Generally, when I start of one these excursions through a specific entry of the Billboard Hot 100, I have a story I can tell about the time that the chart came out, even if it’s nothing more than noting how I spent my free time in, say, the spring of 1965 or the winter of 1971.
But February 1, 1958, had me stumped. I was four years old at the time, and as I began to scan the chart, nothing much was coming to mind from that time except my red wagon, the one that said “REX” on the side, the same one that today sits in the garage filled with rocks for a planned garden boundary. That’s a pretty slender thread on which to hang a memoir, so I kept looking, scanning the Hot 100, checking titles and finding tunes on YouTube. And then, at No. 36, I saw a memory.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the period when St. Cloud State Teachers College changed its name to St. Cloud State College (and when the enrollment was much smaller, just less than 3,900 in 1960 as opposed to today’s 18,000 or so), it seemed to me that my dad was pretty much the college’s audiovisual department. When a football game needed to be filmed, more often than not, Dad worked the camera. If an evening event called for a public address system or a slide projector, Dad often helped set things up. And on Friday and Saturday evenings, when a movie was scheduled in Stewart Hall Auditorium, it was often Dad running the projector.
I went along sometimes. I recall autumn evenings at Selke Field, the Depression-era football stadium not far from where I live today, usually sitting with Mom and my sister on the concrete benches but occasionally huddling against the wind on top of the pressbox, next to Dad and the movie camera.
And I recall going to movies when Dad ran the projector. I don’t remember a lot of the specific films, but one was the 1949 western She Wore A Yellow Ribbon starring John Wayne. And when I was looking at the hit songs of February 1, 1958, I recalled another film I saw in Stewart Hall, for there – at No. 36 – was listed “March from the River Kwai and Colonel Bogey” by Mitch Miller and His Orchestra and Chorus.
I imagine that we saw David Lean’s 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, sometime about 1960, the year I turned seven. I recall being puzzled by that very grown-up movie about war and deprivation and cruelty and duty. And I remember the film’s ambiguous ending.
I also remember the soundtrack’s main theme. And last night, as I heard Mitch and the boys whistling their way through their medley from the movie – the record peaked at No. 20 – I recalled the darkness of the sparsely filled Stewart Hall Auditorium on movie night. There were times when we all went and I sat with Mom and my sister in the main auditorium. But sometimes it was just Dad and me up in the projection booth, and I’d strain my ears as the whirr of the projector drowned out the movies’ quiet portions, and I’d watch the films’ images ride a cone of light from the booth across to the screen. Whether the movie was something I liked – or even understood, sometimes – didn’t matter. It was good to spend time with my dad.
Mitch Miller’s hit wasn’t the only familiar song in the Hot 100 from fifty-three years ago today, of course. In fact, the Top Ten reads in part like a selection from a Hall of Fame:
“At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors
“Get A Job” by the Silhouettes
“Short Shorts” by the Royal Teens
“Don’t” by Elvis Presley
“Sail On, Silvery Moon” by Billy Vaughn & His Orchestra
“The Stroll” by the Diamonds
“Sugartime” by the McGuire Sisters
“I Beg Of You” by Elvis Presley
“Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly
That’s some good stuff there. Some I don’t know much about and had to look up. The two Elvis tunes are all right: “Don’t” is a slow dance, and “I Beg Of You” sounds very much to me like “Don’t Be Cruel,” but they’re decent. “Sugartime” and the Vaughn track are familiar but bland. But the other six records in that Top Ten? Even with the silliness of “Short Shorts,” there’s brilliance there.
As good as that Top Ten is, however, our business is lower on the charts. Dale Wright was born Harlan Dale Riffe in Middleton, Ohio, and by the early days of 1958, “She’s Neat,” credited to “Dale Wright with the Rock-Its,” was at No. 54, headed to No. 38. It was the first of two Hot 100 hits for Wright; later, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, he worked as a deejay in the Midwest.
The charts from the late 1950s are intriguing, especially for one who doesn’t remember the era. Orchestral pop sits next to rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly shares a bench with R&B, and over there, at No. 22, we see the “Liechtensteiner Polka” by Will Glahe and His Orchestra. We’ll pass that one by, although you’re invited to look for it on YouTube. I saw several entries for Johnny Mathis in the Hot 100 from February 1, 1958, including the gorgeous “Chances Are,” but the one that caught my ear was “Wild is the Wind,” the title theme written by Dmitri Tiomkin for the film starring Anthony Quinn. I’m not sure how good the film was, but the theme – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song – is beautiful. Sitting at No. 56, it eventually went to No. 22.
One of the things I like best about late 1950s rock ’n’ roll and R&B is the frequent use of the saxophone. The instrument never really went out of style for R&B, but in my musically formative years, say 1967-70, saxophone seems to have been rare in rock. So it’s fun to dig back and find tune after tune reliant on saxophones for their kicks. One of those tunes in the Hot 100 fifty-three years ago today was “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee” by Lee Allen and His Band. Allen, as it happens, played sax on records by Fats Domino, Little Richard and others; later, in the 1980s, he played on the first three album by the Blasters. “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee,” – an answer tune to the Bobbettes’ 1957 hit, “Mr. Lee” – was at No. 61, headed to No. 54.
Rockabilly singer Clint Miller – born Isaac Clinton Miller in Ferguson, North Carolina – was eighteen in February of 1958 when his only hit, “Bertha Lou,” was climbing a short way up the Hot 100, sitting at No. 87 on its way to No. 79. It’s pretty much a standard rockabilly tune, until he tells Bertha Lou “I wanna conjugate with you . . .” English homework never seemed so cool.
From one one-hit wonder with a girl’s name in the title, we go to another: “Henrietta” by Jimmie Dee and The Offbeats, a band from San Antonio, Texas. First released on the Austin-based TNT label, the record was picked up by Dot for national release. I’m grabbed by the nearly desperate vocal atop the constantly chugging backing track. “Henrietta” was at No. 95 on February 1, 1958, and would peak at No. 47.