Chart Digging, October 23, 1961

As my stint in third grade went through its second month, I’m not entirely sure what was on my mind beyond basic third-grade business. When I look at the Billboard Hot 100 from this date in 1961, I see many familiar titles, but I know that very few of them would have been familiar to me back then, when I was eight.

The Top Ten has some gems (and a few limpers) in it:

“Runaround Sue” by Dion
“Bristol Stomp” by the Dovells
“Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean
“Hit The Road, Jack” by Ray Charles
“Sad Movies (Make Me Cry)” by Sue Thompson
“This Time” by Troy Shondell
“I Love How You Love Me” by the Paris Sisters
“Let’s Get Together” by Hayley Mills & Hayley Mills
“Ya Ya” by Lee Dorsey
“The Fly” by Chubby Checker

There are three on that list that I might have known about as they sat in the Top Ten: “Runaround Sue” is one of those, simply for its popularity, though I’m not at all certain. Hayley Mills’ duet with herself from the first iteration of the movie The Parent Trap did catch my attention for a couple of reasons: We had the comic book version of the movie at home – my sister had bought it but I enjoyed it, too – and, having seen Ms. Mills in Pollyanna the year before, I had an eight-year-old’s crush on the young British actress. Still, I recall hearing the record only a couple of times, and listening to it today was, frankly, painful both in terms of content and performance. (Here is the YouTube link if you feel the need to check for yourself.)

Then there was Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” A spoken word tale of the archetypal quiet big man who sacrifices himself for his workmates, the record was, I think, a phenomenon, a judgment that seems accurate based on vague memory and on its chart performance: Five weeks at No. 1 on the pop chart, two weeks at No. 1 on the country chart and nine weeks at No. 1 on the adult contemporary chart.

Here’s a clip of Dean performing the song on his own television program, The Jimmy Dean Show, in 1963:

I likely heard the record on WCCO back in late 1961 when it was riding high on the AC chart, but I have to admit I didn’t get the story until a few years later, when the song showed up on a cheapie album by a group called the Deputies on the Wyncote label. The Wyncote album, titled Ringo, was put out to capitalize on Lorne Greene’s 1964 hit, and when I heard “Big Bad John” then, the narrative was clear (although I wondered for some time what a “Cajun queen” was).

(Along with “Ringo” and “Big Bad John,” the Wyncote album contained a lot of public domain material. I played the record a while back, and it’s still in pretty good shape, so I tried to rip it to mp3s, but there was a persistent hiss, which, I’ve read, is chronic problem with Wyncote LPs from that era.)

Anyway, from the Top Ten, I thought I’d drop to the lower portions of the Hot 100 from fifty-three years ago today and see if there was anything down there I might have recognized at the time. Surprisingly, there was.

I’ve mentioned on occasion that during the early 1960s, my sister – three years older than I – would sometimes pick up a bag of bargain 45s at Musicland or Dayton’s or wherever she found them during a trip to the Twin Cities. And I recall that one of those bargain bags brought her a copy of “Let There Be Drums” by Sandy Nelson.

Nelson’s surf-washed instrumental would eventually climb to No. 7, but fifty-three years ago today, it was just starting its climb and was bubbling under at No. 105. The bargain bag that brought the record to Kilian Boulevard was likely purchased sometime in early 1962, after the record had passed its peak. So while I might not have heard “Let There Be Drums” when it was on the chart, it didn’t have to wait ten to twenty years – as did many other records of the time – to reach my ears.

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