Bleh. In comparison to the previous two years, 1959’s year-end chart is relatively bleak. The trajectory that the music scene seems to be following shows that it is far from the peak of quality that dominated the airwaves in the mid-50s. As the decade approaches near the end, it is evident that a certain amount of backlash has finally emerged against rock ‘n’ roll music. The most prominent of these is the payola scandal, which could certainly stand as a reaction of the traditional music establishment against newcomers in the rock ‘n’ roll era. Dealing with the illegal practice of payment or other incentive by record companies for broadcasting certain songs for personal gain (a practice that had been prominent since at least the 30s or 40s), the scandal finally erupted in ’59 when federal investigators became involved. While I’m not too certain if this had any certain effect on the quality of music at the time, it could be inferred that the period of rock ‘n’ roll following the scandal was probably not as enthusiastic as during its genesis and heyday.
Another one of the major events that occurred in this year is the plane crash on February 3rd, 1959, which took the lives of young musicians Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Over the years, this event has come to be dubbed “The Day The Music Died” – which, once again, may be a retrospective reflection of the declining quality of music that was especially evident in the same year. Without the doubt, the 60s were to usher in a completely unique sound that would call for its own renaissance, but the particular brand of naive rebellion that defined rock ‘n’ roll in its early days was to never be fully realized again. Musically speaking, this is probably most explicitly evident in Elvis Presley’s presence on this year’s charts. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine from this list alone that he’s considered the King of anything, given that all four of these hit tracks – “My Wish Came True” (#93), “I Need Your Love Tonight” (#44), “A Fool Such As I” (#34), and “A Big Hunk o’ Love” (#30) are absolutely listless and seem to fall in the background of the much better songs present here.
Yet Elvis isn’t the only major presence on this year’s Hot 100. Indeed, there are also four songs from Ricky Nelson, whom I had previously noted as my favorite performer from the early days of the Teen Idol era. These four songs are “Sweeter Than You” (#83), “Just a Little Too Much” (#78), “It’s Late” (#74), and “Never Be Anyone Else But You” (#42). While his sharp musicality evident in the 1958 Hot 100 gave him a promising debut, these four songs are, frankly speaking, relatively weaker especially on a lyrical basis. Only time could tell if he would get back on the wagon later in his career. Yet the one artist who really ushered in the capitalization of the Teen Idols is Frankie Avalon, who also has four songs on this list: “A Boy Without A Girl” (#82), “Bobby Sox to Stockings” (#70) (more on this song later), “Just Ask Your Heart” (#59), and “Venus” (#4). Especially with the success of “Venus”, he may be the biggest breakthrough star to come out of 1959. Personally speaking, I’m not too fond of him, as his songs tend to exemplify a possessive nature disguised as romance that I find so problematic.
Now, where do women find themselves in the context of this list? It turns out that this year in the Hot 100 is the weakest in the presence of women so far, with only fifteen women across ten separate entries. What makes this even worse is that this number counts the inclusion of women in a group with at least one other man; contrary to previous years, there are absolutely no all-women groups, which means that the groups that do include women (The Fleetwoods, The Platters, etc.) could easily pass as all-male. I couldn’t find any information on the background singers for “Seven Little Girls (Sitting in the Back Seat)” (#100), nor for the names of those involved in the choir recording of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (#97). Nonetheless, the message rings loud and clear: times were certainly hard for women in the music industry and there was no promise that things were to get better, at least not anytime soon.
Some solace from this dilemma comes in the form of the few tracks on this list performed by solo women performers, most of which are absolutely great. Some highlight’s include Dinah Washington’s “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” (#45), LaVern Baker’s “I Cried a Tear” (#63), Della Reese’s “Don’t You Know” (#43), and Dodie’ Stevens’ “Pink Shoe Laces” (#15), which is the highest ranking song of this year by a solo female performer and was recorded when Dodie was only thirteen! Unarguably, the woman with the greatest presence on this list is Connie Francis. After her appearance on the 1958 list with “Who’s Sorry Now”, she reappears here with three tracks on the year-end list: “Frankie” (#61), “My Happiness” (#39), and “Lipstick On Your Collar” (#28). All three are pretty good, but honestly don’t hold a candle to the fierce, soulful emotional punch from Dinah and LaVern.
There were a couple songs on this list that simply baffled me with how much I hated them, similar in just how corny and blatantly self-righteous they were. The first is “The Deck of Cards” (#71) performed by Wink Martindale, perhaps most popular for being a game show host. Not quite a song but rather spoken word with instrumental backing, its story about a WWII soldier who brings a deck of cards to church surrounds the bulk of the song, which is basically a bunch of cool facts about this average deck of cards. Not only that its fifty-two cards mirror the fifty-two weeks in a year, but that each number stands for some Biblical significance. It’s pretty much the equivalent of those religious, faux-inspirational posts that distant family members share on Facebook – in that it’s cheesy, shallow, and with a vague end moral hardly worth remembering at all.
