Archive | January, 2019

The Number Twos: Ritchie Valens – “Donna”

17 Jan

“Donna” by Richie Valens hit #2 on February 23, 1959.

Ah, yes. The other Richie Valens song. It’s easy (for me at least) to forget just how young Richie Valens was when he perished in a plane crash on The Day the Music Died. On February 3, 1959, Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper were killed when their plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa. Valens eventually won a coin toss with guitarist Tommy Allsup, a member of Holly’s band, for a spot on the plane.

Valens was all of 17 years old, two months shy of his 18th birthday. He released just three singles in his short career. “La Bamba,” which would go on to be his signature song, was released as the B side to “Donna” and would only reach #22. It would hit #1 almost 30 years later when covered by Los Lobos for the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name starring Lou Diamond Philips in 1987.

“Donna” was thus Valens’ biggest hit, at #3, when Valens died in February 1959, and moved up one more spot after the tragedy.

“Donna” is a teenage love ballad, refreshingly for once actually sung by a teen, to Valens’ high-school sweetheart, Donna Ludwig.

The song is affecting, far more so than its immediate predecessor at #2, teenage love ballad “16 Candles” by The Crests which thanks to its proximity and similar subject matter provides a natural comparison. While the Crests presumably still hold the favor of their sweetheart, Valens pines for his lost love, the titular Donna, who wanders where she has gone, and what he’ll do by himself, all alone, now.

Valens’ voice doesn’t have nearly the sheer strength of Johnny Maestro’s (of the Crests), but the combination of the sweeter, reedier voice, and bare instrumentation makes the tenor of the lyrics come through much stronger.

The “Oh Donna”s, four of which both start and end the song are my favorite part, where Valens’ holds out the “oh” for just the perfect amount of time, about two seconds a piece, so simply, but conveying his feelings of love and longing towards Donna in just those two works, before any other lyrics arrive.

Rating: 7.5 – Valens’ yearning comes off as heartfelt, bringing me into the song emotionally.

What was #1? Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee”

Was #2 better than #1? Yes.

The Number Twos: The Crests – “16 Candles”

14 Jan

The Crests’ “16 Candles” hit #2 on the chart on February 9, 1959.

The song may be most recognizable for having given the name to John Hughes’ seminal Sixteen Candles in 1984 (we’re way farther from the movie now (35 years) than the movie from the song (25 years) which is somewhat depressing).

The Crests were a group that hung around, with a whole lot of minor hits, throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s, a couple of top 20s, and one really big hit, “16 Candles.”

Wikipedia claims The Crests were the first interracial doo-wop group, and while that would be hard to verify, they’re certainly the first successful one, with thee African-American members, one Puerto Rican, and one Italian. One of those African-American members was Luther Vandross’ sister, Patricia, who left before “16 Candles” was recorded. The Italian member was Johnny Maestro who had the lead on “16 Candles” and would go on to have a #3 hit with “Worst That Could Happen” in the late ’60s.

The song seems to be credited as “Sixteen Candles” some places and I have no idea what explains the disagreement.

The “Happy Birthday Baby” introduction is far and away the most well-remembered and memorable part of the song. Maestro’s voice is sweet and mellifluous; carrying relatively mundane lyrics. The song is a paeon to a girl upon her 16th birthday; she is the singer’s “teenage queen,” and the “prettiest, loveliest, girl” he’s ever seen. Really deep stuff. Everything is pretty generic doo-wop, and nothing stands out sans the intro. There are the requisite back up singers, but they don’t really add a lot to this song, as it’s all Maestro’s show. The title is also better than the song.

Rating: 5 – It’s not actively bad, it’s just thoroughly meh, and pretty much unmemorable outside of the “Happy Birthday Baby” which is easily worth a full point. I really would like a song built around the “Happy Birthday Baby” segment. Some producer, get on it.

What was #1? Lloyd Price – “Stagger Lee”

Was #2 better than #1?

The Number Twos: Bill Parsons – “The All American Boy”

11 Jan

“The All American Boy” by Bill Parsons (well, not really but we’ll get to that in a moment) hit #2 on February 2, 1959

Okay this is a strange one and I swear I’ll soon get to the point where I’ll stop going back to the first #2 here in comparison but indulge me one last time as we start hitting every archetype for the type of artists we’ll see here.

First, Bobby Day, a very famous mostly one-hit wonder. Second, Everly Brothers, a very famous duo with many hits. Third, Connie Francis, a very famous pre-Beatles singer who is largely forgotten. Fourth, Bill Parsons, a man without even a wikipedia entry. Huh?

Well, the thing is Bill Parsons didn’t actually sing or play on the song at all. The only reason he’s credited is due to a mix-up by the record label. Bobby Bare, who has a fair-sized wikipedia and a long track record in the ’60s and ’70s as a successful country musician, actually wrote and recorded the song. Parsons and Bare together recorded some music, with Parsons on one side of the record, and Bare on the other.

