number ones

For many of us, music serves as a framework for our memories.  We hear a song in a store or in a movie and we are transported back in time.  While our tastes often change or expand, the most intense responses we have to musical cues come when we hear the songs of our youth.

Sharing a room with my older brother, my first recollection of popular music came from hearing the far-off AM stations he would dial up.  They played the hits of the day, generally known as “The Top 40.”  Getting to the top of that list was the holy grail for musicians, and the progression of number ones over time marks not just changes in the musical landscape but our culture as well.

That makes a project undertaken by Tom Breihan on the website Stereogum intriguing.  In his words, “I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.”  He posts a new one each weekday.

It all begins with Ricky Nelson singing “Poor Little Fool.”  Each entry by Breihan provides some background on the artist and the song, and includes at least one recording.  Often there are “bonus beats” — videos of other renditions of the song or related material.  Breihan also provides his grade for each number one.  (No doubt he will like some of your favorites less than you do.)

Unfortunately, there’s no master list of all the songs Briehan has written about with links to the postings, so you’ll have to be creative if you want to read about the soundtrack of your youth.  As a place to start, Wikipedia provides a list of all of the number ones by year, so it’s easy to go back to that certain time that you’d like to revisit.  (To find the write-up for a particular song, the easiest way is to click this link and change the name of the song in the quotation marks.)

The early years of the charts included a mix of smooth pop, Elvis, doo-wop, Motown, and surf music.  Chubby Checker got everyone doing “The Twist” and Jimmy Dean told the story of “Big Bad John.”  (“At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man.”)

Then came 1964.  In a symbolic transition, Bobby Vinton was on top for the first month before The Beatles kicked off the British Invasion with their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.  The charts immediately took on a different look.  (A year later, even Freddie and the Dreamers were on top for two weeks.  To this day, whenever I hear “I’m Telling You Now,” I do The Freddie.  Seriously.)

In any given year, there were some downright cheesy number ones, but the breadth of good songs was striking during the next few years.  On the pop side of things, The Turtles did “Happy Together” and The Jackson Five sang “ABC.”

Otis Redding sat on the dock of the bay and Janis Joplin rode with Bobby McGee, but both of the artists had passed away by the time the songs were released.  Don McLean sang about the day the music died.

By the end of the sixties, legendary groups like The Beatles (“Hey Jude” was number one for nine weeks) and The Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”) continued to shine, but in different ways, giving their fans something to argue about for decades to come.

Amidst it all, there was cultural tumult.  In the spring of 1968 — that fateful year — Hair opened on Broadway after a short run in a smaller theater.  Covers of a number of songs from the show reached the top ten, with the medley “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” as performed by the 5th Dimension, hitting the charts a year later.  It was an amazing time to be growing up.

Breihan’s project has now reached the spring of 1973, the year I graduated from high school.  By then, with a few exceptions, the number ones were no longer a good representation of the music that interested me.  But, looking back, it’s unmistakable that the period from the mid-sixties to the early seventies was the time when my musical roots were planted.

Speaking of number ones, Hal Blaine, who died earlier this month, was the drummer on at least forty of them.  It was another era, when studio musicians played anonymously on many of the big hits; Blaine was part of the famed Wrecking Crew.  (A playlist can take you down memory lane for an amazing selection of songs on which he provided the beat.)

It’s hard to say what songs will last for decades into the future.  In looking over the list of number ones, many have already faded into relative obscurity, while others have continued to reach new generations.  No matter what, the songs that mean something to you will be with you forever.

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