Before The Beatles

The state of pop in late 1963

Concert poster for the 1963 Dick Clark Caravan of Stars tour in Elkhart, Indiana

Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars was rolling along. It started out in New Jersey in early November and chugged across America, giving teenagers a live sampling of the current state of pop music: the headliner was Bobby Vee, and the lineup included Jimmy Clanton, Brian Hyland, Linda Scott, Dale & Grace (who had a smash single with their version of Don & Dewey’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You”), the Ronettes (“Baby I Love You” was their new disc), the Tymes, the Essex.

That was what top 40 radio sounded like that autumn, a lot of girl groups, boys like Bobby and Brian. It was a moment when “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen coexisted with the Singing Nun. The tour pulled into Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, and that afternoon, John Kennedy was shot. That night’s show was cancelled, and so was the following night’s, in Oklahoma. And even though the rest of the dates went on as scheduled, it was as though, through the rest of the year, everything was on pause. Radio stations froze their playlists for a short while; the country was in a daze, and everything about pop music was about to be blasted to smithereens.

Caravan of Stars poster

In December, television host David Susskind gathered some people knowledgeable about pop to discuss “Rock n’ Roll: the New Sound from Tin Pan Alley.” You might have read about this in Tom Wolfe’s essay in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby: Susskind and WNEW deejay William B. Williams bemoaned the juvenile noise emanating from “Tin Pan Alley” (there was, at that point, no Tin Pan Alley: the hits were coming from 1650 Broadway and the Brill Building, and studios all across the U.S.A. like Detroit and Seattle), while WINS deejay Murray the K, producer Phil Spector and other guests (including bona fide pop stars Lesley Gore and Bobby Vinton) played defense. It was very entertaining, the whole kerfuffle, but by the time that episode of Open End aired on Sunday, January 5, 1964, the premise of Susskind’s show was completely irrelevant: the “Sure Shot” on NY’s WMCA for that week was the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and over at 77 WABC, that single was #1 for the week of January 7. Five days after the Susskind show, Jack Paar aired, on his network show, a film clip of the Beatles performing “She Loves You.” Any talk about a fictional Tin Pan Alley’s dominance over pop music, any debate that involved “Dominique,” made absolutely no sense at all.

Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs Sugar Shack, Sundazed 

The Beatles narrative in America goes like this: pop music by late ’63 was in the creative doldrums, sending records like Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs’ “Sugar Shack” and Bobby Vinton’s snoozeville “There! I’ve Said It Again” sailing up the charts. JFK’s assassination broke, then numbed, the country, and with the new year came the Beatles, and that was the jolt that awakened a grieving nation and revitalized a dull pop scene, changing everything. Sort of. The British Invasion swept a lot of artists aside. Like Bobby Rydell: After “Forget Him,” a big hit in late ’63, he never hit the top 40 again. Connie Francis, gone from the top 20 forever. Ditto Pat Boone, finally. It took Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Chubby Checker and Rick Nelson years to make chart comebacks after ’63. It was like pop music shut down for inventory at the end of that year, cleared the shelves and made room for the new merchandise, the shipment of product from the United Kingdom. 

Bobby Rydell “Forget Him b/w Hey Ev’rybody,” Cameo Parkway 1963

But despite it being the Twilight of the Bobbys, anyone who was listening to the radio before “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and all those other Beatles tracks started being spun—and how would we have even been aware of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” if we weren’t already listening to Murray the K and B. Mitchel Reed?—heard some terrific records, and it feels as though what the whole “doldrums” position is about is the most conservative mainstream pop (actually, it might be all about “Sugar Shack” or “Popsicles and Icicles”). Surely it can’t mean R&B. Here are some of the records on WMCA’s chart the week of 11/20/63: the Impressions’ slinkily soulful “It’s All Right” (at #1), Betty Harris’s impassioned “Cry to Me,” Chuck Jackson’s “Any Other Way,” (written by William Bell), the early Stax hit “Walking the Dog” by Rufus Thomas, “Hey Little Girl” by Major Lance (like “It’s All Right,” from the genius of Curtis Mayfield), Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” (two of these songs were covered on the first Stones album). 1963 was the start of Motown’s golden era; Otis Redding cut “These Arms of Mine” and “Pain in My Heart”; James Brown had “Oh Baby Don’t You Weep”; there were great singles by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke (“Little Red Rooster,” another song that entered the Stones’ repertoire), Solomon Burke, Bobby Bland; and one-offs like “Harlem Shuffle.”

The Impressions

And it can’t mean the records Brian Wilson was making with the Beach Boys, or Bob Crewe with the 4 Seasons, or Burt Bacharach with Dionne Warwick (and Gene Pitney). Or Dion’s “Drip Drop.” Or Jackie De Shannon helping invent folk-rock with “Needles and Pins” and “When You Walk in the Room.” In late ’63, Elvis released a cool version of the Spiders’ “Witchcraft” and Roy Orbison put out “Mean Woman Blues.” And there were all those Spector productions/Jack Nitzsche arrangements, including the Christmas Gift for You album that had the misfortune of being launched into the world as the country was being stunned by the events in Dallas.

Phil Spector A Christmas Gift For You, Spector 1963

Being a fan of pop music fifty-five years ago was a blast. Going to the Brooklyn Fox that winter to see the Miracles, Mary Wells and Martha & the Vandellas usher in the Sound of Young America, just days, really, before that Sound was expanded to embrace the Mersey Beat (and, of course, the Beatles were listening to early ’60s U.S. pop also: their first two albums had covers of songs by the Cookies, the Marvelettes, the Miracles, the Shirelles). Listening to the three hit-radio stations in New York City, you might hear Peter, Paul & Mary doing Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” James Burton’s dazzling guitar solo on Rick Nelson’s “Fools Rush In,” Lloyd Price’s snappy version of “Misty,” the doo wop insanity of “Unchained Melody” by Vito & the Salutations. We were, it turned out, waiting for the Beatles, but we couldn’t have known that at the time. Liverpool was so very far away.



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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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