Sunday, January 08, 2012

Ten Great Songs From One Great Year


This was one of the most tumultuous years in American history. As television brings the Vietnam War into America's living rooms, the battle of Khe Sanh: One of the most publicized and controversial battles of the war begins in January. A couple of weeks later, the Tet offensive begins. What should have been the decisive moment for an Allied victory, turns into a nightmare due to President Johnson's inability to present the victory to the people. The war has become increasingly unpopular and the images from television drive that home. In May, the My Lai massacre, which takes place in March, does not become known until the next year. That becomes the defining moment for the anti-War movement.

On the same day, Robert F. Kennedy decides to enter the Presidential race. Later that month, President Johnson, realizing the his re-election chances have dwindled, announces he will not run in the '68 election. Two weeks later, at 6:01 p.m., April 4, a shot rang out as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, Tennessee. Walter Cronkite announced the news shortly after on CBS Evening News. King died an hour later. A week later, President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968. On June 8th, James Earl Ray, longtime petty criminal and supporter of segregationist George Wallace was arrested and charged with King's murder. Although initially confessing, Ray later recanted and claimed until his death in 2008, that he did not pull the trigger.

Three days prior to Ray's arrest, Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy is assassinated following a campaign speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California. He dies the next day. The asssassin, Sirah-Sirhan was a Christian-Arab from Jordan. He told Robert Frost, in a 1969 interview, that he wanted to kill Kennedy because of the candidates long-time support for the State of Israel.

Because of the upheaval within the Democrat Party, which culminated in riots during the Chicago convention, Richard Nixon, the GOP candidate and former Vice-President, defeats the Democrat's compromise pick, Hubert Humphrey. Wallace also siphons many democrat votes in the south, to insure Nixon's victory.

In the lighter side of news, The Beatles released "The White Album," the White house was the scene of the marriage between Julie Nixon (the President's daughter) and David Eisenhower (the grandson of the former President). The year ends with a look to the future, as Apollo 8 enters orbit around the Moon. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William A. Anders become the first humans to see the far side of the Moon and planet Earth as a whole.

I've Gotta Get a Message to You -- The Bee Gees

Robin Gibb told The Mail On Sunday November 1, 2009 about this slice of pop melodrama sung from the perspective of a condemned prisoner: "This is about a prisoner on Death Row who only has a few hours to live. He wants the prison chaplain to pass on a final message to his wife. There's a certain urgency about it." This song went #8 in August. 


Young Girl -- Gary Puckett and The Union Gap

The song's author, Jerry Fuller explained the inspiration for "Young Girl." "I was on the road a lot as an artist, fronting various groups for many years. I guess every entertainer goes through a time when 14-year-olds look like 20-year-olds. That's somewhat of an inspiration not from my own experience, just knowing that it happens." The song peaked at #2 in March.

(I'm a) Girl Watcher -- The O’Kaysions

The O'Kaysions didn't have many hits, but the North Carolina sextet's energetic "Girl Watcher" remains a staple on the Carolina/Georgia/Florida beach circuit. It became popular again 1987, when Kool and the Gang remade into "Wheel Watcher" for the ABC game show, "Wheel of Fortune." This song peaked at #6.

Angel of the Morning -- Merrilee Rush and The Turnabouts

This tender ballad is surprisingly virtually the same song as the primitive rocker "Wild Thing." Chip Taylor, who wrote both songs explained to Mojo magazine September 2008: "I heard some guy playing 'Wild Thing' real slow on a guitar. It sounded nice. So I did the same, lifting one of my fingers off a chord to create a suspension. Then the words 'There'll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can't bind your heart' came out. It was as beautiful a love connection as I could ever feel." Taylor added that it was the producer who added the sweeping strings. This song went to #7 in June. Juice Newton also took this song to the top 10 in the spring of 1981.


Little Green Apples - O.C. Smith

Smith began recording in 1955, but finally hit it the top 40 in 1968, with his hit "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp." Two songs later, he hit it big with this ballad. Smith continued to record R&B songs for 20 more years. His last entry was in 1986, with "Brenda."This song peaked at #2 and earned its composer Bobby Russell the 1969 Grammy for Song of the Year. Smith died in 2001, at the age of 69.

Classical Gas -- Mason Williams

This song appeared as a video on the Smothers Brothers' television show, for which Williams was a writer. The song was played behind a video which consisted of nothing more than photographs of great works of classical art flashed at near cinematic speed on the screen. You saw each picture just long enough to recognize it but nowhere nearly long enough to remember the name. The fact that the paintings were classics originated the name. This is one of the first music videos ever produced. This song peaked at #2 in August.

What a Wonderful World -- Louis Armstrong

The 66-year-old Armstrong became the oldest act to top the UK charts when this reached #1. Four years previously Satchmo had become the oldest artist to record a US #1 when "Hello, Dolly!" hit the top spot. While this song only reached the "bubbling under" the top 100 in America, it was a number one hit in Britain and became Armstrong's signature song.

Like To Get To Know You -- Spanky and Our Gang

This song was the follow-up to Spanky and Our Gang's hits "Sunday Will Never Be The Same" and "Lazy Day," and it scored quite well, peaking at #17. This was their last Top 30 hit, though they continued to score a number of minor hits until October 1968, when lead guitarist Malcolm Hale died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 27. Front woman Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane achieved some success as a solo artist, sometimes fronting for The Mamas & The Papas after the tragic death of the late Cass Elliot.

(Sittin'on) On the Dock of the Bay -- Otis Redding

Redding died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, 6 weeks before this was released and 3 days after he recorded it. It was by far his biggest hit and was also the first ever posthumous #1 single in the US. Redding was a rising star moving toward mainstream success at the time of his death. There is a good chance he would have recorded many more hits if he had lived. The song peaked at #1 on March 16th and stayed there for 6 weeks.

Do You Know the Way to San Jose -- Dionne Warwick

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote this. They discovered Dionne Warwick and wrote many of her hits. Burt Bacharach (from Record Collector magazine): "Dionne did not want to record that song. She didn't like it. But we talked her into it and she did it. Her mind changed once it was a hit (laughs). I knew it was a pretty special song and I knew it was a different kind of song, too."This song peaked at #10.

Bonus Track

Mrs. Robinson -- Simon and Garfunkel

Simon began writing this as "Mrs. Roosevelt." He changed it to "Mrs. Robinson" for the movie  "The Graduate". He may have written this about Eleanor Roosevelt. Some of the lyrics support this such as "We'd like to help you learn to help yourself. Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes" and "Going to the candidates debate. Laugh about it, shout about it. When you've got to choose. Every way you look at it, you lose." Roosevelt was a female rights and black rights activist, always helping everyone but herself during the Great Depression. A lot of the time she seemed to have been running the country as much as FDR, but never would have actually won the presidency because she was female. On the strength of the film, this song rose to #1 in June. The video is taken from the movie.

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