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1962: Sixties Music Thriving

In history, music on March 17, 2014 at 9:40 pm

The year 1962 was one of those “watershed” years, if that metaphor can somehow be applied to the popular music business. Five years before, at the height of the explosion of rock’n’roll, had seen posted the all-time record in vinyl disc sales. By 1959 the boom had dipped to a slump and recovery was slow. Now three years later came the long-awaited big comeback in singles and the first sizable advance in sales of albums since they’d been introduced a few years before. Popular music albums had been the poor relation of movie soundtracks, original stage cast productions and comedy albums, which quite regularly sold over a million even for comics now virtually forgotten: Allen Sherman, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Dick Gregory (a controversial black humorist), Rusty Warren (she was a woman)… In pop music there had been operatic movie star Mario Lanza appearing early in the Fifties but by their end only two black crooners of “Easy Listening” music, Harry Belafonte and Johnny Mathis, stood out as reliable sellers of albums in big numbers. Elvis Presley’s first million-selling album took two or three years to get there. And it would be 1963 before the first Sixties “rock” stars made it big in albums: Peter, Paul & Mary

From right, the lovely Mary Travers, and the professorial Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey.

From right, the lovely Mary Travers, and the professorial Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey.

and the Beach Boys; and in Britain, the Beatles.

Two more black balladeers, Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, took to “country” music in ’62 though their bluesy/jazz voices could not be disguised, taking their biggest numbers I Can’t Stop Loving You and Ramblin’ Rose up to top the charts and go further to post the rare landmark of two million disc sales. The summer especially saw sales rocket, in many major cities some fifty percent or more over the previous year. For the first time, songs that barely made Billboard’s top 20 sold a million discs or close to it: Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys and Silver Threads and Golden Needles by the Springfields with lead singer Dusty. (Though in the face of this renewed rock impetus, “Easy Listening” for “adults” still ruled: Tony Bennett’s slow-selling I Left My Heart in San Francisco accumulating two million.) In autumn too came the biggest new white group of the rock era thus far, innovating in writing, arranging and producing their own recordings. The Four Seasons,

The Four Seasons in 1962, of 'Sherry', 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and 'Walk Like a Man' vintage. From left: lead singer/falsetto Frankie Valli, Tommy De Vito (guitar), Bob Gaudio (songwriter/keyboards), Nick Massi (bass vocals, bass guitar)

The Four Seasons in 1962, of ‘Sherry’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Walk Like a Man’ vintage. From left: lead singer/falsetto Frankie Valli, Tommy De Vito (guitar), Bob Gaudio (songwriter/keyboards), Nick Massi (bass vocals, bass guitar)

Italian-Americans from New Jersey, scored with Sherry, moving 180,000 copies the day after being played on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and climbing to a double-million seller; then Big Girls Don’t Cry, almost as big.

In black music the balladeer group the Platters had dominated pop since 1955, recently overtaken by the Drifters in r&b/pop (Save the Last Dance for Me, Up On the Roof) and, more spectacularly, girl group the Shirelles whose standout 1962 entry was Baby It’s You, a revolution in sound and mood and dwarfing the quality of the remake the Beatles would fast turn out in tribute; accompanying it was their big number one for the year, Soldier Boy. Already, by fall, they were being eclipsed by Phil Spector group the Crystals (He’s a Rebel), to be top girl group until the arrival of Motown’s Martha (Reeves) & the Vandellas (Heat Wave) a year later, and Diana Ross & the Supremes yet a year further along.

Martha Reeves heading the Vandellas: more talented than Diana Ross but not cozy with the boss.

Martha Reeves heading the Vandellas: more talented than Diana Ross but not cozy with the boss.

However, the massive seismic impact that changed the music scene overnight in the New Year of ’62 was the second coming of The Twist, as a song, but primarily a dance that took the world by storm, for the first time getting middle-aged trendies like Jackie Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor up on the teen dance floor. The singer — and gyrater — was moca-colored Chubby Checker, in the process of overtaking Elvis this year. Uniquely topping the charts twice in two years with a song that Billboard would name the biggest of the rock era. Ensuring a bridge from the Fifties’ seminal r&b of Hank Ballard,

Hank Ballard: too black for a superstar in 1960

Hank Ballard: too black for a superstar in 1960

its raucous but precise execution blaring out of millions of pocket transistors worldwide emphatically confirmed that black rock music was the model from now on.

Elvis’s most convincing heir as white interpreter of black music was Dion (DiMucci), with more r&b feel than other Italian-American teen idols like Bobby Darin, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Fabian Forte. He was hot with Runaround Sue, The Wanderer and Ruby Baby. The following year James Brown and 13-year-old “genius” Stevie Wonder would continue to hoist black rock on high with chart-topping albums. And Sam Cooke (Chain Gang, Bring It On Home to Me)

Sam Cooke: smooth and soulful, with an incomparable voice that made you sit up and listen.

Sam Cooke: smooth and soulful, with an incomparable voice that made you sit up and listen.

would stake his claim as the Prince of Soul, along with Jackie Wilson (Baby Work Out) — who with Brown would determine the most striking dance moves of Michael Jackson.

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