First Wednesday: October 1968

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll also update our examination of charts from fifty years ago if necessary and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month.

In October of 1968, the world’s focus – or much of it, anyway – shifted to Latin America.

The main event of the month was the 1968 summer Olympic games, which took place in Mexico City, Mexico, from October 12 through October 27. The games provided, in my memory, two iconic moments: The first is U.S. long jumper Bob Beamon collapsing in disbelief after breaking the world record for the long jump by an astounding 21 inches (55 cm). The second, and likely more well known, is the human rights protest by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their black-gloved hands during the awards ceremony for the 200-meter run.

But several other major events of the month took place in Latin American, the most important of which might have been the Tlatelolco Massacre, as it’s come to be called.

During the night of October 2, military personnel and other men with guns shot at five thousand students and workers who had gathered [to protest] in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. Ten years ago, Wikipedia noted: “The death toll remains controversial: some estimates place the number of deaths in the thousands, but most sources report between 200 and 300 deaths. The exact number of people who were arrested is also controversial.”

Notes from 2018: The report on the massacre at Wikipedia has changed over the past ten years. Regarding the death toll, the site now says: “According to US national security archives, Kate Doyle, a Senior Analyst of US policy in Latin America, documented the deaths of 44 people; however, estimates of the death toll range the actual number from 300 to 400, with eyewitnesses reporting hundreds dead.”

Beyond that, I am deleting from this post several additional paragraphs about the massacre, as the Wikipedia report has changed substantially in the past ten years, and I cannot be certain of the accuracy of what I wrote a decade ago. That post from ten years ago can be found here, and the current Wikipedia page on the massacre can be found here.

Elsewhere in Latin American that month, Juan Velasco Alverado took power via an October 3 revolution in Peru; in Panama, a military coup d’état led by Col. Boris Martinez and Col. Omar Torrijjos on October 11 overthrew the democratically elected government of President Arnulfo Arias.

There was also unrest in other portions of the world that month: On October 5, police in Derry, Northern Ireland, used batons to subdue civil rights demonstrators, an event often cited as the beginning of that country’s years of violence called The Troubles. In Jamaica, riots broke out on October 16 in response to the government’s banning from the nation the Guyanese author and activist Walter Rodney.

In the U.S., the Defense Department announced on October 14 that the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines planned to send 24,000 soldiers and marines back to Vietnam for involuntary second tours. Also relating to the war in Vietnam, by the end of the month, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that peace talks in Paris had progressed well enough that he was ordering a cessation of air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam, effective November 1.

(Cynics in the room might note that Johnson’s announcement and action came days before the U.S. presidential election, which was being contested by Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat; Richard Nixon, a Republican; and George Wallace of the American Independent Party. The announcement seemed to help Humphrey, as polls in the days before the November 5 election showed him gaining ground on Nixon. Political pundits and writers have theorized for [fifty] years that Humphrey would have won the presidency had the election been a week later or had Johnson announced the bombing halt a week earlier.)

So, in the midst of politics and blood and war, what did we hear that month when we sought solace in music?

Here are the top fifteen records in the Billboard Top 40 for October 5, 1968:

“Hey Jude” by the Beatles
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C Riley
“Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
“Little Green Apples” by O.C. Smith
“Girl Watcher” by the O’Kaysions
“Slip Away” by Clarence Carter
“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals
“I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You” by the Bee Gees
“1, 2, 3, Red Light” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company
“I Say A Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin
“Time Has Come Today” by the Chambers Brothers
“Revolution” by the Beatles
“The Fool On The Hill” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66
“Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud” by James Brown
“The House That Jack Built” by Aretha Franklin

Boy, that’s about as representative (and maybe as good) as a top fifteen can get, I’d guess. You’ve got the mainstream rock of the Beatles, the country cross-over from Riley (O.C. Smith’s record might have gotten some country play, too, I think), straight R&B from Aretha and Clarence Carter and some psychedelic R&B from the Chambers Brothers. There’s Arthur Brown’s powerful rock. You’ve got some blue-eyed soul from the Rascals, pop from the O’Kaysions and the Bee Gees, and a little bit of bubble-gum from the 1910 Fruitgum Company. And then there’s James Brown’s uncompromising and funky proto-rap. Wow!

A note from 2018: O.C. Smith’s “Little Green Apples” did not make the country Top 40 in Billboard, which I find a little surprising. The record did, however, go to No. 2 on the magazine’s R&B chart and to No. 4 on the magazine’s Easy Listening chart.