As Bare told Billboard magazine: “Bill had just gotten out of the Army. He had a thing he wanted to record. So, we went down to King Studio in Cincinnati, and I played bass on his thing. We had about fifteen minutes. I said ‘Let me put down this thing I’ve been working on.’ So, I did.” 

“That same day, they wanted to make a copy of it.,” Bare continued “The guy who was paying for it went to a company there to get an acetate made. It was Fraternity Records. When they heard the two records. They asked who was singing, and the guy told him Bill Parsons – which it was on the back side of that record. So, they put it out with his name on it. It scared him to death. He didn’t even know the song.”

It was Bare’s first success, but claimed by Parsons, who would lip-sync the song on television while Bare was in the army.

I can only imagine what would happen had this deception come more recently, though, I suppose we have the Milli Vanill situation for that in another 30 years.

Now, for the song itself. “All American Boy” is a spoken word story loosely based off the tale of Elvis Presley about a boy who learns to play guitar and rises to fame.

Bare begins by letting the audience know that, like him, they too can be an All American Boy (presumably the men, anyway) if they buy a guitar and follow these steps.

In fact, only a year ago, Bare explains he bought a guitar, learned to play, Johnny B. Goode, for example, only to irritate his dad, who told him that if he kept up with the racket, he’d have to leave. He moved to Memphis, played his tunes, and attracted the attention of a talent agent, who said he could make this All American Boy a star. He became that star, getting all the girls, driving a big car, only to be called to service by the army.

There’s a jazzy little ’50s early rock tune playing in the background but the song largely rises and falls on vocal performance, which at least juices the relative most out of a song that’s just okay. His enthusiasm seems sort of by-the-numbers though, there’s nothing approaching real passion or emotion.

Rating: 5 – It’s fine. There are plenty of spoken word tracks I adore. The story because the All American Boy mix up is a sight better than the song itself.

What was #1? The Platters – ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

Was the #2 better than #1? No.

The Number Twos: Connie Francis – “My Happiness”

10 Jan

We enter the year of 1959. The first #2 single was a single still relatively well-known today, the second a band relatively well-known today. Our third is a pre-Beatles superstar who I doubt all by the biggest music fans of the era under 60 recognize or could possibly name a song by.

Connie Francis had 14 Hot 100 era top 10s, including two #1s. Growing up Italian in Newark, New Jersey, she also became fluent in Yiddish growing up in a Jewish area. She tried her hand as a recording artist in the mid-50s without success and was considering a scholarship to NYU when she finally broke through. She was a big star from 1957-1962, slotting in nicely in the first period of the Hot 100.

“My Happiness” is a pop standard dating back to the mid-19th century. The most famous version to date had been published in 1948, with lyrics by Betty Peterson Blanco. Francis’s version hit #2 on January 19, 1959.

The Jon and Sondra Steele rendition of “My Happiness” had been Francis’ favorite song when she was 8, and she cut the track in November 1958 at age 20.

A sad, slowed down, ballad of longing, “My Happiness” begins with Francis’s voice followed by a light, casual drumbeat. The song enjoys the backing of an orchestra which goes somewhat underused but pipe in after each line of each verse, most notably with trumpet. The titular happiness is her love, who she longs to be with over four verses and one non-verse (I’m not sure if it’s technically a chorus or a bridge, or if these terms even make sense with this song structure).

The percussions really buildings into that chorus, which, following the first two verses, is the dramatic peak of the song, where Francis’s longing is felt at its strongest, letting her show off her vocal chops on “But I’ll hold you again / There’ll be no blue memories then” before she descends to the final two verses, which display a relative lack of intensity.

Rating: 6

I was prepared to issue a lower rating; the song isn’t particularly exciting and passion-stirring in any facet, lyrically, or musically, or vocally, but after listening to it several times in a row and finding I actually liked it more and not less, I decided to bump it up a little. It’s hardly a great, but the whole, with the light orchestration, the sweet vocals, the simple lyrics, is greater than the sum of its parts.

What was #1? The Platters – “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”

Was #2 better than #1? Yes.

The Number Twos: The Everly Brothers – “Problems”

9 Jan

“Problems” by the Everly Brothers hit #2 on December 15, 1958.

If Bobby Day was a well-connected largely one-hit wonder, The Everly Brothers were one of the monsters of pre-Beatles rock-and-roll. While much of what we think of as early rock comes from a blues background, The Everlys, Don and Phil, were country-tinged, and indeed sit in the Country Music Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have two pre-Hot 100 #1s, “Wake Up Little Susie,” and “All I Have to Do is Dream,” one Hot 100 #1, “Cathy’s Clown,” and two other pre-Hot 100 #2s, “Bird Dog” and “Bye Bye Love,” but this is the only time we’ll be seeing them here.

