AM Gold: 1963

Digging for Gold: The Time-Life “AM Gold” Series, Part 8

And just like that, another AM Gold year is in our rear-view mirrors. But before we speed ahead to ’64 — the year that Beatlemania hit America — let’s fire up the old transistor radio and check out the final group of tunes from 1963.

(For those with Spotify accounts, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)


Bobby Vinton, "Blue Velvet" #17: Bobby Vinton, “Blue Velvet” – Vinton’s 4th Top 20 hit and second #1. Held that spot for 3 weeks.

David Lifton – Ugh. As much as we’ve seen in this series that there was enough going on to suggest that rock n’ roll didn’t necessarily need The Beatles to save it, this is one of those songs that helped make that argument. And even though the conventional wisdom states that they blew music like this off the charts, Vinton continued to hit the Top 20 pretty regularly until 1972.

Jack Feerick – Another one that I imagine has, for many people, been ruined by the movies. For me, though, it is ruined only by its own mawkishness. Vinton milks the swooping melody for all it’s worth, and his trembles and sobs are way, way over the top. There’s some potential interest in the ambiguity of the lyric — did the girl leave him, or is she dead? — but where a song like “Paint It, Black” takes the same situation and injects it with real sorrow and anger, Vinton just wallows in sentiment and gooey backing vocals.

The double-time feel and syncopation in the rhythm section just add to the cognitive dissonance. Here’s this weepy ballad, and the band is treating it like a Louis Jordan jump blues — or an early ska number. Just damned odd.

Dw. Dunphy – I don’t love this song, but I don’t quite get the “meh” about it either. It’s just Vinton being Vinton, not fitting into the times. We’ll revisit that theme when “My Melody Of Love” shows up.

Jon Cummings – Bobby Vinton’s voice is what I sound like when I’m trying to make my daughter laugh. I find it hard to believe Vinton was being sincere when he told Fred Bronson he didn’t think this song would be a hit — it veritably SCREAMS “early-’60s adult contemporary.” Our prism for imagining that era may forever be tainted by David Lynch and “Dirty Dancing,” but I can’t hear this or “Roses Are Red (My Love)” without imagining a Catskills resort on its last legs, with a Rat Pack wannabe like Vinton crooning in the ballroom while the moms and dads slow-dance and the daughters sneak out back for a snog with Swayze. All of that said, these songs are Teflon resistant to critical snark, largely because of their ubiquity and that undeniable last line of the melody here — “And I still can see blue velvet through my tears.”


Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs, "Sugar Shack"#18: Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs, “Sugar Shack” – U.S. #1 for 5 weeks, also the last #1 R&B single until 1965, as Billboard suspended that chart.

Lifton – It’s a well-known fact that the sign outside Jeff Giles’ mom’s bedroom reads “Sugar Shack.” That’s about all I want to say about this song. I’d rather listen to Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters.

FeerickIf you see a faded sign by the side of the road, saying fifteen miles to the… well, no.

So let’s see if I’ve got this straight. A dude’s in love with a beatnik waitress, woos her by pretending to be into the hepcat scene, then marries her and takes her away from the whole deal, straight back to Squaresville. Yeah, that’s some song-factory hack’s idea of the Beat subculture, right there.

Listen, pal, it’s never a good idea to marry a girl figuring she’ll grow out of her artsy phase. Oh, it starts out fun, hanging around the hip places, pretending to be a bohemian, but you learn too late that she’s not pretending, and while all you really want to do is live in your house in the suburbs and make a decent living, good-naturedly complaining about the crushing conformity while inwardly enjoying it, she’s well on her way to becoming Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, staring wistfully out the window in a bloody diaper. It won’t end well, is what I’m saying.

With backing music by Arnold Ziffel and the Hooterville Junction Porkerina Ensemble.

Dunphy – I always imagined this song was sung by a sleazy, toothless carny. Gilmer’s delivery is replete with smarm.

