I had a hell of a time learning to tie my shoes. Back in March 1959, as my stay in Kindergarten was going on seven months, I was – if I recall things accurately, and I’m pretty sure I do – the last student in the morning Kindergarten session at Lincoln Elementary who had not yet learned to tie his shoes.
Why do I remember?
Because when a Kindergartner learned to tie his or her shoes and then demonstrated that skill to Miss Wendt on the Fisher-Price shoe – which came complete with wooden figures representing the old woman and her many children who lived there – the successful student was awarded a small picture of two neatly tied shoes printed on construction paper. That picture was then placed on the door of the student’s storage cubby. (We kept our coats, tennis shoes and rugs for naptime in our cubbies.)
And as March was ending, your narrator’s cubby was, he’s pretty sure, the only morning student’s cubby in the room that was not decorated with a picture of neatly tied shoes. I spent a lot of time with the Fisher-Price shoe that spring, tangling its laces over and over as I tried to master the basic skill of shoe-tying. It eluded me, seeming as difficult a task as splitting atoms or eating spaghetti without slurping the noodles up like worms.
On the other hand, there were things that I could do that no other Kindergartner had yet begun to try, as Miss Wendt learned one day. I’d been inattentive, a chronic state for me. (Had I been born in 1993 rather than in 1953, I would certainly have been diagnosed with and treated for Attention Deficit Disorder. Would life have been easier? In many ways, yes. Would I have been as creative? I tend to think not.)
When my lack of focus on that particular day became disruptive – I suppose I wouldn’t quit talking to the student next to me, whoever that was – Miss Wendt put me into the 1950s version of a time-out. She had me take a set of pages from the stack of newspapers in the corner – used to protect the tables during messy art projects – and go to the far end of the room, where I was to lie down on the two pages of newspaper until I could behave.
I lay on my newspaper for a while as the rest of the class moved on to something else, perhaps one of those art projects. After a bit, I got up and carried my two pages of the newspaper to Miss Wendt and said something very much like “May I have some more pages? I’ve finished these.”
“Finished them? What do you mean?”
“I’ve read them.”
Skeptical, Miss Wendt picked up another set of newspaper pages, pointed to a paragraph and asked me to read it to her. To her surprise, I did just that. It turns out I could read at about a second-grade level, having taught myself from the elementary schoolbooks left over from when my mother was a teacher. (I’d demonstrated my abilities to my mother once, but evidently, she didn’t clue in the folks at Lincoln School.)
Nothing much came of my newspaper reading during the rest of the Kindergarten year, but starting in first grade and for the rest of my school days, I was either in an accelerated reading program – sometimes by myself – or I was part of the school’s first and tentative program for what would these days be called gifted students.
But all that was yet to come, as was the largest accomplishment of my term in Kindergarten. One day that spring, I asked Miss Wendt to watch as I carefully took the laces of the Fisher-Price shoe and tied a fairly even bow. I got my construction paper shoes and proudly taped them to the door of my cubby. Compared to being able to tie my shoes, reading a newspaper was no big thing.
It was about this time of year in 1959 when I taped those shoes on my cubby. And, interestingly enough, I saw this morning that I remember two of the records in the Billboard Hot 100 – one of them in the Top Ten – that was released fifty-two years ago today.
The Top Ten from March 23, 1959, was:
“Venus” by Frankie Avalon
“Charlie Brown” by the Coasters
“Alvin’s Harmonica” by David Seville & the Chipmunks
“It’s Just A Matter Of Time” by Brook Benton
“Tragedy” by Thomas Wayne with the DeLons
“Come Softly To Me” by the Fleetwoods
“I’ve Had It” by the Bell Notes
“Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price
“Never Be Anyone Else But You” by Ricky Nelson
“Donna” by Ritchie Valens
That’s a decent Top Ten for the late 1950s. The records by the Coasters, Brook Benton, the Fleetwoods and Lloyd Price are classics. Most folks would put “Donna” in there, but that’s one I’ve never liked all that much. I can live without Frankie Avalon.
Of the others, I know the Ricky Nelson and “Tragedy” although they really don’t stand out. “I’ve Had It,” which I’d not heard until this morning, turns out to have a surf music sound a couple of years – I think – before that genre took off.
And that leaves “Alvin’s Harmonica” at No. 3, which I remember clearly. The creation of David Seville (who was born Ross Bagdasarian and who had a No. 1 hit with “Witch Doctor” in 1958), the Chipmunks reached the Hot 100 twelve times and the Christmas chart nine times over the years. That’s misleading, of course, as the Christmas listing includes five reissues of the original Christmas “Chipmunk Song” from 1958 (and a 2007 remake) as well as three annual issues in the early 1960s of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” And the Hot 100 listings include reissues of “Alvin’s Harmonica” in both 1960 and 1961. I suppose it could have been during one of those later years when I heard “Alvin’s Harmonica,” but the records during those years went to only Nos. 73 and 87, respectively. So I’d bet that I heard “Alvin’s Harmonica” during its early 1959 chart stay. (Having been reminded of the Chipmunks, I may have to pull from the shelves the 1982 album Chipmunk Rock and finish ripping it to mp3s.)
The other record I remember from the Hot 100 of March 23, 1959, was sitting at No. 26: “The Children’s Marching Song (Nick Nack Paddy Whack)” by Mitch Miller & His Orchestra & Chorus. The song seems to have derived from an English folk song, says Wikipedia, which adds, “In 1948 it was included by Pete Seeger and Ruth Crawford in their American Folk Songs for Children and recorded by Seeger in 1953. It received a boost in popularity when it was adapted for the 1958 film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by composer Malcolm Arnold as ‘The Children’s Marching Song’, which led to hit singles for Cyril Stapleton and Mitch Miller.” Stapleton’s version – which shows the nonsense chorus as “Nick Nack Taddy Whack” – peaked at No. 13 and was at No. 26 in the March 23, 1959, chart. Miller’s version, which is the one that I recall, had peaked at No. 16 and was at No. 26 fifty-two years ago today.
From there, we go down the Hot 100 to No. 51, where we find “Pretty Girls Everywhere” by Eugene Church and The Fellows, a repetitive but enjoyable piece of R&B that would peak at No. 36 and go to No. 6 on the R&B chart. “Pretty Girls Everywhere” was the highest charting record for Church. Later in 1959, “Miami” went to No. 67 and in 1960, “Good News” bubbled under at No. 106; those records went to Nos. 14 and 19, respectively, on the R&B chart. Interestingly, one of the Fellows who recorded “Pretty Girls Everywhere” with Church was Jesse Belvin, whose many accomplishments included recording “Good Night My Love (Pleasant Dreams),” a classic that went to No. 7 on the R&B chart in 1956. Getting back to “Pretty Girls Everywhere,” I like the “boogity-boogity, boogity-woogity” at 1:23 and the sax break that follows at about 1:31.
From No. 51, we drop down to No. 67 and the Rivieras’ doo-wop version of “Moonlight Serenade,” the tune that bandleader and trombonist Glenn Miller used as his theme song during the Big Band era of the 1930s and early 1940s. The record – a nicely done version of the classic song – was the best charting single ever for the New Jersey quintet, eventually peaking at No. 47. A 1958 single, “Count Every Star,” had peaked at No. 73, and after “Moonlight Serenade,” the group would have one more single in the Hot 100: “Since I Made You Cry” would get to No. 93 in 1960. Two more singles would reach the Bubbling Under portion of the chart. I’d say that if this version of “Moonlight Serenade” is the best you can do, you’ve done pretty well.
A name familiar to those who know the music of the mid-1960s pops up at No. 84, where John Fred and The Playboys sit with “Shirley.” More than eight years later, billed as John Fred & His Playboy Band, the group would have a No. 1 hit with “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” a joyful piece of pop inspired by the Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” “Shirley,” on the other hand, owes a debt to every R&B record with a honking saxophone. It’s worth noting that at the time “Shirley” was on the chart – it peaked at No. 82 – bandleader John Fred was seventeen years old.
Linda Laurie was a singer and songwriter from Brooklyn. One can find a number of her records at YouTube (including “Stay-At Home Sue,” an answer to Dion’s 1961 hit “Runaround Sue”), and among her writing credits is “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress),” which Helen Reddy took to No. 3 in 1973. But Laurie shows up in the March 23, 1959, Hot 100 with what may be the greatest novelty record of all time: “Ambrose (Part Five).” The person who posted the video notes that Parts One through Four never existed, adding that the record inspired two sequels, “Forever Ambrose,” and “The Return Of Ambrose.” I’m going to have to look them up. By the time the Hot 100 was released fifty-two years ago today, “Ambrose (Part Five)” had peaked at No. 52 and had dropped to No. 88. The record turned out to be Laurie’s only entry on the chart, and I suppose that was a disappointment, as she did have a nice singing voice. But still, there’s so much to like in “Ambrose (Part Five),” from the cocktail piano and Laurie’s Brooklyn accent to the abrupt ending. And the record offers one of the greatest sets of spoken lines in pop history: “You wanna be a disk jockey? Oh, Ambrose, you can’t spend the rest of your life avoiding responsibility!”