" ... we did that ("Blue Velvet") in ten minutes and it's too sweet and pretty and today the kids want rock
... they put it out anyway. I didn't mind being wrong." -- Bobby Vinton
The conventional wisdom is that by 1963 middle of the road pop music had taken over the charts and the sound of rock and roll was dead or dying.  The truth is that unless you equate rock and roll with raunchy rhythm & blues, rock and roll from its inception had been more than the screaming with a pounding beat.  When the music first made a major impact in 1955, doo-wop songs that had significant melodies and harmonized vocals such as “Earth Angel” by The Penquins and “Sincerely” by The Moonglows were cross-over successes.  And when they were covered by The Crew-Cuts and The McGuire Sisters respectively, the sound was smoother, but still considered part of the new “rock and roll” movement.  Alongside those hits in 1955 were “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Hailey, “Maybelline” by Chuck Berry and “Aint That A Shame” by Fats Domino; all of which are easily recognized as rock and roll.  In 1956, when Elvis Presley first recorded for RCA, even songs such as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel” seemed a little tamer (maybe it’s the backing vocals of The Jordinaires) than his previous Sun recordings of “That’s Alright Mama” and “Money, Honey.”  The point is that rock and roll had never been “just” fast tempo with a heavy beat.  There had always been an element of a softer side.  In 1963, that softer side might have been somewhat more prevalent, but most of the music was still “rock and roll.”

For solid, unmistakable rock and roll, you don’t have to look too far in 1963.  The top two songs of the year (Billboard) were “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs, and “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys.  The latter was an admitted knock-off of early rocker Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”  And if you’re looking for a rock and roll standard that stood the test of time, The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” certainly fits the bill.  Originally written and recorded by Richard Berry as an easygoing ballad, it was picked up by The Kingsmen in 1963 after it had earlier been a regional hit (Seattle) for Rockin’ Robin Roberts. Jack Ely, lead singer for The Kingsmen, copied the Roberts version, but changed the beat to a 1-2-3,1-2,1-2-3.  He then injected the same shout used by Roberts just before the guitar break, “Okay let’s give it to ‘em right now!”  The recording was completed in one take and released with all its imperfections, entering the Billboard Top 40 on December 7th and reaching #2 on December 21st.  It spent six weeks at #2.  Since its popularity straddled 1963 and 1964, even with that amount of success, however, it failed to make the Billboard top 100 for 1963, and barely checked in at #99 in 1964. Part of the appeal of the record was the slurred speech employed by The Kingsmen -- and it probably didn’t hurt its popularity when the song was alleged to contain obscene lyrics.  The concern reached such a high level that it was actually investigated by the FBI which concluded that they couldn’t conclude anything, finding that the record was “unintelligible at any speed.”  The song is a prominent part of the 1978 film, “Animal House.”  (Interestingly, the movie takes place in the school year 1962 - 63 while the record wasn’t recorded until the fall of 1963 -- evidently the boys of Delta Tau Chi were on the cutting edge of rock and roll when they had their Toga party.)

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On the other side of the coin, those looking to proclaim 1963 as a disappointment to rock and roll, don’t have to look too far.  Gilbert & Theroux ranked Skeeter Davis’s crossover hit, “The End of the World” as the best of 1963 (Billboard #3).  Al Martino reached #3 with “I Love You Because,” a song that would have been comfortable in 1953.  The most successful artist of 1963 was Bobby Vinton with two #1 ballads, “Blue Velvet” and “There, I’ve Said It Again.”  A third entry, “Blue on Blue” reached #3.  The Paul & Paula series, headed by “Hey Paula” (#1) is also evidence that the music had gone soft.  The teen idols that had come into vogue in the late fifties remained popular with Bobby Vee scoring a #3 hit with “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” while Bobby Darin took on more of a country sound with “You’re the Reason I’m Living” (#3).  Rick Nelson had “It’s Up To You” (#6).  But in reality, 1963 wasn’t all that different in this aspect.  When rock and roll was thought to be in its prime in 1959 (the year “the music died), Frankie Avalon scored a #1 with “Venus” and Paul Anka had “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” at #2.

