‘Down-town! Down-town!’

Every so often, a record makes its way up the charts and touches something in the public that makes it not just a hit record but a pop culture sensation. Even those who do not listen to pop music become aware of it, and the record might even become a tag line that sums up an era – or at least a portion of an era.

Two of the more prominent such records I can recall span a good-sized length of time and a huge distance on the quality meter: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles in 1964 (No. 1 for seven weeks) and “Macarena (bayside boys mix)” by Los Del Rio in 1996 (No. 1 for fourteen weeks). Others that come to mind – and this will be a brief list created after minimal research, so it will necessarily be incomplete; readers are invited to leave their own suggestions in a comment – include:

“The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Fess Parker Bill Hayes, No. 1 for five weeks in 1955 (backed by the power of the Disney television show and one of the largest [and possibly earliest] marketing blitzes of tie-in merchandise in the United States).

“Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley, No. 1 for 11 weeks in 1956.

“The Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley, No. 1 for six weeks in 1958.

“The Twist” by Chubby Checker, No. 1 for one week in 1960 and for two weeks in 1962.

“Ode to Billy Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, No. 1 for four weeks in 1967.

“American Pie, Parts I and II” by Don McLean, No. 1 for four weeks in 1972. (I wonder how many deejays played the split 45 – which I recall hearing on the air at least once – and how many went for the album track.)

“Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Ole Oak Tree” by Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando, No. 1 for four weeks in 1973. (This might be the most influential pop song of all time, given the reflexive reaction these days to mount displays of yellow ribbons for someone who is lost or gone away.)

“Convoy” by C. W. McCall, No. 1 for one week in 1976.

After that, except for “Macarena,” I’m not at all sure, given my tenuous connection to pop culture – especially pop music – during many of the years that followed. As I said, I would welcome suggestions.

So what brought that somewhat slender list to the fore today? It seems to me that the first entry in today’s selection from the Ultimate Jukebox might belong on that list. It was one of those records that seemed omnipresent at the time it was out, and it seemed at the time that everyone knew the record: the young folks who listened to Top 40 radio, the young folks who didn’t (and I, of course, was one of those) and the older folks who didn’t listen to Top 40. The record? “Downtown” by Petula Clark.

“Downtown” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 87 during the week of December 19, 1964, then skipped to No. 41. It went to No. 12 in the first week of 1965 and then to No. 5 and to No. 4 before spending the last two weeks of January at No. 1. That’s not the quickest rise ever (I recall writing about “Let It Be” and its massive leap), but it has to rank up there pretty well.

And everyone seemed to like it. It was a bouncy bit of pop sung well and produced well. (The 1992 edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide said the record had “a mild Phil Spector-ish production,” which nails it pretty well.) It wasn’t rock, by any long stretch of the imagination (despite the voters for the Grammys who honored the record as the Best Rock and Roll Recording of 1965). And it had one hell of a hook, with its “Down-town!” (Without digging around, it strikes me that songwriter Tony Hatch came up with the shortest hook possible; or can a hook be just one note?)

Anyway, while perhaps not as influential on pop culture as some of the records in the list above, “Downtown” seemed to be everywhere as 1964 ended and 1965 began. Here’s a video, probably from around that time, of Petula Clark lip-synching the song.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 26
“Downtown” by Petula Clark, Warner Bros. 5494 [1964]
“Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells, Atlantic 2478 [1968]
“Handbags & Gladrags” by Rod Stewart from The Rod Stewart Album [1969]
“Travelin’ Band” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy 637 [1970]
“Highway 49” by Howlin’ Wolf from The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions [1970]
“Thunder & Lightning” by Chi Coltrane, Columbia 45640 [1972]

I mentioned when I started this project that there was still one record I was uncertain about including and that I’d make that decision during Week 38 when I present the final six records in the jukebox. Actually, there’s another record whose place I’ve debated over the past few months: “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells. Sometimes when it pops up in company with the other songs on my Zen player it seems flat and blah and utterly out of place. Other times, it seems vibrant and creative and indispensible as Archie Bell calls his players out and brings them into the mix. Obviously, this week it seems the latter, and now I can quit dithering about it and just enjoy a record that was No. 1 for two weeks in the spring of 1968.

For the second week in a row, Rod Stewart shows up here, this time with “Handbags & Gladrags,” another one of those songs that I collect in as many versions as I can find. Written by Michael D’Abo (who was the lead singer for Manfred Mann as well as having a respected solo career), the plaintive song gets probably its best reading as an album track on Stewart’s first album (titled An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down in Britain). The album had no hit singles in the U.S., and that’s always baffled me; the inclusion of “Handbags & Gladrags” on Stewart’s first anthology, Sing It Again Rod, has always made me wonder if the track was released as a single in the U.K. (and if it was released here and utterly tanked). Whatever the case, the track is another bit of sweet testimony as to how good Stewart once was.

