(Since this weekly chart feature is never about the top five of anything anymore, let’s stop calling it that.)
There’s little doubt that American pop music needed the British Invasion badly. As 1962 turned to 1963, the pop chart was fairly insipid and getting worse, although radio stations like WJET in Erie, Pennsylvania, were doing the best they could to keep it interesting with a music survey listing 60 songs and covering a ridiculous variety of styles 50 years ago this week. Because there are so many, instead of listing five songs as is our frequent custom, we’ll make five observations.
1. The Classics. Only a handful of songs among the 60 on this chart endured for years to come as oldies-radio staples: the Miracles’ “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Rhythm of the Rain” by the Cascades and “Walk Like a Man” by the Four Seasons are in the first rank; “Hey Paula,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Up on the Roof” ranked pretty high for a long time, too.
2. The Overlooked Classics. Several records on this chart never really became oldies-radio staples but should have, including the magnificent “Tell Him” by the Exciters, “Two Lovers” by Mary Wells, and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by the Crystals. I have a soft spot for Ned Miller’s “From a Jack to a King,” one of those country records I can remember hearing on my parents’ radio when I was a kid, and “Remember Then” by the Earls. The latter is a throwback to the street-corner sound of a decade before, for which some listeners were growing nostalgic as the pop-ification of rock ‘n’ roll continued. (For the impact of this pop-ificiation, see the first sentence of this post.)
3. The Jazz. There’s plenty of instrumental music on this chart, not just jazz, as WJET went for the broadest possible audience—although the jazz records were legitimate pop hits: “Fly Me to the Moon” by Joe Harnell, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” by Vince Guaraldi, and if you want to count the two Tony Bennett records, including “I Wanna Be Around,” you go right ahead. Related: “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” by Eydie Gorme and “Bossa Nova USA” by Dave Brubeck, capitalizing on the fad of the moment.
4. The Polka Music? The Matys Brothers were a Pennsylvania band popular enough in the late 50s to get on American Bandstand. Although they scored a couple of rockabilly hits while backed by members of Bill Haley’s Comets, their own lineup of accordion, sax, bass, and drums was better suited to the old-time music they began recording in the early 60s. “Who Stole the Keeshka?” is known to many of us in the upper Midwest as a polka number popularized by Frankie Yankovic.
5. The “Alley Cat” Guy and the Alley Cats. That juxtaposition at numbers 40 and 41 caught my eye, given that Bent Fabric’s 1962 hit “Alley Cat” was, I am told, my first favorite song. “Chicken Feed” was Fabric’s followup to “Alley Cat,” while the Alley Cats’ “Puddin’ ‘n’ Tain” was a Phil Spector production, his one and only single with them.
On the survey, WJET bills itself as “Happy Radio From Fun Channel 14,” another fad in which radio stations talked about their dial positions as “channels.” As best I can tell, this started sometime in the middle of the 50s and presumably took off based on the rising popularity of TV. You still hear the word used by stations now and then (Scott Shannon’s syndicated “True Oldies Channel” is the most famous). It was becoming a well-worn term by early 1963, a time in which the idea of “channels” for entertainment was growing less exotic than it had been just a few years before. Rather like pop music itself, although earth-shaking change was just a year away.