Cummings – All the grousing here about the song’s themes and Gilmer’s smarminess is utterly moot, because if somebody was creating an aural dictionary and needed a definition for “instrumental hook,” he could simply plug in the organ riffs from “Sugar Shack” (created on a Hammond Solovox) and be done with it. Those riffs are so irresistible that they took this track to the top of the R&B chart, despite what a lily-white goober Gilmer was.


The Village Stompers, "Washington Square"#19: The Village Stompers, “Washington Square” – #2 U.S. Hot 100, Grammy nominee for Best Instrumental Theme

Lifton – Christ, A Mighty Wind really had it down, didn’t it? That said, I like it. I was starting to wonder what the hell the saxophone was doing in there, and then the other horns came in and made sense of it. I’m also thinking this was the template for a lot of the songs Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions.

Feerick – I’m guessing the Village Stompers were a failed surf-rock outfit, hopping on the folk bandwagon for a quick buck. The Dixieland interlude is a nice touch, though.

Dunphy – This song makes me want to sing, “Hey there, little red riding hood. You sure are lookin’ good. You’re everything a big, bad wolf could want…”

Cummings – I find it incomprehensible that this made it to #2 on the pop charts, despite its folk-revival bona fides. The purist in me wonders what a bunch of dudes from Greenwich Village thought they were doing forming a Dixieland group in the first place, much less what the Epic Records honchos thought they were doing releasing this track to pop radio. But then, that’s why the record-company folk (used to) make the big money, while I’m sitting here typing about a 50-year-old pop instrumental.

Chris Holmes – I have nothing against this song, other than the fact that it’s pretty lifeless. If you want to hear Dixieland revival done right, check out the Dukes of Dixieland. They did a pair of very good albums with Satchmo himself during the same period.


Bobby Vee, "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes"#20: Bobby Vee, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” – #3 U.S. Hot 100, #2 U.S. Easy Listening, #9 R&B, #3 U.K. Singles

Lifton – Another one of those songs from that era where the vocals don’t match the music, but it somehow works. There’s a slickness to this in the string arrangement and the way the rhythms shift that suggests a bigger budget than you would usually get for a pop song at the time. Was this for a movie?

Feerick – Is there something wrong with me that I think that title would make a great horror movie? Actually, this kind of is a horror movie, taking the paranoid obsession with cheating to stalker-ish levels. And what’s with the narrator admitting that he, too, will most likely get caught cheating? Way to manage expectations for your relationship, jerk.

I like to imagine this guy being constantly mistaken for Bobby Vinton.

“Hey, Bobby Vee! I love ‘Blue Velvet,’ man. Great song.”

“That, ah, very flattering, but…”

“Hey, d’you think you could sing a little of ‘Mr. Lonely’ for me?”

“But I’m not…”

“Or maybe a verse of ‘Roses Are Red,’ I love that one!”

“Mom! For the last time, knock it off!”

Lifton – Marry me, Jack.

Dunphy – And this song reminds me of “Trolololo.” What’s with the attitude in the chorus though? “So Re-Mem-Ber when Yew tell those little white lies…”

Cummings – One of my favorite bits in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles concerned his respect for Bobby Vee, in whose touring band the young Mr. Zimmerman briefly toiled, and his gratitude to Vee for giving him such a career boost. It’s a very showbizzy shout-out in what is otherwise such an opaque memoir. And whenever I hear this song, or “Take Good Care of My Baby,” I wonder if what Dylan is really thinking is, “Thank goodness I went off in search of Woody Guthrie before I wound up contributing to frivolity like this stuff.”


Dionne Warwick, "Anyone Who Had a Heart"#21: Dionne Warwick, “Anyone Who Had a Heart” – Another Bacharach/David joint. #8 U.S. Hot 100 and R&B. Cilla Black had a #1 in the U.K. with this in early ’64.

Lifton – This song always makes my heart stop for a few minutes. There’s so much I could point to but I want to give everyone else a chance. Easily my favorite song of this series to date.