CCR’s “Travelin’ Band” peaked at No. 2 in early March of 1970. The record lasts only two minutes and seven seconds, but into those 127 seconds, John Fogerty and his bandmates pack in plenty of potent reminders of Little Richard and the rest of the artists he had to have listened to during his youth in California. As it happens, I’m not the only person to hear Little Richard in “Travelin’ Man.” According to The Billboard Book of No. 2 Singles, Arco Industries, which owned the copyright to Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly,” filed suit against Fogerty for what it said was his use of the song. The Billboard book cites CCR bassist Stu Cook as saying in Bad Moon Rising: “The song is a direct rip-off of Little Richard’s style . . . I always thought it sounded more like ‘Long Tall Sally.’ Of course, Little Richard wasn’t above quoting himself, either.” The suit was settled, Cook is quoted as saying, when CCR’s label, Fantasy, bought the Little Richard tune from Venice Music.

A while back, on one of those evenings when my pal Rob and I were sifting through the mp3 collection for something he could use in one of his classes, I clicked on Howlin’ Wolf’s reading of “Highway 49” from his London sessions in May 1970. As Eric Clapton’s incendiary intro rang out, Rob stared and blurted, “That’s not blues, that’s rock ’n’ roll!” Actually, it’s both, merged in a way that points out how difficult it can be to sort genres when performances get close to the edges. Given the Wolf’s vocal performance, it would be hard to argue that “Highway 49” is not blues. Given the instrumental backing of the track, it would be hard to argue against rock. So the best thing to do, I think, is to quit worrying about labels and just enjoy the Wolf as he and his long-time guitarist Hubert Sumlin work with one of the best collections of rock musicians ever brought together as a backing band: Clapton on lead guitar, Bill Wyman on bass, Charlie Watts on percussion and Jeffrey M. Carp on harmonica. (Steve Winwood played keyboards, but according to the notes in the CD reissue, his parts were added later in Chicago.)

One of the first albums I ripped from vinyl and shared through the first version of this blog was Chi Coltrane’s self-titled debut album, anchored by her only hit single, “Thunder and Lightning.” The rest of the album was fairly good, but none of the songs matched up against that single, which turned out to be Coltrane’s only hit. I’d liked “Thunder and Lightning” a fair amount when it was on the radio, so after I posted that first album I dug around online and found two more of the Wisconsin-born singer’s albums, 1973’s Let It Ride and Road to Tomorrow from 1977. Let It Ride features a cover of “Hallelujah,” first recorded by the Clique in 1969 and later a minor hit for Sweathog in 1971, but otherwise the two albums are pretty blah. That’s okay. There remains “Thunder and Lightning,” which went to No. 17 during the autumn of 1972.

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4 Responses to “‘Down-town! Down-town!’”

  1. Larry Grogan says:

    ‘Tighten Up’ is worth noting because it was HUGELY influential. There are countless rip-offs, answer records, and tributes that build off of it. I don’t know if any of them made the charts, but I’m always turning them up.
    RE: Downtown, one night, many years ago, a buddy of mine and I went drinking in Hoboken and played ‘Downtown’ on the jukebox more than a dozen times, until they unplugged the jukebox and threatened to toss us out. Great song!

  2. porky says:

    On a recent American Top 40 Countdown I heard “Funky Nassau” by The Beginning of the End and had forgotten its similarity to “Tighten Up.”

    Wasn’t “Tighten Up” just a “re-styling” of King Curtis’s “Memphis Soul Stew?” But a hundred, ok, thousand times more danceable?

  3. Yah Shure says:

    Good call on Petula. You knew that “Downtown” had made the map once Allan Sherman and Mrs. Miller boarded the bus. Back in the pre-SoundScan rock era, no one beat the Beatles’ spectacular conquering of the Hot 100, when “Can’t Buy Me Love” reached the top in only its second week.

    On the “Davy Crockett” front, Bill Hayes’ #1 cover on the Cadence label beat out Fess’ #5 original for Columbia. Perhaps that was Cadence owner Archie Bleyer’s way of sticking it to his former label.

    Most radio stations didn’t get the Part 1/Part 2 split of “American Pie.” When they weren’t playing the LP version, they were more likely to have aired the mono DJ 45 edit, which has never been made available for public consumption. It began cold with “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie…”

    Rod’s “Handbags And Gladrags” was released twice as a U.S. single; first in ’69, then reissued post-”Maggie May” in early ’72. It fared much better (#42) when sandwiched between “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “You Wear It Well”.

    One could put together quite the set with “Memphis Soul Stew”, “Tighten Up” and the Bonzo’s “The Intro And The Outro.” I’ve always gotten a laugh out of Country Joe McDonald’s 1977 track, “Wilderness Trail”, where he literally picks off each musician one by one with his trusty Ol’ Betsy. Davy Crockett would’ve been downright proud.

  4. Paco Malo says:

    Suggestions on “a record [that] makes its way up the charts and touches something in the public that makes it not just a hit record but a pop culture sensation”, eh?

    I nominate “La Bamba”, a Mexican folk song brought to rock by Richie Valens, and later an international hit Los Lobos covered it for the biopic on Valens. Check out the international chart success of the 1987 Los Lobos cover at
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Bamba_%28song%29#Charts

    Great pick with “Downtown”. I can still here it on my dad’s am car radio as a kid. The hook had me before I knew what a hook was.

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