For those who bought their music via albums, it was also an interesting month. Here are the Billboard top ten albums for October 5, 1968:

Waiting For The Sun by the Doors
Time Peace/The Rascals’ Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Cheap Thrills by Big Brother & The Holding Company
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Gentle On My Mind by Glen Campbell
Realization by Johnny Rivers
Wheels Of Fire by Cream
Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly

There are a number of interesting records and names on that list. What might be most interesting, however, are titles and a name that aren’t there. In the previous week’s listing, the soundtrack to the film The Graduate had been in tenth place, featuring songs by Simon & Garfunkel as well as incidental music from the movie. When that album slipped out of tenth place, it marked the first time since March 16, 1968 – six-and-a-half months – that there was no mention of Simon & Garfunkel on the top ten albums list. Between the soundtrack to The Graduate and their own two albums, Bookends and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Simon & Garfunkel had dominated the albums list as much as anybody during 1968.

The records that did make up the top ten as October 1968 started are a pretty good bunch themselves. I would say that the only one that hasn’t aged very well at all is the Iron Butterfly, which to me is pretty much a dead end. (I should admit here that I purchased a copy of the group’s Live when it came out in 1970; the incessant noodling on the side-long live version of the group’s hit was even less accomplished than the side-long studio version, so I sold the album to a used record store within days.)

There might be a few quibbles about the quality of the rest of that albums list: Janis Joplin did far better on her own, with better backing musicians, than she did on the Big Brother album, but the record is still an interesting look at her development, as well as an acid-drenched product of its time. As I’ve noted here before, I always have some reservations about the Doors, but Waiting For The Sun has some good work on it, especially the single “Hello I Love You” and a few other tracks, including “The Unknown Soldier” and the pairing of the bluesy “Summer’s Almost Gone” and the awkward waltz of “Wintertime Love.”

Note from 2018: I’m startled that I didn’t single out the Johnny Rivers album for a comment. Any listing I make of my favorite ten albums of all time will, I think, always include Realization.

With those caveats, that’s a pretty good list of albums. And the album I’m posting today comes from the list: José Feliciano’s Feliciano!

As October 1968 began, Feliciano’s version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” had been in the Billboard Hot 100 for eleven weeks. It had peaked at No. 3, and the album from which it came, Feliciano!, was in its seventh week in the Billboard Top Ten, with seven weeks to come. (It would peak at No. 2 for two weeks in December 1968.) Feliciano, then twenty-three, was a big enough star in October 1968 that he was invited to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium before a World Series game. The performance – a Latin-tinged interpretation – was loved by some and criticized by many. (A single was issued and went to No. 50 during a five-week stay in the Billboard Hot 100.)

There’s no controversy in Feliciano! It’s a solid set of covers, in a style that All-Music Guide tabs as “soulful easy listening,” with Feliciano – who was blinded since birth by glaucoma – working his way through songs by the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Bobby Hebb, Tom Paxton and others, including, of course, the Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

Even with a singer as distinctive as Feliciano, though, performing such well-known songs as “Light My Fire,” “California Dreamin’,” “In My Life,” and “Here, There and Everywhere” can be awkward, if not actually risky. It’s difficult to cover such well-known material and not remind listeners of the originals. Feliciano managed that with “Light My Fire,” I think, and he battles “California Dreamin’” to a draw, but other than those tracks, the best tracks on the album are the lesser-known songs, especially Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind” and Fred Neill’s “Just A Little Bit Of Rain.” (The latter song is likely more familiar in the version recorded in the mid-1970s by the Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys.)

Still, Feliciano! is a good, if not great, album and it’s pleasant listening. It was Feliciano’s commercial peak, as only one other single and two of his succeeding albums – and he’s recorded prolifically – reached the Top 40. He continues to record, frequently in Spanish, and released his most recent album, Con Mexico en el Corazon, earlier this year.

Note from 2018: According to Wikipedia, Feliciano has released seven more albums in the past ten years, one in Spanish and six in English (including two that were offered only as digital downloads). His most recent listed is the 2017 album As You See Me Now, recorded with Jools Holland.

The credits for Feliciano! at All-Music Guide are slender and, I think, are incomplete. They do list Ray Brown on bass, Milt Holland on percussion and Jim Horn on flute, alto flute and recorder.

Tracks:
California Dreamin’
Light My Fire
Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying
In My Life
And I Love Her
Nena Na Na
(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me
Just A Little Bit Of Rain
Sunny
Here, There and Everywhere
The Last Thing On My Mind

José Feliciano – Feliciano! [1968]

The link above goes to a playlist of the full album at YouTube.

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