The River's Badge

Friday, June 2, 2017

Revisiting Music Before My Time - Top Hits of 1963


It's not that 1963 was technically before my time. I mean, I was alive. But I had very little cognizance of music at that time. Really, it was only later that I caught up with '63's top hits.

The sixties was an odd time in music. The decade could be cut into thirds. One part schlocky, one part innovative, and another part angry and angsty.  Just like with country music, in the early sixties record producers were not convinced that "roots" music was acceptable, so they proceeded to ruin it, mostly by adding strings and background chorals. By roots music, I mean Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly. By "ruin it", think Elvis Presley.

The advantage to catching up with a year's music after the fact is that one doesn't have recurring nightmares of the world's worst songs blaring through their transistor's speaker. We can separate the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, when I peer at Billboard's Top 100 list for the year, the flashbacks wash over me. My sister graduated from high school in 1963, so I was exposed to her favorite tunes, not only on the radio, but during Saturday afternoon's broadcast of American Bandstand, where all the girls wore wide skirts, mohair sweaters and "flats"; and the boys were decked out in sports coats, skinny ties and ducktail hairdo's (it was a much more formal time, I'm assuming).

The number one record of 1963 was this:



I've tried to put my finger on why this song reeks. Some things are hard to describe, so let me just say I find this to be "icky". Maybe it's the misplaced flute flourishes. Maybe it's the fact that Jimmy, while singing about "getting back to that girl", in fact sounds like a girl himself. No offense.

Nevertheless, I'd listen to Sugar Shack all day, given the choice between that and the number two record of the year. Let me tell you why this track is so hateful:  Well, at age eight, I couldn't understand why Bobby Vinton was so obsessed with the material of the dress his girlfriend wore. I still can't, really. It's rather creepy -- his fabric fetish. It seemed to me that he missed the dress more than the girl.


The number three single of the year was better, but it did contain a recitation, which was another big trend at that time. Shoot, Jimmy Dean made a whole career out of recitations (think "Big Bad John"). This was an odd producer choice. So, the song isn't good enough "sung", so let's talk it! Recitations had their heyday in the early sixties and soon fell out of favor, when singers realized they were expected to sing. The number three song brings to mind my other sister, who was a titch older than my American Bandstand-loving sibling. I don't have a lot of memories of my oldest sister from that time, because she graduated from high school, moved out, and promptly got herself married. I do remember that she liked this song, though:


I suddenly had a flashback regarding this next song. I remembering corralling two school friends and lip-syncing to this song in front of my third grade class. It must have been show-off -- I mean show and tell day. I did lots of outlandish things before I finally realized I was a real pain in the ass. 

This song is most remembered for the fact that George Harrison cribbed it for "My Sweet Lord". In George's defense, however, so many songs could be composed from those first three notes. 


Girl singers were all the rage in 1963. Alas, it was a different time, in that, record heads felt the need to ascribe adjectives to their singers. Thus, "Little" Peggy March:



I don't know how "little" she is. Hang on -- okay, four foot ten. That is little -- speaking from one who is apparently semi-little at five foot one and one-half. 

Speaking of girl singers, who would today be referred to as "singers", this next song played a seminal role in my ascension to "singing wanna-be", because I loved it so much and I perched atop our picnic table in the backyard and sang my lungs out along to:




Before I get too far into 1963, I want to make sure I include this next song. In my two-second research, I learned that this is a traditional folk song. Thus, I imagine it was recorded by many artists. However, none could do it better than Bobby Bare. Some songs are timeless and this is one:


And, aside from the Sugar Shacks and fabric-obsessives, there were a few truly innovative artists who scored hits in 1963. If you were to ask me who the best singer of all time is, I am pretty sure I'd need to go with this next one. My older brother had an LP of this artist's greatest hits, recorded on Monument Records, that I wore out when my brother wasn't around (I was not allowed to touch his albums; little did he know). This is what music does at its best -- it makes your heart soar to the heavens. I endeavor to include videos from the time they were fresh, but I make an exception for this one, because one needs to hear it in all its glory:


I've really, really tried to like Elvis Presley. I guess it's like a kid today who seriously wants to like the Beatles, but just can't (although that's not a fair comparison). My memory of Elvis is Sunday afternoon movies that mostly involved sports car driving and/or scuba diving with a song thrown in now and then for good measure. Elvis could have been better than he was, but he was mismanaged. Someone needed to tell him to cut back on the booming baritone, which sounded clownish. It's not that Elvis wasn't a good singer, but he was drowning in sub-par songs. I do understand how my older sisters came to revere hm, because there was most likely nobody like him at the time; certainly not foppish Jimmy Gilmer or Bobby Vinton. Maybe Elvis was too faux-dramatic for my tastes. It's like the way someone is supposed to sing to signal the world that they're a great singer, when they just need to relax and be themselves.

By 1963, Elvis's best days were already behind him, sadly. But my best friend and I dutifully paid our twenty-five cents to see his movies on Sunday afternoons, and this one is semi-okay (I believe it is from "Clambake"):





Truth be told, I took a lot of my musical cues from my dad. Of course, I was nine years old. Anything my dad liked, I liked. Looking back, my dad's taste in music tended toward catchy lines and/or catchy melodies. I have a fuzzy memory of skipping down the street, singing this song:


This next song is more of a 1964 memory than a 1963. Novelty songs were HUGE at that time. By 1964 I was living at Triple Service with my cousins. Triple Service was situated in a tiny town that had nothing in its favor. My mom had enrolled me in the local Catholic school, which was an ill fit. A really tight fit. I had long had a bias against nuns, with justification. After-school time was my freedom. My cousin Karen and I climbed to the roof and perched between the red wooden letters that spelled out T-R-I-P-L-E S-E-R-V-I-C-E and serenaded unsuspecting patrons with this song (sorry, no live video, but that's probably for the best):




It's not that 1963 wasn't a harbinger of things to come. We had the Four Season, who apparently have no live videos on YouTube, and we had the Beach Boys just coming on the scene. Too, we had Sam Cooke (no live videos, but kudos to the person who created this for their creativity):




Dion hadn't become all maudlin with Abraham, Martin, and John, and was still doing songs that we needed to dance to:




1963 was getting ready for 1964, when all heck would break loose.  Nobody knew in 1963 that the musical world was about to spin off its axis. We were still pining for velvet and traipsing down to the Sugar Shack. 

But oh boy...

































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