Contributing to the notion that popular music had softened in 1963 was the increasing popularity of folk music.  Folk groups had been in vogue on college campuses for some time and ABC decided to capitalize on this by producing a half hour series of live performances from various colleges.  The show was produced as theater in the round and focused on the audience (usually clapping along) as well as the performers.  Typically, an act would come out and perform one song and then yield to another, then returning later.  Emcee Jack Linkletter would do a voice-over while the group took the stage informing the television audience about the group.  It had the feel of listening in on the concert.  The first episode aired in April and was so well received that by the end of the original 13 episodes, ABC had picked up the program for the next season.  Folk music chart success was achieved by Peter, Paul & Mary, The New Christy Minstrels, The Rooftop Singers, and The Kingston Trio.  Conspicuously missing from this list is Bob Dylan, who would become a key figure in the transformation of rock and roll in the coming years.  Dylan’s self-titled first album, released in 1962 hadn’t done well, but in May of 1963, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” was released.  In contrast to the first effort, this album contained many more songs written by Dylan and it reached #22 on the Billboard album list.  Although the album didn’t produce any hit singles, it contained some of Dylan’s best work, such as “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “Girl From the North Country," and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”  Many of Dylan’s songs would be successfully covered by other artists (notably Peter, Paul & Mary). 

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If indeed rock and roll did need help in 1963, it was most provided by the new California beach sound.  The top purveyors of this sound was The Beach Boys who built on their 1962 success by placing three songs in the top ten:  “Surfer Girl (#7), “Be True To Your School” (#6) and the previously mentioned “Surfin’ USA” (#3).  Jan & Dean also had a big hit with the #2, “Surf City” (a song actually written by Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys).  A good part of this sound was surf music, which tended to be instrumentals, like The Chantays’ “Pipeline” (#4) and The Surfaris’ “Wipeout” (#2).  Perhaps the most influential of the surf guitarists was Dick Dale.  Dale and the Del-Tones pioneered the surf guitar style in the early 1960’s and appeared regularly at the Renezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California.  Dale’s guitar playing featured a heavy use of reverb and staccato picking.  While he inspired a lot of other guitarists, Dale never had a hit record.  The closest he came was in 1962 with “Let’s Go Trippin’” which topped out at #60 on the Billboard chart.  His signature single, “Misirlou” was also released in 1962 and was featured in the 1994 film, “Pulp Fiction.”  Surf music got a big boost from the 1963 movie, “Beach Party” starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.  Teens flocked to the drive-ins to see the movie (and Annette in a bikini ... well, at least a two-piece).  The movie featured a lot of music but oddly enough none of it made it big on the charts.  Frankie and Annette sang the title song, “Beach Party Tonight” and Dale contributed “Secret Surfin’ Spot” and “Swingin’ and Surfin’.”  None cracked the Top 40.

An east coast counterpart to The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons success of 1962 carried over into 1963 with their third single becoming their third #1 when “Walk Like A Man” reached the top spot in March.  Their fourth single, “Candy Girl” didn’t quite make it as it stalled out at #3.  In addition to The Beach Boys, several artists had three top ten records in 1963.  Bobby Vinton, The Crystals, and Dion, had all experienced previous chart success, while the newcomers were Peter, Paul & Mary, and Lesley Gore.  The previously mentioned Peter, Paul & Mary parlayed two Bob Dylan songs into top ten songs, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (#2) and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (#9) and took “Puff, The Magi Dragon” to #2.  One of the most successful recording artist of 1963 was Lesley Gore, a rarity in the pop music of the early 1960’s as a solo female vocalist.  Her #1 song, “It’s My Party” led to a sequel, “Judy’s Turn To Cry” #5 and then a follow-up, “She’s A Fool” (#5).

