I sort-of-regularly blog about the music that I Can’t Get Outta My Head. Then, there’s the music that gets into my head, and I can’t explain why.
For instance, recently I was out doing yardwork, and the lines “The birds and the bees/Tell Clifton Clowers” got into my head.” Because I was working amongst the birds and bees? But I immediately went, “Wolverton Mountain”! A song I remembered from the 1960s, but hadn’t heard in years. But that’s the way my brain works, sometimes.
Of course, my memory of a song that was popular more than six decades ago was faulty.(The line was actually “the bears and the birds,” but thank God, we have more bees than bears hereabouts.) But that song is interesting, for a number of reasons.
“Wolverton” was a big hit for country and western singer-songwriter Claude King, a No. 1 on the Billboard country chart, and a No. 6 on that magazine’s Hot 100 pop chart, which is where I first heard it, a year or two after I first started listening to The Music.
But, before I go further, let’s reflect on the popular music of 1962, when “Wolverton” charted. This was during the transition from the “old” pop that was changing over to the overwhelmingly popular pop-rock of the mid-1960s and later.
Take a look at the year-end Billboard Hot 100 singles of 1962. King’s “Wolverton Mountain” was No. 16. Ahead of him were such pop-rock (and also R&B/soul) classic artists as Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, Dion, Gene Chandler (“Duke of Earl”!), Little Eva, Neil Sedaka, etc.
But what was No. 1 that year? An instrumental, “Stranger on the Shore,” by a clarinetist, Acker Bilk, who never had a Top 40 after that. No. 2 was a song by The Genius, R&B/soul legend Ray Charles — who at that time was doing more of a country thing. No. 5 was “The Stripper” — also an instrumental, an accompaniment for female disrobing, turned into (earlier in the year) an American No. 1 single.
Still, King’s success on the Billboard pop chart was not that extraordinary, and was part of a trend that saw artists from that magazine’s country-chart crossing over regularly. Also in 1962, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean, Brenda Lee and Dickie Lee (more about him later) were in the year-end Hot 100.
There were even more in 1963: “Whispering Bill” Anderson, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Skeeter Davis, George Hamilton IV, Little Miss Lee again and Ned Miller. Then came Beatlemania, the British Invasion and the Surf Sound and crowded out the country — allthough Roger Miller was huge in 1964.
But 1962 (or maybe the year before) was when Merle Kilgore wrote the lyric that Claude King slightly rewrote and turned into a huge hit. But as our beloved Interwebs have enlightened me, neither quite told us the whole story.
Clifton Clowers, who — in the pop-hit lyric — guarded his daughter by being “mighty handy with a gun and a knife,” was actually Kilgore’s uncle, and indeed had a daughter. But he took umbrage at his nephew’s lyric, averring that he only used the gun for hunting non-human beings, and the blade for whittling.
I wonder if Clowers brought that complaint up when Kilgore and King together visited him on his 100th birthday. The subject of the song lived to be 102, and is buried on Woolverton Mountain — Kilgore had taken liberties with geography, too — where he’d lived most of his life. A life which included service during World War I.
“Wolverton” was covered by a number of artists, including the aforementioned Dickie Lee. I missed that one — and apparently so did Billboard, because Uncle Wiki shows Lee’s first release as the dating dysphoria tear-jerker “Patches,” which was a hit the same year as King’s single.
I also missed, or just don’t remember, the follow-up “answer” song — that was a minor phenomenon back in those days — “(I’m the Girl from) Wolverton Mountain.” Released the month after King’s song peaked on the charts — with these things, you had to strike when the iron, or vinyl, was hot — Jo Ann Campbell’s not-so-snappy comeback made it to No. 38 on the Hot 100.
King went on to have a solid C&W career, including a bunch of Top 20s on the country chart. But none of them really had the same crossover success as “Wolverton,” his best showing on the pop list being a No. 53 later the same year.
Kilgore was himself a country recording artist, with a handful of singles that charted on the Billboard C&W list. But his best success was as a songwriter, most notably besides “Wolverton” being “Ring of Fire,” co-written with June Carter, whose future husband Johnny Cash made it a hit in 1963. (Kilgore also toured with Cash’s band.) He also penned the Johnny Horton hit “Johnny Reb.”
And Clark and Kilgore came together 61 years ago to produce a song that I Couldn’t Quite Get Outta My Head.