Feerick – Well, hey there, 1960s! I’d like you to meet Mr. Burt Bacharach; and this here’s his pal, Hal David. Burt, Hal, meet the Sixties. I think you guys are going to be seeing a lot of each other.

Context: The song factory stuff has largely degenerated into self-parody. Most of the Brill Building guys, even the youngsters like Carole King, are working in tried-and-true formats, still recycling Gershwin and Irving Berlin. When Bacharach and David hit their stride, there’s a palpable sense of the bar being raised. There’s a new harmonic sophistication here—maybe the first real new strain in American pop since Cole Porter. For the first time in a long time, somebody is putting chords together in ways not heard before.

It couldn’t have worked without Dionne Warwick. People forget about her conservatory training; it took all her chops, all her musicality, to navigate the new language that Bacharach was creating. In the Terry Riley-style minimalism surrounding her—the odd pulses, the harmonies barely moving—she finds an emotional maximalism. A monumental record.

Holmes – I’m with you on the Dionne Warwick. 10 seconds in, it’s clear that David & Bacharach were operating on a whole different level in 1963. I’ll go so far as to say that that song still sounds pretty fresh.

Dunphy – This is beautiful stuff and really shocks one into remembering that, prior to the Psychic Friends Network, Warwick was legendary. Now, semi-legendary. Bacharach/David really had the American version of the French chanteuse thing running on all cylinders.

Cummings – This is a lovely song, though these days it’s probably recognized primarily for its American Idol ubiquity. Still — am I the only person who can’t avoid resenting Dionne Warwick for failing to put more “soul” into her performances? I know it’s not right to deny Dionne her props as a vocalist because she wasn’t a soul singer … but Aretha effortlessly proved on her version of “I Say a Little Prayer” that Bacharach/David could be rendered with considerably more soul than Dionne ever offered. (Hell, Dusty Springfield’s version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” runs circles around Dionne, in terms of both soul and drama.) It probably says something terrible about me that I can’t even acknowledge, but in the pantheon of female vocalists of the ’60s, I dock Dionne (and Diana Ross, about whom I’m sure we’ll be saying much over the course of this series) a lot of points for their relative soullessness.


Dale & Grace, "I'm Leaving It Up to You" #22: Dale & Grace, “I’m Leaving It Up to You” – #1 U.S. Hot 100, immediately following “Deep Purple.” This was the #1 song when JFK was assassinated, and in fact Dale & Grace were in Dallas on that day.

Lifton – …which was also the same day that With The Beatles was released in the UK. Maybe all The Beatles really did was wipe bad countrypolitan off the Top 40 charts.

Feerick – Boy, John Cale really changed this one up, huh? I didn’t even hear the line about Sharon Tate!

Dunphy – It’s harmless stuff, and that twang in the voice is kind of strange. It’s kind of the same inflections I’m hearing on Vee’s song, but at least this song isn’t total dreck.

Cummings – Paging Donny & Marie… I like the “Grace” part of this track much more than the lifeless “Dale” part. Grace was spunky, like a higher-pitched and Cajun-ified Brenda Lee. It’s fascinating the way the Hot 100 played out in the weeks after the Kennedy assassination: the utterly innocuous Dale and Grace, the utterly non-English-speaking Singing Nun, one last blast of Bobby Vinton AC, and then BOOM! Beatlemania.

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  • Greg L

    Maybe it was that TV themes article I read on the site, but listening to “Washington Square” sounded like the theme to the Matlock spinoff series that never was…

  • Ebmailbox1-ma

    Jimmy Gilmer is not a straight suburban guy on Sugar Shack, he’s a Southern redneck, just home from Germany or Korea and puzzled by this new “ex-presso” thing, but man, the chick is hot.  That delicious culture clash was unique at the time on any record, and maybe still is today.  Plus the organ rocks.
    The redneck thing is the beauty of Dale and Grace too.  Like Skeeter Davis and Brenda Lee, they reminded 1963 AM radio listeners of the raw rockabilly sound that had gotten purged along with Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and the rest.