1960 Popular Music: Soul, R&B, Doo-wop

In the previous articles about popular music in 1960 we focused on genres that were performed exclusively by white artists. It is time to shift our attention to the fantastic contribution of black musicians to various air-friendly genres that year. Over the course of the next three articles we will cover multiple genres from soul to rhythm n’ blues, rock n’ roll, blues and even girl groups. We start with a music style that by 1960 has already seen its golden age in the rear view mirror but got a second wind in the early 1960s.

In 1960 Doo-Wop was still alive. One of the genre’s best known hits was released that year by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs. The group had mild success with their minor hit ‘Little Darlin’ in 1957. Like many other black artists during that period, they had to watch from the sidelines when a white group, The Diamonds, took their novelty song and climbed all the way to no. 2 in the charts. Their luck changed for the better with another song written by Maurice Williams about the same girl who was the subject of their previous hit.

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs

Williams tells the story of the song: “She was at my house one night. She hadn’t been there that long, and she had to be in by 10 o’clock. Her brother was coming soon to pick her up. I asked, ‘Can’t you stay just a little bit longer? Your mommy won’t mind, and your daddy won’t mind.’ Nothing I could say could make her stay a little bit longer, so she went home with her brother. The next morning I thought about it, and I came up with ‘Stay’ in about 30 minutes.” This was back in 1958 and the song would have been forgotten had Williams not recorded a demo of it.

Months later as the group was selecting material for a new album, Williams got the advice of a lifetime from an unlikely source: “I was over at my girlfriend’s house playing the tape of songs I had written, when her little sister said, ‘Please do the song with the high voice in it.’ I knew she meant ‘Stay’. She was about 12 years old and I said to myself, she’s the age of record buying and the rest is history. I thank God for her.”

‘Stay’ is notable for the falsetto voice of Zodiacs band member Shane Gaston and for the song’s length, or lack of. It clocks at 1:37, and is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest song to ever make the Top 10. By 1990 it had sold more than 8 million copies. This must be one of the best ratios of millions sold per second. Maurice Williams said that they deliberately kept the song short so that it would get more radio play. They figured that the DJs would use it as a sign off before a commercial break if it was short enough. Smart move.

‘Stay’ at the top of Billboard Hot 100 Nov 21, 1960

Williams remembers how the high voice part came to be: “When I wrote it I originally sang it, but when we recorded it, I said we need somebody because I don’t have a good falsetto. I heard Shane Gaston sing in Charlotte and when I went to Charlotte I got him to audition with the group, to sing it and to record it with us. He said he would do it and then he joined the group.” That falsetto became a signature of the song and remained through cover performances of it over the years by The Hollies, The Four Seasons and best of all by Jackson Brown, performed as an encore on his live album ‘Running on Empty’. David Lindley does wonders with the falsetto part on that version of the song. Here is the original from 1960:

We move to a song that propelled one of the biggest dance crazes of the 1960s. In November of 1958 Hank Ballard, lead vocalist of The Midnighters, recorded a song called The Twist. Different accounts exist over who wrote the song, ranging from Bill Woodruff and Jo Jo Wallace of the Nightingales to The Gospel Consolaters’ Nathaniel Bills, however Hank Ballard is credited as sole songwriter of the song. He recalled how the idea for the song came to him: “I was watching my group going through a routine and they were twisting their bodies so that their leg would go up, real low down and dirty like, then they’d lean back.” After its recording the song did not leave a strong impression on Ballard’s producer, who decided to release it as a B-side to Hank Ballard and The Midnighters’ 1959 single ‘Teardrops on Your Letter’ single.

That should have been the end of the story for ‘The Twist’, but its bleak fate changed course when Dick Clark noticed dancers doing the twist on his popular TV show American Bandstand. At first he was alarmed by the provocative moves of the dance: “In the summer of 1960 I saw a black couple doing a dance that consisted of revolving their hips in quick half-circle jerks, so their pelvic regions were heaving in time to the music. ‘For God’s sake keep the cameras off that couple’ I yelled.” But his puritan view of what was suitable viewing material for teenagers gave way when the new dance caught on. He called Cameo Records asking that they record the long forgotten ‘The Twist’ with a new singer. Enter Ernest Evans to the story.

Ernest who? A student by day, chicken-plucker in the evening, Ernest Evans could belt out a song when he wanted to. His boss noticed the talent and recommended him to Kal Mann, who run… Cameo Records. It did not hurt that Evans’ voice was similar to Hank Ballard’s and so the song was quickly recorded. Dick Clark got his wish and secured a spot for Evans to perform the song on American Bandstand. All that was missing was a good catchy name for the performer. Dick Clark: “My wife took one look at him and said: ‘He’s cute. He looks like a little Fats Domino, like a chubby checker.’”

Chubby Checker with Dick Clark

The Twist (the dance) was notable not only for its pelvic gyrations, but for the fact that a couple dancing it did not have to follow each other’s lead. There is actually no touching in Twist – you can twist away in oblivion as an individual with no care in the world. Chubby Checker described it well: “The Twist is putting out a cigarette with both feet, coming out of the shower, wiping off your bottom with a towel to the beat of the music. If you’re wiping off your bottom with a towel, you’re not touching your partner.”

