Friday, January 2, 2009

The Great Chart Meltdown: Week One

For the background on this blog series, see this post.

Today I embark on what I hope will be a year-long exploration of the 1950s Rock Era music charts. There is a lot of information available that cannot be translated into mere numbers, and since many people do not have easy access to the charts used to produce those books, I want to shed some light on the formative years of rock and roll. Follow the charts with me; this week, I’m looking at the first week of the year for each year, 1955 to 1959.

January 1, 1955: The Rock and Roll Era begins, though the symbolic first rock-and-roll song won’t show up until May. Right away, we are faced with a subtle misnomer. Joan Weber’s “Let Me Go Lover” is widely proclaimed as the first #1 hit of the Rock Era, but a look at the charts may make you see things differently.

“Mr. Sandman” is a holdover #1 from December, 1954, but it’s not fading on January 1. It’s #1 on the sales chart, and it will stay there for two more weeks. It’s #1 on coin-ops, and it has another week of life left at #1. Only the radio chart has “Let Me Go Lover” at #1, thanks to listener demand, but “Mr. Sandman” will displace it at the top on both January 8 and January 22. So it’s more accurate to say that “Mr. Sandman” and “Let Me Go Lover” were the first #1 songs of the Rock and Roll Era.

There’s a bit of evidence that rock and roll is on the way. Bill Haley and His Comets are on the sales chart with both “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Dim, Dim the Lights.” Both sport the upbeat shuffle of “Rock Around the Clock”; it’s just the explosion of popularity and the rebel-movie tie-in that makes “Rock” so iconic.

A point to make about the industry in the 1950s is that competing versions of pop songs often charted at the same time. At one point, it was common practice for white artists to cover songs by R&B artists that would not have made it to pop radio. The same practice happened in reverse, though less frequently and more quietly. Splitting an audience (and income) between two artists often made a song seem less successful on the charts than it was from a songwriters’ standpoint. If the sales of all the charting versions of “Unchained Melody” were combined, for example, the song would have stayed at #1 far longer than it did with buyers and listeners being pulled four ways.

One odd novelty tune debuts this week: “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sun Shine In)” by the Cowboy Church Sunday School. The singers are the wife and daughters of Stuart Hamblen, who wrote “This Ole House,” along with a couple of other teen girls. Hamblen sped up the record to make the girls sound younger, but he didn’t go to Chipmunks lengths.

January 7, 1956: The monster #1 is “Sixteen Tons” by “Tennessee” Ernie Ford, in its seventh and final week on top. The final Christmas song, “Nuttin’ for Christmas” by Barry Gordon with Art Mooney’s Orchestra, suffers a precipitous drop after this week. Both Sisters and Fours are big, with the Fontanes, the McGuires, the Lads and the Aces. Songs appearing twice include “Only You” (Platters, Hilltoppers) “Memories Are Made of This” (Dean Martin, Gale Storm), “Teen Age Prayer” (Gale Storm, Gloria Mann) and “He” (Al Hibbler, McGuire Sisters).

Songs with lasting resonance include Gale Storm’s “I Hear You Knocking.” Dave Edmunds seems to have listened to her version a lot before recording his 1971 hit. Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage” will come back to haunt us as a TV theme, but thankfully Dinah Shore’s version, which made the radio chart for one week in December 1955, will not.

January 5, 1957: The year starts with one of the longest-running #1 songs still atop the sales heap: Guy Mitchell’s “Singing the Blues,” in its fifth week of 9. Right behind it is “The Green Door” by erstwhile DJ Jim Lowe. This song counts as a #1 hit, but it never topped the main sales chart. Look at its amazing run, though. On the sales chart since September 29, 1956, it reached #3 in its fourth week. It sat there, behind “Hound Dog”/“Don’t Be Cruel” at #1 and “Love Me Tender” at #2, for three weeks. Then it moved to #2, sitting behind “Love Me Tender” for three weeks. “Singing the Blues” jumped it, sending it to #3 for five weeks. When “Love Me Tender” faded, “The Green Door” still had three weeks at #2 left in it. All told, It was #3 or higher for 14 straight weeks, and its competition was some of the toughest ever. Not bad for a ditty recorded in a New York City hotel room. “The Green Door” spent three weeks at #1 on the long chart and the coin-op chart, but radio stalled it at #2 for six weeks, with several more at #3.

