My coverage of previous years in Hot 100 year-end lists:
– Rock and Roll Music: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1957
– Great Balls of Fire: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1958
– Teen Beat: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1959
– Alley Oop: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1960
After the disaster of the year that 1960 turned out to be, I entered into the year-end Hot 100 of 1961 expecting to have to endure yet another doozy of a list. As it turns out, this year is much more sharper, fresher, and more fun overall than the previous year – possibly even more than the past four years prior. While Elvis still holds the reins as the most represented on this chart with four entries (none of which, I personally feel, hold a candle to most of his earlier work), there still remains a wide, eclectic array of talents presented on this list. While last year’s Hot 100 seemed to present an almost endless ensemble of dull, boring Teen Idol tracks, this year’s list turns out to be the glimmering light of hope that this trend is a short-lasting one. Joyfully, doo-wop and R&B groups and vocalists seem to have taken its place, which is a huge advantage; suddenly, this year simply feels a lot more fun. This vibrant blast of much-needed energy makes this one damn good year in music overall, one that I’ve been really excited to write about.
Although I noted that Elvis is still very alive in the Hot 100, that’s not to say that many of his songs are particularly good. It’s quite the contrary, in fact – both “Surrender” (#51) and “Little Sister” (#39) make for rather tasteless and disturbing listening experiences. I will say, however, that as corny as the spoken bridge may be, I have and probably always will be a fan of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (#96), the one melancholy ballad that I think demonstrates his range the best. Besides Presley, however, this year’s list also features three tracks each from Chubby Checker and The Shirelles. In 1960, Checker reached national fame with his dance track “The Twist”; in ’61, he followed up with “Let’s Twist Again” (#94), “The Fly” (#70), and “Pony Time” (#7). While there’s no denying the unmatchable appeal that Checker’s initial party jam possesses, I’ve found these other two tracks to be very fun as well. Even “Let’s Twist Again”, which initially felt like a cheap cash-in on the popular dance craze, now feels to me like something I can totally get behind. Even its slightly tongue-in-cheek demeanor (“Let’s twist again / Like we did last summer”) as well as its rather corny sense of humor (“Who’s that flyin’ up there? / Is it a bird? (nooo) / Is it a plane? (nooo) / Is it the twister? (yeah!)”) are simply charming to me now. “The Fly” also features what sounds like an electric razor, used to mimic the sound of the titular fly; obviously, this sold me from the start and I haven’t looked back since.
Thankfully, along with its magical surge in general quality, 1961 also poses a better year in female representation overall. With eighteen women represented across seventeen entries, the gender variance is far from justifiable, yet still leaves much room for some hope for the future. With three singles on this year’s Hot 100, The Shirelles provide a lot of help in this push toward quantitative equality. It should be said that all three of their entries are absolute gems and their importance on the charts shouldn’t go underestimated. This year marks both the creation of the Motown label and the beginnings of Phil Spector’s string of successful production singles via girl groups; likewise, The Shirelles were one of the first of these uniquely-sounding groups to make waves. Sure, I tend prefer the cover version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” (#14) from The Mamas & The Papas, but The Shirelles were an amazing vocal group on their own and rightfully ranked among the very best of all time.
One of the most exciting things about this list is that for the first time, there is a very distinct eclecticism in musical styles among the female performers. In past lists, women have mostly lent their talents to slower-paced pop or R&B songs, with the occasional party track. The women in the 1961 Hot 100, however, demonstrate a range consisting of pop, R&B, soul, blues, and country – and that’s only in this list alone! Once again, the shift in popular radio stylings is on the rise and it is certainly starting to become evident in this year’s charts. While chart veterans Connie Francis and Brenda Lee make reappearances this year, their signature strengths don’t seem to have quite carried over completely (although Francis’ “Where the Boys Are” (#18) is rather lovely). Some of the other great female-driven tracks on this list are Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby” (#76), Ike & Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (#65) (debuting Tina’s absolutely killer vocals), The Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” (#52), Timi Yuro’s “Hurt” (#48), and Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” (#2). Notably, “I Fall To Pieces” marks the very first time a women makes a mark in the top five of the Hot 100. As bleak as the gender representation may seem at time, such glimmers of hope are delightfully promising.
