Forty-three years ago today, I spent some time in Paris’ Montmartre district, touring the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and then walking to Place du Tertre, where painters gather to ensnare the tourists. Many years later, I looked back at that walk and wrote this:
The basilica’s neighborhood – including Place du Tertre – seemed almost too French, a little too close to what one thinks of when one imagines a Parisian neighborhood: Nattily dressed men, arms waving as they argue on the sidewalk; a student in tattered jeans sipping café au lait at a sidewalk table, jotting his thoughts into a journal and peering through the smoke of his Gauloise at the girls passing by; an older woman trudging to work or to the bakery past a row of parked Citroën autos; two priests walking rapidly with their heads down and with their cassocks flowing in the breeze made by their rapid passage down the sidewalk and into a side street; and the artists with their easels and their palettes and their berets, eyeing their own works critically and their neighbors’ works enviously.
It felt a little like a movie set or a collection of clichés, and it took a few moments of reflection for me to realize that it’s not often that life so perfectly mimics a stereotype. As I wandered from the basilica and into Place du Tertre, the image of Paris that I carried around inside me from books, movies and music was superimposed on the reality of Paris that was in front of me, and for a few brief and sweet moments, the two were congruent: I had found the Paris I had imagined I would find.
Of course, moments like that aren’t at all durable. In a few minutes, maybe a garbage truck came by from a nearby alley, or two backpacking travelers began laughing loudly at something that only they found humorous, or a group of Japanese tourists clustered around their flag-toting guide to hear what she had to say about the square, and that small corner of Paris was still Paris, but it was no longer as nearly perfect as it had been.
And as I look back, it seems to me that for those few moments of near-perfection, the only thing missing was the sound of an Edith Piaf song playing in the background: “No, je ne regrette rien . . . .”
So here, forty-three years later, is Edith Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien,” recorded in Paris on November 20, 1960. It’s today’s Saturday Single.
Having disposed with March of 1963 briefly last week, I dropped back two more years this morning to see what was going out over the airwaves during the first week of March 1961. The Billboard Top Ten for March 6 of that year – fifty-one years ago today – is at least somewhat familiar today:
“Pony Time” by Chubby Checker
“Surrender” by Elvis Presley
“Wheels” by the String-A-Longs
“Don’t Worry” by Marty Robbins
“Where The Boys Are” by Connie Francis
“Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk
“Baby Sittin’ Boogie” by Buzz Clifford
“Dedicated To The One I Love” by the Shirelles
“There’s A Moon Out Tonight” by the Capris
“Ebony Eyes” by the Everly Brothers
I think that two of those – the singles by the Shirelles and the Capris – rank as all-time classics although I’m certain I didn’t hear them in early 1961. The only one of those I remember hearing at the time is “Where The Boys Are,” which was the title song to a movie starring Francis and George Hamilton. Most of the rest are familiar now, of course, although I had to listen to “Wheels” and “Baby Sittin’ Boogie” for reminders. (And I was reminded how much I dislike maudlin songs about death when I listened this morning to “Ebony Eyes” for the first time in many years.)
And, then, of course, I dipped down further in the Billboard Hot 100 from fifty-one years ago to see what might be lurking in the spots below No. 60 or so.
One of the most familiar songs in country western music – at least to my ears – is “Ghost Riders In The Sky: A Cowboy Legend.” Written in 1948 by Stan Jones, the song has been recorded more than fifty times, according to Wikipedia, with the first recording coming from Burl Ives in 1949; that version went to No. 21 on the pop chart and to No. 8 on the country chart. Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles begins in 1955, so Ives’ single isn’t listed. The highest-placing cover Whitburn lists is the one I found at No. 62: The Ramrods’ instrumental take titled simply “Ghost Riders In The Sky” without the subtitle. The Ramrods – a quartet from Connecticut – had seen their version go to No. 30 two weeks earlier. It was their only Hot 100 hit. (Other notable versions of the tune include the Outlaws’ 1981 release that went to No. 31 and Johnny Cash’s 1979 take on the tune that didn’t hit the pop chart but went to No. 2 on the country chart, matching Vaughn Monroe’s 1949 version.)
With Chubby Checker’s “Pony Time” in the middle of a three-week stay at No. 1, another version of the song, this one by the Goodtimers, was sitting at No. 69, on its way to No. 60. One of the members of the Goodtimers was Don Covay, the writer of Checker’s single as well as a good number of other R&B hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “Mercy Mercy” and “Letter Full Of Tears.” “Pony Time” was the first of several hits for Covay, with and without the Goodtimers; the highest-placing were “Mercy Mercy,” which went to No. 35 in 1964 (with, Whitburn notes, Jimi Hendrix on guitar), and “I Was Checkin’ Out, She Was Checkin’ In,” which went to No. 29 in 1973. (On the R&B chart, those two records went to No. 1 – for two weeks – and to No. 6, respectively.)
