After having looked at and commented upon the top ten songs of a few weeks ago, I decided to take a gander at the top ten songs of fifty years ago. Just to make it easier, I chose the top ten songs at the end of the year 1964, rather than choosing a particular week. This was a very instructive exercise from the standpoint of both musical and social change.
The first thing I recognized was the existence of what was then called the “generation gap.” Present was the ‘kiddy pop’ of the younger generation – The Beatles, The Beach Boys; but also present was the ‘adult pop’ of the older generation – Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin. This was probably one of the last times that people over 30 (even over 40) still had considerable influence in the popular music market – at least in terms of a separate musical taste. My impression now is that, in many cases, people over 30 are more likely to have tastes in popular music similar to 18-year olds. In other words, to alter Billy Joel’s lyric slightly, “it’s ALL rock ‘n’ roll to me” is what both an 18 and a 30-year old (and a 40-year old!) can say and feel today. Of course, rock music has changed, being more influenced by such things as Rap, but there is less of a musical polarization between generations than there was fifty years ago.
There were, arguably, some ‘bridge builders’ just below the top ten. In spot #11 was “People” sung by the very young Barbra Streisand who, however, tended to appeal to older audiences at the time. In spot #12 was the 42-year old trumpet player, Al Hirt, with his “Java” which had a more youthful appeal with its catchy beat. Also, the 22-year old Gale Garnett’s folksy “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” at #8 probably appealed to older audiences at the time with its lilting melody and its distinctly non-rock ‘n’ roll sound. However, more about this song on other grounds later.
The second thing which I noticed about 1964’s top ten songs was that I recognized all but one of them: “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers. It is a somewhat morbid song about two teen lovers who are in a car crash and in which the girl dies. This is probably the reason for its demise, however its competent, but rather stock melody doesn’t help matters. Seven of these songs have very singable melodies; anyone with amateur musical abilities could, upon hearing them several times, easily sing them a cappella. This is something that generally cannot be done with today’s top ten. I exclude “I Get Around” by the Beach Boys at #5 only because, while it is very catchy harmonically and rhythmically, there is not much of a melody that could be sung a cappella. I also exclude #4, Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” only because it has phrase extensions during which he growls and makes comments like “Mercy!” while the rhythm section vamps on a single chord. This would make an otherwise very singable melody harder to sing a cappella.
These are songs which we have heard used in movies, television shows and commercials and on the radio repeatedly over the last fifty years. And, while one could argue that that is why they are recognizable, I would argue that precisely because they are strong, recognizable melodies – THAT is the reason they have been repeated so often.
Finally, the last thing which I recognized about these songs is that, for the most part, they are very “female-friendly.” The lyrics are not “effeminate,” but these are songs of love and commitment. Even in the case of the more hard-driving rock songs by the Beatles: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (#1) and “She Loves You” (#2). In the two Motown hits, Mary Wells sings about her undying commitment to “My Guy” (#7), while Diana Ross mourns the loss of love in “Where Did Our Love Go?” (#10). Even the unmemorable “Last Kiss” (#9) contains the pious sentiment: “She’s gone to heaven so I’ve got to be good, so I can see my baby when I leave this world” – a kind of fidelity even beyond the grave.
Even Dean Martin gets in the act with his “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” (#6) – and, despite his reputation, he clearly means love in terms of emotion and gentler sentiments – “Your love made it well worth waiting, for someone like you.”
It is only Roy Orbison’s somewhat leering “Oh, Pretty Woman” whose lyrics might have turned some women off. The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” is definitely a ‘male song,’ but they are a bunch of lovable gadabouts who want only to cruise and “hang out” with ‘hip kids.’ They pointedly assure us that none of them have steady girlfriends because it just “wouldn’t be right to leave your best girl home on a Saturday night.” So, rest assured, chivalry has been preserved.
The only lyrics which, upon reflection, were morally troubling are from Gale Garnett’s “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine.” However, as I thought with “Mack the Knife,” I bet many people didn’t listen closely to the words. It is also deceptive because of its very charming major-keyed melody and country-folk flavor. This is the song of a female ‘Good-time Charlie’ without a doubt – “We’ll sing in the sunshine, We’ll laugh every day, We’ll sing in the sunshine, and I’ll be on my way.”
Am I exaggerating? Well, how about this verse?
“I will never love you
The cost of love’s too dear
But though I’ll never love you
I’ll live with you one year.”
Anyway, there is more, but the point is that the lyrics of this song strike a discordantly modern note about love and commitment in comparison to most of the other songs.
I will conclude with the story of Louis Armstrong’s surprise hit of that year, “Hello Dolly” (#3). On December 3, 1963, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars recorded a single of a number from a yet to be opened Broadway musical, “Hello Dolly,” as a favor for a friend. It was to be a kind of pre-opening promotion for the show. After the session he promptly forgot about the tune. In the months that followed, audience members at his concerts increasingly began to request “Hello Dolly,” a tune which was not in their repertoire and which they didn’t really remember. Finally, the group purchased a record of it and in their hotel room, using a portable phonograph, played the recording and took down the music and lyrics. Now, after working out a group arrangement they could perform it live at their concerts.
Meanwhile, the original recording surged in popularity to the point that on May 9, 1964, “Hello Dolly” became the number one hit single, finally breaking the Beatles’ 14-week strangle-hold on this position – and this was achieved by a 63-year old black trumpet player/singer whose most popular years seemed to be behind him!