ON JANUARY 1, 2109, I launched a new publication on Medium, the largest and most-read blogging platform in the world. The publication is called Tell It Like It Was and is a joint effort by myself along with John Ross and Lew Shiner. It covers rock & roll and related pop music from 1955 through 1975, focused on the ’60s.
As I am trying to sway my blog readers to join Medium and read our stuff there It’s free but there is a premium membership that costs $5 a month. Readers “award” that money to the writers they read each month. Therefore the possibility exists that John, Lew, and I could get paid for our writing.
Who wouldn’t want that?
But I don’t want to keep my new stuff from my regular Rather Rare Records readers (and that’s the most alliteration I have used in a while!), so I will start posting Medium articles here. The articles on Medium are lumped together under the title “The Toppermost of the Poppermost,” a reference to a clever statement that John Lennon used to tell his three mates as they were beginning their climb on the ladder of success.
I have decided to leave the Toppermost title with Tell It Like It Was. For the same article here on Rather Rare Records, I will lump the ten articles together as “The #1 Hit Records on the Pop Charts.”
There will probably be a time lag between articles published there and then here as I want the Medium stories to attract s much attention as possible as original and unique pieces.
I need an image here so why not one of my faveravest album of all time, the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS? This version was pressed in Taiwan in the late ’60s without authorization from Capitol Records. As Taiwan was not a signatory to many of the international copyright agreements of the time, they got away with this piracy for years. Most of the records are cheesy reproductions of abysmal quality but a few had interesting alternative cover art or designs, like this one.
The hits helped define the time
Back in the 1960s, the dissemination of popular culture through the radio waves of the country was far more important than it has been for decades—at least since the world wide web has become, well, worldwide! With the Top 40 format of many AM radio stations, anyone could share in that popular culture, regardless of our personal backgrounds. And back then, everyone knew what the #1 record was at any given time.
Not necessarily the #1 record in the country, but the record that was at the top of the chart on the Top 40 radio station in their neck of the woods. What determined the hits of the week on a national basis were several music industry publications: Billboard and Cash Box were the most prominent.
Diehard fans who lived in a town with a well-stocked newsstand might see four different charts a week. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was blessed with Leo Matus’s newsstand, which is where I leafed through those magazines each week. And here I am, fifty-odd years later, writing about the records that I loved, along with the ones I hated. And nobody hates a dumb record like a teenager who takes their pop music seriously!
The hits of the day helped define the time in which we lived. Radio and the culture of the United States were very different than what they are today. Top 40 radio was something we could all share in if we wanted to, regardless of background or location. The radio was more important, even more personal.
We knew our disc-jockeys by name and on-air persona; we sometimes even met them and chatted with them at local events. We communicated with them—usually by telephone—requesting our favorite records be played: “I’m gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my local DJ. It’s a rocking rhythm record I want my jockey to play.”
The toppermost of what?
This is an introduction to a series of articles that discusses every single to reach #1 on Cash Box magazine’s Top 100 weekly survey from 1960 through 1969. These articles are collectively titled “The Toppermost of the Poppermost,” a phrase that the Beatles repeated to each other as a pep talk as they climbed the rungs of the ladder of success during the early part of the decade.
There are three writers of these articles—John Ross, Lew Shiner, and me—and we grew up with the rock & roll music of the ’50s and ’60s. Fortunately for us, Top 40 radio was so inclusive that we were also—and often against our will—exposed to rhythm & blues and soul records, pop and easy-listening records, country and blues records, and even silly novelty records!
While we cover all those genres here, the articles reflect the importance of rock & roll as it came to dominate the recording industry. It also had an impact on our lives in ways that drive and motivate us to write about it decades after most folks have written it all off as part of their misspent youth.
About the ’60s
Just as ‘10’ is the tenth number in a series that begins with ‘1,’ 1960 was the tenth and final year in a series that began with 1951. But in our culture we are accustomed to a different kind of chronology: When we refer to “the ’60s,” most of us are referring to 1960 through 1969. And that is the chronology I use here.
There is one article for each year from 1960 through 1969. Each article lists each record that topped the Cash Box pop chart. Each entry includes a few facts and at least one comment by at least one contributor noting achievements or embarrassments or offering opinions, insights, or even personal anecdotes.
In the 1960s, 45 rpm singles were the coin of the realm for pop artists. Most new singles were conceived, written, recorded, and promoted as separate entities from an album, as most pop artists sold few of the expensive long-playing records to their teenaged fans.
By the mid-’60s, artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and Bob Dylan introduced a new level of intellectual ambition to pop music which upped the level of competition. Making a record that stood out from the thousands of other records competing for the forty places at the top of the chart required creativity, intelligence, adaptability, and luck.
The need or desire among artists and groups on both sides of the Atlantic to keep up with or even surpass one another made for some heady competition and almost non-stop great listening! The second half of the decade was arguably the most competitive, heady, and downright fun period in the history of Top 40 radio!
