For reference, here are the last five entries I’ve covered in my Billboard Hot 100 challenge:
– 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
– I Like It Like That: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1961
– Twistin’ the Night Away: Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1962
Just when I thought the music scene couldn’t get any more fun – what, with the plethora of crafty dance crazes that permeated ’62 – the Hot 100 of 1963 comes along to show me what a fun time really looks like. While the previous year is famous for its party music, the music scene of ’63 is a bit more varied, yet still totally solid and fun. Music historians tend to regard the period of 1959-63 to be one of the most bleakest and lowest in quality; while I can agree for the most part, 1963 seems to be particularly colorful and vibrant. Beatlemania, already big in the UK, has yet to reach the states, yet there are still a few major music trends that are immediately apparent with this year. First, and probably most importantly, ’63 was the year that the influence of the all- (or mostly) female vocal group reigned supreme. From chart veterans The Shirelles and The Crystals to newcomers The Chiffons, The Angels, and The Ronettes, a total of twelve songs on the list come from girl groups alone. A good number of these songs – including The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (#45), The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” (#12), and The Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” (#56) – have become universally-acclaimed classics to this day and have appeared in numerous “greatest songs” lists.
Although, that’s not to say that any of the other lesser-known girl group songs are any less fabulous. Few people may bat an eye at the mention of “Don’t Say Nothin’ (Bad About My Baby)” by The Cookies (#79), “(Down At) Papa Joe’s” by The Dixie Belles (#90) (actually recorded by The Anita Kerr Singers), or “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” by The Jaynetts (#66); however, this doesn’t make them any less awesome and catchy than they truly are. The songs from The Crystals and The Ronettes make up only a fraction of the hits produced by Phil Spector during this era. As undoubtedly problematic as he is, his contribution to the girl group scene only aids to the overall cause for representational equality. The popularity of these female performers also help make this year much more progressive in terms of gender representation: a total of fifty-one women are represented on this list across thirty-one entries. This is the closest the Hot 100 has gotten to a fifty-fifty grounds of representation so far, and while I’m tragically aware that this is not to last, I can still take solace in reminding myself that such a magical year in history definitely exists.
The second notable trend that had come to fruition in this year is the full-fledged arrival of surf music. Many consider the surf music genre to have been initially popularized by The Beach Boys and in some ways this is true, as March 1963 marks the year that their gold-certified second studio album Surfin’ U.S.A. was released (the same month, by the way, that The Beatles released Please Please Me in the U.K.). The themes in their lyrics, as well as their full vocal melodies and bouncy guitars and drums are seen by many as definitive of the sound that is also found in classic surf rock influences, such as Dick Dale and The Ventures.
Yet, as duly noted by Brian Wilson (played by Paul Dano) in this year’s film Love & Mercy, “surfers don’t even dig our music!”. Indeed, it seems now that The Beach Boys are simply a very well-composed, well-produced, very talented vocal pop band. In fact, it seems that many of their hit songs from this era are little more than surfer-themed lyrics sung over Chuck Berry melodies. “Shut Down” (#97), which is the B-side to their single “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (#2), sounds suspiciously like “Johnnny B. Goode”. Even more blatantly, the basic melody, chords, and lyrical structure of the song is a near rip-off of Berry’s own “Sweet Little Sixteen”. Go ahead – listen to them both side by side and see if the similarities aren’t completely obvious. The third of their songs on this list, “Surfer Girl” (#36) is probably not their strongest, but still the most original of their singles and apparently the first song that Wilson himself ever wrote. Huge props to that.
Now, while I am much too young to ever be able to really have a say in what the surfers in the 60s really “dig”, I could imagine that it would among one of the three following rock instrumentals on this list. The first is “Wild Weekend” from The Rebels (#22). This song is driven by an introductory bass riff and a saxophone hook that refuses to let up. Of the three, this one is perhaps the most light-hearted – perhaps more fitted for the casual beach-goer than the serious, competitive surfer. I would imagine that the song that would be most fitting for the latter is The Chantays’ “Pipeline” (#27). This song is my personal favorite of the three and is nothing less than an absolute dream for those like me who love slick dual-guitar melodies driven across sick beats. I’ve never bothered to try surfing, but “Pipeline” makes me want to pick up a surfboard immediately and catch a wave.
