Chart Review: Billboard Top 40, 11/23/63

In one of his usual Friday song roundups, Steven Rubio posted the top 10 songs in Billboard for the week ending November 23, 1963 — in other words, the most popular records in America the day John Kennedy died. I had a vaguely similar idea which I never got around to doing, so I’m glad he took it on. A few brief notes:

1) Steven correctly notes that Donny & Marie, in 1975, covered that week’s #3 hit, Nino Temple & April Stevens’s “Deep Purple.” But they charted an even bigger hit in 1974 with that week’s #1 — their version of Dale & Grace’s “Leaving It Up to You” which they slightly re-titled, thereby creating one of pop music’s most awkward parenthetical constructions of all-time: “Leaving It (All) Up to You.” Truth is, I love both of these songs (moreso Nino & April), but given that it was Donny & Marie (and that I was ten), my love for each was entirely secretive. I remember how pleased I was years later when I discovered that these were older songs, knowing I could enjoy each in the safety of the fact that they were long buried in the past. (And I’m guessing if I re-listened to D&M’s versions, which I haven’t heard since they were on the radio, they would sound irrelevant in comparison. Not that I’m about to find out.)

2) Steven writes of The Singing Nun’s “Dominique”: “At one point, this made #1. It is often cited as having a calming influence on America after Kennedy’s death.” When I thought to look up this particular chart, it struck me pretty early on that, the real story (if there is a story) wouldn’t be in this chart, but in future charts to come — i.e., “how did the event play out on the chart” is a much more viable question than, “how was the event prefigured by the chart?” So, “Dominique” topping the charts a few weeks later does make some sense (that and the whole Catholic thing, maybe). Certainly, in terms of nun-pop, it beats the hell (sorry) out of Sister Janet Mead’s “The Lord’s Prayer” from 1974, which I don’t recall having a similarly calming influence after Watergate, but who knows.

3) Glad Steven cited Greil Marcus’s aversion to “Sugar Shack.” To me, it sounds so much like some of the K-Tel pop I grew up with in the early ’70s I don’t hear it as anything like pure evil — for bubblegum-worthiness, I situate it somewhere between “Sugar Sugar” (genius) and “Love Shack” (putrid). I like it better, anyway, than that week’s Tommy Roe song (“Everybody,” #7), one of the earlier songs I loved as a kid but which sounds flat to me now.

4) As Steven also notes, the Beatles were just around the corner, and that’s as good a context as any to hear this stuff. I mean, the question becomes, were the charts badly in need of rescuing? You know, if the Beatles hadn’t existed, the pop charts would have invented them, sort of thing? Well, it’s a weak-sauce Top 10, for sure. The Impressions song is wonderful (and of all that week’s Top 10 I’m guessing it’s the only one that didn’t sound faintly ridiculous blaring out of radios on November 23), the two aforementioned duets are undeniable, but the rest is okay to uneven to near-awful (“Bossa Nova Baby” is one of two terrible Elvis numbers in the Top 40). However, skimming down past the Top 10, into the Top 40, the story brightens up — a lot. A few excellent (albeit, in 2013, somewhat obscure) girl group records (“Down at Papa Joe’s” — need I note the irony of the title? — is terrific and weird; Robin Ward’s “Wonderful Summer” is very pretty), an all-time Beach Boys classic, records by Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles which rank with their best chart tunes (Ray’s “Busted” should be called “Busted and Flat-out Pissed”), brilliant stuff by Rick (not “Ricky”?) Nelson, Dion Dimucci, and Lenny Welch… after which the quality (again) becomes somewhat uneven, though rarely ever not at least decent (worst song in the Top 40 by a longshot: “Saturday Night” by New Christy Minstrels). Anyway, it’s far from dire, in my view, though the Top 10 does suggest otherwise, maybe. (Oh, and #41’s a good one, too.)


5 thoughts on “Chart Review: Billboard Top 40, 11/23/63

  1. I agree about “Sugar Shack.” (I jump on Steven’s blog and disagree with him too often, so I’ll do it here instead.) To paraphrase the Shangri-Las, “Is it bad? It’s bad, but not historically so.” I guess I’m disagreeing more with Marcus than with Steven.

    Most awkward parenthetical title ever: the Spinners’ “They Just Can’t Stop It the (Games People Play).” That’s right from the 45—it was shortened to “Games People Play” on the album. It’s the placement of the first bracket that’s bizarre.

    Funny you should mention the New Christy Minstrels. I was talking about Julie Christie just this morning.

  2. It’s bizarre when you read about the New Christy Minstrels and discover the people who were in that group at one time or another: Barry McGuire (who is prominent on “Saturday Night”), Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, Karen Black (yes, that Karen Black), Gene Clark, John Denver’s uncle, Dave Deutschendorf… truly the Mekons and/or Wu-Tang Clan of their era.

  3. Wow! I did not know Greil Marcus hated “Sugar Shack” — this will give me something to live for, at least through (American) Thanksgiving. I was in Grade 12, just a couple weeks short of turning 17, when this Top 10 was published, so maybe I can bring some contemporary-teen perspective to these questions. “Sugar Shack” was on the radio constantly during those days, and while it was hardly my favorite disc, I was interested in the way the lyrics attempted to deal with the recent phenomenon of beatnikism (which REALLY fascinated me), albeit in a distant and awkward manner. Mostly I would listen to “Sugar Shack” each time to catch and puzzle over what I considered a lyrical oxymoron, in the line “A black leotard and her feet are bare.” I’d thought that “leotard(s)” were those fetching opaque waist-to-toe tights young women were wearing in the early ’60s, so I couldn’t figure out how the “cute little girlie” could have bare feet while simultaneously wearing leotard(s). It was a mystery wrapped in an underthings enigma. A few more years into the Sixties, after I was dating real-life girls and becoming slightly more conversant, I found out that “leotard” (singular) could describe various other garments, not all of which necessarily covered the wearer’s feet while she was laying tracks back to the Sugar Shack. So Jimmy Gilmer knew what he was singing about after all.

    Thus “Sugar Shack” had its uses, but on the other hand, Holy Greil, if you harbor any hatred for the Fireballs’ later hit, the terminally-singsong “Bottle of Wine,” I’m with you, brother!

  4. and the Minstrels cut “He’s A Loser,” famous for its appearance in the Mosquitoes episode of “Gilligan’s Island.”

    “Bottle of Wine” is not bad, most of the blame goes to author Tom Paxton as it’s a folk song awkwardly retroverted to rock. My peeve with the Fireballs was their overdubbing of guitars on Buddy Holly’s stuff posthumously. But Norman Petty was probably pretty persuasive.

  5. Most awkward parenthetical: “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” What it interrupts, “Get Up Sex Machine,” makes no sense.

    Put me down in favor of “Sugar Shack” too. It played on Twin Cities’ WCCO now and then, the only station my parents would play in the car, mostly farm reports and news programming as I recall. I liked the beatnik theme too. I know it’s on the level of Maynard G. Krebs but it and Elvis Presley’s “His Latest Flame” were pop music oases for an 8-year-old.

    Amazing about the New Christy Minstrels.

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