|By 1961 rock and roll had become almost synonymous with popular music. In all its variations, it dominated the radio airways and the music charts. Of the 20 songs that climbed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, only four would probably be identified as “non rockers:” “Wonderland By Night” by Bert Kaempfert, “Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk, “Wooden Heart” by Joe Dowell and “Michael” by The Highwaymen.
Rock and roll had clearly diversified by 1961 as no artist had multiple number one songs. Elvis had done well in 1960 in the year of his return (three #1 songs) and 1961 would begin with “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in its sixth week in the top spot. But in 1961 he would have only one #1, “Surrender” -- a song that was more closely related to his “Now Or Never” side than the more rock and rolling “Little Sister” that topped out at #5. With no multiple number one entries, Elvis still gets the nod as the top performer of 1961 as he had four entries in the top ten, a number matched only by Brenda Lee who also had four, but no #1’s. Others with more than two top ten hits in 1961 were: Chubby Checker, Connie Francis, The Shirelles, and Bobby Vee.
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This diversity was further represented by the different sounds that emanated from under the rock and roll umbrella. Hard rockers like “Runaway” by Del Shannon and “Quarter to Three” by Gary U.S. Bonds reached #1. The Shirelles with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and the new Motown sound of Martha & The Vandellas with “Please Mr. Postman” represented the old rhythm and blues thread. Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care Of My Baby” and Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” were examples of the “teen idols” that had emerged in the late ‘50’s.
While Cashbox would identify “Exodus” by Ferante & Teicher as the most popular recording of 1961, both Gilbert & Theroux and Billboard named “Tossin’ & Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis. At age 26, Bobby Lewis came to New York to pursue a recording career at the behest of Jackie Wilson. He hadn’t had much success when Ritchie Adams of Beltone records had him audition the song Adams had written. They thought he had the right voice for the song and released it in May. “Tossin’ and Turnin’” reached the number one position on July 10, 1961 and remained there for seven weeks. Only four other solo male singers did better during the Elvis Era: Elvis Presley, Guy Mitchell, Bobby Darin and “Tennessee” Ernie Ford. Some would call Lewis a “one-hit-wonder” but that is a bit of an exaggeration as he did chart later in 1961 with “One Track Mind” that reached #9.
Ferante & Teicher’s 1961 success was part of the popularity of instrumentals in the early 1960’s. Thirteen instrumentals would reach the Billboard top ten in 1961. Neither “Exodus” (from the movie, “Exodus”) nor “Tonight” (from the movie / broadway musical “Westside Story”) made it to the top spot on Billboard, both peaking at #2. But in addition to being the Cashbox #1 for the year, “Exodus” made #5 on the G& T year end list. Arthur Ferante and Louis Teicher were child prodigies who attended the Julliard School of Music in New York and developed a friendship and musical compatibility that led to a professional career touring and playing mostly classical pieces. They attracted enough attention to get a recording contract with United Artists and released “Theme From The Apartment” in 1960. Its success led them to more movie themes and they switched their concert play list to nearly all popular numbers. They released “Exodus” in November of 1960. It stayed in the top five for six weeks, kept from the number one slot by Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” another instrumental, Bert Kaempfert’s “Wonderland By Night,” and The Shirelle’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
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The popularity of folk music was on the rise in 1961. The most successful folk song was “Michael” by The Highwaymen, a group of fraternity brothers from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. They had gotten together as freshmen and had some local success before being signed by United Artists. “Michael” was a traditional folk song said to have originated among slaves in the pre-Civil War South. The song was released in January but didn’t actually catch on until July. It reached the #1 spot on September 4th and stayed there for two weeks.
Notwithstanding “Michael,” folk music’s niche in the popular music scene was still a small one in 1961. The only other noteworthy success coming from the campus coffee house was “A Dollar Down” by The Limelighters which didn’t even make the top 40. The Four Preps did have an entry with “More Money For You and Me (Medley),” but it really wasn’t a “folk” song, but more a parody of other groups. But folk music was about to get a big jolt. Robert Zimmerman had journeyed from Minnesota to New York in December of 1960 and by April was appearing in coffee houses in Greenwich Village as Bob Dylan. On September 29th, Robert Shelton of The New York Times wrote a review of Dylan in which he said, “But if not for every taste, his music-making has the mark of originality and inspiration, all the more noteworthy for his youth. Mr. Dylan is vague about his antecedents and birthplace, but it matters less where he has been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.” John Hammond signed him to Columbia Records. Within two years, Dylan would not only spur interest in folk music, but set the stage for a new era of rock and roll in which the message would become as important, if not more important, than “the beat.”
