In 1961, RCA was the most popular label for the fifth time in six years. The 1956 signing of Elvis Presley continued to pay dividends and the label had also secured artists such as Floyd Cramer and Neil Sedaka to bolster its standing. While RCA was doing well, the major labels as a whole hit a new low in 1961 with their share of the top twenty records dropping to 20.57% and their popularity points to 21.48%. The proliferation of labels capable of landing a record in the top twenty (a new high of 65 in 1961) made the market even more competitive. There were 19 labels that scored a number one record in 1961, a new high.
RCA was responsible for nearly half of the meager success the major labels were having. Five of the labels fifteen top twenty records were courtesy of Elvis Presley. Presley started the year with a carry-over number one from 1960, "Are You Lonesome Tonight" still in the top spot. When the year ended, another RCA product, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens occupied Billboard's number one position. In between RCA had another number one from Presley ("Surrender"). The other major labels benefitted a great deal from country crossover hits. Decca came in second best among the majors with eight top twenty records. Bert Kaempfert's "Wonderland by Night" was the label's only number one, but Patsy Cline helped considerably with two major country cross-over hits, "Crazy" (#9) and "I Fall To Pieces" (#12), the latter being popular enough to garner Billboard's number two end of the year ranking. Columbia's success was also predicated on country cross-overs as Jimmy Dean ("Big Bad John" -- #1), Marty Robbins ("Don't Worry About Me" - #3) and Johnny Horton ("North To Alaska - #4) all had top ten hits. Leroy Van Dyke gave Mercury a crossover hit with "Walk On By" (#5) and Brook Benton's "The Boll Weevil Song" (#2) also had a country flavor. Capitol was still by far the least successful of the majors, but the country sounds of Faron Young ("Hello Walls" - #12), and Ferlin Husky ("The Wings of a Dove" #12) kept the label on the charts while the soft vocal group The Lettermen produced a pop hit with "The Way You Look Tonight" (#13).
Liberty records had signed Bobby Vee to the label in 1959 and in 1961 that signing paid off with three top ten records, including the number one "Take Good Care of My Baby," written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Liberty had a number of artists with top ten records in 1961: Johnny Burnette ("You're Sixteen" - #8), Gene McDaniels ("A Hundred Pounds of Clay" - #3; "Tower of Strength - #5), Timi Yuro ("Hurt) #4, Dick and Dee Dee ("The Mountains High" - #2), and Troy Shondell ("This Time" - #6). While Liberty managed to be the second most popular label in 1961 with a variety of artists, Parkway placed number three courtesy of two. Chubby Checker had four top ten hits, including a number one with "Pony Time." Parkway had already benefitted from Checker's "The Twist" going to number one in 1960 and the record was again headed towards the top at the end of 1961. The Dovells gave Parkway a number two song with "The Bristol Stomp." United Artists was the sixth most popular label, headed by the folk sound of The Highwaymen's number one, "Michael." Dot regained some of its earlier success as Pat Boone reached the top for the first time since 1958 with "Moody River" and Lawrence Welk's "Calcutta" gave the label a second number one. Scepter had three top ten hits, all from The Shirelles, with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" going to number one.
The Minit and Smash labels again proved that a small label might only put one record in the top twenty, but it could go all the way to number one. The New Orleans label, Minit, signed Earnest Kadar in 1961 after he had several unsuccessful issues for other labels. When producer Allen Toussaint was unhappy with one of his songs and threw it in the trash, Kadar recovered it and asked to record it. Kadar released the song as Ernie K-Doe and "Mother-In-Law" debuted in April of 1961 going to number one on May 20th. It was the only top forty record for Ernie K-Doe. "Wooden Heart" (also known as "Muss I den") was a cut on Elvis Presley's 1960 song track album from "G.I. Blues" which was very popular in Europe (#1 in the UK). But RCA hadn't released it as a single in the U.S. Smash records was a Mercury subsidiary focusing more on country and rock and roll. Producer Shelby Singleton had noted Presley's success with "Wooden Heart" in Europe and had Joe Dowell do a cover version. It would be the Smash label's only top twenty hit for 1961, but it would do very well, reaching the top spot on August 26th. RCA didn't release the Presley version as a single until 1964 when it was the B-side to "Blue Christmas."
1961 was the year that Motown records entered the big time. Still using Tamla as its label, it scored two smash hits. "Shop Around" by the Miracles had actually been released in two previous versions during late 1960, but producer Berry Gordy was not satisfied and when he got an inspiration for a new arrangement, he called the group back into the studio at 3:00 a.m. and recorded a third version. That version first hit the chart in December of 1960 and climbed all the way to #2 on February 18th. It was the first big crossover hit for Motown. In December of 1961, The Marvelettes did one better than The Miracles as "Please Mr. Postman" became the first number one record for Tamla.
While Tamla was getting the Motown company going, events were taking place in southern California that would eventually bring Capitol records back to major popularity. As 1961 was coming to a close, "Surfin'" was becoming a popular song in the Los Angeles region. A group calling themselves The Pendletones had been trying to get recorded as a vocal group modeled after The Four Freshmen. As success eluded them, one of the brothers, Dennis, suggested they write a song about his favorite sport. Brother Brian and cousin Mike set to work on music and lyrics and came up with "Surfin'." When they auditioned the song for Hite and Dorinda Morgan, they liked the sound and released it on "X" records and changed the name of the group to The Beach Boys. The song got some radio play and as it started generating sales, it was leased to Candix records to meet distribution demands. At the end of 1961 it began to get some national attention. It would never rise higher than #75 on Billboard, but it marked the start of a legendary career.
Single record sales had climbed to 640 million in 1961 and 174 different songs made the Billboard top twenty during the year (a new high). The industry was booming, so while the labels might be getting a smaller slice of the pie, it was a pretty big pie. In the early years of rock and roll labels found success (especially Dot) by covering r & b versions of a song. By 1961, that practice was rare, but there were still examples of multiple versions of the same song being released by different artists. "Wonderland by Night" had three versions land in the top twenty in 1961, the most popular being Bert Kaempfert's on Decca (#1). Both Henry Mancini for RCA and Jerry Butler for Vee-Jay recorded "Moon River" and both reached as high as #11. But ironically, the most remembered version of the song was never released as a single by Andy Williams. After performing the song at the 1962 Academy Awards, his album for Columbia, "Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes" would reach number three on Billboard's album chart and remain on the chart for 176 weeks. The record labels still didn't have a formula for making a hit record in 1961. They all got there on different paths. As Andy Williams sang, "We're after the same rainbow's end, waiting, round the bend; My Huckleberry Friend, Moon River, and me."