Saturday, May 16, 2009

1950s Chart Meltdown, Week 20: Unchain Me

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

All sorts of melodies, unchained and otherwise, make up an uneven weeks of debuts on the 1950s charts.

May 14, 1955: This week’s #1 songs show one of the curiosities of the pre-Hot 100 chart system. If you happen to research the hits of May, 1955, you will see that “Unchained Melody” by Les Baxter, “Dance with Me Henry (Wallflower)” by Georgia Gibbs, and “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” by Pérez Prado all reached #1. Only the fine print tells you that just one of these songs was ever the best-selling record in the nation.

Georgia Gibbs topped the Juke Box chart on May 14, and Les Baxter topped the Jockey chart. Neither song reached #1 on any other chart. So, kids played “Dance with Me Henry,” the DJs played “Unchained Melody,” and consumers bought more copies of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” than any other record. Which is the most legitimate hit? The DJs’ playlists often involved politics and prejudice. Five cents for the jukebox was not much of an investment to make in a song. Plunking down the full price for one’s own copy of a single strikes me as the most sincere form of support for a song, so I think Pérez Prado can already claim to have the biggest hit in the nation this week.

The week’s debuts are among the most significant ever. First, June Valli brings us the fourth version of “Unchained Melody” to grace the Best Sellers. The other three are much higher, with Baxter at #2, Hibbler at #5, and Hamilton at #9. June is in fact a One-Week Wonder at #29; she doesn’t hit either of the other charts at all. She will be back with another Top 40 hit in 1960, and anyone who has heard an old Chiquita Banana commercial knows her voice.

Now that the charts are consolidated and artists get a period of time when they can promote a hit undistracted by cover competition, you have to wonder just how big the Les Baxter version of “Unchained Melody” would have been, had there been no drain on its sales. The Righteous Brothers version, still ten years away, with a resurgence in 1990, is proof of the song’s strength, no matter who sings it. Look for my version at iTunes shortly.

The other debut is really a re-entry that has taken a year to chart again. Recorded on April 12, 1954 and released on May 10 of that year, the single, Decca 29124, has been gathering dust after selling a reported 18,000 copies and charting at #23 for one week on May 29, 1954. In the meantime, the author of the song’s guitar solo has fallen down a set of stairs and died (on June 17, 1954), and an actor, Glenn Ford, has swiped the record from his son Peter’s collection to show the honchos of his next movie what kids are listening to. The film is The Blackboard Jungle, and the song is “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets.

In other news, Eddie Fisher debuts on the Jockey chart with “Heart,” from Damn Yankees, which also gives us “Whatever Lola Wants.” The Jockeys will give Eddie the #6 slot eventually, while sales will peak at #15.

May 19, 1956: This “Heartbreak Hotel” thing is starting to get old, but here we have Elvis atop all four charts again.

Talk about stagnation: the Best Sellers chart has no debuts, with a number of songs flipping and flopping but not dropping. Over at the Top 100, one Top 40 debut of note is “A Little Love Can Go a Long, Long Way” by the Dream Weavers featuring Wade Buff. This single is a One-Week Wonder, but the Dream Weavers can console themselves with memories of their previous Top Ten hit, “It’s Almost Tomorrow.”

May 20, 1957: Between the 1956 and 1957 charts, Elvis has 8 #1 spots. Not bad work.

Unlike 1956, we have some interesting 1957 debuts this week. First up is “Start Movin’ (In My Direction)” by an actor who is branching out, Sal Mineo. Sal will chart four songs (two as Best Seller flips), and this one will reach the Top Ten, but don’t let all that success lull you into believing that Sal sings well. He’s no Caruso, more like a Fabian.

An iconic group hits the charts for the first time this week. The Coasters debut “Young Blood,” with “Searchin’” as its flip, this week. Both songs will reach the Top 100 Top Ten, but in the fourth week on the Best Sellers chart, the record will flip, and “Searchin’” will be considered the A-side for the remainder of the run.

May 19, 1958: The Everly Brothers have made the #1 spots all theirs, as “All I Have to Do Is Dream” is the consensus #1 now.

As for debuts, the Best Sellers give us “High Sign” by the Diamonds, which will creep into the Top 40 on two charts for one week each; the mildly creepy “Teacher, Teacher” by Johnny Mathis, the intense “Rumble” by Link Wray, already a Top 40 hit on the Top 100, and, at an encouraging #18, “Secretly” by Jimmie Rodgers. Its flip is the future One-Week Wonder “Make Me a Miracle.”

May 18, 1959: Wilbert Harrison dashes the hopes of several potential #1 hits by leaping from #6 to the pinnacle. He will get two weeks at the top, and none of the songs he jumped will get there (barring the song he replaced, The Happy Organ”).

I’ll list all of the debuts, which can be noted for their lackluster qualities: “Lonely for You,” a future #24 peak for One-Hit Wonder Gary Stites; “Someone,” a future #35 underperformer for Johnny Mathis; and “I’ve Come of Age,” a future #28 hit, based on a melody from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, by One-Hit Wonder Billy Storm. As I said, there’s nothing amazing here, unless “hard-to-find” equals “amazing” in your world. In mine, it just means “annoying.”

For your listening pleasure, it’s time to celebrate the “Unchained Melody” phenomenon. All five of the hit versions, for your edification. I chose the stereo mix of the Righteous Brothers version.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you the postponed discussion of a piano player many of us know by name—only. See you then!

Les Baxter and His Orchestra, Unchained Melody

Al Hibbler, Unchained Melody

Roy Hamilton, Unchained Melody

June Valli, Unchained Melody

Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Thank you, for posting one of my favorite songs of all time...and...HAPPY BIRTHDAY!