much about this band, besides the fact that they scored a massive hit with “Black Slacks”, yet failed to find any formidable success with any other singles they released during their short existence. In this case, they are a true example of a one-hit wonder. It’s such a shame, because if “Black Slacks” is any indicator, this band must have been really great to watch live. I love rockabilly music and practically any music that incorporates a stand-up bass, so this song was right up my alley. It’s catchy with great lyrics and an infectious chorus unlike anything else I’ve heard from this year. One of my favorite hidden gems I’ve uncovered from the year.
I never realized that I had listened to Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” (#78) before, until I pressed play a few days ago. It was featured in one of the most famous scenes of Dirty Dancing, which I had just watched for the first time fairly recently. Other than that, this song and duo has become relatively forgotten, which I think is a bit of a shame. In my personal top 100 of this year, “Love is Strange” would have ranked far higher. Its playful beat, iconic guitar lick, and undeniable chemistry between the two make it probably the sexiest song on this list. And when that final bridge kicks in, it’s everything anyone could ever wish for in a song of this nature. It doesn’t get any more fun than this.
At this point, I’ll start counting down my top five of the 1957 Hot 100. I was slightly disappointed to find that every song of my top five were ones that I was at least somewhat familiar with prior to starting this Hot 100 challenge. However, that just means that they were all really good songs, and I’ve got a bunch more lists ahead of me either way!
5) “Little Bitty Pretty One” (#72)
“Little Bitty Pretty One” may not be the best song of 1957, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that’s even catchier. Its hook is one that always seems to get stuck in my head after only listening to it one time. And that’s the cool thing about it – there aren’t many people that can claim to know all the words to this song, but once the chorus comes along, everyone can sing, hum, or whistle along. Bobby Day’s and Frankie Lymon’s versions of this song are also quite good, but I hold a personal deep attachment to Thurston Harris’ cover, which is arguably the most popular recording. The fact that this was used brilliantly in Matilda, one of my favorite movies as a kid, also certainly helps its placement on this list.
4) “Blueberry Hill” (#48)
It’s hard for me to describe exactly what it is I love about “Blueberry Hill”. Could it be the lovely, melancholy lyrics? Fats Domino’s rolling piano riff? His infectiously soulful voice? The best answer would be that the true beauty of the song arises from the perfect combination of all of the above. I’ve heard a few other versions of the song, spanning several decades of influence, but nothing beats the original. Besides its early rock ‘n’ roll charm, I’ve also got an inexplicable attachment to New Orleans jazz (even though I’m relatively unseasoned on the topic) and the music of Fats Domino seems to meld the best of both worlds like no one else could.
3) “Wake Up Little Susie” (#19)
The extent of my previous experience with The Everly Brothers is always seeing a greatest hits CD of their work sitting near the dashboard of my grandpa’s car. I’d never listened to them before now – but if I had known that if their music was essentially a predecessor of Simon & Garfunkel (whom I love), I would have remedied this years ago. Their highest charting song on the list is “Bye Bye Love” at #11, but I’m partial to “Wake Up Little Susie”, which I haven’t stopped listening to all week. It’s cute, playful, and the story is, for me, essentially one of the more satisfying romanticizations of what it must have been to be a teenager in the 50s.
2) “Jim Dandy” (#94)
In yet another instance where my love for music crosses paths with my love for film, I was first introduced to Lavern Baker and “Jim Dandy” by John Waters, who included the song in the soundtrack for Pink Flamingos. I’m not gonna lie, my love for this song lies almost exclusively toward the undeniable power of Baker’s voice, which gives this song every bit of energy it requires while everything else plays second fiddle. It almost seems to subvert the “damsel in distress” storyline that the lyrics tell – sure all the women in this narrative are pretty weak, but when the narrator is someone as sharp and fierce as LaVern, it really couldn’t be all bad. Driven by some truly crafty horns and a subtle bouncy background vocalist, it’s hard not to love this song.
1) “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” (#15)
As I said earlier about artists doing unique variations of original source material, I think Harry Belafonte’s version of the traditional Jamaican folk song “The Banana Boat Song” stands as one of the best, at least from this year. It’s also Belafonte’s most well-known single, thanks in part to a little film in which it, once again, helped make one of its most memorable scenes possible (was it Beetle… breakfast?). It’s so much more simple than the other two songs that Belafonte claimed on 1957’s Hot 100, yet its simplicity stands as one of its greatest strengths. There is so much heart and soul placed into what is ultimately a standard call-and-response work song. There’s a reason why it’s considered one of the best of the calypso genre of music: every aspect of it simply sticks as a bonafide example of the genre. Its stripped-down instrumentation means that Belafonte’s voice plays front-and-center here – as it totally should.
As a closer for this post, I think one of the most interesting facts I’ve discovered is that members of The Tarriers are credited as writers for their version of “The Banana Boat Song”, which has some variation from the Jamaican standard. One of the members? Alan Arkin.