Popular Songs of 1960

Elvis Presley, dressed in army fatigues, polishing a sign for company D in the 32nd armor division

Upon his discharge in March, Elvis rushed into the studio and quickly battled back to the top of the charts.

1. Theme from “A Summer Place” – Percy Faith
2. It’s Now or Never – Elvis Presley
3. Are You Lonesome Tonight – Elvis Presley
4. Beyond the Sea – Bobby Darin
5. Cathy’s Clown – The Everly Brothers
6. Save the Last Dance for Me – The Drifters
7. I’m Sorry – Brenda Lee
8. Stuck on You – Elvis Presley
9. Running Bear – Johnny Preston
10. Georgia on My Mind – Ray Charles
11. My Heart has a Mind of its Own – Connie Francis
12. Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool – Connie Francis
13. I Want to Be Wanted – Brenda Lee
14. Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini – Brian Hyland
15. Walk Don’t Run – The Ventures
16. Only the Lonely – Roy Orbison
17. He’ll Have to Go – Jim Reeves
18. (What a) Wonderful World – Sam Cooke
19. Wonderland by Night – Bert Kaempfert
20. Poetry In Motion – Johnny Tillotson
21. Chain Gang – Sam Cooke
22. North to Alaska – Johnny Horton
23. Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport – Rolf Harris
24. Theme from “The Apartment” — Ferrante & Teicher
25. Greenfields – Brothers Four
26. Volare – Bobby Rydell
27. Please Help Me I’m Falling – Hank Locklin
28. Puppy Love – Paul Anka
29. Harbor Lights – The Platters
30. When Will I Be Loved – The Everly Brothers
31. Baby, You’ve Got What it Takes – Brook Benton & Dinah Washington
32. Paper Roses – Anita Bryant
33. This Magic Moment – The Drifters
34. Footsteps – Steve Lawrence
35. Sweet Nothins – Brenda Lee
36. Mr. Custer – Larry Verne

Two names stand out in the 1960 chart that may surprise you. If you’re a newcomer to the study of American Popular Song, you might be surprised to find the “King of Rock and Roll” occupying three of the top ten positions. The fact is that Elvis did not fit in any single style, and the three records he took to #1 in 1960 are not rock and roll songs by definition.

The highest ranked Elvis song above is It’s Now or Never, which is most assuredly NOT rock and roll. The song is actually O Sole Mio, and was written in 1898. Elvis heard a recording during his stint in the Army, and wanted to sing it with updated lyrics. The rest is history.

Considering its pedigree, can It’s Now or Never be considered American Popular Song? O Sole Mio is actually in the style of Canzone napoletana — Neapolitan song, a generic term for Neapolitan music. Other well known examples of the genre are Torna a Surriento, and the ever-popular Funiculi Funicula. The argument then is, despite Irving Berlin’s innovation with Alexander’s Ragtime Band, no American music is actually 100% “American.” For example, Ragtime can be traced directly to African music. Even Bluegrass has roots elsewhere; mostly Irish, Scottish and English traditional music. American Popular Song is an “americanization” of older musical styles, and It’s Now or Never is no different. 100 years from now, it is likely that music historian will view Elvis as another in the line of top pop male vocalists, carrying the torch passed from Louis Armstrong, to Bing Crosby, to Frank Sinatra, to Eddie Fischer…and then Elvis.

Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea is slowly but surely becoming one of the most important recordings of American Popular Song from 1960. Although it never reached #1 on the Billboard charts, its popularity has eclipsed most of the songs that did reach the top spot in 1960.

The other name that surprises some students is Brenda Lee. “Little Miss Dynamite” was a child singing star who got her start in country music circles. In the late 50’s she began to have more of a rock and roll flavor, which resulted in sort of a mild country/pop sound. 1960’s I’m Sorry hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart and was her first gold single. It is noteworthy for using the then new “Nashville Sound,” a string orchestra and legato harmonized background vocals. (legato means “strung together,” in other words, the notes blend together smoothly. It’s the opposite of a staccato background vocal, which would be the “bop-bop-bop-bop-dip-dip-dip-dip” common to many early rock and roll songs). With other number one hits in 1960, Brenda was on her way. That popularity propelled Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, an annual Christmas release she recorded in the mid 1950s, to new heights for the 1960 holiday season. It shot to number and is probably the best known Brenda Lee song for modern audiences.

Although her star waned with the 1963-64 British Invasion and resurgence of rock and roll, Brenda Lee was the top-selling female recording star of the 1960s.

Interesting to note that another top pop hit from 1960 used the same Nashville Sound approach as Lee’s I’m Sorry. The unlikely Georgia On My Mind by Ray Charles could’ve been performed by the same orchestra with the same legato style chorus. The influence of a Nashville Sound is in some repects due to the success and industry leadership of Mitch Miller. He may not have favored a legato style, but he certainly brought the Nashville influence into the top offices at Columbia Records.

Other songs on the 1960 chart may seem miles away from the “pop standard” sound defined by the likes of Crosby or Sinatra, but they are simply an extension of the style and the growth of the genre. After all, Irving Berlin’s later work bears virtually no resemblance to his early songs. Just as Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini is quite unlike the standards of the 1940s, Anything You Can Do is quite unlike Alexander’s Ragtime Band. And, despite the naysayers, all three are “standards.” Although, admittedly, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini is certainly an oddity.


Suggested Listening

Just in case you never replaced those old Brenda Lee records, we suggest you start with The Definitive Collection. 28 songs from America’s favorite “torch” singer of the 1960s, including Dynamite, I’m Sorry, I Want to Be Wanted, Break It To Me Gently and a bunch of others. All re-mastered and cleaned up, but most importantly, these are the originals — not some re-recordings done in a lame attempt to work around a bad record company contract. It’s a “dynamite” Brenda Lee CD.

This link leads to Amazon.com, where they often have a “used” copy available — fully guaranteed, just like a new CD. And best of all, Amazon is trusted and they have an excellent return policy if you aren’t completely satisfied. You can look at this CD and listen to some selections by clicking here

Additional Reading

Arguably the most important voice in American Popular Song in 1959-1960 was Bobby Darin. Although he started out as a rock and roller, his true passion was singing, and the songs he was passionate about were standards. There have been a lot of books written about Darin, but certainly none as important as Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee – by Their Son Dodd Darin. It’s something of a tell-all, but not in the vile sort of way typical of many children of celebrities. On the other hand, it was written from a loving point of view, but is certainly not so reverential that it becomes a hagiography. It’s simply Dodd Darin trying to preserve his parents’ story, and the book is excellent, perhaps one of the most important memoirs of pop music from the early 1960s.

What are your memories of this musical journey?