The doo-wop genre is no newcomer to this year at all, but I did notice somewhat of a peak in its visibility in this particular list. Or I should say, rather, that more upbeat doo-wop seemed to have become trendy, as opposed to more subtle cuts in more recent years. Sure, doo-wop has always been present in the Hot 100 and has been a staple in the music scene since before the popularity of rock ‘n’ roll. However, songs of the genre usually arrived in the form of songs like The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You”, The Fleetwoods’ “Mr. Blue”, and Dion & the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love” – all great songs regardless, yet relatively removed from the vibrant roots of the genre. The former two songs are rather minimalistic, yet the relevancy of the vocals are lost by other more impressive stylistic elements of the tracks; the latter song isn’t even straight doo-wop, but rather a pop song with some doo-wop elements.
Inasmuch, 1961 saw a resurgence in the kind of classical doo-wop music that highlights the uptempo vibe, as well as the nonsensical lyrical vibrancy that illustrates the core of the genre. This is exemplified in The Marcels’ “Blue Moon” (#40), a reworking of the classic standard that is driven more by its infectious vocal hooks (“bomp-bada-bomp” and “dip-da-dip”) than anything else. This style can similarly be heard in Curtis Lee’s “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” (#77), Dion’s “Runaround Sue” (#46), and The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (which didn’t chart). More slower-paced examples are still present, with Shep and the Limelites’ “Daddy’s Home” (#41), Little Caesar and the Romans’ “Those Oldies But Goodies” (#69), and The Jive Five’s “My True Story” (#6). It also seems that the influence of doo-wop had become so apparent that self-referential, novelty hits about the genre came to emerge; songs such as Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)” (#32) and The Four Preps’ “More Money For You and Me” (#98). The latter is one of the more unusual songs on any of these lists, yet remains solidly humorous, given that this Hot 100 has helped given me knowledge of the songs at which they are poking fun.
This year saw a leap in the presence of instrumental tracks on the Hot 100 – in total, thirteen songs are instrumentals. I enjoyed the majority of them for the most part, as it is the case with most instrumental tracks on these lists. The one exception is Bob Moore’s “Mexico” (#55); while pretty fun and catchy, it still feels like it could have been improved with a sharper arrangement, such as what could be found in Herb Alpert’s rendition recorded a year after. It took me a while to warm up to Arthur Lyman’s “Yellow Bird” (#47), but after a few listens it occurred to me that this was the kind of Polynesian tribute that highlights the most beautiful aspects of the culture without dwelling on ugly exploitation. Rather unusual for an instrumental artist, Floyd Cramer nabbed two songs on this year’s chart: “On the Rebound” (#29) (with an introductory bit that sounds suspiciously modern) and his version of “San Antonio Rose” (#88). Both of these are very sharp piano-driven singles, with the former being especially fun to dance to. One of my favorite new-to-me instrumental tracks this year, however, is The Mar-Key’s “Last Night” (#15), which is absolutely divine in the way it simply feels so, so retro.
One of the more profound instrumental pieces on this list is “Take Five” (#95) from The Dave Brubeck Quartet, which currently remains the biggest-selling jazz single of all time. From the killer drum work by Joe Morello, to the wickedly catchy saxophone hook from Paul Desmond, to the rolling piano riff from Brubeck himself, this has got to be one of the greatest jazz songs of all time and its influence is unprecedented. As such, Jørgen Ingmann’s recording of “Apache” (#35) is also hugely important to the history of popular music. A full decade after Ingmann’s commercial success, the song was redone by The Incredible Bongo Band, whose version has become a staple among hip-hop samples up until this day. For what its worth, Ingmann’s “Apache” is terrific in its own right, yet the Bongo Band’s rendition should be seen as nothing less than a solid improvement.
