Wednesday, October 03, 2018

My Birthday #1s

 Happy Birthday to Me Pt. 1

I'm having a big birthday this year -- an impressive span on years on this planet -- and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to find out what songs were #1 on my birthday every year. Here's the first set (it won't take much math skill for you to figure out just which birthday this is for me . . . ).
1953: Les Paul and Mary Ford, "Vaya Con Dios"
Okay, I have NO memory of ever hearing this song.  Years later, I somehow absorbed the fact that Les Paul was one of the great guitarists of all time; I even married someone whose Les Paul guitar was one of his most precious possessions. But guitar solos are generally wasted on me. 
   And anyway, I was a baby. But apparently a baby born into a blip of American infatuation with all things Latino. Pam Am Airways, pre-Castro Havana, Desi Arnaz and Xavier Cugat, Zorro on TV -- it was a thing. (Watch the 1944 Disney feature The Three Caballeros to get the gist of this culture crush). So a Spanish lyric hitting #1?  I was clearly born in an era. 

1954: Rosemary Clooney, "Hey There"
This is more like it.  I've always loved this song (yes, long before I ever heard of her nephew George), I just knew nothing about it. Turns out it was the breakout hit song from The Pajama Game, which had just opened on Broadway. Hey, I grew up in Indianapolis, what did I know about Broadway theater? (Especially since I was only a year old.) But just listen -- this is a great song, sung by an extraordinary vocalist.  She had it all -- pitch, timbre, phrasing, an innate sense of swing, and a voice that almost miraculously had both purity and sexiness. One of a kind.

1955: The Chordettes, "Mr. Sandman"
This makes me laugh out loud. Apparently when this song used to come on the radio, the two-year-old me, perched in my high chair, used to do the deep-voiced "yeeess?" along with the record.  So yeah, fair to say that I was somehow already a fan girl. And while on some levels this is just another post-war pop confection -- the 40s-style harmonies, the perky tempo -- it does have a curious spangly texture, and (dare I say) a longing for oblivion that could, if you squint just right, totally predict the psychedelic era. Just sayin'. 

1956:  Elvis Presley, "Hound Dog"
And then suddenly rock 'n' roll happened. My older brother and I used to make fun of this dumb song about a dog, which was being played everywhere. (How could we have known it was written by those master hitmakers Lieber and Stoller?) But we could tell that this was a world apart from the slickery and schmaltz that had dominated the airwaves up to then. And once you'd heard stuff like this -- Elvis's best-selling song of all time -- there was no going back.  P.S.: The flip side -- yup, Elvis hit the ground running with one of the first double-A sides of all time -- was "Don't Be Cruel," which in my book was even better than "Hound Dog."

1957: Jimmie Rodgers, "Honeycomb"
Lest we forget, rockabilly helped to spawn rock 'n' roll, as Jimmie Rodgers' crossover country hit made abundantly clear. His first (and biggest-ever) hit, it is actually pretty silly, when you listen to it -- but man, is it an earworm.

1958: Tommy Edwards, "It's All in the Game"
Okay, so America wasn't done with strings and schmaltz yet. Although, to be fair, this song isn't schmaltzy, but R&B emotion laid on thick, with a world-weary, philosophical shrug. I've always had a thing for this song. The inimitable Nick Lowe even did a cover of it a few years ago, which is a thing of beauty in itself.


1959: Bobby Darrin, "Mack the Knife"
Yaaassssss! I sure do remember this song, with Darrin's cool-cat finger-snapping. It took decades before I ever heard of Bertoldt Brecht or The Threepenny Opera, the scathingly political play where this song first appeared.  When I finally did see it, this song was such a disappointment. It was meant to be sung like Bobby Darrin sings it, period.
   As we rolled on into the 1960s, there were too many Bobbys around -- Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darrin -- and just to confuse things, the actor James Darren fell into an singing career as well after appearing in the film Gidget. There was probably no likelihood I'd ever become a Bobby Darrin fan. I was only 5, but already I could feel that this guy was more like Frank Sinatra than like Elvis Presley.
     Lately, though, I've been listening to him and amazed at how good he really was. Funny how that happens...

1960: Connie Francis, "My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own"
So I guess the pop world hadn't yet given in to rock 'n' roll. Pat Boone still ruled the charts, and Connie Francis and Brenda Lee regularly scored hits with their big, big torchy voices. I'd probably already heard Connie's earlier hit "Who's Sorry Now?" and for sure I remember "Where the Boys Are" in 1961 (I even got to see the movie, which was plenty racy for a third-grader to watch). But this song? I have absolutely no memory of it, and I'm really surprised it hit #1.

1961: Bobby Vee, "Take Good Care of My Baby"
What a great, snappy little number! It's like a perfect cocktail of Bobby Darrin bachelor-pad jazz and girl group sass. So I just now looked it up and discovered it was written by -- yes, Carole King and Gerry Goffin. I should have known.
   Bobby Vee was basically a pretty-boy teen idol, his talent managers trying to promote him as an American version of UK teen heart-throbs like Cliff Richard and Adam Faith. (Simon Cowell did NOT invent this game. If you haven't seen the movie Absolute Beginners, you should.)  And a teen idol is only as good as the material his handlers buy for him. Bobby Vee was lucky in this song, although the song of his I was really crazy about came in 1963, "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," which deserves a blog post all its own.
    But I digress. You want to know how lucky Bobby Vee was? He was a highschooler in Fargo, North Dakota, when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed en route to a gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. The desperate managers hired the first musicians they could find to fill the bill . . . and guess who was hanging around with a band of his teenage buddies from Fargo? You betcha. And the rest is history....

1962:  The Four Seasons, "Sherry"
In fourth grade, I listened a lot to my transistor radio, which I toted around the house with me, in its chestnut-brown leather carrying case. But in 1962, the local radio stations still -- as this list attests -- -played a lot more pop than they did rock 'n' roll; being in Indianapolis, we also got a lot of Motown and R&B, which was itself evolving slowly into full-fledged soul music. So none of us knew how to label this band, when they hit the charts with this song, their first big single. I suppose if I'd lived closer to Philly or the Jersey Shore I'd have been able to identify the doo-wop influence in their harmonies, but they definitely were edging more toward rock than the Bobbys Vee and Rydell.
    I'll confess, though, the main thing my friends and I focused on was that voice -- was that a man singing that high?  (and that whiny?)  We hadn't yet heard Wayne Newton, mind you.  But Frankie Valli's lead singing wasn't your typical falsetto; it was tough and aggressive, all cocky and street-wise. And this brilliant song, written by one of the band's members, Bob Gaudio (more on this to come -- they wrote their own songs), felt fresh and compelling. The melodic leaps, the backbeat rhythms, the cha-cha-cha undertow of seduction ("won't you come out tonight?") -- they hadn't yet gone all Vegas on us. (You wanna hear full-on male diva, listen to their next "girl" song, 1964's "Dawn [Go Away I'm No Good for You]").

    Well, you couldn't not listen.
    Was it the music I was waiting for? Not yet. But getting closer....


Carolyn Jackson said...

This is SO good, Holly, a real walk through a time period I can remember probably better than you can. Happy Birthday!

F. Walton Roper III said...

All of the old favorites - we grew up with them and then I played them all again on AM680 WINR... Oh those days!

Michael Procopio said...

My mother used to hum Vaya Con Dios. She didn't know the words, but then again, she never knew the words to anything.

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday.