Saturday, April 25, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 17: A Multitude of Instrumentals

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

As spring really arrives in Minnesota, it’s time to listen to bird calls and reflect on a bunch of cover records.

April 23, 1955: Bill Hayes still rules the #1 spot on all three charts, but the all-important Best Sellers chart is poised to welcome a new #1 next week. That song will be the biggest #1 of the 1950s, and no one will log more weeks atop the charts until 1992.

This Best Sellers chart shows that, despite its definition as part of the Rock Era, it is really part of the estuary between “old” music and Rock and Roll. Debuting on the Best Sellers is a song by a big band, Art Mooney and His Orchestra, “Honey Babe.” Also appearing for the first time are Roy Hamilton’s take on “Unchained Melody” and a Broadway tune, Sarah Vaughan’s “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees. Dinah Shore, one of the classic 1940s singers, will eventually chart a cover of this tune as further proof that we are not out of the woods when it comes to music for the previous generation.

April 28, 1956: We are truly in the Elvis Era now. His first hit single, “Heartbreak Hotel,” reigns on the Best Sellers for the second week, though he still is looking up at Les Baxter’s “Poor People of Paris” on the other three charts. Perry Como is also outperforming him on the Jockey and Juke Box charts at #2 with “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom),” an eventual #1 Jockey hit. Apart from the eventual 8 weeks that “Heartbreak Hotel” will top the pop charts, it’s worth noting that this single will be a #1 Country hit for 17 weeks. Four of his Sun sides charted on the Country list before his first Top 40 pop hit.

Just a pair of debuts have reached the Best Sellers this week. The Four Lads’ intended follow-up to “No, Not Much!” is “My Little Angel,” which debuts at #22. However, next week, the single will sort itself out, and the flip, “Standing on the Corner,” will start to dominate. “My Little Angel” is peaking this week, but the flip will shoot to #3 this summer.

This is a huge time for instrumentals. Apart from “Poor People of Paris,” represented by Les Baxter, Lawrence Welk and Russ Morgan, we see “Moonglow and Theme from Picnic” in Morris Stoloff and George Cates versions. (An eventual vocal version of “Picnic” by the McGuire Sisters will feature lyrics by Steve Allen, who played piano on the George Cates instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves.”) Another current instrumental is “Main Title (Man with the Golden Arm)” as recorded by both Elmer Bernstein and Richard Maltby. This song is also covered by Dick Jacobs (“Main Title and Molly-O”). The McGuire Sisters’ flip to “Picnic” is “Delilah Jones,” taken from the melody of the Bernstein hit. Don’t forget Nelson Riddle’s “Port au Prince” and “Lisbon Antigua,” the latter covered by Mitch Miller, and the slow-dropping “Theme from the Three Penny Opera (Moritat)” by Dick Hyman. This musical conjunction leaves me without words.

Thank goodness we have some real rock and roll joining the fray: “Blue Suede Shoes” in an Elvis (Presley) cover, and “Long Tall Sally” by, well, Pat Boone.

April 27, 1957: The #1 spot on all four charts is “All Shook Up,” which takes care of the previous weeks’ turmoil.

Coming back to haunt us is a “Banana Boat” cover, this time with intentional comic relief by Stan Freberg. Bonnie Guitar, who will eventually own a successful indie label, debuts on Dot with “Dark Moon.” A welcome throwback is the Top 100 surge of Rosemary Clooney’s “Mangos,” her final Top 40 hit. Not much else is going on this week.

April 28, 1958: The gospel musings of “He’s Got the Whole World (In His Hands)” by Laurie London still top the Jockey chart, but in addition to having been preceded by “Tequila,” this song is now rivaled by the pagan posturing of David Seville’s “Witch Doctor,” which leaps to #1 on the Best Sellers and the Top 100.

Best Sellers debuts were looking pretty pale until I read all the way up to #9, where “All I Have to Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers starts its successful quest for the top spot. The best evidence of the song’s initial impact is on the Top 100, where the record leapt from #69 to #7.

April 27, 1959: The #1 song this week, “Come Softly to Me” by the Fleetwoods, is indeed soft, an anomaly in a week where the Top Ten is full of peppy tunes. Some of the tunes are corny (“Venus” by Frankie Avalon, “Pink Shoe Laces” by Dodie Stevens), but you can’t deny their energy.

This week marks the beginning of the Exotica wave. “Quiet Village” by Martin Denny shoots into the Top 40 in its third Hot 100 week. Soon, this and other tunes laden with bird calls and African percussion will be gracing not just the airwaves, but the turntables of millions of Hi-Fi sets in bachelor pads around the country. Eager young men will be serving martinis, wet or dry, to their potential conquests, all thanks to Martin Denny. It seems to me that there was an uptick in baby boys named either Martin or Denny in the early 1960s. Now we know why.

Another strong debut is “A Teenager in Love” by Dion and the Belmonts. Jumping from #69 to #34, it’s the first eventual Top Ten for these guys. Despite the huge debut, it’s not the biggest one of the week: that belongs to none other than Edward Byrnes, with some help from Connie Stevens. Yes, friends, rocketing from #72 to #25 is “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb),” which instructed a generation of teens and pre-teens in the proper method of acquiring head lice.
For your listening pleasure, let’s have a listen to a couple of the true quirks of 1950s hit-making: the baby-engendering Exotic Sounds of Martin Denny and the louse-spreading kitsch of Edward Byrnes. After all, it’s spring.

For Wednesday, look for a musical book review that honors the Sunshine Pop era. You’ll love it. See you then!

Martin Denny, Quiet Village

Byrnes & Stevens, Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)


soontobemomof9 said...

interesting stuff...

And wow, you have had alot of visitors to your blog!

stackja1945 said...

Show my age again. Some of the tunes were "corny (“Venus” by Frankie Avalon, “Pink Shoe Laces” by Dodie Stevens), but you can’t deny their energy."
Unlike the !@#$"songs" of today.

jb said...

I have a soft spot for "Dark Moon" by Bonnie Guitar. As for "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," it's rather odd. Far from being the gospel rouser we'd expect, it's actually kind of stiff. London was a 13-year-old boy from England who sang "Whole World" with a cultured accent that doesn't fit the material. But in 50s America, fighting the Communist menace, it was guaranteed to be a hit.