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The “girl groups” were well represented on the charts of 1963.  The Chiffons, (“He’s So Fine”), The Angels (“My Boyfriend’s Back), and Ruby & The Romantics (“Our Day Will Come”) all had #1 songs.  Also making the top ten were:  The Chiffons “One Fine Day,” (#5), The Caravelles “You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry,” (#3), The Cookies “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby,” (#7).  The biggest cog in the “girl group” hit machine was Phil Spector.  His 1962 success with The Crystals continued into 1963.  Although the group’s biggest hit of ‘62, “He’s A Rebel” had actually been recorded by Darlene Love & The Blossoms, in 1963 it was back to the original group of Crystals and that produced two top ten records, “Da Doo Ron Ron” (#3) and “Then He Kissed Me (#6).  But that wasn’t all of Spector’s success as he also recorded Love and The Blossoms as Bob B. Sox & The Blue Jeans and made “Zip A Dee Do Dah” a #8 hit.  And in the fall Spector turned his attention to a new group, The Ronettes, and “Be My Baby” was #2 for three weeks in October.

Maybe the most significant development in the music industry in the U.S. in 1963, in terms of future impact, was the emergence of Motown.  By 1960 with some hit songs by Marv Johnson (“You’ve Got What It Takes” #10) and a newly discovered group, The Miracles (“Shop Around” #2), Berry Gordy had established his own record company, Tamla.  In the coming years this would become Motown and Gordy labels would be added.  In 1963, the label took a giant leap forward, mostly due to the development of a new association of song writers:  Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland.  Their song writing style was one of constant refrains and consistent use of repetitions and the results were records that were instantly recognizable, ones that the record buying public would be familiar with, and yet each had something that made it distinctive and unforgettable.  The trio first put its talents to use for Martha & The Vandellas and the result was “Heat Wave” which reached #4 in September of 1963.  Over the next three years, Holland-Dozier-Holland would produce 28 top twenty records. The Supremes and The Temptations were already recording for Motown in 1963, but with little success.  That would all change in 1964 and Motown would be one of the most successful U.S. answers to the “British invasion” that was about to take over the American music charts.  Other Motown hits of 1963 were:  “Come and Get These Memories” by Martha & The Vandellas, Marvin Gaye’s “Pride & Joy” (#10), The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” (#8) and “Mickey’s Monkey” (#8), Mary Wells’ “Two Lovers” (#7), and of course Stevie Wonders’ “Fingertips, Pt. 2” (#1).

Country music had a renewed vitality in 1963 and by far the biggest success was Skeeter Davis’s #1, "The End of the World.”  Bobby Bare had two top 20 hits with “Detroit City” (#16) and “500 Miles Away From Home” (#10).  George Hamilton IV scored with “Abilene” (#15).  Bill Anderson's recording of "Still" reached #8 and Ned Miller took "From a Jack to a King" to #6. Although it didn’t reach that high of a ranking, Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is probably the best known country selection from 1963. The biggest tragedy in the music world came from the country side when Patsy Cline was killed in a plane crash on March 5th. “Sweet Dreams” was released posthumously and reached #44 on the pop chart.

On the album side of the charts, the top LP according to Gilbert & Theroux was as usual a movie soundtrack, “West Side Story.”  But the trend of Broadway and Hollywood dominating LP sales was ending.  Peter, Paul & Mary placed two albums on the list, “Peter, Paul and Mary” and “Movin’.”  Andy Williams also made the top ten twice with “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses.”

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Movies and television weren’t big generators of pop music hits in 1963.  Besides “Beach Party” and its heavy dose of teen parties and sounds, there was the movie version of the Broadway hit, “Bye-Bye Birdie.”  Although Bobby Rydell had a major role in the movie, it produced no chart singles.  Elvis Presley did have two movies released in 1963.  “Fun In Alcapulco” produced a top ten hit, “Bossa Nova Baby” (#8) and “It Happened At The Worlds Fair.” showcased “One Broken Heart For Sale” (#11).  On television, American Bandstand had its last season in Philadelphia.   In the fall of 1963 the program moved from its week day one half hour to a Saturday morning full hour.  In December the last show aired from Philadelphia and returned in February from Los Angeles.  The show remained a showcase of rock and roll talent as many of the big artists from 1963 appeared on the show, Bobby Vinton, Paul & Paula, Doris Troy, The Four Seasons, Lesley Gore, Peter Paul & Mary, and The Ronettes to name a few.  The final show from Philadelphia on December 28th featured Bobby Vinton singing “Blue on Blue.”  The other mainstay of pop music on television was Ricky Nelson on the Ozzie & Harriet show – in 1963 he performed “Fools Rush In.”  Although Paul Peterson of the Donna Reed Show hadn’t done all that well in 1962 with “She Can’t Find Her Keys,” he was able to parlay his television appearances into a #6 charting of “My Dad” in January of 1963.  By the end of 1963, Ed Sullivan had The Beatles lined up for 1964.  What might have been the biggest performance in 1963 never happened as Bob Dylan was scheduled to appear, but walked off the set when he was told he wouldn’t be allowed to perform “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” because network executives found it too controversial.

