Sunday, November 23, 2008


It started one spring day several years ago on a trip from Georgia to Chicago. My wife, Dianne, and I had been visiting her family in Marietta. We decided to take a different route home, driving through Birmingham, Memphis and then North to Chicago. Driving through northern Mississippi, we rolled into Tupelo. I said to Dianne, "Do you know who came from Tupelo?" She replied, "No, who?" "Elvis", I said. Sure enough, we passed a sign for the turnoff to Elvis's birthplace.

Since Dianne and I have been known to drive 50 miles out of the way to see stuff like the World's Largest Ball of Twine, certainly we could stop to visit the birthplace of a historical legend like Elvis Presley. After all, I've been a rock music fanatic since I was the first kid on the block to have a Bo Diddley album--in 1959.

The Presley house was a nondescript small shotgun house, common in the South. Shotgun houses get their name because a shotgun fired through the front door will exit through the back door. The house had a small gift shop in the back room and a historical marker in the front yard. We spent no more than a half hour there before continuing on to Memphis and Graceland.

Although we're not serious fans of Elvis who, of course, died in 1977, it got me thinking about top-40 rock music from the Elvis era.

Elvis is one of those unique people who need only one name and people know whom you're talking about, like Cher and Madonna. If you're referring to Elvis Costello, who is also in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, you need to use both names. How many people even know Madonna's last name, or what name she uses to sign checks?

In any event, I had been on a quest for over 40 years seeking an obscure recording from the early 1960's called Mind Over Matter, sung by Nolan Strong and the Diablos, an R & B and doo-wop group. I looked it up in music catalogs and libraries and couldn't find it. Recently, by the miracle of the Internet, I was able to find the recording on a MySpace site and save it on my computer. It's still a terrific song.

Strong was the cousin of Barrett Strong who wrote several Motown hits like I Heard It Through the Grapevine , and recorded his only hit, Money which was later covered by various artists including the Beatles.

Nolan Strong died in Detroit in 1977, the same year as Elvis, at age 43. He had a high pitched (some call it etherially high) tenor voice, influenced by Clyde McPhatter of the Drifters, and who in turn influenced the young Smokey Robinson. Nolan Strong was the biggest thing in Detroit prior to the arrival of Berry Gordy and Motown Records. The song, Mind Over Matter was a regional hit in Detroit, reaching No. 1 locally in 1962, and it received some play in Chicago (where I listened to it) but it was little known nationally.

Since we're talking about top-40 music, I'd like to share with you the Top-40 from June 28, 1963 (pre-Beatles) on Chicago's WLS-890-AM Radio. For brevity's sake, I omitted some of the songs that I never heard of, although somebody must have purchased them. In those days, radio stations may have had other reasons to place a song on the Top-40 (e.g. bribes, a/k/a payola). Thus, by placing a song on the Top-40the public would buy the record, rather than the record appearing on the Top-40 because people were buying the record. Kind of like the tail wagging the dog.

WLS Top-40 June 28, 1963 (artist listed after the song title)

