I don’t plan this column much in advance. It’s not like I have this huge list of records all lined up and just go from one to another. I usually make that decision on the Monday or Tuesday of the week that the column is going to be published. Perhaps that’s why I’m a few days late for Mother’s Day with this one. Maybe I should learn to plan ahead.
1961 was a pretty great year on a lot of levels. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle of my beloved NY Yankees dueled all season long for the AL home run crown. Maris won it in the end, breaking Babe Ruth’s immortal record. Not only that, but the Yankees went ahead and won the World Series, beating the Cincinnati Reds in five games.
Baseball wasn’t the only thing that was good for a kid in NJ that year. These days a lot of people seem to recall the years prior to the arrival of the Beatles as being some sort of wasteland when it came to music. I love the Beatles, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a lazy way of thinking. The early ’60s in particular were pretty amazing.
Let’s look at some of musical things that happened in ’61. The Supremes signed with Motown in January, and “Shop Around” by the Miracles became the label’s first million-selling hit in February. Frank Sinatra founded Reprise Records, which would later release records by Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, and the Kinks. In December, the Beach Boys released their first single, “Surfin,” on Candix Records. Oh, and it was a big year for the young Beatles too, because it was in 1961 that the band played their first gig at the legendary Cavern Club in Liverpool
The great records of the year were far too numerous to mention here, but among them were the Etta James classic “At Last,” “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King, “Mother-In-Law” by Ernie K-Doe, “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes, Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” “Runaway” by Del Shannon, “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis, and “Travelin’ Man” by Ricky Nelson. It was the year I started buying records. I know that because those last two were the first records I ever owned.
There were also two hits by a group from NJ called the Shirelles that year. The success streak actually began in late 1960 when they scored big with the Carole King-Jerry Goffin song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” That success led to a re-release of “Dedicated to the One I Love,” in 1961. The record had first been released in 1959, and the second time was the charm as the record rocketed into the Top 5 on both the pop and R&B charts. The Shirelles weren’t done yet however. The next single was “Mama Said”, and that one went Top 5 as well. Oh, and they finished out the year with a little something called “Baby It’s You.”
There more hits for the Shirelles. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2002. But 1961, that was the year for them, and for many more of our favorite artists, because that year was not a musical wasteland at all, but more of a musical paradise.