On October 8th, 1963, Sam Cooke and his band tried to register at a “whites only” motel in Shreveport, Louisiana.   Cooke protested and was eventually arrested for “disturbing the peace.”  Cooke had become a fan of Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” often including it in his performances.  After the incident in Shreveport, he wanted to write something that would reflect his feelings about racism.  After Christmas, 1963, Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come.”  It wasn’t recorded until 1964 and wasn’t released as a single until 1965 when it only experienced moderate chart success, peaking at #31.  But it became an anthem for the civil rights movement and a fitting statement for the end of The Elvis Era:  “ a change gon’ come, oh yes it will.”

Other notables from 1963:

•  Ray Hilderbrand and Jill Jackson became Paul & Paula and scored a #1 record with “Hey Paula.”
•  The Springfields split up, setting the stage for Dusty Springfield’s future solo recording success.
•  The Chiffons’ #1 record, “He’s So Fine” was produced by The Tokens.  Song writer Ronnie Mack would one day win a court battle with George Harrison over his stealing of the melody for “My Sweet Lord.”
•  Original Beach Boy, Al Jardinehad left to attend dental college just after the group signed with Capitol records.  He was replaced by David Marks on all of the 1963 Beach Boys hits.
•  Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performed together on the stage in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.
• Allan Sherman was awarded the 1964 Grammy for his comedy record, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh."

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Bobby Vinton was the only artist to have two #1's in 1963 and that is debatable as "There I've Said It Again" was reported as #1 in Billboard on January 4th, 1964. Since Billboard is naturally reporting on a record's previous week's performance, and since there was some delay in publication, it can be assumed that the record had achieved that status prior to the new year. "Blue Velvet" had been #1 for three weeks from September 21st to October 5th. "Blue on Blue" came close to the top spot, peaking at #3 on July 6th. Vinton was the most successful artist of 1963.
The top Billboard song for 1963 was "Sugar Shack" by Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs.
"Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen didn't get as much respect as it should have on the year end charts -- its popularity was split between 1963 and 1964.
Skeeter Davis's "The End of the World" was ranked #1 for the year by Gilbert & Theroux.
Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers had two #2 singles, two top ten albums , and they performed at the March on Washington.
Bob Dylan's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" was more of a commercial success, but he still didn't have a charting single.
The Beach Boys led the surf movement of 1963 with six songs in the Billboard top 40. Dennis Wilson was the only one who actually surfed. Song writer Brian Wilson actually said, "I was scared of the water ... it really scared me."
Lesley Gore was one of the artists with three top ten hits in 1963: "It's My Party," "Judy's Turn to Cry," and "She's A Fool."
The Ronettes became the latest girl group produced by Phil Spector ... and maybe his favorite as he later married lead singer, Veronica Bennett (she became Ronnie Spector).
"Heat Wave" began a string of hits for the Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dozier & Holland
"Ring of Fire" wasn't a huge crossover hit for Johhny Cash, but it was his most successful country song, topping the country chart for seven weeks.
Returning from an engagement in Kansas City, Patsy Cline died in a plane crash 90 miles from Nashville on March 5th.
"Fun in Acacpulco" yielded one of Elvis's three top 20 singles in 1963, "Boss Nova Baby." But it was still a down year for "the King" as for the first time since 1955 he had no #1 records.
Although he penned "A Change Is Gonna Come" in 1963, Cooke didn't release it immediately. It was so different from his other recordings that he was afraid he would lose his main stream audience. Cooke also found the song so potent and complex that he refused to perform it at his concerts.
Joan Baez & Bob Dylan both performed for the "March on Washington."
Al Jardine made the mistake of leaving the Beach Boys in 1961, but he rejoined the band in 1963.