The Twist tops CashBox’s Most-Played list, Sep 1960

Time magazine added its own description of the dance craze: “The dancers barely ever touch each other or move their feet. Everything else, however, moves. The upper body sways forward and backward and the hips and shoulders twirl erotically, while the arms thrust in, out, up and down with the piston-like motions of baffled bird keepers fighting off a flock of attack blue jays.” The dance definitely inspired animated metaphors. Here is Chubby Checker demonstrating the moves on his performance of the song at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1960:

A year later Chubby Checker would cash in on the fad with ‘Let’s Twist Again’ and the dance would become acceptable not only for teenagers but also by their parents. To be covered by a future article about popular music in 1961.

We move to some good o’le soul music courtesy of another singer who had a big year in 1960. Back in March of 1959 Sam Cooke recorded one of his last sessions for Keen Records, the label he started his solo career with in 1957. A week earlier he recorded a tribute album to Billie Holiday titled ‘Tribute to the Lady’. In contrast to the full orchestra that played on that album, the March impromptu session featured only guitarist Cliff White, bassist Adolphus Alsbrook, teenage drummer Ronnie Selico and a quartet of singers including Lou Rawls. The first song they recorded was written by two songwriters who would later start their own record labels, A&M and Dunhill. Lou Adler and Herb Alpert started at Keen Records as assistant A&R men. By 1958 they moved up the ladder to writing and producing records for some of the label’s artists. They wrote the song ‘All of My Life’ for Sam Cooke, released as a B-side on the ‘Stealing Kisses’ single in 1958.

Sam Cooke in the recording studio with Herb Alpert and Keen Records producer Bumps Blackwell

Alpert remembers a chat with Sam Cooke in which he got a formidable advice from the singer: “People are just listening to a cold piece of wax, and it either makes it or it don’t. You listen to it, you close your eyes, if you like it, great. If you don’t, nobody cares if you’re black or white, what kind of echo chamber you’re using. If it touches you, that’s the measure.’”

Lou Adler did not think much of the new song they wrote, but Sam Cooke saw something in it. Adler remembers: “His idea—since it was all about reading and books and what you didn’t have to do in order to find love – was to take it more towards school.” We are talking of course, about the song ‘[What a] Wonderful World’. The beauty of the song is not just in its subject matter, but also in the way that Cooke delivers it to the listener. Adler: “If you listen to his lyrics, they’re very conversational. And it’s something that he always expressed. He said, ‘If you’re writing a song that you really want to get to people, you’ve got to put it into a language that they understand.’”

The song was released only a year later in April 1960. By that point Sam Cooke has moved on from Keen Records and signed with RCA Victor, one of the major labels. The first few singles on his new label bummed, while Keen’s ‘Wonderful World’ climbed to number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit number two on Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides chart. The song got a new life in the following decades, covered by Herman’s Hermits in 1965, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon and James Taylor in 1978 and sang by Harrison Ford to the beautiful Amish girl portrayed by Kelly McGillis in the movie ‘Witness’ in 1985.

Early in 1960 Sam Cooke met his new record producing team at RCA Victor. Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore were cousins who came to RCA in the late 1950s after successful stints at Mercury and Roulette. Known as Hugo & Luigi, they were masters at crafting pop songs. As they confessed, “We weren’t making art. We weren’t doing anything like that. We were making records to sell.”

Sam Cooke, 1960

At their first meeting with Sam Cooke they played him a few songs and he tried to sing along but due to a cold his voice cracked. Hugo remembers: “I said, ‘Shit, they sent us the wrong guy!’ So that kind of broke the ice. At some point he said, ‘You know, I write.’ We said, ‘Yeah? Have you got anything?’ So he sang a couple of songs that we were not impressed with. They didn’t sound like hits.” Sam Cooke then proceeded to play them a song he wrote together with his brother Charles Cook Jr., this one finally caught the producers’ ears.

On January 25, 1960 Sam Cooke entered RCA Studio A in New York City to cut his first recording session for RCA victor. Along with songs written by others, they tried recording the original tune, titled ‘Chain Gang’. Charles Cook Jr. talked about the experience that led to the writing the song: “We was driving along the highway, and we saw these people working on a chain gang on the side of the road. They asked us, ‘You got any cigarettes?’ So we gave them the cigarettes we had. Then we got down the road about three or four miles, and we saw a store. Sam said, ‘Go in there and get some cigarettes for them fellows’—you understand? To take back to them. So I went in the store and bought five or six cartons, and we carried them back to the dudes that was working on the gang, it wasn’t but a few miles—and I asked the guard if it was all right to give them the cigarettes, and they thanked us, and that was it. And Sam said, ‘Man, that’s a good song. Right there.’ And he just started singing, and then we went to the hotel and I put in a few words, and Sam said, ‘Why don’t you do it, man?’ But he was so good singing it I never did.”

As good as he was singing it, the vocal track on that session was deemed unsatisfactory and the song had to wait to an April session to be completed. On that occasion Sam Cooke overdubbed an improved vocal track on top of the best instrumental take from the January session. He also changed some of the lyrics, modifying the prisoners acts from “thinking of their women at home / in their silken gowns” to “working on the highways and byways / and wearing a frown”.

Read more about Sam Cooke in Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke

Categories: A Year in Music

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