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The 1960s Before The Beatles

Rock & roll took the music world by storm in the 1950s, usually dated by music scholars when Bill Haley and His Comets’ single “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” hit the pop charts in May 1955. But before The Beatles reinvigorated and supercharged rock & roll when they exploded in the U.S. at the start of 1964, there were a fascinating few years when rock seemed like just a teen fad that would fade away like Davy Crockett caps that were all the rage in the mid-’50s.

As the 1960s dawned, the initial rock & roll revolution seemed to be waning. Elvis Presley joined the army in 1958 and his musical output slowed to a trickle. Buddy Holly died in the ill-fated plane ride of February 1959. Little Richard gave up secular music in 1958 in favor of gospel. Bill Haley’s last top forty hit was in 1958 (excluding a later re-release of “Rock Around the Clock”).

In December 1959, the UPI wire service issued a story on the downfall of rock & roll, citing several entertainment industry executives declaring that the trend was towards ballads with a slight rock beat. They pointed to singers Paul Anka and Conway Twitty as examples of the “new favorites.” Some experts believed that rock & roll only rose to prominence because disc jockeys were bribed to play the music, and that the resulting payola scandal in 1959 would kill off rock music for good. A fair number of observers picked calypso music as a genre that would bury rock & roll.

Clearly, when The Beatles first soared into the U.S. top forty with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in January 1964, there was no going back. Rock & roll was here to stay and became the dominant musical style in our culture for almost forty-five years. But what was going on in America’s popular music after the initial wave of rock & roll had more or less subsided, but before The Beatles changed everything?

Let’s take a look.

There were 1,148 songs that hit the top forty on the pop charts from 1960 through 1963. The artist with the most appearances during that time was Elvis Presley. Elvis was discharged from the army on March 5, 1960, and he came roaring back to the music scene with twenty-five top forty hits from 1960 through 1963 and five #1’s (including “Stuck on You,” “It’s Now or Never,” “Are You Lonesome To-Night?”, “Surrender,” and “Good Luck Charm).

The next artists with the most appearances in the top forty were Brenda Lee and Connie Francis, tied with twenty-two each during this period. Lee was only fifteen years old when she had her first hit of the 1960s (“Sweet Nothin’s,” which entered the top forty in December 1959 but peaked at #4 in April 1960 — so we’ll count it as a ‘60s hit). While she’s best remembered for the 1958 Christmas classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Lee’s primary style was innocuous country pop and had her biggest chart hits during this time, the 1960 #1 tunes “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to Be Wanted (Per Tutta La Vita).”

Francis, age twenty-two when the 1960s got underway, was a vocal pop singer with occasional rock & roll stylings. Her biggest hits came during the pre-Beatles ’60s: the chart-toppers “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own,” and “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You.”

The next most-prolific hitmakers during this time, with sixteen to their credit each, were Fats Domino, Dion (both solo and with The Belmonts), Ray Charles, teen idol Bobby Rydell, and Chubby Checker.

Speaking of Checker, we must talk about one of the biggest trends during the early 1960s: the twist dance craze. The song “The Twist” was written by Hank Ballard and recorded by his band, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, in 1958. Covered by Chubby Checker in 1959, the song became a huge smash for Checker in mid-1960. The lyrics urged the listener to do the associated dance, a simple affair wherein one swivels one’s feet in place, and the song and dance became an instant sensation. When Checker’s version hit #1 on the pop chart, Ballard’s original was also on the chart at #28, giving the public a double-dose of the song. As Checker’s song began to drop, doo-wop group Danny & The Juniors’ cashed in on the trend with their own hit, “Twistin’ U.S.A.”

Before long, a wide array of artists contributed to the twisting mania. Joey Dee & The Starliters released both “Peppermint Twist” and “Hey, Let’s Twist.” The Marvelettes followed up their chart-topping smash “Please Mr. Postman” with “Twistin’ Postman.” The Chipmunks got into the act with “The Alvin Twist.” And even legends like Frank Sinatra and Count Basie joined the club with “Ev’rybody’s Twistin’ ” and “The Basie Twist,” respectively. Chubby Checker himself had annual bites of the apple with “Let’s Twist Again” in 1961, “Slow Twistin’ ” in ’62, and “Twist It Up” in ’63.

The dance became so popular that for most of March 1962, there were a total of eleven songs with “twist” in the title on the 100-song pop chart. Checker’s 1963 “Twist It Up” was the last hurrah for twist songs, though. The Beatles had a hit in 1964 with a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” — but by then, it was more about the band than the dance. The only other subsequent twist songs to become hits are throwbacks: The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” became a hit again in 1986 (thanks to its inclusion in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away” by Rod Stewart was a minor hit in 1987.

Another major musical development in the early 1960s was surf music. While guitarist Dick Dale began releasing single in the late 1950s, his 1961 single “Let’s Go Trippin’ ” is widely considered to be the first surf rock record. While it only made it up to #60 on the pop chart, it was a breakthrough and a very influential record. The Ventures had a string of hit singles during this period, including “Perfidia,” “Walk — Don’t Run,” and “Ram-Bunk-Shush.” Chantay’s “Pipeline” was a major hit in the spring of ’63, The Surfaris had a huge smash that summer with “Wipe Out,” and then Jack Nitzsche’s “The Lonely Surfer” barely cracked the top forty slightly thereafter.

Meanwhile, surfing-themed vocal music was emerging at the same time – led, of course, by The Beach Boys. They first emerged on the national pop chart in early 1962 with the minor hit “Surfin’,“ and debuted in the top forty later that year with “Surfin’ Safari.” While California duo Jan & Dean started having success in 1959, they reached a higher plateau with their Brian Wilson-penned chart-topper “Surf City” in 1963. And Chubby Checker had a minor hit in ’63 with “Surf Party.”

The music emerging in the 1960s prior to The Beatles changing the musical landscape also had some important artists get their starts or taste chart success for the first time. Ike & Tina Turner had a hit song straight out of the gate with their debut single “A Fool in Love” in 1960. Folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary released their debut single and album in 1962. After Little Stevie Wonder had a few commercially unsuccessful singles in 1962, his first chart entry went all the way to #1: “Fingertips – Part 2” in August 1963. The 4 Seasons also exploded onto the scene, with both of their debut singles (“Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Sherry”) topping the chart in 1962.

In 1963, no one in the U.S. truly understood what was about to hit them from across the Atlantic. Most people, kids included, thought of rock & roll as a passing fancy. A professor of education reported that “Surveys show that by nineteen most [young people] have passed the hump and consider rock & roll to be kid stuff. By 25 almost no one listens to it.” As one teenager told an Ohio newspaper in 1963, rock & roll was “on its way out as a fad.” One columnist warned teenagers that people promoting rock & roll were “making suckers of you kids.”

But as Beatlemania gained steam in the U.K., mockery and fear were the primary reactions on these shores. “The thought of U.S. teen-agers becoming Beatle bewitched is frightening,” declared one journalist reporting on the phenomenon in English. A newspaper editorialized, “Hold on to your hats, this will undoubtedly mean that there will be American imitators of the Beatles and we will go through a cycle of this rage.”

If only they knew….

Mike Sauter started at WYEP in 2004 and held various positions, including Midday Mix host, music director, program director, and station manager.