Country music had a big year in 1961. Several country singles made it big on the pop chart. Faron Young, Don Gibson, Marty Robbins, and Bobby Edwards all had crossover success. The most popular country song came from Jimmy Dean with “Big Bad John,” the story of a “big, big man” who gave his life to save twenty men from the “would be grave” of a caved in mine. It was #1 for six weeks in November and December. Jimmy Dean was a country disc jockey who wrote “Big Bad John” in an hour and a half on his way to a Columbia recording session. The success of the song made Dean a celebrity and he hosted a network television show on ABC from 1963 - 1966 during which he introduced country music to a wider audience.
Perhaps the most noteworthy country success of 1961 didn’t have a number one song. Patsy Cline had two songs in the top forty in 1961: “Crazy” which reached #9 and “I Fall To Pieces” that topped out at #12. Both of these songs would become country classics and “Crazy” is considered by some to be the greatest country song of all time.
Movies and television continued to produce popular hits in 1961. The previously mentioned “Exodus” was the most successful. Connie Francis joined the ranks of singing artists who parlayed their music success into a role in Hollywood with “Where The Boys Are.” The title song reached #4 and the movie was a big box office success. Released in 1960, Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska,” the title song from the motion picture starring John Wayne and Cappucine, was on both G & T’s (#29) and Cashbox’s (#13) year’s listing. Ricky Nelson continued to perform on his family’s weekly television show and featured a video version of his 1961 hit “Travelin’ Man” that is considered by some to be the first music video.
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The “doo-wop” sound of the fifties found renewed success in 1961. “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” by The Capris had already been released twice (1959 & 1960) without charting, but in 1961 it rose to #3. The Jive Five also took “My True Story” to #3 (#22 G & T). Shep & The Limelights did them one better with “Daddy’s Home” reaching #2 (#27 Cashbox / #39 G & T). One of the writers from the Brill Building in New York, Barry Mann, even got a hit record joking about doo-wop with “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp-Bomp-Bomp). The group that took doo-wop to it’s ultimate height were The Marcels. They managed to create a doo-wop masterpiece out of a standard Rodgers and Hart composition. The Pittsburg group sort of improvised the song at the end of a recording session. It was picked up by Murray the K in New York and he played it 26 times in one show. It was the #1 song on April 3, 1961.
In rock and roll, the single was still king in 1961 and album sales continued to be the province of soundtracks. “Camelot,” “The Sound of Music,” and Elvis’s biggest movie of the year, “Blue Hawaii” were among the top sellers.
Other notables from 1961:
• The Chipmunks got their own animated television series and another top ten hit with “Alvin’s Harmonica”
• Gladys Knight & The Pips had their first chart success with “Every Beat of My Heart” (#6).
• The Wilson brothers, along with cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine formed The Pendletones and recorded “Surfin.” It was released in December with the name of the group changed to The Beach Boys.
• Al Caiola reached the top forty (#19) with his version of the “Bonanza” theme -- much easier to listen to than Lorne Greene’s; or especially the version sung by Landon, Greene and Blocker initially intended for the series introduction, but never aired.
• Ricky Nelson turned 21 and dropped the “y” from his name.
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|"Bonanza" was one of the top television shows of the early 1960's. It aired from 1959 to 1973 and originally starred Dan Blocker, Lorne Green, Pernell Roberts and Michael Landon. Its theme song became one of the most recognizable of '60's television and Al Caiola charted his version in 1961.
||Cuts from "Rick" Nelson's first album:
1. My One Desire
7. Oh Yeah, I'm In Love
2. That Warm Summer Night
8. Everybody But Me
3. Break My Chain
9. Lucky Star
4. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans
10. Sure Fire Bet
5. I'll Make Believe
11. Stars Fell On Alabama
6. Travelin' Man
12. Hello Mary Lou