1. Easier Said than Done , Essex. A one hit wonder by a girl group.
2. Sukiyake, Kyu Sakamoto. The lyrics are in Japanese. No hablo Japanese.
3. Shutdown, Beach Boys. "Tack it up, tack it up, buddy gonna shut you down" A song about a drag race in California between a fuel injected Sting Ray and a 413 (souped up Dodge with 413 horses under the hood). Gas was only 30 cents a gallon.
4. Blue on Blue, Bobby Vinton. Dobrze, which means OK in Polish.
5. Surf City, Jan & Dean. "Two girls for every boy". A classic song from the kings of surf, Jan Berry and Dean Torrence.
6. Gypsy Woman, Ricky Nelson. The younger son of Ozzie & Harriet was a clean cut teen idol, more acceptable for middle class teen girls than Elvis.
7. One Fine Day, Chiffons. This all girl group from the Bronx recorded many hits including He's So Fine. About 10 years later, George Harrison recorded a musically similar song called My Sweet Lord which prompted a copyright infringement suit. The lawyers made a lot of money and the judge found that Harrison had unintentionally (!) plagarized the Chiffons' song and had to pay damages.
8. Fallen, Roy Orbison
9. You Can't Sit Down, Dovells
11. Memphis, Lonnie Mack. The instrumental version of the Chuck Berry song.
16. Your Graduation Means Goodbye, Cardigans. A syrupy graduation song. The title speaks for itself.
17. Come Go With Me, Dion. I'm a great fan of Dion, but I liked Runaround Sue and Teenager in Love better.
18. Till Then, Classics. A 1930's or 40's song brought back to life.
19. Ring of Fire , Johnny Cash. A classic song by an all time great country artist.
21. Ten Commandments of Love, James MacArthur. Performed (but not sung) by the actor son of Helen Hayes, this was the Caucasian version of the song. The more well known version was done by Harvey and the Moonglows as a classic R & B doo-wop song. MacArthur became better known for starring in Hawaii Five-O.
22. Be True to Yourself, Bobby Vee.
23. Goodnight My Love, Fleetwoods. The lesser known follow up song to their big hit, Come Softly to Me .
24. From Me to You, Del Shannon. The Beatles version of this song came shortly thereafter and put the song on the map.
30. Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, Rolf Harris. An Australian folk song.
31. Land of 1000 Dances, Chris Kenner. A great song by a New Orleans artist. A few years later a version of this song by something called Cannibal and the Head Hunters reached the Top-10. Headed by Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia from East L.A., it was one of the first Mexican-American groups to have a hit record in the U.S.
32. Don't Try to Fight It Baby , Eydie Gorme. I don't remember the song, but Eydie is a legend.
33. Rat Race, Drifters. I don't remember this one either, but the Drifters featuring Ben E. King had many hits.
34. Just One Look, Doris Troy. This song was used in a recent car commercial. Troy co-wrote the song and it was her only hit record although it later became a hit for Linda Ronstedt and others. Troy's career included singing back-up for the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, George Harrison and Carly Simon, among others. A stage musical, based on her life, ran for 1500 performances at the Heckscher Theater in Harlem. It will be released as a motion picture in 2009 starring Patti LaBelle and others.
35. No One, Ray Charles. I don't remember this song either, but Ray was the greatest--What'd I say, Georgia on My Mind, Night Time is the Right Time
36. Daughter, Blenders. The lyrics read something like "Daughter leave those boys alone"

The Dion song reminds me of a story. Last year, we went to Las Vegas when he was appearing there. I went to our hotel ticket center to buy tickets for his concert. The agent said, "Oh you want to see Celine Dion." My response was "Who the heck is Celine Dion?, I want to see the real Dion, like with the Belmonts!" Incidentally, the concert was great, as he sang all his hit songs.

The Belmonts, which were named after a street in the Bronx where they came from, aren't around anymore, but Dion's backup group sounded just like them. Back in the 1950's they toured with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. On February 2, 1959, Dion declined to pay the $36 for a short flight across Iowa, electing to drive instead. The plane crashed, killing Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper on "The Day the Music Died", memorialized in the Don McLean song, American Pie.

Another favorite of mine, not on that week's Top-40 list was Gary U.S. Bonds, who performed the hits New Orleans and Quarter to Three.
Several years ago, he was appearing with Jim Belushi's band and we saw him perform at a party those two songs (and no others) in Las Vegas. We were on the stage dancing next to him. What a great feeling to hear a favorite song performed by the actual artist.

Enough for now, but I have a Top-40 from 1958 for a future article.




Blogger melissa said...

The Beatles WROTE From Me To You.

November 28, 2009 at 9:22 AM  
Blogger melissa said...

Essex was a quartet of MARINES.

November 28, 2009 at 9:25 AM  

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