A Field Of 43s (And One 44)

Heading home the other day, I drove along the frontage road that parallels U.S. Highway 10 not far from our house. There’s a stretch there that bears watching for a driver, with lots of vehicles turning onto and off of the frontage road from various businesses: You’ll pass a bank, a tire place/tune-up garage, the main entrance to a mobile home park, a used car dealer, a Dairy Queen, a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and finally, a porn shop.

Being the height of the warm season – and with Highway 10 being one of the main routes from the Twin Cities to the northern part of the state, where many folks have vacation homes – the frontage road is appreciably busier at this time of year than others, especially where the two fast food joints sit side-by-side. Vehicles entering and exiting the two parking lots – with drivers distracted by appetites and possibly small children – make for a mini-jam.

And as I sat in the mini-jam the other day, I noticed the license plate on the car in front of me. It was an Idaho plate. About three years ago, I wrote about my one-time hobby of keeping track each year of the out-of-state license plates I saw, and I noted that the two rarest plates to see in Minnesota were those from Hawaii and Idaho. As I looked at the plate with its “Famous Potatoes” legend, I was tempted for an instant to resume that hobby from my teen years.

But no, I won’t do that. I’ve got my adult manias to feed now. Like noticing that Idaho was the forty-third state admitted to the Union and wondering what tunes were No. 43 on this date, ending with one of those years when I was looking for a license plate from Idaho.

We’ll start with 1956: The brief biography of Don Robertson in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles is pretty impressive. Robertson was born in Peking (now Beijing), China, in 1922 and was raised in Chicago. A pianist/composer, he was one-half of the pop duo The Echoes and wrote their best-known single “Born To Be With You,” which topped out at No. 101 in 1960. (The Chordettes took the song to No. 5 in 1956, and it’s been recorded by many artists and groups since.) Robertson also wrote, Whitburn notes, several of Elvis Presley’s hits and – with Hal Blair – Lorne Green’s No. 1 hit from 1964, “Ringo.” He’s also credited by Whitburn with creating the Nashville piano style. And fifty-five years ago this week, his “Happy Whistler” was the No. 44 song in the U.S. (Wait, I can hear you say. We were looking for songs that were No. 43. Yes, we were, but the Billboard Hot 100 for August 1, 1956, lists two songs tied at No. 42. Instead of trying to break the tie, I took the next song down the list.) Robertson has one other single listed in Whitburn’s book: His version of the “Tennessee Waltz” bubbled under at No. 117 in the summer of 1961.

Getting back to our original intent, the No. 43 tune during this week in 1959 was a sprightly ditty titled “Keep It Up” from Dee Clark, who is likely best known for “Raindrops,” his 1961 hit that went to No. 2. Clark, who hailed from Blytheville, Arkansas, racked up ten Hot 100 hits between 1958 and 1963. “Keep It Up” was his second-most successful single, getting to No. 18. Whitburn notes that before becoming a solo performer in 1957, Clark sang in groups known as the Hambone Kids, the Goldentones, the Kool Gents and the Delegates. Clark last showed up near the chart in 1965, when his “T.C.B.” went to No. 132.

In the autumn of 1961, Jimmy Dean had a No. 1 hit with “Big Bad John,” his tale of tragedy and heroism in a coal mine. The next spring, Dean’s “P.T. 109,” an account of the heroic actions of then-President John F. Kennedy during a World War II naval engagement, went to No. 8. In the summer of 1962, Dean’s “Steel Men” combined working class tragedy and real life events, relating the tale of the collapse of a bridge under construction in British Columbia, Canada. The collapse, which took nineteen lives, according to Wikipedia, resulted in the completed bridge being named the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing. Dean’s record about the event, which was at No. 43 forty-nine years ago this week, didn’t fare as well as his previous efforts, reaching only No. 41. Dean would have four more hits in the Hot 100, with “Little Black Book” from the autumn of 1962 doing the best by reaching No. 29.

Between 1956 and 1980 (with some admittedly long gaps), Roy Orbison notched thirty-eight records in or near the Billboard Hot 100. During the last week of July 1965, the record at No. 43 was Orbison’s “(Say) You’re My Girl,” which is kind of a herky-jerky tune, one that I’d call idiosyncratic. The record went only to No. 39, and for the rest of his long career, the lower reaches of the Top 40 was about the best that Orbison did, until “You Got It” went to No. 9 in early 1989, shortly after Orbison’s death in late 1988.

Billy Vera’s name is most familiar to music fans, I’d guess, from “At This Moment,” his 1987 No. 1 record with his R&B backing group, The Beaters. But he’s had some success as a songwriter and in early 1968, he and Judy Clay hit the Top 40 with their duet “Country Girl – City Man,” which went to No. 36. That summer, Vera released his version of the divorce-themed “With Pen In Hand” and saw it get as high as No. 43, which is where it sat during the last days of July. The more successful version of the tune was by Vicki Carr, whose single went to No. 35. (I was surprised for an instant – and then, after some thought, not so surprised – to see that the song was written by Bobby Goldsboro.)

In an era when numerous hit records touched on or clearly promoted the Christian faith – the best example, offhand, might have been Ocean’s “Put Your Hand In The Hand,” which went to No. 2 in May of 1971 – perhaps the most moving of those records was “Mighty Clouds of Joy” by  B.J. Thomas. I’d not heard it for years until this morning, and the faith expressed is one I don’t share, but I still found it musically thrilling, as I did forty years ago when I occasionally heard it coming out of the radio speakers. As July ended in 1971, the record was sitting at No. 43 on its way to No. 34, one of twenty-five records Thomas placed in the Hot 100. His best performing records were two that reached No. 1: “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” was No. 1 for four weeks in early 1970, and “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” topped the chart for a week in 1975.

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