January marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of the Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — at No. 45 — on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100.
By April of 1964, the group would command the first five places on the magazine’s weekly survey of top selling hits. It also marked the beginning of the “British Invasion” of the American pop music scene, leaving, over a period of a few short years, more mainstream music and folk artists (who had enjoyed a burst of popularity in the late ’50s and early ’60s) in its wake.
As a high school freshman in September 1963, a friend and I used to deejay record-hops on weekends. We’d borrow two turntables and a speaker from the audio-visual department, and then play 45s loaned for the evening by some of our classmates.
Not using a playlist, we simply thumbed through the pile of discs for what we knew were the most popular dance-to songs. And what a gold mine of hits it was: that year alone featured the Beach Boys “Surfin’ Safari,” Martha and the Vandellas “Heat Wave,” the Ronettes “Be My Baby,” and the Four Seasons “Walk Like
Slow dancin’?: there was Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” and “Blue on Blue,” Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger,” and one of my personal favorites, Roy
Orbison’s “In Dreams.”
There were many top hits you just didn’t play at a school dance that appeared on the charts as big sellers that year. Artists such as Andy Williams’ (“Can’t Get Used to Losing You”), Tony Bennett (“I Wanna Be Around”), Ray Charles (“Busted,” “Take These Chains From My Heart”), Johnny Mathis (“What Will Mary Say”), and Steve Lawrence (“Go Away Little Girl”) got loads of radio airplay. Most of the dancers on our gymnasium dance floor didn’t know how to do the Bossa Nova, but many of them loved to hear Eydie Gorme’s catchy “Blame It on the Bossa Nova.”
And folk music was still hit material: Peter Paul and Mary burst on the scene with two hits that year (“Puff, the Magic Dragon” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”). Such crossover country hits as Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Bill Anderson’s “Still,” and Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” were seemingly heard every other hour on one radio station or another.
Novelty songs also scored well too, including Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” and Rolf Harris’ “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” — certainly not dance material but fun listening (and easy lyrics to remember). One song even defied definition: “Maria Elena” as artfully performed by Los Indios Tabajaras, an unlikely instrumental hit by two Brazilian artists, who unfortunately quickly faded from the scene shortly thereafter. Some songs that year were big “one hit wonders,” but intriguing to listen to, like the Jaynett’s “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses.”
The year 1964 produced big hits by such artists as Barbara Streisand, Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, Louis Armstrong and Dean Martin, but by the end of the year, no fewer than eight British groups, including the Beatles, appeared on the Hot 100. The die was cast, and radio stations competed with each other to be “the first” to debut The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark 5, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Kinks, and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.
The Motown Sound led by The Supremes, along with The Four Seasons, and a few other groups provided tough competition to the “invaders,” but anything British became hot by definition. Take a look at Ed Sullivan’s guest list in those years; hardly a Sunday night went by without one British group ore another being featured guests.
Notwithstanding these changes, Saturday night record hops still drew my classmates in big numbers. You might see Beatles haircuts and a couple of collar-less jackets (favored by the Fab Four and other groups); the dance steps, however, remained essentially the same.
But not the music.
In time, mainstream artists who performed “standards” were relegated to “good music” or easy listening stations. Folk music again became the domain of purists of that genre. Novelty songs? They seem to have gone the way of the De Soto. I managed to maintain my connection to the Streisands and the Williamses by working weekends and summers at WKNE, our local MOR (Middle of the Road) format radio station.
But the days of the great crossroads of American music — bringing all manner of genres together on a single national basis — seemed to have reached its apex, regretfully, some 50 years ago.