Calypso is riding high in early 1957, with “Mary’s Boy Child” by Harry Belafonte serving as the Calypso Christmas tune. Belafonte also is still doing well with his debut hit, “Jamaica Farewell.” But the very scary Banana Boat craze is just getting its oars wet, as the Tarriers have the lone hit version, in its third week. By January 19, there will be five versions in the Top 40 of the long chart. Details later!

This is, notably, the final sales chart week for “Don’t Be Cruel”/“Hound Dog,” the biggest two-sided #1 in history. Since Elvis Presley succeeded that pair at #1 with “Love Me Tender,” you can see that late 1956 was a good quarter for Elvis. By contrast, another entertainer known for goofy films, Jerry Lewis, is enjoying the only singing hit of his career, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” peaking at #10 this week. He also charted for one week with a Martin-Lewis comedy sketch in 1948.

Speaking of entertainment legends, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly team up for a Top Ten Best Seller, “True Love.” Apart from “White Christmas,” this is Bing’s only foray into the Rock Era Top Ten. Grace Kelly didn’t chart again, but she didn’t have to, being a princess and all.

R&B artists account for seven of the Top 40 on the long chart, four of the 21 coin-op hits, and just two of the 25 radio hits. Fats Domino is in good shape with “Blueberry Hill” (Top Ten on sales, the long chart and the coin-op chart), but radio resistance has him at just #15 there, which probably contributed to his failure to achieve the only #1 of his storied career. He spent three weeks at #2 on the coin-op chart, so someone was playing that song . . .

This is the debut week for another phenomenon, “Young Love.” The Sonny James original shows up on all but the coin-op chart, and it may be so hot and new that it’s not on many boxes yet. Competition looms from Dot Records. Which leads to another interesting point. Little Dot, from Nashville, boasts three sales hits this week, and the label tends to stay in that range for much of the late 1950s. Using a mix of white covers of R&B tunes, most notoriously those of Pat Boone, and some nicely chosen originals and licensed material, Randy Wood, the label’s owner, turned his appliance-repair shop/record store into quite the big deal. The interesting thing is that he was known for fairness, so his artists stayed put once they became huge successes.

January 6, 1958: We seem finally to have shed the smooshy slow numbers of the 1955-57 charts, at least as far as sales go. This is one energetic group of sales hits: “At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors leads the way, followed by Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire,” Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock,” the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie,” and Chuck Berry’s “Rock & Roll Music,” among others, and not in 1-5 order. The slower material doesn’t sound so early 1950s now, with Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” being a prime example.

The radio chart still leans toward the mellow side of pop music. “April Love” by Pat Boone is at #1 for the fourth week, while Frank Sinatra’s “All the Way” is at #2, “You Send Me” is at #3, and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” by Jimmie Rodgers holds down #4. “At the Hop” is meeting radio resistance at #5. There is no such drag on “Sugartime” by the McGuire Sisters, which debuts on the radio chart at #14 before it hits the Top 40 in either sales chart.

You may notice that I have not mentioned the coin-op chart; its final chart came on June 17, 1957, as the first step toward simplifying the calculation of chart rankings. The juke box operators’ data still figure in the Top 100 calculations, but there is one fewer song listing to peruse.

The voice of Buddy Holly is in heavy selling rotation, both under his own name (“Peggy Sue” in the Top Ten) and with the Crickets (“Oh, Boy!” at #14). Radio is playing both hits, though at lower chart levels than sales would indicate. These two records will give Buddy three straight Top Ten hits to start his chart career.

Although the song entered both sales charts this week, no one is likely to suspect right now the eventual chart success, or the enduring legacy, of “The Stroll” by the Diamonds. Next week, it hits the radio, though the teens have been matching the steps to songs on American Bandstand for a little while.