During the 1970s, things changed: more and more singles were recorded as part of album projects and then selected after the fact as a single to audition the upcoming album. There were still great singles, but the competition just wasn’t the same. There is a vibrancy, a vitality, in the hits of the ’50s and ’60s that has been missing since that time.
The intention of these articles is to introduce you to a lot of great (and some not-so-great) music that you might not otherwise ever know about. That is unless you live somewhere that still has a radio station with a golden oldies or oldies but goodies format (and not that classic rock crap).
The various Internet outlets that program music for each listener (Pandora, Spotify, etc.) simply aren’t the same, as they play you what you want to hear without the shock and jolt of hearing something you never knew was there to be heard.
These articles were not written for specialists—not for aficionados, not for historians, not for record collectors. They were written for you, for—and this is not meant ironically—normal people. They were not written to teach anyone anything. The three of us had fun writing them and we believe that you’ll have fun reading them.
While reading these articles, keep in mind that every record that made it to #1 offered something that the record buyers at the time wanted. Every one of these records connected with millions of listeners in a way that the other 99 records in the Top 100 did not. Each chart-topping hit spoke to the most listeners—and usually the most record buyers—in a way that they wanted to be spoken to at the time it was released.
If the chart-topping popularity of some of these records baffles a young reader in the 21st century, well, some of them baffled us then and baffle us still!
About the charts
For decades, the American recording industry was served by several weekly news publications. The most prominent and respected were Billboard and Cash Box, but there was also Record World and the entertainment magazine Variety. Over time, Billboard became the “industry bible” and its statistics and data have been quoted in countless magazines, books, and websites since.
Along the way, Cash Box was forgotten and remains unknown to younger audiences. But I chose the Cash Box Top 100 survey over the better known Billboard Hit 100 survey for a very simple reason: Cash Box is a more reliable indicator of a record’s actual popularity.
On the Billboard Hot 100, a record reached #1 according to some arcane formula that combined how many copies it sold with radio air-play (which was free and arguably more a form of free promotion) and jukebox play (the number of times a teenager dropped a nickel in the coin slot of a jukebox in a malt shop and selected a song).
On the Cash Box Top 100, a record reached #1 according to how many copies it sold.
About the listings
These articles include each record that reached #1 on the Cash Box Top 100 between January 1, 1960, and December 31, 1969. Here is a breakdown of each entry’s information:
Line 1: the date the record was #1
Line 2: the artist or group’s name
Line 3: the song title
Line 4: the record company and catalog number
Line 5: the number of weeks at #1
Each song title is hyperlinked to a recording of the song on YouTube so that the reader can listen to the song being discussed. I tried to link to a recording of the original 45 rpm mono single whenever possible. Following the comments by our trusty contributors, there is a bulleted list of hard data, such as sales of the record and awards.
These five lines of information are followed by comments, with the first, uncredited comment in each entry by me. Then John and Lew added their comments, each preceded by their name. Any additional comment by me is preceded by my name.
These comments are followed by a bulleted list of data (million-seller, gold record, etc.). Each of these bits of data is numbered in superscript that matches a numbered description below the record’s listing that explains that bit of bulleted data. Let’s use Petula Clark’s “Downtown” from 1965 as an example (and it has been edited for use here as a demonstration record):
January 23–January 30
Warner Brothers 5494
By the time that Petula Clark topped the US charts in early 1965 with “Downtown,” she was 32 years old and had been a star for twenty of those years! She had half a dozen Top 10 hits in the UK and even more in France, but not a single side in her fifteen years as a recording artist had graced the Top 100 in the US.
That all changed with “Downtown,” a remarkable song written by Clark’s producer and collaborator Tony Hatch as a response to seeing New York City for the first time in early 1964.
It won the Grammy Award for Best Rock and Roll Song of 1965 (and only the Grammy people would consider “Downtown” to be rock & roll).
John: My definition of rock & roll is any record that could not have been conceived, let alone made, before 1955. “Downtown,” as it exists, in all its sweep and grandeur, could not have been conceived, let alone made, before 1955. I can come up with plenty of reasons to be mad at the Grammies, but—especially if by “song” they really meant “record”—I’ll give them a pass on that one.
• Billboard Hot 100 #1: Yes (2 weeks) 1
• Million-seller: Yes 2
• RIAA Gold Record: Yes (March 1, 1965) 3
• Accumulated sales: 3,000,000 4
• 500 Songs That Shaped Rock: No 5
• Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: No 6
• Grammy Award: Best Rock & Roll Recording 1964 7
But do you like it? 8
John: ✯ ✯ ✯
Lew: ✯ ✯ ✯
Neal: ✯ ✯ ✯
In the example above, for the weeks ending on January 23 and 30, 1965, Petula Clark’s “Downtown” (Warner Brothers 5494) was the #1 best-selling 45 rpm record in the nation. Below are the explanations for the bulleted data:
1. Billboard Hot 100 #1
This bit of data tells you whether or not the entry also made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 survey and if it did, how many weeks it spent there.