The third (and arguably the most famous and well-recognized of the three) is The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” (#20), since regarded a staple among both surfers and lovers of surf rock. It’s such a simple composition overall, yet remains one of the most perfect, definitive surf rock songs of all time. From the outrageously catchy guitar riff to the wild drum solo by Ron Wilson, there’s no question just how this song has become so fully infamous. Its appearance in the finale of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising doesn’t hurt either.
The third major trend to come into prominence this year is the continuing, rising popularity of the Motown record company, along with its increase in larger-than-life R&B musical icons and talents. One of the most important Motown singles to come onto the Hot 100 “Fingertips” from “Little” Stevie Wonder. Recorded when Wonder was only twelve years old and also one of the only live singles to find its way in the charts thus far, “Fingertips” was the first Motown single to reach number one, making way for a plethora of other great songs to do the same. Also making waves this year is Martha and the Vandellas with their terrifically catchy singles “Come and Get These Memories” (#94) and the bonafide classic “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” (#32). These songs demonstrated the full prowess of this group, driven primarily by Martha Reeves’ powerful voice and exquisite lyrics from the infamous Holland–Dozier–Holland songwriting team.
Some other awesome Motown singles to come onto 1963’s Hot 100 include The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” (#65) and “Mickey’s Monkey” (#85), along with Marvin Gaye’s “Pride and Joy” (#72). Strangely enough, Mary Wells, who was very prominent in the early emergence of Motown (and certainly in 1962’s list) is absent from this list. As I’ve stated in a past post, her single “Two Lovers” is not present on these lists, yet deserves to be known as one of her best songs ever. Overall, my prediction is that the visibility of Motown is only bound to increase within the next couple of years, especially with the appearances of vocal groups like The Supremes and The Temptations, who are not yet to be found here.
Every other historical event to happen in 1963 had been, inevitably, overshadowed by the most devastating – the untimely assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There are a number of theories that music historians have devised that consider this event the catalyst that had forever changed the trajectory of the music scene and general media landscape of this time. There is even a presumption that this is why the British Invasion (generally) and Beatlemania (specifically) flourished in the states: Americans, looking for some grasp of solace in the midst of tragedy, found it in a certain type of young, mop-topped musicians who made happy, silly music, yet were far enough separated from US culture that such acts and emotions wouldn’t be deemed offensive or in bad taste. Putting it this way, it kind of makes sense.
I’m not so sure if my own theory holds any backing, but perhaps this unfortunate tragedy may at least partially explain the popularity of Skeeter Davis’ colossal hit “The End of the World” (#3). In 1963, it made it to number one on four separate music charts in the US – Country, Pop, R&B, and Adult Contemporary. This is a feat that no other single has since accomplished. To me this is, hands-down, the saddest song on this list (rivaled only by Peter, Paul, & Mary’s bittersweet “Puff the Magic Dragon” (#16)). Sure, I had already covered a vast number of young heartbreak and teen tragedy songs that appeared on the Hot 100 throughout these early years. Yet something in “The End of the World” had struck a chord in me immediately; something about it simply felt less saturated in teen-aged mopeyness and more driven by genuine, human grief. Later on, I found out that the song’s writer Sylvia Dee had drawn a fresh sorrow from the death of her own father. Judging by the sense of camaraderie and kinship the nation seemed to have held with the young JFK, it wouldn’t surprise me that this somber song, from this era, would touch the hearts of so many also afflicted with so much pain.
