Jesus of Cool: We Wuz Robbed! Great #2 Hits of the ’60s

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Welcome to the second installment of an ongoing series celebrating songs that fell excruciatingly short of ascending to the top of Billboard’s pop singles chart. In the course of compiling and monitoring responses to the series’ first column a couple weeks ago, I learned a number of things, the most important of which were:

1. Unbeknownst to me as I wrote about the #2 hits of the ’50s – and in the process wrote the snappy sentence, “You don’t see Fred Bronson compiling five editions of The Billboard Book of #2 Hits, do you?” – it turns out that a Billboard Book of Number 2 Hits was indeed published in 2000. I have chosen to invoke the Pelosi defense: I was misled by the book’s obscurity into thinking it didn’t exist. My case is bolstered by the facts that Bronson had nothing to do with it (some fella named Christopher Feldman wrote it), and that the book went out of print without ever reaching a second edition. So, ha! You may read much of it on Google Books or buy a copy at Amazon Marketplace, or you may purchase a digital copy for the Amazon Kindle. (Don’t everybody run out all at once to blow $359 on a Kindle.) Needless to say, I didn’t use Feldman’s book as a reference in the first column; I make no such promises from here on out.

2. As I slog through six decades’ worth of fodder for future editions of this column, I’m going to have to dig deep for euphemisms that put some pizzazz behind the idea of a song being kept out of the #1 slot by another song. I believe that my low point in the last column came in the teaser for this one, when I left the distinct impression that Smokey Robinson might once have been “cock-blocked” by Lawrence Welk (see #4 below). Whoever the object of Smokey’s thwarted affections might have been in such a scenario, I am now convinced that at no time was Welk ever involved in blocking Smokey’s cock, and I apologize for the inference.

As a reminder, we’re giving extra weight to hits by artists who never reached #1, to songs that were far superior to the rivals that overtook them on the charts, and to plain old great songs that deserved the extra glory that the top of the Hot 100 brings. I’ll follow my choices with a list of other #2 hits of the decade, and we can debate their merits in the comments section. Now, on with the countdown!

11. “She’s Not There,” the Zombies. Keyboardist/songwriter Rod Argent made the Top 10 four times between 1964 and ’72 – three as leader of the Zombies, before he got greedy and named his next band after himself. Colin Blumstone sang lead for the Zombies, and just as his vocals offered more nuance than most of his early-British Invasion counterparts, “She’s Not There” was an awfully sophisticated single for an era when even the Beatles were still cranking out “I Feel Fine” and “Eight Days a Week.” Sadly, “She’s Not There” was left knocking on #1’s door while Bobby Vinton came through the window with “Mr. Lonely.” Even more annoying, Vinton’s hit version used the exact same backing track as Buddy Greco’s #64 smash of two years before! That’s just not right.

10. “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” Tommy James & the Shondells. James got his moments in the chart-topping sun, with the thudding “Hanky Panky” and the psychedelic “Crimson and Clover,” but for my money “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is the Shondells’ finest moment. Out-Rascalling the Rascals, the Shondells broke out the bongos, the Spanish guitar and some awesome harmonies to build an effervescent soundtrack for the first summer of the Nixon administration. But ain’t it always the way: Instead of rewarding James for an actual artistic achievement, radio listeners and record buyers preferred one of The Most Ridiculous Singles Ever – Zager and Evans’ futuristic bummer “In the Year 2525,” which logged eight weeks at #1. (OK, I admit it, I’m a fan – what’s not to love about a song that imagines a world in which “You won’t need your teeth, won’t need your eyes/You won’t find a thing to chew, nobody’s gonna look at you”?) Zager and Evans, according to Wikipedia, have the honor of being the only act in history to be a one-hit wonder in both the U.S. and U.K.! Take a listen below Z&E’s follow-up single, “Mr. Turnkey,” about a guy who rapes a girl in Wichita Falls, then punishes himself by nailing his own wrist to the wall. (Can’t you hear that songwriting session now? “What rhymes with ‘Wichita Falls’?” “Um, how about ‘I nailed my right wrist to your wall’?” “Yeah, let’s go with that.”) How could this song not chart?!?