The second song is Tommy Dee’s “Three Stars” (#81), recorded with accompaniment by Carol Kay. As I stated before, 1959 was haunted by a plane crash that took the lives of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. Richardson; it shouldn’t be surprising that someone would come along and capitalize upon these deaths with a studio-recorded single. Yes, it is a tribute song and probably written with the best intentions in mind, but I think it’s the production itself that really hurts the track’s overall effectivity. It’s overtly saccharine lyrics and melody come across as ingenuous, possibly even exploitative. I do, however, really appreciate the cover from Eddie Cochran, which seems to capture the weight of the tragedy much more soulfully and potently. This is made even more poignant by the fact that less than a year later, he himself would perish in a car accident at the age of twenty-one.
At this time I would like to address a rather disturbing trend I’ve noticed, perhaps with this era of music in general, but also with this year’s chart specifically. There seems to be this weird tradition in certain songs of infantilizing the teenage girls mentioned in their corresponding lyrics. Paul Evans’ “Seven Little Girls” is probably the most explicitly disturbing, in its description of its subject Fred’s liaisons with the titular seven “little” girls, with car-related double entendres aplenty. Its final line – “Wish that I could be like Fred” – makes it all the more creepy as the song denies its female subjects any agency besides as probable sex objects. Moreover, Jan & Dean’s “Baby Talk” (#95) continues this sickeningly cutesy vibe with its female subject speaking only in the babble of its title, “which means to say she loves me”. This takes its use of the word “baby” to really disturbing heights; I can’t imagine any woman listening to either of these two songs and being won over by its charms at all.
Another trend that almost contradicts this notion – yet still works hand-in-hand with such conservative, patriarchal views of women – is viewing its young teenage subjects as adults with complete agency to get married. The Crests’ “16 Candles” (#26) isn’t quite so literal with this notion, yet its overall tone as well as its lyrics – “Sixteen candles / In my heart will glow/ For ever and ever / For I love you so” – dance along the fine line between it being a birthday ballad or a wedding waltz. The most frustrating of these songs, however, is Frankie Avalon’s “Bobby Sox to Stockings”, which takes a weird fatherly (grandfatherly?) perspective on acceptable gender roles toward young girls. Lines such as, “When a girl changes from bobby sox to stockings / Then she’s old enough to give her heart away” only perpetuate the insidious idea that the prime roles acceptable for a young girl are daughter and wife. It’s true that this song was written in a generation where both men and women were wedded at a very young age (my own grandparents were married at eighteen), but in a world where women are still shamed for not having partners or children by late adulthood, media such as this should largely be held responsible. Basically: butt out, Frankie Avalon.
Once again, this has been a very boring year. I didn’t love nearly as many songs as I had in previous years; therefore, narrowing down a top five was relatively easier than before. Before I get to those, however, here are a few other brief points and facts about this list that I find notable.
- This list contained two hits from Bobby Darin, who first appeared on the 1958 Hot 100. Originally written for The Threepenny Opera play (unusual for a rock standard), “Mack the Knife” (#2) was recorded specifically as a move over to a more mature sound for Darin. The predecessor “Dream Lover” (#6) demonstrates a more traditional pop style definitive of the classic Teen Idols. I can’t say that either of these songs are my favorites of the year, but they definitely have their charms and there’s no surprise with how high these well-written, well-produce tracks charted. (On another note, I have written a longer review of “Mack the Knife” about two years since publishing this post. You can find this review here.
- In 1959, both Alaska and Hawaii officially became implemented into the United States. I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the U.S. involvement in Hawaii; I won’t go into it here, but it is nasty. Which is why things like Andy Williams’ “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” (#57) really rubs me the wrong way. I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with media that glamorizes Hawaii, and this song is no exception.
- If Bobby Rydell’s “Kissin’ Time” (#92) sounds familiar, it should – it explicitly steals the basic melody and lyrical structure as “Sweet Little Sixteen”, Chuck Berry’s hit song from the previous year. Later in the 60s, this tuns is stolen more flagrantly by The Beach Boys for their song “Surfin’ U.S.A.”. So it goes.
- After David Seville executed his unique, high-pitched vocal effects for “Witch Doctor”, 1959 was the year that he officially introduced The Chipmunks. Or rather it was in the final stretch of ’58 where “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” (#67) mirrored the culture’s obsession with Christmas-themed pop music. I must say that this song is much more enjoyable when I’m not being subjected to it every hour during the holiday season, and the fact that Seville himself provides all the voices further adds to the novelty. The official follow-up, “Alvin’s Harmonica” (#48), is less than impressive at first, but honestly really grew on me. At this point, I can solemnly, shamelessly say that I’m a fan of The Chipmunks.
- Undoubtedly one of the weirder songs on this list (yes, weirder than The Chipmunks) is “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” (#37). I haven’t done my research, but this may be one of the first times an actor capitalizes on their success via music career, as this was Edd Byrnes’ intention when he recorded this song with Connie Stevens. I personally can’t stand it.
