AS NOTED IN A PREVIOUS POST, I have been busy of late. With John Ross and Lew Shiner, I launched Tell It Like It Was, a music publication on Medium. Part of the publication is a list of every record to make it to #1 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart from the beginning of 1960 through the end of 1969. Each title is linked to a recording of that song on YouTube. For each entry, we went about commenting on the record, the artist, the times, and, eventually, one another’s comments.
It was fun, but it was also a lot of work: at this time, the ten articles have passed 80,000 words and feature more than 200 images and 500 hyperlinks. That’s a lot of work for us—granted, we had fun doing it—and it’s also a lot of reading for someone to take on.
Of course, we’re pretty certain that once you start reading, you’ll have fun, too!
And to get you reading, here is a sample of our efforts, almost 800 words on a record that many “serious” rock fans dismiss without a second thought.
The question “But do you like it?” follows each entry. There, we use a 3-star system to express our opinions. Actually, a star-shape wasn’t available to us, so we used a diamond (♦). We are not grading the record ala All Music Guide, we are simply stating how much we like a given record. There are excellent records that none of us particularly care for, and there are “crappy” records we love.
All of this makes a helluva lot more sense if you take a few minutes and read the “Introduction to The Toppermost of the Poppermost.”
April 22–April 29
Big Top 45–3067
“Runaway” was one of the most unusual sounding chart-toppers of its time, due both to Shannon’s amazing voice and his partner’s amazing keyboard instrument. According to Del Shannon, “We were on stage and Max hit an A minor and a G and I said, ‘Max, play that again, it’s a great change.’”
The next day Shannon wrote lyrics to the music: “That night I went back to the club and I told Max to play an instrumental on his Musitron for the middle part, and when he played that solo, we had ‘Runaway’.”
After two weeks at #1, “Runaway” was bumped out of the top spot and then returned to #1 on May 20, 1961, for a third week as the nation’s best-selling record.
Lew: The unearthly keyboard sound on this record is courtesy of the Musitron, invented by Max Crook, a member of Shannon’s band. The Musitron is a hybrid synthesizer, modified from something called a Clavioline, an electronic keyboard developed in France in the 1940s. Its eerie wail helped make this record a hit.
John: The wondrous thing is that Shannon’s voice was actually a match for the Musitron. Since a guy in his own band invented the instrument (news to me, thanks Lew!) I wonder who inspired who? I mean, I can imagine hearing Del Shannon for the first time and feeling the need to invent something.
Neal: This was one of the great rock & roll hits of the early ’60s. Del Shannon continued to make great records for years but none would come close to topping the charts. He was the first American artist to record a Lennon-McCartney song as a potential hit single when he released “From Me to You” in June 1963, a few weeks after Vee-Jay released the Beatles own version in the US.
Shannon’s version reached #67, beating out the original version, which failed to even reach the Top 100. So it was that Del’s record made “From Me to You” the first Lennon–McCartney composition to reach the American charts.
John: Shannon was interviewed on Bob Costas’s old late-night show (where Costas just sat with a guest for half-an-hour and asked intelligent questions — what a concept!). He told the story of hearing “From Me to You” while touring with the Beatles in England (where they were already a big deal).
I don’t remember all the details, but apparently, Del received some sort of permission to cover this while he was playing a show in England with the lads and John, later realizing it probably meant he was going to release a competing version, tried to do some further negotiating. At which point Del cupped his hand to his ear and said, “Eh, what’s that you say?”
A lot of American acts saw the Beatles in Europe throughout the early ’60s. So far as I know, Brenda Lee was the only one who actually tried to convince her record company to sign them. “But what do they sound like?” the suits kept asking. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “The songs will be worth a fortune.”
They politely refused to listen. Just remember, the suits run everything. That’s why things are the way they are.
Neal: Shannon came right back with another Top 10 hit with his follow-up song, “Hats Off to Larry.” He enjoyed a few other significant hits (“Little Town Flirt” in 1962 and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” in ’64. After that, he found it tough getting the AM radio stations to play his records. He was a much bigger star in the UK, where he scored seven Top 10 hits.
Finally, Elvis made “Runaway” a regular part of his set in Vegas in 1969–1970 and issued a version on the On Stage — February 1970 album. His reading is so good that it that could have been issued as a single in 1970.
John: The great blogger Sheila O’Malley likes to occasionally celebrate a sub-genre of records where the singer expresses a kind of pure, venomous hatred for the person who just broke up with them and stomped on their heart. Few records have ever caught that idea more perfectly than “Hats Off to Larry,” where the poison-pill lyric is force-multiplied by Shannon’s insane vocal by a factor of infinity.
• Billboard Hot 100 #1: Yes (4 weeks)
• Million-seller: Yes
• RIAA Gold Record: No
• Accumulated sales: Unknown
• 500 Songs That Shaped Rock: Yes
• Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Yes
But do you like it?
John: ♦ ♦ ♦
Lew : ♦ ♦ ♦
Neal: ♦ ♦ ♦
FEATURED IMAGE: In the early part of the decade, political relations between the East and the West worsened and so USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev responded to the West’s failure to follow his demands for them to leave Berlin by building a wall. On August 13, 1961, a barbed-wire fence was erected along the border between East and West Berlin.
Construction of a brick wall began in November, with lookout towers and armed guards who had orders to shoot anyone trying to cross into the Western sector. The Wall became a symbol of communist oppression and the most visible reminder of the distrust between East and West.