March 15, 2011


Music has really been on the front burner in the Spy Vibe lair recently and I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the #1 hits from 1961. What was happening fifty years ago? Patrick McGoohan's Danger Man was already in its first season of 39 episodes (1960-1961). The Avengers premiered! The Peace Corps began (there are 50th anniversary celebrations this year). The Berlin Wall was built, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space. Bringing a new spin on the mystery of space exploration, a writer named Stan Lee took a chance on an idea to bring comic books out of a period of passivity with a new story called Fantastic Four and launched Marvel Comics. The world was changing quickly and the music of the era illustrated some growing pains.

The charts in the US and UK, for the most part, show the kind of passive environment that Stan Lee was rebelling against. Ballads and easy listening were popular- nothing too challenging from the likes of a post-army Elvis Presley with
Wooden Heart and Are You Lonesome Tonight? Bert Kaempfert released the #1 hit Wonderland by Night. Calcutta became a hit for Lawrence Welk, and Pat Boone offered his Moody River. The list goes on if you can stay awake for it. Despite an overall air of sedation, there were some slightly rebellious tunes that reflected the changing times.

There were #1 chart hits in 1961 that suggest that the energy of pop music was trying to hang on in the absence of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. The Shirelles had a hit with
Will You Love Me Tomorrow? It's b-side track, Boys, was covered later by The Beatles. Motown had its first #1 hit with Please Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes (also covered later by The Beatles). Other stand-out tunes from 1961 evoke the mood of George Lucas' American Graffiti, including Blue Moon by the Marcels, Runaway by Del Shannon, The Lion Sleeps Tonight by the Tokens, and Travelin' Man by Ricky Nelson. There were even bigger things on the horizon. Remember that 1961 was also the year that Bob Dylan began playing steadily in Greenwich Village and The Beatles were honing their ruckus sound in German clubs. Bert Kaempfert (above) would actually make The Beatles' first recordings with Tony Sheridan in Hamburg in June of 1961.

My favorite top-chart song from that year reached #1 in October. Hit the Road Jack, sung by Ray Charles, was written by Percy Mayfield in 1960. I imagine it appealed to Ray Charles because he was a great fan of Nat King Cole, whose trio recorded a similar tune, Hit That Jive Jack, in the 1940s. I remember singing Mayfield's catchy chorus over and over as a kid, and I like to see it as a kind of symbolic gesture of farewell from Ray Charles to the older generation, as the youth culture of the 1960s began to re-shape and respond to the modern world. Take it away, Ray!

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