There’s Still So Much Left To Learn

One of the questions about music from the late 1950s and the early 1960s that I consider from time to time is: What do I actually remember?

I’ll look at a list of songs from a particular year – usually the records that got to No. 1 in Billboard (or occasionally Cashbox) – and see how many of them I actually remember. Not how many of them I know now – that’s usually all of them – but how many I remember hearing as I lived through that time. Given that I was six when the 1950s turned into the 1960s, the numbers of records I remember actually hearing from some of those early years can be quite small.

As an example, I give you 1959, the year I turned six: Of the fifteen songs that made it to No. 1 in Billboard that year, I recall hearing only one: Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans.” Where I heard it, I don’t know, but I remember singing along: “We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’ . . .”

The numbers of songs I remember increases year-by-year, of course. Some of that is a function of memory, I’m sure. Some of it can likely be ascribed to the increased popularity of the music itself. And a large part of it is my own increased interest in the music, to the point where from 1966 on into the mid-1980s, I remember hearing during its run in the chart nearly every record that got to No. 1. (I use the word “nearly” there because of the 1973-74 academic year I spent in Denmark; I had to catch up later with about half of the records that went to No. 1 during those months.)

So what’s the point, exactly? I’m not sure there is one, really. But this morning, I was looking through songs that were in the chart during this week in 1962, and I realized – not for the first time – that one of my favorite records from 1962 is one that I don’t recall from the time and that I almost certainly didn’t hear back then: Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl” was No. 1 on the pop chart for three weeks and No. 1 on the R&B chart for five weeks.

I don’t remember it. I recall “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, and I heard “The Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee & The Starliters. I know I heard “Stranger on the Shore” by Mr. Acker Bilk and I heard David Rose’s “The Stripper.” Now, those four make sense: The twist – the dance and the accompanying records – was a pop culture phenomenon. And the other two tunes were mainstays of the middle of the road radio stations we listened to at home: “Stranger on the Shore” went to No. 7 on what is now called the Adult Contemporary chart, and “The Stripper” went to No. 2 on the same chart. But most of the records on that 1962 list were strangers to me during the year I turned nine, and that holds true for all the ages I was from the mid-1960s back.

Accordingly, one of the first things I realized when I began to dig into the history of pop music as a serious hobby sometime in the late 1980s was that I had a lot of things to learn. And that was fine, as learning about stuff as fascinating as music was fun, and I eventually got to a point where very little in the lists of No. 1 hits – or even Top Ten hits – could surprise me. Then, twenty or so years after that self-education project began, I started a blog and in the process of finding new things to write about, I began to dig into the Hot 100 charts from over the years. And I’m reminded every time I do that how little I actually know.

Not surprisingly, that lack of knowledge is greater, once again, in those early years. So as I dig into those years – now extended back to the mid-1950s because I have the charts and my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles – I am once again challenged and pleased. Whether I’m looking into those sources for one of the Chart Digging posts that have become a mainstay of this blog or simply to pass the time, I’m finding two or five or twelve (or more) things I didn’t know before.

Among today’s harvest, as I looked through the Billboard Hot 100 from May 12, 1962, was Gene Chandler’s follow-up to “Duke of Earl.” Actually credited to the Duke of Earl, the single “Walk On With The Duke” was bubbling under at No. 112 forty-nine years ago today. The record topped out at No. 91 and did not make the R&B Top 40. But it’s fun to know about it.

Recommended reading: At The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, jb takes a pensive look at life via a record that never strays far from me. His thoughts on Seals & Crofts’ “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” are worth your time.

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3 Responses to “There’s Still So Much Left To Learn”

  1. jb says:

    Thanks for the link, sir.

    I was thinking about “The Stripper” the other day, and wondering if young people still hear it the way it was heard in the 1960s. Today’s strippers are working out to hip-hop and hard rock–there’s still a beat involved, but it’s a much different beat than the boom-bop-a-boom beat of “The Stripper.” Do those lascivious trombones still sound lascivious to somebody who’s 23 years old?

  2. I have a buddy who, for years, would play a regular gig with Gene Chandler each year.

  3. Paco Malo says:

    The lights and sound came on for me in 1970 when, at 13, I got my first stereo. Before that it was AM radio stations my dad picked in the car and his Herb Alpert records at home. What I do remember is “Tom Dooley” (1958) by the Kingston Trio, “Downtown” (1964) by Petula Clark, and the album cover of “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” (1965) by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

    Almost everything pre-1970 I found by backtracking and “growing to understand” what I was hearing. A good example of that growth is Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” double album (1966). As a teenager, that masterpiece was way over my head. For me, the road from “Tom Dooley” to “Visions of Johanna” was a long one, but worth every mile.

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