Despite this week’s preference for rock and roll, one solid mid-twenties performer on the sales charts is Will Glahé’s “Liechtensteiner Polka.” The song is still selling well enough to merit a one-week return to the radio chart as well.

Sales B-sides this week not mentioned in the Top 40 books: “You Bug Me, Baby” by Larry Williams (“Bony Moronie”), “Chicago” by Frank Sinatra (“All the Way”), and three Sam Cooke tunes: “Desire Me” (“(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons”), “Summertime” (“You Send Me”) and “Forever” (“I’ll Come Running Back to You”). Each of these songs charted on the long chart but did not reach the Top 40, thus prompting their exclusion from the Top 40 book.

January 5, 1959: The time lag in chart-release dates often means that Christmas-themed music debuts now, but “The Chipmunk Song” by David Seville and the Chipmunks debuted on December 8, 1958 and is now in its third week at #1 on the consolidated chart. This is, surely, a song no one would expect to find on the radio fifty years hence, but here it is!

With all of the charts peeled away from the consolidated chart, the Top 40 is easier to examine for trends. The Top Ten is a quiet place, with only “Whole Lotta Loving” by Fats Domino and “Problems” by the Everly Brothers displaying a fast tempo. There are a lot of threes and sixes in the other tempos, with the Chipmunks, “To Know Him, Is to Love Him” by the Teddy Bears, “One Night” by Elvis Presley, and “My Happiness” by Connie Francis avoiding 4/4 beats.

Most of the rock songs are relegated to the lower end of the chart, at least for now. Duane Eddy’s “Cannonball,” Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” (a One-Week Wonder) and “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price, a future monster smash debuting low, fit the template. But only one song discusses rock, and that’s “All-American Boy” by Bill Parsons, who was at first billed on the chart as Billy Parson. The artist is really Bobby Bare, eventually to add a Senior to his name when his son grows up and starts his own recording career.

In the “what were they thinking” category is “Don’t Pity Me,” a One-Week Wonder for Dion and the Belmonts at #40. Their string of revived really old standards (“When You Wish Upon a Star?”) goes nowhere, and when Dion breaks up with the Belmonts, both he and the boys go back to uptempo numbers, and both acts thrive to varying degrees.

Whereas earlier years find R&B artists scarce on the pop charts, they have achieved 25% participation as 1959 begins: the Platters, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Tommy Edwards, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker and Lloyd Price are some of the artists taking part. Debuting their second and final Top 40 hit are Billy & Lillie with the charming “Lucky Ladybug.”

Apart from the Chipmunks, Christmas is represented by “The Little Drummer Boy” by the Harry Simeone Chorale, another perennial track that premieres this year. Teen Morality is represented by “The Teen Commandments,” an amazing ABC-Paramount infomercial foisted onto the backs of Paul Anka, George Hamilton IV and Johnny Nash.

Error alert: Speaking of Mr. Anka, his new hit “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings” is listed in the Top 40 books as having debuted on January 5, 1959. The full chart book shows that the song debuted on December 22, 1958, but it doesn’t clarify the situation: The song debuted at #39 on that date, dropped to #43 for December 29, and re-entered the Top 40 at #37 on January 5. Don’t let this correction change your life, but you may want to adjust your book.

That, my friends, is my attempt to cram a bunch of chart info into one blog post. There’s a lot of detail here, and that requires some selectivity as to what I mention. If you want to comment about something I didn’t point out, or ask questions, the comment box is all yours.

Tunes? How about a rare One-Hit Wonder debut from 1955 and a look into what the studio sounded like when the Chipmunks came to life? Next Saturday, again I’ll bring you all the chart data you can digest at one sitting! (And I hope to be able to use more precise chart terminology by then.)

For Wednesday, I’ll profile the most prolific recording artist of all time. See you then!

Cowboy Church Sunday School, Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sun Shine In)

The Chipmunk Song, excerpts slowed to normal voice speed

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, the slowed-down Chipmunks song is freaking me out a little bit! Sheesh, and I thought the "normal" Chipmunks were a little freaky. :/