The 1960’s were – as everyone doubtless knows – a time of great turbulence. But it was also a time of great music. The Top 40 – (do they even still call it that?) – was filled with rock, soul and even some country. But for anyone who wasn’t around, you may well think that the airwaves were filled with British Invasion acts, Motown – and not much else.
But I’m here to tell you that there were a lot of really good songs that didn’t fit into either of those categories. So with that as my guideline, I’m going to feature seven of them here. Now, to be clear, I don’t suggest that these are the best or the coolest or the bluesiest or whatever. Just a random sampling of what you might have heard on (mostly) AM radio if you were spinning the dial in the late ’60’s.
Since I previously did my Indispensable 150 on the years up to 1963 (pre-Beatles), this post will cover the years 1963 to the end of the decade. BTW, this largely reflects the American record charts as others, notably the UK, tend to be a quite different experience.
If you are of a certain age, consider this a trip down memory lane. If younger, well maybe this will give you a better idea of what your parents might have been fooling around in the car to.
First up, Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for 1968 with a little tune by Southern (Oak Grove, Louisiana) singer-songwriter Tony Joe White. White is in his seventies and is apparently still alive and (one hopes) well. Wikipedia lists White’s genres as swamp rock, country funk, and blues. That pretty well describes his song “Polk Salad Annie.” Polk, aka pokeweed, is used in the South to make a salad or sallet.
This is some funky, funky shit. Elvis took it and made it one of his signature tunes:
Ever hear of Archie Bell & the Drells? They were an R&B group from Houston Texas. And that’s just how this next song starts. “Hi, I’M Archie Bell and the Drells.” Their big hit “Tighten Up, Part 1” landed in 1968. I don’t know if Sly Stone was listening to them or vice-versa but it’s got that same feel.
The Tighten Up was apparently a dance but I don’t remember it being as popular as, say, the frug, the twist. or the swim(!). But here’s the tune (“Tighten up on that bass”)
So, then there’s the Monkees. Yes, the Monkees. Love them or hate them, whether you think they’re a real band or not they were all over the airwaves in the Sixties. In fact in 1967 they outsold both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
There were any number of tunes by them I might have considered, some of which may surprise you. But I’ve always had a strong fondness for Mike Nesmith’s oddball tune, “Tapioca Tundra.” Oddly enough, this one also came out in 1968. While they were still popular I think their popularity had started to peak right about this time.
I think Nesmith is the only actual Monkee playing on this, the rest being studio musicians:
I absolutely loved the Turtles – great tunes, very melodic, terrific singing. They had a bunch of hits in the Sixties and you could do worse than to listen to their Greatest Hits album which I probably still have on vinyl. It’s fairly well-known I think that lead vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman – on the band’s breakup in 1970 – rechristened themselves as Flo and Eddie. They went on to work with everyone from Marc Bolan to Frank Zappa.
I love the joy of unfettered love in this tune, “She’d Rather Be With Me:”
I went to see the latest Mission Impossible movie the other day. It was pretty good and of course, totally plausible! Spy books, movies and TV shows were EVERYWHERE in the Sixties. (And of course, MI is based on a Sixties TV show.)
According to Wikipedia, the most famous recording of “Secret Agent Man”was made by Johnny Rivers for the opening titles of the American broadcast of the British spy series Danger Man,* which aired in the U.S. as Secret Agent from 1964 to 1966.
My friend Bill and I used to busk in Harvard Square years ago. This tune always drew a crowd. Bill can sing this tune and any Elvis tune you care to name. Great voice. This one’s just dumb fun: (Recorded at LA’s Whisky A Go Go and released in 1966).
Tommy James and the Shondells had a couple of big hits in the Sixties. Notably their tune “Mony Mony” has for some reason been covered by, among others Billy Idol and I think they might even play it at wedding receptions. (I try to avoid those as much as possible. You tell me.)
A better song IMHO is “I Think We’re Alone Now,” about two lovers who are
Trying to get away into the night and then you put your arms around me
And we tumble to the ground and then you say
I think we’re alone now,
There doesn’t seem to be anyone around
I think we’re alone now,
The beating of our hearts is the only sound
That was considered naughty in 1967 but so tame compared to what you hear today it’s laughable. But a good tune.
Here it is, kids, Number One for the last three weeks on the charts, that’s right it’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
“Baby It’s You” is a Burt Bacharach tune that everybody from the Beatles to the Shirelles have covered. But for me this song didn’t really hit till I heard the version from an essentially one-hit wonder band called Smith.
The lead singer here is a woman named Gayle McCormick and she wrenches every bit of sexy, sultriness out of this song that you can imagine. The band was discovered by ’50’s singer Del Shannon. This version actually outsold every other version.
Note – I was driving around years ago with a couple of buddies, Bob and Chas. I was singing this tune and I noticed Bob listening intently. Then later, he was singing it. And then a while later, he wound up with Chas’ wife. Maybe he listened a little too intently:
*The great cult classic, The Prisoner, was a sequel or follow-up to Danger Man. If you’ve never seen it, try to find it.