By Gene Sculatti
Kids today. And the music they listen to! As I write, Billboard’s (U.S.) Top 10 features three songs with the f-word in their title, one enumerating the joys of sado-masochism, and another urging immoderate consumption of vodka and cocaine—preferably as one “freaks it off” on the dance floor.
But really, can 2011 compare to what orthodox history still disparages, after half a century, as the unquestioned nadir of modern pop: the post-Elvis, pre-Beatles early 60s? The official story goes like this: rock ’n’ roll was defanged, with Elvis in the army, Chuck Berry in jail, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Richie Valens dead, Little Richard studying to become a minister. Jerry Lee Lewis, banned from the radio after his notorious nuptials (he’d married his 13-year-old cousin-once-removed), branded the period as a time when “a flock of Bobbies” ruled the airwaves. Not constables in cockscomb helmets, but well-coiffed hit men like Darin, Vee, Vinton and Rydell.
What the Killer meant was that a less vigorous form of pop had supplanted the earlier, more primitive hard stuff. There’s truth in this, but it doesn’t illuminate the full story of that twilight that existed just before the world changed for good.
Let’s look at the music of the year that started the decade that ended with Woodstock and the Manson murders, Let It Bleed and Abbey Road, and the debuts of Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Was it as wimpy as its detractors have it?
The Bobbies were out in full force: Vee modernizing the Clovers’ 1955 sl0w jam “Devil or Angel,” Rydell whooping it up on “Wild One and “Swingin’ School,” and Bronx polymath Darin extending his studies to include turn-of-the-century Dixieland (“Won’t You Come Home, Billy Bailey”), farcical folk (“Clementine”), Gallic balladry (“Beyond the Sea”) and gospel-rock (“Somebody to Love”).
In terms of its contributions to the Great Pop-Rock Songbook, 1960 was no slouch, introducing such contemporary standards as “Wonderful World” (Sam Cooke), “Save the Last Dance for Me” (the Drifters), “Cathy’s Clown” and “When Will I Be Loved” (Everly Brothers), “Stay” (Maurice Williams) and “Handy Man” (Jimmy Jones).
It was also a banner year for R&B. And not just because it gave Berry Gordy the hit that launched Motown, Barrett Strong’s “Money,” but for incendiary black sides that won full Top-40 validation: Buster Brown’s harp-drenched “Fannie Mae” and Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do,” Bobby Marchan’s murder-suicide pact “There’s Something on Your Mind” and Jackie Wilson’s sublime “Doggin’ Around.” Ray Charles, whose “Georgia on My Mind” topped the charts that year, had already introduced black church elements into pop, but in 1960 something even rawer and truly grittier was brewing—a kind of proto-soul that tossed off the supper-club cummerbund and worked to keep edges rough. You can hear it in the Olympics’ “Big Boy Pete” and Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter to Three,” in Bobby Peterson’s “Irresistible You,” Maxine Brown’s “All in My Mind” and Ike & Tina Turner’s first hits, “A Fool in Love” and the torrid “I Idolize You.” And few records ever sounded as slyly funky as New Orleans organist James Booker’s instrumental, “Gonzo.”
Nineteen-sixty was also rich in what came to be called ‘country crossover’: Johnny Bond’s cop-dodging Rod Lincoln,” Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me, I’m Falling,” and both Jim Reeves’ stoic “He’ll Have to Go” and Jeanne Black’s “He’ll Have to Stay.” Wanda Jackson and Bob Luman proffered pure rockabilly invites (“Let’s Have a Party” and “Let’s Think About Living” respectively), and Brenda Lee became a legendary balladeer (“I’m Sorry”). And three of rock ’n’ roll’s most venerated traditions were either birthed or significantly boosted in ’60: garage-rock via the Fendermen’s grungy “Mule Skinner Blues,” surf music in the Gamblers’ ghostly howling “Moondawg” (and its prescient flip, “LSD-25”), and girl-group sounds in the Shirelles’ Gerry Goffin-Carole King-penned “Tonight’s the Night” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
No less classic are Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely,” Fats Domino’s “Walking to New Orleans,” “The Twist” (both Hank Ballard’s original version and Chubby Checker’s), and all those high-drama productions from the Drifters (“This Magic Moment,” “I Count the Tears”). Jerry Butler first shaped the contours of a post-Impressions career with “He Will Break Your Heart,” and in “C’est Si Bon” Conway Twitty invented the over-lathered brand of cad camp that Bryan Ferry would remodel a decade later.
And 1960’s biggest record, No. 1 for nine weeks, was Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place.” The bittersweet orchestral piece, bursting with longing and regret, was clearly an influence on the early Beach Boys ballads, and thus a direct inspiration for much of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds.
So what about that flock of Bobbies? Their best records were lively exhortations to enjoy life, roll with the punches, go out and find a girl. If their manner was polite and pleasing, their hair and V-neck sweaters as luxuriant as the string-laden charts to the songs they sang, it’s only with hindsight that we find them suspect. Back then, the bad-boy virus that now infects all of pop hadn’t escaped Andrew Oldham’s lab, the Stones hadn’t rolled, and the f-word was, literally, off the charts.