- The #1 song for this year is one that I had never in my life listened to before – that being Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans”. Combining military combat with humor is nothing new, but Horton’s lyrics prove that it could also be educational as well. I really can’t say this is a favorite of mine, but boy is it catchy!
- This year’s list really blew up with instrumental tracks, as there are a total of twelve purely instrumental songs that made it on. Most of them are pretty great, but some of my favorites include Ernie Fields’ reworking of the standard “In the Mood” (#99), Ray Anthony’s utterly badass “Peter Gunn’s Theme” (#66), Franck Pourcel’s stunningly beautiful “Only You (And You Alone)” (#52), and Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” (#11) which is the stuff of my deepest dreams. We also get Sandy Nelson’s debut on the year-end Hot 100 with “Teen Beat” (#36), as well as a reappearance by Duane Eddy with “Forty Miles of Bad Road” (#58), which isn’t as sharp as “Rebel ‘Rouser”, but still solid and fun.
- One of my favorite debuts to the Hot 100 is The Fleetwoods, with their songs “Come Softly To Me” (#8) and “Mr. Blue” (#10). I’ll say no more about them – just listen and marvel for yourself.
Without further ado, here are my top five of the year! Although I mentioned that it was pretty easy for me to narrow down, I still have a few honorable mentions.
5) “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (#16)
There isn’t really too much I can say about this song that the song doesn’t already say about itself. It had been recorded by lots of artists in the past, but The Platters’ version is perhaps the most well-known. It also is certainly the most beautiful, at least from what I’ve heard. The group also charted in this list with “Enchanted” (#64), which is also a treat, but simply doesn’t hold a candle to this masterpiece. Once Tony Williams belts out the first few lines with his smooth tenor vocals, you know you’re in for a satisfying, absolutely euphoric treat.
4) “Lonely Teardrops” (#56)
How could a song be so happy and so sad, both at the same time? Somehow, Jackie Wilson perfects this dichotomy with “Lonely Teardrops”, perhaps the most recognizable song of his career. Like The Platters, the other song of his on this chart – “That’s Why (I Love You So)” (#90) – doesn’t quite hold up to how marvelous this one is. From its “shoo-be-doo-bop” hook, to Wilson’s soaring performance from start to finish, to the clapping-hands finish, it’s impossible not to sing and dance along to this one. This is absolutely wonderful.
3) “I Only Have Eyes For You” (#73)
Ah, l’amour. I don’t know if there’s any other song that so perfectly captures the feeling of romantic tunnel vision – and if there is, I certainly haven’t heard it. “Otherworldly” is probably the best word to describe this song, due in part to its contagious reverberation effect that permeates through its entirety. While it may be a push to say that this song may have been influenced by the surrealist art movement, the drug-like quality is certainly evident (“The moon made me high”). Overall, this song is completely ethereal, utterly timeless, and easily one of the best-produced songs from this year as a whole.
2) “Charlie Brown” (#17)
Really, did this come as any bit of a surprise? It’s true that The Coasters also ranked really high for my post on 1958’s Hot 100, and it’s also true that “Charlie Brown” is essentially identical to “Yakety Yak”. But it just goes to show that this group of gentlemen really know what the hell they’re doing. And let’s be real – this song really belongs to King Curtis, who really works his saxophone as if its a secondary character to this silly story about a misbehaving grade-school student. Once again, The Coasters are the absolute pros, not at making novelty music per se, but at making musical works of art with humorous spins in ways no one else was touching at the time. They alone make this whole journey completely worth the effort.
1) “What’d I Say” (#50)
It’s almost unfair; there was really no chance for any other song to take my number one spot over this one. Overall, it’s one of the few lively tracks that brightens up such a relatively lackluster list. Its length alone marks it as distinct from the rest, being over six minutes long in a list that consists of mostly two- to three-minute songs. It’s also very distinctly sexual, pretty provocative considering it very closely follows gospel traditions of musicality. Putting it simply, Ray Charles was such a badass, and a talented one at that. While there are lots of good songs on this list, as well as a few great ones, there aren’t many that could be defined as history-making and genre-defining. Oh, and I should probably also mention that this song was entirely improvised from start to finish. Yet there are forty-nine other songs ranked above it on this year’s Top 100; because of this, I see my placing it at #1 here being my way of rectifying this error. You’re very welcome.
I’ll end this blog post by giving a special honor to Ben E. King, who just passed away a few days ago. Although he’s probably most famous for his solo hit “Stand By Me”, he also scored a spot on the 1959 Hot 100 with “There Goes My Baby”, recorded with The Drifters. Partially due to King’s efforts, The Drifters would go on to score hits through every decade all the way until the 2010s. It goes to show that often, history isn’t always that which has passed long before our time. Hats off to you, Mr. King.