Once, 50 years seemed like a long time. Now that I’m past 50 myself, not so much. So let’s take a short trip back, courtesy of the Fabulous Forty survey from KDWB in Minneapolis dated April 21, 1962. It includes a number of legendary records now a half-century old (“Good Luck Charm,” “The Wanderer,” “Duke of Earl”) and a full ration of songs inspired by dance crazes (“Mashed Potato Time,” “Slow Twistin’,” “Twist Twist Senora,” “Soul Twist”). Because I can’t dance, we’ll deal with some of the other stuff.
1. “Johnny Angel”/Shelley Fabares (holding at 1). One night, driving home from work in small-town Iowa, I heard our clueless competitor, which let their 16-year-old part-timers play whatever they wanted on the air, follow a Motley Crue record with “Johnny Angel” playing at 45 instead of 33. Twenty years later, it remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard on the radio. Shelley Fabares was 18 years old in 1962 and appearing on The Donna Reed Show; she would later become one of Elvis Presley’s favorite co-stars, and much later, appear in the sitcom Coach.
2. “Soldier Boy”/Shirelles (holding at 2). In 1962, even though the United States wasn’t fighting a war, it was still drafting soldiers into the peacetime army, and it was estimated that for every man drafted, several others volunteered, in hopes of exercising more control over their eventual assignment. So the Shirelles’ soldier boy might be stationed in Germany, patrolling the Korean DMZ, or manning some other outpost of the Cold War, but separation is separation no matter the circumstances. Consider this evidence that the emotions involved with such separations were a common, easily accessed experience: “Soldier Boy” was knocked out on the spur of the moment by Shirelles’ manager Florence Greenberg and songwriter/producer Luther Dixon and recorded in just a few minutes, twangy guitar hook and all.
24. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”/Kingston Trio (down from 14). Folk music was booming 50 years ago this week, but the Kingston Trio were scoring hits before the boom began, starting in 1958. As ubiquitous as it would become later in the 60s, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was not a particularly big national hit in 1962, reaching only #21.
25. “Midnight in Moscow”/Kenny Ball (down from 19). By 1962, bebop had ruled the jazz world for more than a decade, but it drove a lot of old-school jazz fans away from the music. To those fans, “Midnight in Moscow,” with its Dixieland-style trumpet line, must have been a welcome blast from the past.
39. “Uptown”/Crystals (first week on). Many of the classic Brill Building songs have a strong sense of time and place, reflecting the lives of young, struggling city dwellers in love during the early 60s. Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who wrote “Uptown,” were a couple; so were Gerry Goffin and Carole King. As successful writers tend to do, they wrote about what they knew about. This was the second release on Phil Spector’s Philles label, following an earlier Crystals hit, “There’s No Other Like My Baby.” It’s the sound of an earthquake beginning.
Fifty years ago this week, I was a two-year-old toddling around the house, with a two-week-old baby brother. Because my parents were radio listeners, some of the popular songs that April must have hit my ears. It would be a while before I heard them again and understood what they meant, but in the sweep of 50 years, not a very long while.