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9. “Tell It Like It Is,” Aaron Neville. The Neville Brothers’ long and rambling chart history begins here – and if it had ended here as well, “Tell It Like It Is” would still be remembered as one of the greatest of all soul hits. FoN (Friend of the Nevilles) George Davis co-wrote the song with King Records bandleader Lee Diamond; unbelievably, a number of record labels in New Orleans and New York rejected Aaron’s rendition before Davis started his own Par-Lo label and printed 2,000 singles. One hopes Davis made a tidy pile of cash as “Tell It Like It Is” climbed to #2 on the Hot 100 behind the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” (Neville topped the R&B chart as well.) Heart’s version of this song is OK – though Don Johnson’s is not – but few artists can stop a show the way Neville does when he hits the bridge and pleads, “Don’t play with my heart – it makes me furious/But if you want me to love you, baby I will.”

8. “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” Elvis Presley. Considering all the dreck Elvis took to the top of the charts during the late ’50s, it’s astounding that one of his very best ballads got stuck at #2 behind Joey Dee and the frickin’ Starlighters’ dance-craze-bandwagon-jumping “Peppermint Twist.” One of several early-’60s hits by Big E to be based on European melodies, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was adapted by George Weiss and RCA stable ponies Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore from the French tune “Plasir d’Amour.” Weiss later wrote “What a Wonderful World,” which tanked completely in the U.S. when Louis Armstrong first released it in 1968 (though it was a huge hit in England). Largely forgotten here for two decades, it didn’t earn its “classic” status until it was used in Good Morning, Vietnam. Weiss is now president of the Songwriters Guild of America — and if you don’t believe the conspiracy theorists, Elvis is still dead. The last song he sang at his last concert? “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

7. “Soul Man,” Sam & Dave. I feel sorry for anyone who first heard our last song in the form of UB40’s faux-reggae wimp-out. On the other hand, I don’t mind so much that I first heard “Soul Man” performed by Belushi & Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. (That Blues Brothers movie was another matter entirely.) At least Jake and Elwood had the good sense to bring in onetime Stax Records house band members Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn, who had played on the original version of this song along with the rest of Booker T.’s MGs. (How many guitarists got to hear a shout-out like “Play it, Steve!” directed at them on two hit versions of the same song?) “Soul Man” was Sam & Dave’s biggest hit, stopped only by the U.K.’s reigning It Girl, Lulu, and her soundtrack smash “To Sir with Love.” You’ll never hear me say a discouraging word about “To Sir with Love” – either the song or the film. However, if I wasn’t so eager to move on you might hear me say quite a few discouraging words about the film Soul Man from 1986 – an idea so bad (say it ain’t so, Ponyboy!) that it even engendered a horrifying remake (and video) of the song by Sam Moore and Lou Reed that everyone involved probably regrets to this day.

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6. “Louie Louie,” the Kingsmen. One of the benefits of making it all the way to #1 is that a single becomes anchored historically to its peak moment. (For example, I’ve known for half my life that “The Sounds of Silence” was #1 the week I was born, but until I just looked it up I had no idea that “I Got You (I Feel Good)” peaked at #3 the same week.) So, quick – when was “Louie Louie” a hit? If you’re under the age of, say, 50, you probably think it was around (or before) the fall of 1962 – and the reason you think that is probably because that’s when National Lampoon’s Animal House is set, and the song is sung (drunkenly) by the Deltas on Pledge Night. However, the Kingsmen didn’t actually slur their way through “Louie Louie” until the spring of ’63, in a studio in Portland, Oregon. And while the song had been kicking around the West Coast since songwriter Richard Berry first had a regional hit with it in 1957, it’s unlikely that the Deltas, in 1962 Pennsylvania, would have had it on their frat-house jukebox – particularly as they’re clearly singing along to the Kingsmen’s version, which didn’t yet exist.

With my treatise on historical inaccuracies in Animal House officially concluded, I can now get to my real point, which is that “Louie Louie” peaked at #2 in January 1964, behind Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again” – the very last #1 single before Beatlemania overtook the U.S. the next month. Would we look at rock history the same way if the last chart topper before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had been “Louie Louie,” instead of an icky Bobby Vinton ballad that represented everything the British Invasion came to overthrow? We’re probably better off the way things were … partly because one of the benefits of not making it to #1 is that a song isn’t anchored historically to its peak moment, and “Louie Louie” is timeless.

5. “Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan. What is there to say here? This is one of the seminal songs in rock history, but it’s hard to imagine how Dylan’s first big hit must have sounded on tinny AM radios during the summer of ’65, surrounded by Herman’s Hermits, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, and Sonny & Cher. (To be fair, it was also the summer of “Satisfaction,” and the song that kept “Like a Rolling Stone” from #1 was “Help!”) Here’s a good example of how silly pop listeners can be: Dylan hung out behind “Help!” for two weeks, but the song that supplanted the Beatles may as well have been titled “Dylan for Dummies” – Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.” Hey, look – Patricia Arquette on LSD!

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4. “Shop Around,” the Miracles. This wasn’t quite the first big Motown hit – that distinction goes to Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” which made it to #2 on the R&B chart during the label’s first year. However, “Shop Around” was the company’s first R&B #1 and first Top 10 single on the pop chart. Wouldn’t it have been a great story if Smokey Robinson’s first hit had been a chart topper? Wouldn’t it have been great, generally speaking, if Smokey and his mates hadn’t had to wait 10 long years before finally getting to #1 (with “The Tears of a Clown” in 1970)? But something kept “Shop Around” from the top – something … bubbly. Lawrence Welk and his “champagne music,” to be specific. Welk’s orchestra recorded a German tune that had gone through several titles already, beginning with “Tivoli Melody”; with the name changed to “Calcutta,” and some incredibly cloying “la la la la la la la”s added, the song became the biggest hit of Welk’s wunnerful, wunnerful career. There are a number of adorable clips of the song from Welk’s TV show, but here’s one that features the bandleader’s distinctive voice. Check out the sponsor toward the end:

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3. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits. What was up with CCR’s inability to clear the last hurdle on the way to Hot 100 glory? The band scored no fewer than five #2 hits over an 18-month period between March ’69 and October ’70 without ever reaching #1: “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Green River,” “Travelin’ Band,” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door.” (“Down on the Corner” and “Up Around the Bend” also made the Top 5.) Just for the record, the songs that blocked them – in order – were Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy,” Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet,” the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Could it be that Fantasy Records honcho (and future John Fogerty nemesis) Saul Zaentz didn’t supply program directors with enough cocaine to push CCR over the top? Or was the band’s string of #2s a karmic punishment for having once called themselves the Golliwogs? Whichever is the case, CCR holds the record for most #2 hits by an act that never made it to #1. Right behind them are fusion pioneers Blood, Sweat & Tears, whose first three singles – “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel,” and “And When I Die” – all peaked at #2 during those same months in 1969. Freaky.

2. “Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin. Lady Soul’s incredible string of hits in ’67 and ’68 included three that wound up on our Popdose 100 last fall – topped by this classic, which came in at #19. Songwriter Don Covay initially cooked up “Chain of Fools” as a blues stomp about a prison chain gang, before tailoring the lyrics to Ree Ree’s needs. Innumerable covers by American Idolettes have replicated the backing-vocal arrangment, but you rarely hear a version that even attempts to copy Joe South’s gritty guitar work. Now, there are a lot of great songs on this list, but “Chain of Fools” sits at the top not only because it’s a stone-cold classic, but because of the gaping disparity between it and the song that stopped it from reaching the top of the chart: “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses),” by John Fred and His Playboy Band. It’s bad enough that such a cheesy song was based on Fred’s mishearing of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but for it to hit the tape ahead of “Chain of Fools”? Radio listeners in January 1968, what were you thinking? (Then again, there must have been something in the water that winter, with all the dippy chart toppers – “Incense and Peppermints,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Green Tambourine.” Were these songs what Americans in the heartland thought an LSD trip sounded like?)

Those are my 10 picks, but the conversation should hardly end there. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of other great #2’s from the ’60s – feel free to berate me in the comments section for failing to make a bigger deal of them:

“He’ll Have to Go,” Jim Reeves, and “Handy Man,” Jimmy Jones (both blocked by Percy Faith’s “Theme from a Summer Place”); “Only the Lonely,” Roy Orbison (Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry”); “Chain Gang,” Sam Cooke (Connie Francis’ “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own”); “Crying,” Roy Orbison (Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack”); “The Wanderer,” Dion (Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”); “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Peter, Paul & Mary (Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips – Part 2”); and “Twist and Shout,” the Beatles (the same band’s “Can’t Buy Me Love”).

Also, “Wooly Bully,” Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs (the Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” and the Supremes’ “Back in My Arms Again”); “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the Rolling Stones (SSgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets”); “Yellow Submarine,” the Beatles (the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love”); “Sweet Soul Music,” Arthur Conley (the Supremes’ “The Happening”); “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Frankie Valli (the Association’s “Windy”); “Born to Be Wild,” Steppenwolf (the Rascals’ “People Got to Be Free”); and “It’s Your Thing,” the Isley Brothers (the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”).

Next time, the ’70s – and a classic song that sat in the runner-up slot while three songs leapfrogged it on the way to #1. But don’t fret for 10CC … after all, big girls don’t cry.