When I stumbled upon Kyu Sakamoto’s “Ue o Muite Arukō” (#13) this year (a song I had never previously heard before), I nearly lost my mind. While a song in a non-English language comes along every now and then, 99% of the spots on these lists are made up of purely English language material. And even when a song is performed in a foreign language, it is usually in some Western European language, making the charts still very much Western-centric. For these reasons, this song is a really huge breath of fresh air; I could only imagine just how groundbreaking this song must have been back in this era. To date, it remains the only Japanese song to reach the top of the US charts – quite a feat, if I do say so myself. I do love listening to this song, mainly for the bright intonations of Sakamoto’s voice, the sweet, absolutely infectious melody, and that delightful whistling solo.
Upon gazing at the English translation of the lyrics, however, it became clear that this song was anything but happy or joyful. The English translation of the title is “I Look Up As I Walk”; inspired by a protest Sakamoto attended regarding ongoing US presence in wartime, the speaker of this song is looking upward so that his tears would not fall. Overall, it’s a song that is deeper and much more poignant than I could’ve ever imagined. In case this song doesn’t seem familiar yet, perhaps it’ll be better recognized by its alternative title, “Sukiyaki”. As it stands, “sukiyaki” is actually a type of Japanese hot pot dish and has no relevance to the song whatsoever. This title stuck simply because it’s more recognizable in English-speaking countries than the other Japanese words of its original title – which is certainly racist, colonialist reasoning, if I do say so myself. Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful song and one of my favorite new finds I’ve uncovered from this list.
Up until this point, the strength of a particular year – musically speaking – could presumably be measured by how much it relies on the strength of the novelty hits of that year. While some novelty songs of the past have been truly atrocious (should I even mention “Mr. Custer” or “Ahab the Arab” any more?), others such as “Witch Doctor”, “More Money For You and Me”, and… well, basically every song from The Coasters are absolutely wonderful. Here, 1963’s Hot 100 contains only two songs that could be construed as being in the novelty song genre, perhaps indicating that the public is aiming their interests toward songs that could do more than tease out a few giggles. First is Allan Sherman’s “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh (A Letter From Camp)” (#82). Perhaps indicated by its title, it consists primarily of a young boy’s narration of his terrible first day at summer camp, all set to the tune of “Dance of the Hours”. While it did take a few listens for me to warm up to it, setting aside the obnoxious accent he sing-talks throughout, I find it pretty cute and clever as a whole. It could’ve certainly been a whole lot worse. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this song – especially with Sherman’s sampling of the classical piece – served as vital to the popularity of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s similarly-parodic style decades later.
The second novelty song of this year is Rolf Harris’ “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” (#84), which I fell in love with immediately. This was the first time I had ever heard this song, although apparently Harris is very popular in his home continent of Australia. The song is told from the perspective of a dying stockman, who is instructing his mates to take care of his affairs – mainly involving animals, such as kangaroos and wallabies – once he passes away. Basically, it’s one of the most Australian songs I’ve ever listened to. Despite death being the forefront theme of this particular song, it is composed in such a peppy, sing-a-long format that one can’t help but feel joyful listening to it. The dark side of all this, however, is that Harris has become a convicted sex offender, currently serving time in jail for his crime. These positive words, therefore, are not toward Harris himself, as there’s no forgiving the offenses he’s committed, be him a talent individual or otherwise. It’s clear, however, just how this song has become such a beloved staple in the Australian – it’s pleasantly wholesome, catchy, undeniably infectious, and one that I can’t help but revisit again and again.
- Surprisingly enough, Elvis Presley is still charting, nearly a decade since his initial breakthrough in US airwaves. In 1963, he made the Hot 100 with “Bossa Nova Baby” (#95) and “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise” (#69). Neither of these songs are particularly great, but they’re still pretty fun. At this point, however, he was mainly releasing songs in promotion of his movie career which had taken center stage these days.
- I had mentioned Kenneth Anger’s film Scorpio Rising earlier, and for good reason. This short film is famous among film-lovers for introducing the concept of the music montage, later perfected by filmmakers such as Scorsese and Tarantino. Surprisingly, there are a good number of songs from this year alone that are featured in this film. These songs are: Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)” (#61), “My Boyfriend’s Back”, Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” (#6), “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise”, “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”, Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him” (#26), and “Wipe Out”. Although, seeing that the film itself was produced in 1963 as well, using music that was modern at the time doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Still, it’s pretty cool.