In 1945, Joseph Murrells left his position as a music librarian for the BBC and became a freelance music researcher. He built one of the most comprehensive music libraries in the world and set out to document every record that had been reported in a reliable trade journal to have sold more than a million copies. I refer to his book Million Selling Records from the 1900s to the 1980s and note whether or not Murrells determined it to be a million-seller.
3. RIAA Gold Record
In 1958, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) introduced its “official” Gold Record Award as a way to stabilize and unify such industry presentations. To qualify for this award, a 45 rpm single had to sell 1,000,000 copies in the US. An LP album had to sell $1,000,000 at the album’s wholesale price, which was approximately 750,000 copies for a standard long-playing record album.
Certification required the record companies to open up their books to an independent auditor, an action that many companies did not welcome. Consequently, the awards had little impact on the recording industry and were greeted by the industry with a collective yawn. Things started to change in the mid-1960s when companies began to recognize the promotional value of the award in selling more records.
In these listings, I only listed a “Yes” if the RIAA awarded the Gold Record no later than 1970. A few titles received awards decades after release; I noted these in a comment on the record.
4. Accumulated sales
Accumulated sales refer to the number of records sold worldwide as estimated by Joseph Murrells and listed in his book Million Selling Records from the 1900s to the 1980s.
5. Songs that shaped rock
James Henke, the chief curator for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, oversaw a team of writers and critics in selecting 500 songs that they believe have been influential in “shaping” rock & roll. Like many things connected with the Hall of Fame, many of the selections are controversial, if not ludicrous. But that’s another conversation for another time.
6. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
The goal of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Foundation is to recognize and acknowledge the best-known and most influential artists, songwriters, producers, engineers, and record company executives who have had a major influence on the development of rock & roll. Through 2018, the Hall has 323 inductees and like other similar organizations, there have been controversies over who has been inducted.
Each #1 record notes whether the artist who recorded the record has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Here at Tell It Like It Was, we have little interest in who has been inducted but we have a great deal of interest in who has not been inducted. And that, too, is another conversation for another time.
7. Grammy Award
The first Grammy Awards ceremony was held on May 4, 1959, to honor the musical and technical accomplishments in the American recording industry. In the popular music fields, most of the awards were given to “older” style artists—Elvis and his fellow rock & rollers were conspicuous by their absence.
For years, it was a running joke with those fans (like me) who paid any attention that the Grammys were invented to give back to the crooners what the rock & rollers had taken away from them—namely prominence.
Consequently, in 1964, the year that the Beatles conquered America with an unprecedented seven #1 records, the Grammy people selected Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses” as Record of the Year.
In 1966, the year of the “Eight Miles High” and “Paperback Writer” and “Paint It Black” and “I Want You” and “Good Vibrations,” those same Grammy folks named “Winchester Cathedral” the Best Contemporary Song.
As ridiculous as these awards have been for so long, they are still held in high regard. Consequently, each #1 record that received a Grammy Award is so noted in the listings in these articles.
But do you like it?
What’s a project like this without some kind of grading? Rather than awarding stars based on some perceived “greatness’ in the record, we just gave each #1 record one, two, or three stars. here’s what they mean:
I really like this record: ✯ ✯ ✯
It’s okay: ✯ ✯
I really dislike this record: ✯
About the images
There are at least fifteen images of record labels in each chapter. I lifted the images from two sources:
• Discogs is on a mission to build the biggest and most comprehensive music database and marketplace—a site with discographies of all labels, all artists, all cross-referenced, and an international marketplace built off of that database. More than 440,000 people have contributed to build up a catalog of more than 10,000,000 recordings and 6,000,000 artists.
• 45Cat is an online archive dedicated to the magic of the vinyl, seven-inch single. Visit the site and discuss, rate, research, or simply admire some of the almost one million records they have on their database.
About the contributors
John Walker Ross has been writing non-stop for six years on his blog The Round Place in the Middle. There he regularly says things you don’t hear every day about movies (especially westerns directed by John Ford and Budd Boetticher), books (especially detective fiction), and rock and pop music of the ’60s and ’70s.
Once an alienated, overly creative teenage misfit, Lew Shiner has been a critically successful writer for more than thirty years. He has been one of my favorite writers since the late, great Paul Williams turned me on to Glimpses twenty-some years ago. Check out both his sites: Fiction Liberation Front and Lewis Shiner Dot Com.
What follows is the text of the introduction to the Toppermost of the Poppermost articles on Medium. There will be ten articles looking at the #1 records of the ’60s as determined by the Cash Box Top 100 charts.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo the top of this page was taken during Elvis Presley’s final press conference in Germany on March 1, 1960, before flying to the States for separation from active duty in the US Army. A few days later he would be in RCA’s Studio B in Nashville recording both sides of his new single, Stuck On You / Fame And Fortune.