Along with the various newcomers that are to be found on this list, there are also quite a number of talents who have returned this year in (mostly failed) attempts to recapture the magic they held in the past. Bobby Darin comes back onto the Hot 100 for the fourth year in a row with pleasantly upbeat cover of “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” (#99). Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou” (#49) is a rather simple tune, yet manages to work for me in all the right ways, and I find this to be some of the catchiest, cutest work that Nelson’s ever put out in his career. On the flip side, with “Good Time Baby” (#87) this is Bobby Rydell’s third year appearing in the charts, yet I still struggle with finding any distinct differences between them all. Moreover, The Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back” (#57) mark them with an impressive five years on the Hot 100, yet this track simply fails to measure up to their good stuff.
Such comebacks, however, can and do take form in some rather different ways as well. Dion & the Belmonts had made some major splashes in previous Hot 100 charts with singles such as “A Teenager in Love” and “Where or When”. When Dion broke away from The Belmonts in 1961, he scored a major mainstream solo hit with “Runaround Sue” (#46), also marking a shift from traditional doo-wop to more a pop-oriented R&B sound. Despite the potentially problematic, misogynistic lyrics that hide beneath its bouncy exterior, the song is far too catchy to not enjoy at least a little bit; historically, an excellent move for Dion. Moreover, while The Drifters do have a song on this year’s list (“Please Stay” (#100)) it simply wanes in comparison to some of their better past work. Instead, singer Ben E. King himself fares better by breaking away from the group this year to put out a couple of truly impressive singles – “Spanish Harlem” (#64) and “Stand By Me” (#63). While the former is perfectly loving and delightful itself, the case could certainly be made that the latter is one of the most enchanting, warmest, best songs of all time. This late, great musician truly was someone absolutely spectacular.
Now’s the time where I make a few more brief points about this year’s Hot 100 before I move on to my personal top five of the year.
- As I mentioned earlier, 1961 marked the first year when Motown begun to make its first small waves in the music scene. Notably, this was the year that The Supremes were signed to the label, although we won’t see them on the year-end charts for another few years. For now, however, another major figure in music and songwriting rears his head – that being Smokey Robinson. He and the rest of The Miracles debut on the charts this year with “Shop Around” (#24), which honestly isn’t the best bit of musicianship from the group yet still quite good.
- I’m not going to deny the outright catchiness and overall fun that outlines the #1 song this year – Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin'” – because it’s certainly evident that this is a great song. It just sort of baffles me that this would be so immensely popular, over anything else on this list that feel more defined and distinct. It’s not that Bobby Lewis is a bad artist; it’s more that this could easily be done by any of the other Chubby Checker-esque performers of his day. Then again, I had my own qualms about “Volare” and “The Battle From New Orleans” being #1 as well, so this may just be another case of being separated from the era in which the hype is at its peak.
- With Pat Boone making a comeback no one asked for with “Moody River” (#59), Eddie Hodges sounding the most annoying, privacy-intruding boyfriend ever in “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door” (#92), and Ernie K-Doe demonstrating the worst parts of archaic sexism in “Mother-In-Law” (#21), it goes to show that despite this being one of the highest-quality years so far, there’s still no shortage of creepy men around.
- There are a couple songs that I’m surprised didn’t make this year’s chart at all: The Marvelette’s “Please Mr. Postman” (another very important girl-group of the 60s) and Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin'” (along with “Walk, Don’t Run”, rather integral to the development of surf-rock in the upcoming decade). I would’ve also loved to see more Patsy Cline, particularly “Crazy”, but it makes more sense that her popularity would have been centered within the country music community.
- Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack” (#19) just barely missed my top five. It’s a song I loved since I was a little girl and could never resist singing along to it to this day. Its catchiness makes it absolutely timeless, yet its short length begs it to be at least twice as long.