- Let’s talk covers. First up is Ray Charles’ cover of the classic Hank Williams’ song “Take These Chains From My Heart” (#92). While I’ll always prefer the original, Charles’ slower, mournful rendition is rather beautiful as well. The same goes for Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (#17) – as lovely as it is, I simply can’t fully separate the song from Bob Dylan’s famous voice. However, there are also songs here that have only been improved by being covered in future years. In particular, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters’ “Cry Baby” (#53) sounds much stronger coming from Janis Joplin’s famous growling voice. Moreover, as much as I love Sam Cooke, “Another Saturday Night” (#88) seems almost made for the arrangement under which Cat Stevens would record years later.
- In continuation of the surf rock paragraph I wrote earlier, two other popular songs that would serve as also contributing to this trend are Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” (#28) and The Fireballs’ “Sugar Shack” (#1). The first of these songs is pretty catchy, no doubt, but I can’t help but feel like it’s nothing more than a desperate attempt at mooching off the Beach Boys sound. Also, “two girls for every boy” is a little bit of an unsettling lyric. “Sugar Shack” is a much nicer song, but like most songs that hit #1 of its year, it is relatively unsatisfying. On top of that, it’s pretty damn corny – although I guess I can’t help but enjoy just how fun it is overall.
- If Bobby Vinton’s “Blue On Blue” (#52) sounds familiar, welcome to the cool crowd. Here it is sampled in Röyksopp’s “So Easy”, four decades later.
- One of the most notable omissions from this list is The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie”. It’s my understanding that this song was pretty big, especially in its heyday, and it’s been on numerous “best of…” lists since. Perhaps the controversy surrounding its potential (though nonexistent) lyrical obscenity caused it to not get as much radio play, but it’s still baffling nonetheless. I would have also loved to see “Dominique” from The Singing Nun, but that song’s omission is a little more understandable.
- I really wish I had enough time to write about every song I enjoyed and loved from this Hot 100 list (as there are a lot), but that would simply take too much time. For now, I’ll list some songs that I haven’t mentioned or written about, but would highly suggest adding to a playlist, or possibly just giving a listen or two. These songs are: The Chiffon’s “One Fine Day” (#98), Doris Troy’s “Just One Look” (#81), Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (#80), Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog” (#73), Nat King Cole’s “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer” (#70), Kai Winding’s “More” (#60), Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” (#59), The Shirelles’ “Foolish Little Girl” (#57), Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” (#44), Los Indios Tabajaras’ “Maria Elena” (#41), The Essex’s “Easier Said Than Done” (#39), Trini Lopez’s “If I Had a Hammer” (#37), Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy” (#35), Eydie Gorme’s “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” (#30), Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” (#29), Inez and Charlie Foxx’s “Mockingbird” (#25), Nino Tempo & April Stevens “Deep Purple” (#19), The Tymes’ “So Much in Love” (#15), and The Impressions’ “It’s All Right” (#10).
And now for my top Hot 100 singles of 1963. As with past years that are exceptionally awesome, I will momentarily raise my traditional top five to a top six.
Honorable mentions: “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” (#84), “Just One Look” (#81), “Ring of Fire” (#80), “Da Doo Ron Ron” (#56), “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” (#32), “Pipeline” (#27), “The End of the World” (#3), “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (#2)
6) “Washington Square” (#9)
Unpredictably, this was one of the coolest songs I’d come across. One other trend from 1963 I didn’t mention earlier was that of folk groups and solo musicians. Besides Peter, Paul, & Mary, a young Bob Dylan debuted his Freewheelin’ album this year; as a result, his influence was phenomenal. The inspiration of this is surely evident in “Washington Square”, even though The Village Stompers were a New Orleans-style jazz band at heart. The combination of these two rather different, yet strangely compatible sounds, are married in a simple, yet terrific little composition that really sticks.
5) “In Dreams” (#59)
It’s really odd that Roy Orbison is smiling on the cover of the album in which this song is found – mainly because it’s such a dreary song. I can’t imagine that anyone else in these days was putting out songs that even closely resembled what Orbison was releasing. “In Dreams” has a few of his trademarks: a rising tonal structure, no traditional verse-chorus structure, a powerful final crescendo. These are all topped off with a fittingly dream-like atmosphere and gloomy imagery – aspects that marked it worthy of an important scene in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. This song is just too great.
4) “Then He Kissed Me” (#68)
From its classic introductory guitar riff to the pleasing vocals of The Crystals’ lead Dolores “LaLa” Brooks, it’s clear to see that this song was bound to be something special. It is absolutely definitive of the pitch-perfect production that went into the best of these girl group singles of this era. It also neatly encompasses the sweet innocence that resided in 60s pop, as well as the tender nostalgia of the suburban teenager in general. It shows that the youthful glow of rock ‘n’ roll prime years is still alive and welcome – albeit in a slightly different package. In truth, it’s all the better.
3) “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (#65)
If I were to ever make a list of songs that I consider definitive of Motown’s golden age, this song would probably be very high up there. This is due mainly to the powerful vocals and songwriting of The Miracles’ lead Smokey Robinson, who is really a force to be reckoned with. This song has some of my favorite lyrics of all time: “I don’t like you, but I love you / Seems that I’m always thinking of you / Oh, whoa, whoa, you treat me badly / I love you madly / You really got a hold on me”. Set to the heavenly backing vocals by the other members, as well as the driving piano and horn section from The Funk Brothers, this is pure poetry. The Beatles’ cover doesn’t hold a candle to the lovely original.
2) “Be My Baby” (#45)
Done by anyone else, “Be My Baby” probably would have come off as cute, angelic, and very fitting with the rest of the teen pop vocal craze – perhaps something like “My Boyfriend’s Back”. However, thanks to the undeniable power of The Ronettes – particularly lead vocalist Ronnie Bennett – it comes off as something much more forceful and mature. Its pounding introduction sets off a what is set to become a full-blown pop symphony, as the song grows more and more powerful with each passing verse. Kind of like a Roy Orbison song, but much more danceable. Its rich, dense finish is the icing on the cake, solidifying its status as an anthem of the girl group era and one of the most explosively fun songs to belt along to.
1) “Talk To Me” (#93)
I really need to talk about this song. When I was really young – between ages seven to twelve – my grandpa would take me and my family for summer vacations from California to San Antonio, Texas (his home city). This trip always consisted of driving across 36+ hours of desert in the middle of summer. He would play a bunch of “old” music (which I hated at the time, but am now totally grateful to him for doing); sometimes he would slip in a greatest hits record from Sunny & the Sunglows, a band I was completely unfamiliar with. At the time, I knew they were from San Antonio, but always assumed they were some underground band that my grandpa listened to when he was younger. In either case, I hated it. I just wanted to listen to my own music, but he was always so stubborn and would only play music that he enjoyed.
Fast forward to 2015, when I started listening through this particular Hot 100 list. “Talk To Me” begins to play, and from that opening horn section, I was transported back in time. Suddenly, I was a child again, being driven through the unbearably hot desert when all I wanted to do was go home and watch TV. This time, however, I’ve grown to really appreciate the song for the beautiful work of art that it is. Now, I’m completely biased, and I’m not even sure if the song is even any “good” by objective standards (I know it’s a cover of a Little Willie John hit). Either way, I haven’t heard any band at all similar to Sunny & the Sunglows just yet. Every member of this band is from San Antonio, and their Tejano influence is certainly apparent on this track. I can completely understand my grandpa’s appreciation for this kind of song – while the nostalgia he probably feels for this music is miles apart from the nostalgia I feel for it, these feelings are still there. Songs like these are what make me love music in the first place.