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.)