- I’m definitely a Lonnie Donegan fan and was delighted to see him make a place on this list. “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)” (#79) may not be among the best songs on this year’s chart, but it is certainly one of the most fun.
And now without further hesitation, here are my top five charted singles from this year.
Honorable mentions: “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (#96), “Take Five” (#95), “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” (#65), “Stand By Me” (#63), “Hit the Road Jack” (#19), “Last Night” (#15)
5) “Angel Baby” (#76)
I’m always a sucker for simple, romantic melodies driver by delicate female vocalists (“I Love How You Love Me” is another example). Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby” captures the very essence of a naive teen romance that probably won’t last long, yet is completely wonderful in the moment. Its unusually unpolished sound and minimalistic lyrics helps it to stand out from the rest, perhaps even giving it a greater sense of honesty. Lastly, fifteen-year-old Rosie Mendéz Hamlin on vocals marks the first time a female artist of Latina descent is spotted on the Hot 100, making this a truly special song overall.
4) “Runaway” (#5)
“Runaway” is one of two songs from Del Shannon that made year-end Hot 100 in 1961, the other being the stylistically similar, yet lyrically deplorable “Hats Off to Larry” (#68). The single good element about the latter song is the same aspect that brings the former at least a cut above the rest – that being the awesome synthesizer keyboard solo. I really can’t imagine the song being anything more than decent without this, as well as Shannon’s unmistakable falsetto (“I wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder…“) that punctuates its catchy bridge. Listening to this song, to me, is like hopping into a time machine to simpler times where this could be considered cutting edge. It really isn’t, but it sure is a lot of fun.
3) “Crying” (#4)
Roy Orbison should be the standard that every dark, moody, brooding musician should strive themselves toward. While Orbison is no newcomer to the list (1960’s “Only The Lonely” is also quite brilliant), it’s with “Crying” that he truly comes into form as a true bonafide talent. I view this as one of the greatest emotional rock ballads of all time, and its not hard to decipher why. For one thing, these lyrics are just so sad: “I thought that I was over you / But it’s true, so true / I love you even more than I did before / But, darling, what could I do? / For you don’t love me / And I’ll always be / Crying over you“. Secondly, Orbison’s rich, powerful vocals simply make this song a work of art in ways that no one else could touch. From its first moments to its final dramatic crescendo, the sheer beauty of this song is impossible to ignore.
2) “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (#16)
While Black male performers have always found their place within the popular music climate of these times, the same hasn’t always been the case for Black women. Sure women as a whole are certainly underrepresented, but White women also tend to sell more records and generally get more radio play. This is why The Shirelles – all-Black, all-female, and super-talented – are so important, with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” being their masterpiece. As Shirley Owens belts away with, “Is this a lasting treasure / Or just a moment’s pleasure? / Can I believe the magic of your sighs? / Will you still love me tomorrow?“, my heart completely breaks with every listen. Ones the strings kick in around the second half, its beauty is fully set into place. As one of my very favorite songs, there’s no way this wasn’t making the list ranking as highly as it does.
1) “I Fall to Pieces” (#2)
God, I love Patsy Cline. I hold her and Wanda Jackson to such a high regards, as they are both very talented musicians, very definitive of their time, and with no comparisons before or since their prime. Cline in particular is an absolutely legendary music icon (not just country), and it’s a horrid shame that she was taken from us so soon. As one can probably tell from this top five alone, I really like heartbreak songs; “I Fall to Pieces” is one of the very best. There is really no smoother voice out there than hers, and this very factor – along with a brilliant instrumental arrangement from Owen Bradley – elevates this song to an exceptional single. As I also stated earlier how this song is important for the visibility of women in the pop music scene, it should also be noted that Cline broke new grounds for women in country music, it having largely being male-dominated. The raw power and emotion that she injects into this song is all the proof anyone could need that women deserve a place in this music scene. All in all, this song is one of a kind; despite many covers, the quality of the original could never be matched.
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