Popular Songs of 1961

Patsy Cline publicity photo

Patsy Cline

1. Can’t Help Falling In Love – Elvis Presley
2. Moon River – Andy Williams
3. Crazy – Patsy Cline
4. At Last – Etta James
5. Stand By Me – Ben E. King
6. Big Bad John – Jimmy Dean
7. Tossin and Turnin – Bobby Lewis
8. Blue Moon – Marcels
9. Calcutta – Lawrence Welk
10. Take Good Care of My Baby – Bobby Vee
11. Hit The Road Jack – Ray Charles
12. Travelin’ Man – Ricky Nelson
13. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – Shirelles
14. The Lion Sleeps Tonight – the Tokens
15. Wonderland by Night – Bert Kaempfert
16. Surrender – Elvis Presley
17. Crying – Roy Orbison
18. Wooden Heart – Joe Dowell
19. Cupid – Sam Cooke
20. I Fall to Pieces – Patsy Cline
21. Spanish Harlem – Ben E. King
22. Please Mr. Postman – Marvelettes
23. Theme from The Magnificent Seven — Al Caiola
24. Hello Mary Lou – Ricky Nelson
25. Moody River – Pat Boone
26. Shop Around – the Miracles
27. Dedicated To The One I Love – Shirelles
28. Mother In Law – Ernie K. Doe
29. Boll-Weevil Song – Brook Benton
30. Running Scared – Roy Orbison
31. Raindrops – Dee Clark
32. Daddy’s Home – Shep & the Limelites
33. The Way You Look Tonight – The Lettermen
34. Hello Walls – Faron Young
35. There’s A Moon Out Tonight – Capris
36. Michael – The Highwaymen
37. Baby It’s You – Shirelles
38. I Love How You Love Me – the Paris Sisters
39. When I Fall in Love – The Lettermen
40. Pretty Little Angel Eyes – Curtis Lee

If you happen to have any expertise in pop chart history, the roster above contains quite a few curve balls. Most noticeable are the top four songs…at least Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline can make some claim to these top spots; “Can’t Help Falling in Love” supposedly peaked at #2, although Elvis’ estate (and record company) never fail to call it a #1 record. Either way, it’s easily today’s best-known, most-played, most-covered “standard” from 1961, so it tops this chart. Cline, at #3 above, had a solid top-10 with “Crazy.” That song has endured and passed into the ranks of legendary, so it ranks quite high here.

Second is Andy Williams’ “Moon River.” No surprise there, unless of course you happen to know that this record never charted for Williams. Ever. This theme from Breakfast at Tiffany’s was performed by Williams at the 1961 Academy Awards Ceremony. The tune — not Williams’ version — won the Oscar for best song. Williams’ performance was serendipity: It was an excellent vocal, and coincided with an exciting award ceremony. Andy was the real winner that night, it became his signature song and is easily ranked at #2 on this chart, which measures history, lasting popularity and impact to determine the rankings.

And so Williams finally gets “Moon River” on a chart.

Fourth on the list is “At Last” by Etta James. Again, if you know your “standards,” this is no surprise. But when you consider that this song didn’t crack the top 40, it makes you stop and think. The song — and especially the performance — had a tough time against the rock and roll that was ruling the pop charts. But it’s quality and value as a standard are certainly better than anything listed below it on this chart, so #4 it is.

When you get to #5, things really begin to unravel. OK, so “Tossin’ and Turnin'” doesn’t actually belong this high on a list of pop standards. It’s here mainly because it was the dominant song of the year, with more weeks at the top of the Billboard pop charts than any other from 1961. But it begs the question: Is this rock and roll, or popular song? In this case, because of its immense popularity and the fact that it has been covered by quite a few “singers & standards” types, we put it on this chart.

1961 was, in fact, the year that rock and roll finally bumped traditional popular song off the pop charts. This had been evolving since the mid-1950s; sixty-one was the year that Billboard caved in and created “Adult Contemporary” as a separate chart. It was called “Easy Listening” when it first came out, and it was intended to be the new home for releases by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. At least those that didn’t sell as well as the teenage stuff.

Even today, an occasional traditional pop song will edge its way onto the Hot 100. In 1961 it was still quite normal; artists like Lawrence Welk and Bert Kampfaert managed to rise to the top of the pop charts. But by mid summer it was apparent that a change was needed. The new charts were introduced in July, and Brook Benton’s “Boll-Weevil Song” was the first to place #1 on the “Easy Listening” chart.

And so 1961 is the first year where it really becomes difficult to separate popular song from rock and roll. At Popularsong.org our litmus test is Perry Como; if you can envision his Smoothness recording a version of any given song, then it is likely you can consider it “popular song” and perhaps worthy of being a “standard.” And yes, we can picture Mr. C singing “Tossin’ and Turnin'” without too much trouble.

But how about these other songs we culled…are these “standards”? Each did well enough on the charts that they should be on our retrospective chart…but as of this writing, still seem a bit too much like rock and roll. Here’s the list:

Number one chart hits from 1961 not yet considered “standards”:
Quarter To Three – Gary U.S. Bonds
Pony Time – Chubby Checker
Runaway – Del Shannon
Runaround Sue – Dion

Top ten chart hits from 1961 not yet considered “standards”:
Let’s Twist Again** – Chubby Checker
Who Put The Bomp (In The Bomp, Bomp, Bomp) – Barry Mann
Barbara-Ann – the Regents
Bristol Stomp – Dovells

So there it is, the songs that ride the cusp of should they be or shouldn’t they be. In just a few short years after 1961 it becomes increasingly easy to separate rock from popular song; 1965’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “Glad All Over” may be rock standards, but they present no defense against being decidedly rock and roll. [Editor’s note: Two of the songs listed above, coincidentally the “Run” tunes “Runaway” and “Runaround Sue” are usually the focus of some discussion whenever the editorial board reviews 1961.  **The board has determined that “Let’s Twist Again” should now be considered a pop standard and will likely be slotted at #6 ]

Poor Barry Mann…along with Cynthia Weil he has composed a truckload of pop standards; songs like “Soul and Inspiration,” “Sometimes When We Touch” and “Somewhere Out There.” Here’s the one hit he had as a performer, and we give it no respect as a standard. Although if you’ve ever heard Barry’s recent recordings of the songs he’s written, he manages to make each one sound like a standard.

As for the rest, we can almost imagine Frank doing “Runaround Sue,” and most of the songs from the second set (the top tens such as “Bristol Stomp”) will likely evolve into standards someday. But for now, let’s leave Del, Dion, Gary and Chubby as the rockers they were and are.

Two songs on the 1961 list bear mentioning because of their unlikely songwriter. The first is the aforementioned “Crazy,” and the second is another country crossover hit called “Hello Walls,” by Faron Young. As a result of this song’s popularity, Young spent the next decade being one of the most recognizable country music names outside of country music circles, after Johnny Cash of course. The gentleman who penned these standards was none other than the Red-Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson.