Welcome to the first installment of an occasional series that dares you to wallow in the very worst of the very best — or best-selling, at least — singles from what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.” We begin in 1955, generally considered the dawn of the era because it’s the year when Bill Haley & His Comets topped the charts with “Rock Around the Clock.” (Bill Haley invented rock’n’roll about as much as Abner Doubleday invented baseball, but we’ll leave that alone.) Future editions of this series will cover each decade, straight through the noughties — though I’m not convinced that I’m the best person to judge the relative merits of “Laffy Taffy” and “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’).”
From the 1960s forward, we’ll focus exclusively on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, which for four decades did a very good job synthesizing the most popular singles in the nation. I would argue that it no longer does that job nearly as well, primarily because the radio industry has splintered since the early ’90s and because the multitude of formats in which fans can purchase/steal music makes precise sales calculations nearly impossible.
The Hot 100 chart didn’t debut until August 1958; before then, Billboard published four different pop charts — “Best Sellers in Stores,” “Most Played by Jockeys,” “Most Played in Jukeboxes,” and a “Top 100.” Today, chart guru Joel Whitburn considers none of those charts to be a definitive ranking of a particular week’s hits, though Fred Bronson has used the Best Sellers list as the basis for the first 39 entries in his Billboard Book of Number One Hits. Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles books, on the other hand, list 58 #1 singles between “Rock Around the Clock” and the advent of the Hot 100; I’m siding with Joel here, if for no other reason than I really, really want to rip on Perry Como. Here goes:
10. Elvis Presley, “Hard-Headed Woman” (download) (buy). Picking the lamest of Elvis’ number ones is a challenge. “Stuck on You” has absolutely nothing to say, and it’s a blatant rewrite of “Too Much” to boot. “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” is the weak link in his initial string of RCA hits in 1956, a poorly sung retreat from the sonic shock of “Heartbreak Hotel” toward Dean Martin territory. However, “Hard-Headed Woman” is a real low point â€“ a stinker from the Kid Creole soundtrack that foreshadowed the depths to which Elvis would sink during his ’60s Hollywood run. It’s lyric, by Claude Demetrius, is so moronic that Elvis seems to slur the last verse intentionally, to the point of incomprehensibility. (For the record, it’s “I got a woman/A head like a rock/If she ever went away I’d cry around the clock.”)
9. Andy Williams, “Butterfly” (download) (buy). This is the most blatant of innumerable Elvis impersonations to hit the charts during the late ’50s, right down to the Jordanaires-imitation “bomp ba ba bomps” during the bridge. Williams heisted the song from Charlie Gracie, a pre-Elvis rock’n’roll pioneer who was a regular on Dick Clark’s Bandstand before the show even had added the word American to its title. Williams’s version beat Gracie’s up the charts during the spring of 1957, and while both became big hits, “Butterfly” was Gracie’s only one. Williams, of course, went on to terrorize young people for a generation on television â€“ though it’s difficult to argue with the happening-ness of his rendition of “Music To Watch Girls By.”
8. Tab Hunter, “Young Love” (download) (buy). This song is really neither here nor there, as ’50s r’n’r ballads go; I include it because this version, by pretty-boy movie idol Hunter, beat a much-better rendition by Sonny James to the top of the charts in 1957. The trouble was, Tab couldn’t sing much, and his vocal here is annoyingly warbly and overdramatic. While James retreated into obscurity, Tab pretended to play footsie with Natalie Wood, Debbie Reynolds and others while keeping his homosexuality in the closet. He finally came out a couple years ago — though rumors had circulated ever since he was arrested during an all-male pajama party in 1955. His hip quotient, if not the quality of his work, elevated during the ’80s when he appeared opposite Divine in John Waters’ Polyester and Paul Bartels’ Lust in the Dust.
7. The Kingston Trio, “Tom Dooley” (download) (buy). The folk revival of the late ’50s was a key moment in the evolution of pop music from early rock’n’roll to Bob Dylan, but it’s represented most dramatically on the pop charts by a pair of utter bland-outs: this version of an 1860s murder ballad, and the Highwaymen’s 1961 sleepwalk through “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Tom Dula was a mountaineer hanged (apparently falsely) for murder in the Blue Ridge Mountains back in 1868, and was rewarded with a ubiquitous folk ballad; Kingston Trio leader Dave Guard appropriated the songwriting credit for his group’s rendition. I’m guessing that most anybody born before, say, 1980 knows this song by heart, because we were forced to sing it in elementary-school music classes. I wonder if they still teach little kids to sing nice little songs about hangings? (Damn political correctness.)
6. Debbie Reynolds, “Tammy” (download) (buy). Yuck. I prefer to think of Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain, or singing “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” or playing Albert Brooks’ mom â€“ or playing the Singing Nun, for crying out loud â€“ than singing this insipid ballad from her film Tammy and the Bachelor, in which she romances Leslie Nielsen (!). Both song and movie were huge hits, of course.
5. Kay Starr, “Rock and Roll Waltz” (download) (buy). One can only imagine the thinking behind this song, which topped the charts seven months after “Rock Around the Clock.” For Kay Starr, who was 33 years old at the time she sang this and had recorded numerous pre-rock-era hits, to sing about how silly it was to watch her parents try to waltz to a rock’n’roll song — well, it seems a bit disingenuous. This is the sound of the major labels’ desperation to latch onto the rock bandwagon before it left the station. (Starr’s label, RCA, already had its ace in the hole, having signed Elvis and gotten “Heartbreak Hotel” committed to tape by the time this single topped the charts.)
4. Paul Anka, “Diana” (download) (buy). This may be the most histrionic vocal I’ve ever heard â€“ and the most obtrusive saxophone solo in history. For the first big hit by a guy who supposedly turned out to be a great pop songwriter, “Diana” sounds like somebody fed every rock’n’roll love song before it into one of those room-size ’50s supercomputers, which then spat out a punchcard with lyrics like “Thrills I get when you hold me close/Oh, my darling, you’re the most.” How Anka overcame this to pen “My Way,” much less “(You’re) Having My Baby,” remains a mystery — as does his late-career combover.
3. Pat Boone, “I Almost Lost My Mind” (download) (buy). Pat Boone has a lot to answer for, though lately our collective anger at the poor guy has been replaced by gentle mocking over his In a Metal Mood album. Boone most famously committed serial atrocities on such early rock’n’roll hits as “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Tutti-Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” and almost single-handedly necessitated the creation of that foundation that raises funds for early rock’n’rollers who were never paid what they were worth. However, the leech-like way in which he drains the soul out of Ivory Joe Hunter’s bluesy ballad “I Almost Lost My Mind” makes it perhaps the worst of Boone’s song-stealing crimes. I listened to this cover only one time, about 20 years ago, but his sleepy note-bending on the title phrase has stuck with me ever since. I’m getting a headache right now just thinking about it. Download, but listen with caution. Afterward, if you haven’t had enough, check out his absurd covers of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and other favorites from his 2006 collection, We Are Family: R&B Classics. Pat, I’d suggest that when you go you slip away quietly, before the devil knows you’re dead.
2. Mitch Miller, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (download) (buy). This single, which replaced “Rock Around the Clock” at number one, was the chart apotheosis of the horrifying “sing along” craze that Miller would later perfect on TV during the early ’60s. Why on earth pop fans wanted to hear a faceless, personality-free pop chorale mangle a song that wasn’t exactly high-class when it was performed in minstrel shows back in 1853, I don’t know. But forget about this single’s own deficiencies for a moment; Miller deserves additional scorn because, as A&R chief at Columbia Records throughout the ’50s, he lowballed Sam Phillips and Colonel Parker in a weak attempt to sign Elvis, then worked tirelessly to keep his boot heel on the neck of the emerging rock’n’roll. While RCA, Capitol and a number of independent labels pioneered the new music, Miller stuck with old-school orchestral pop; Columbia wouldn’t have a legitimate rock act until after Miller was relieved of his duties in 1964, just before the Byrd’s covered “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
1. Perry Como, “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)” (download) (buy). Perry Como was one of the most popular singers of the pre-rock era, had a batch of hits straight through the ’50s, and hosted a variety show until well into the ’60s. He had a reputation as the most laid-back of the pop crooners; I think that’s because, when he sings a ballad, his vocals ooze like a never-ending molasses drip. Como’s crap-to-quality ratio was extraordinarily high, and â€˜Hot Diggity” is as bad as it gets: a novelty song with no real novelty, a slab of pap (adapted from an 1883 ditty called “Espana Rhapsody,” no less) seemingly designed to allow the parents of 1956 to consider themselves hepcats while the kids rocked out to “Tutti-Frutti.” (“Hot Diggity” replaced “Heartbreak Hotel” atop the Jockeys chart in May 1956.)
Next time: the ’60s. Fewer easy targets, perhaps, but more sacred cows to slaughter. Brace yourselves, Percy Sledge fans!