After Aretha Franklin became a star at Atlantic in the late 1960s, the idea that Columbia hadn’t known what to do with her when she was there hardened from opinion into accepted musical wisdom. And it’s true that a lot of the stuff Franklin recorded at Columbia through 1966 wasn’t a good fit for her. So I was a little leery when I saw that her “Won’t Be Long” was sitting at No. 83 fifty-one years ago today. But the record, which was on its way to No. 76, is better by far than I expected it to be. And it’s a piece of history, too: “Won’t Be Long” was the first of eighty-eight singles that Franklin placed in or near the Hot 100 between 1961 and 1998. (It was her second hit in the R&B Top 40, going to No. 7.)
I haven’t had many reasons to share a record by Edith Piaf (I think it’s happened only two other times so far in five years), so when I saw her name pop up on the Hot 100 from March 6, 1961, the decision was easy. Sitting at No. 95, Piaf’s single “Milord” was the first and only single the legendary French singer ever placed in the Hot 100. (Her take on the theme to the movie “Exodus” bubbled under at No. 116 in the spring of 1961.) “Milord,” recorded in New York City, would peak at No. 88 in mid-March. (Another version of “Milord,” this one an instrumental by Frank Pourcel & His Orchestra, was bubbling under at No. 118 during that first week of March in 1961; it would peak at No. 112.)
Among my vivid memories from the early 1960s is the annual recognition of the incoming freshman class at St. Cloud State that took place at halftime of the first home football game. The announcer would ask the freshmen to stand as the marching band saluted them, and I recall seeing those young people stand, most seeming embarrassed and a few wearing their freshman beanies, as the band played “Hey Look Me Over” from the 1961 Broadway musical Wildcat. The version of the tune in the Hot 100 during the first week of March in 1961 was by the Pete King Chorale & Orchestra. The record – the only hit for Pete King and his musicians and the only version of the tune to ever hit the pop charts – would peak at No. 108. (For those wondering what a freshman beanie is, here’s a picture of the beanie from Ricker College in Maine. As was true at many colleges, for many years freshmen at St. Cloud State were required to wear their red and black beanies on campus and at college events during the first part of the academic year. According to a 1998 note at St. Cloud State’s website, “the beanie requirement was abolished in 1961, but for the next few years, freshmen were encouraged to wear them.”)
In one of the earlier James Bond novels – Diamonds Are Forever, published in 1956 – there is a scene during which Bond comes across a record player with the needle riding the groove at the end of the record. Bond goes to the record player and identifies the LP, which turns out to be Echoes of Paris by pianist George Feyer. Then, author Ian Fleming tells us: “He examined the other side and, skipping ‘La Vie En Rose’ because it had memories for him, put the needle down at the beginning of ‘Avril au Portugal’.”
I first read Diamonds Are Forever when I was twelve or so, and I missed a few things in that brief passage. First, I had no awareness of “La Vie En Rose,” one of the great French pop songs and one most frequently associated with singer Edith Piaf. Second, I missed Fleming’s hint that despite Bond’s stoic and sometimes aggressive demeanor, there were times when he was vulnerable. Third, because I had not yet read Casino Royale, the first Bond adventure, I missed what I think was a reference to Bond’s ill-fated love affair with Vesper Lynd.*
And fourth, I didn’t get – and I recall being puzzled – how a song can hold memories. That tells me that at the age of twelve, I didn’t yet understand one of the main premises on which a lot of my writing – including this blog – would eventually be based: That our memories come along with us (whether we like that or not) and one of the best keys to unlocking our closets of memories is music, whether it’s Lou Christie’s “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” Moby’s “South Side” or Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.”
That last tune, the one that left me blank when I first read its title in Diamonds Are Forever, now has memories that come to the surface when I hear it: First, I’m back in French class during my junior year of high school as our teacher, Madame Coffman, tries to explain the impact Piaf had on French popular culture. And then, I have in my head an image of James Bond – played by Sean Connery, of course – looking at the label of an LP. He cocks his head ever so slightly to the side as he does. Then he carefully places the record on the turntable and sets the needle at the beginning of the third track before getting back to the task that brought him to the room with the record player.
And that’s how memory and song overlap: Sometimes the song comes to us before the incidents that create the memory. Sometimes those incidents come first and the song comes by later. And on occasion, the song and the makings of the memory arrive together, and those times, I’d suggest, are among the most potent of the things we carry around with us. And as long as we live, music will remind us of the people, places and moments that we store in our closets of memories.
So, for James Bond, for Ian Fleming, and for that twelve-year-old reader who had yet to discover the often bittersweet linkage between music and memory, here, from 1947, is Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” And it’s today’s Saturday Single.
*I saw a note at a James Bond board this week that referenced John Pearson’s 1973 book, James Bond: The Authorised Biography of 007, saying “Pearson (who I am reading) suggests Bond’s disaffection for ‘La Vie En Rose’ occurs even earlier than Vesper.” That may be, as I am no Bondologist. But there is, if I recall correctly, a reference to “La Vie En Rose” being played in a nightclub in Casino Royale, so I’ll stop right there.