“Problems” was written by the married duo of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who between the two of them, wrote a number of the Everly Brothers’ biggest hits, as well as “Rocky Top” and “Love Hurts.”

The sweet harmonies which mark the Everlys work more generally are apparent here.

A number of simple guitar flourishes between lines really make the song and its shortness keeps it in and out before it’s possible to get tired of.

It’s halfway between country and rock, and the lyrical content fits right in with the country genre. All of the singer’s problems (including with his car, and in class, so likely he’s a teenager) are caused by his inability to know whether his love is true, presumably whether his girl is cheating on him.

The lyrics don’t feel trite despite their simplicity (the word “problems” is repeated 17 times in under two minutes) probably because of the universality and the similar simplicity of the musicality that accompanies them.

“Problems” is sweet and heartfelt, which allows us both to relate to the singer but also consider the problems in their relative teenage context which keeps the song from being too much of a downer. His problems are with his car and teacher, so hopefully he’ll get over it in a couple of weeks.

Rating: 8

I did not know this song particularly well and was impressed though not terribly surprised considering the quality of the rest of the Everly Brothers output. The song is a triumph of simplicity and hits exactly the right amount of melancholy.

What was #1? “To Know Him, is to Love Him” – The Teddy Bears

Was the #2 better? Yes.

The Number Twos: Bobby Day – “Rockin’ Robin”

8 Jan

Let’s get started.

There are only two #2s in the year of the very first Hot 100, 1958, but thankfully for our purposes, while there will surely be some duds, and many, many long forgotten songs, the first ever #2 is a solid if not spectacular classic still remembered quite well today.

That #2 is, of course, Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin,” which reached the marker on October 13, 1958.

“Rockin’ Robin” was Day’s only solo hit, though he had his hand in a number of other successful record ventures. As leader of the Hollywood Flames, he sang #11 hit “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” and he wrote “Little Bird Pretty One,” which would become a #6 hit for Thurston Harris and most notable “Over and Over” which would be the Dave Clark Five’s lone chart-topping single in the U.S.

The lively, mid-tempo, early-rock-and-roll jam evokes memories of being in a Johnny Rockets, or presumably, in an actual ’50s malt shop with your best girl. The tune’s most distinguishable element is its “Tweedle-lee-deedle-lee-dee” vocals and similar variants which open the song and back the refrain. The lyrics are impressively literal, being about a robin that is making rock-and-roll music with its tweets, inspiring different birds from all up and down the block to cheer it on and join in. It’s short, sweet, and upbeat and makes you want to dance at the hop in a way that adults might not quite get, but which avoids challenging their social mores in any meaningful way. It has the sound, but more importantly the recognizability to instantly confer a sense of the late ‘50s in a movie or TV program.

The song is best associated in recent pop culture with the scene in The Office in which Andy Bernard’s phone, which rings to a self-made a capella version of “Rockin’ Robin” is hidden in the ceiling by Jim, leading Andy to punch a wall and go on to anger management. Watching in hindsight though, it’s perplexing that there are no consequences for Jim for taking someone else’s phone and putting it in the ceiling, which seems wildly unprofessional.

Rating: 7.5

I started with 1-10 rating system and already broke the rules with decimals, but so be it. The hardest song to judge is the first because it sets the standard. And “Rockin’ Robin” is certainly a standard. It’s so solid I could set my watch by it. It’s reliable, rollicking, and a very sound tune, but doesn’t rise above that. It wouldn’t get me excited to hear it come on a jukebox. I reserve the right to rejigger the entire rating system later but for now here we are.

What was #1? “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards

Was the #2 better? Yes.

We’ll be hearing from this song again, confirming that it’s an apt choice as the first ever Hot 100 #2, but that’s for another day.

The Number Twos: Introduction

8 Jan

Number Ones are great. There’s no doubt about it. They’re the best, they’ve topped the charts, set the records, and gone as far as they could go. They’ve reached the pinnacle for popular music and can have no regrets. But everybody talks about them; and they don’t need someone else in their corner.

The true underdogs are the #2s. They’ve often got everything the #1s have but they just couldn’t make it quite over the top, for a variety of reasons. A little too strange, a bad quirk of timing, a powerhouse occupying the #1 spot. For but a quirk of fate, they don’t reach the pinnacle and thus get left out of all the trivia and nostalgic remembrances. Well, not here. An ingenious writer at Stereogum has been chronicling all the number ones of the Hot 100 era, which begins in late 1958. Here, we’ll do the same for the number twos. I’ll rate every one from 1-10 as well because, it’s a good idea.

(To get technical for a second, this means songs that peaked at #2, so if a song hung around the second spot for a couple weeks on the way to the top, or stopped at second on the way down from the pinnacle, we’ll leave it alone.)

Our first #2 coming up.