When I hear people talk about the “music of the 1960s,” I figuratively scratch my head. What do they mean by that phrase?
I was reminded of that question on a couple instances recently, one of them when heading back home from a road trip with my wife. For some reason, she had changed the SiriusXM channel from Soul Town, our usual distance-driving compromise, to 60s on 6. We listened to Cousin Brucie cruising through the decade’s music, with occasional detours in time, and it was enjoyable.
The other instance was during a conversation with my brother, who is two years older but also a big fan of The Music. He had called from a resale shop, where he was looking for inexpensive CDs, having recently waded through the list I had sent him of my iTunes music.
A few weeks earlier, we had been talking about music, and Jimbo made reference to the number of recordings he had. We agreed to compare our collections, and share what each other found interesting.
Big Brother was exposed to rock and pop earlier than I, though, and his tastes run a little different. When he said he had found used discs by Bobby Vinton, Bobby Goldsboro and a few others from the early days of The Music, I said to myself, “Well, that’s not something I’m going to listen to a lot.
As noted in the introduction to this blog, my passion is for the music of the mid-60s to mid-70s. So, left to my own devices, I would be listening to Album Rock, not the crooners of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
When I bought my first satellite radio-equipped vehicle seven years ago, being a dude, I didn’t read the channel listing (much less the directions) very thoroughly, but waded right in. I quickly found 60s on 6 — and quickly found myself saying “Wow, haven’t heard that in awhile!” and waiting for the British Invasion stuff to start.
So, let’s ponder the difference in The Music from the beginning and end of the decade during which it came of age. People who worry about that sort of thing insist that a decade begins with the year ending in “1,” because the year ending in “0” is the 10th, but for purposes of argument, we’ll start our decade with 1960.
In that year, at the top of Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Singles, was Percy Faith’s “Theme from ‘A Summer Place.’” (Which is also Theme from a Cousin Brucie, or at least it was the night we were listening.) You have to go down to No. 3 to find something I’d consider rock-ish, “Cathy’s Clown” by the Everly Brothers. The top 10 also includes Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” two songs by Elvis and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”; the other half is Jim Reeves, Johnny Preston, Brenda Lee and Jimmy Jones.
Preston’s hit was “Running Bear,” which probably would be considered cultural appropriation these days, and wouldn’t get past the PC Police. The top 25 included a couple other entries that could be considered “novelty songs, “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles and Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
There are also two songs each by Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, one each by Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon, and one by Marty Robbins, who is often considered a country artist. The Brothers Four, a folk group, had a top 25 hit; another instrumental, the Ventures’ “Walk, Don’t Run” was No. 25.
Besides Checker, Dinning, the Everlys and Presley, though, there are some solid rock hits in the top 25, by artists who would be seen on the charts again in the decade.
However, other than Checker, you have to get past the top 25 to find any recordings by African-Americans, whose blues and rhythm and blues were the foundation of rock and roll. The Drifters clocked in at No. 26, followed by Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, with Sam Cooke at 27.
Benton and Washington and Cooke had one another Top 100 hit, and Billy Bland, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Marv Johnson, the Platters, Lloyd Price, Barrett Strong, Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs and Jackie Wilson also were on that list. Not quite 15 percent of the 1960 Top 100 came from black musicians.
Where it did come from, as noted above, is a mish-mash of styles and genres — from Ferrante and Teicher to Steve Lawrence, from “Mule Skinner Blues” to “Beyond the Sea.”
Flash ahead to 1969, and the Top 100 looks totally different. The only record in the top 10 that probably wouldn’t be considered rock or Motown or soul would be Tom Jones’ “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
Not that the hits rocked all that hard. No. 1 was Bubblegum: “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. In second place was the Fifth Dimension’s version of the song from the musical “Hair,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”
Not much of a one-two punch — plus, there were three other records in the Top 100 from “Hair,” two more definite examples of Bubblegum (and one sort-of, by Tommy Roe) and Zager and Evans’ annoying “In the Year 2525.” Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” was No. 15, and Sammy Davis Jr. had the No. 51 hit,
But in 1969, upwards of 40 percent of the Top 100 hits were recorded by black artists or groups that were mostly or partly African-American. (That’s counting Sammy.) The list also included a couple of the Beatles’ final singles, and classics like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” “Time of the Season” by the Zombies (released after the group had split up), the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and the Temptations’ "I Can't Get Next to You."
There were also transitional hits by artists who’d dominated the decade, Elvis getting relevant with “In the Ghetto” and Dylan going country with “Lay Lady Lay.” And opening shots from groups that included artists that would loom large in pop in the ’70s, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and Flying Machine, headlined by Sweet Bay James Taylor.
Also, bear in mind that ’69 was the year of Woodstock (and Altamont). Altogether, more of a watershed year musically than the other bookend of the decade.
So when somebody talks about “Sixties Music,” it’s kind of like using the term “The Sixties Generation.” There’s about as much difference between the music of the beginning and end of the decade, as there is between those who came of age early and late in the ’60s.