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1963 “Only the Beginning”

March 25, 2013

1963 is a year in rock/ pop music that gets no respect. After all, it was before the British Invasion and Beatlemania which dominated U.S. music in 1964. So though it is the 50th anniversary of 1963, I was hesitant to write about it and celebrate the year until I realized that 1963 led to the rock tidal wave of 1964. It was what the Baroque period was to the Classical era in classical music. Some darn good music in the Baroque (Bach and Vivaldi, the most notable) and without it there would have not been the explosion of music of the Classical era ( from Beethoven to Mozart and many in between). 1963 ( and several years earlier) was really the rock era’s Baroque period and a pretty good one at that. Admittedly, I wasn’t listening to music much then. After all, I was only 9.

A big development in U.S. rock was the California surf sound made famous by The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. The Beach Boys first really hit it big in 1963 with their second top 40 single “Surfin’ USA” song which rose to #3. The song epitomized surf rock and was followed shortly thereafter by the slow rock ballad “Surfer Girl” and the upbeat “Little Deuce Coupe” as a b-side. Next there was a third top ten smash “Be True to your School” ( complete with real cheerleaders and an homage to “On Wisconsin”) and the more cerebral and interesting slow rock classic “In My Room” that foreshadowed Brian Wilson’s eventual classic album “Pet Sounds”.

Meanwhile, Jan and Dean had been a largely forgettable early rock group with “Baby Talk” of 1959 being their biggest hit. Along came Brian Wilson who collaborated with Jan Berry to write the memorable composition “Surf City” and Jan and Dean had a #1 song in 1963.

Instrumental surf rock took a step forward with the Rockin’ Rebels “Wild weekend” released at the beginning of the year. Though a throwback to late fifties, saxophone- led, Coasters rock n roll, the song also featured the unique guitar sounds of surf rock. And by the summer of 1963, the Surfaris released “Wipeout” featuring a classic rock guitar riff and drum solos which later became a staple of late 60s and early 70s rock. The song was such a big hit in 1963 that it was again released in the summer of 1966 and was among my early 45 rpm purchases that year. At the time, I just couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t at least a top 10 hit on WABC in 1966. I only realized later that it had been a #1 hit three years earlier.

By the end of 1963, a new group, the Trashmen ushered in the era of garage-rock with “Surfin’ Bird” which was released in December. This was hardly a conventional surf rock song ( though it stole most of its melody by combining two less successful earlier singles “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird is The Word” by the Rivingtons). What is notable about the song is the almost violent drumming which sounded eerily similar to Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over” in 1964.

The Four Seasons were hardly new in 1963 but their sound was. In 1962, they hit it big with “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” which owed more to doo-wop than rock for its inspiration. But in 1963, “Walk Like A Man” broke new ground with its unique opening guitar riff and interesting rhythms and it is still one of my favorites of the 1960s and one of the top-selling songs of 1963. Meanwhile, the girl groups (Shirelles, Crystals and Chiffons etc.) were still at their peak and my favorite girl group song ever “He’s So Fine” hit #1 just a few weeks after the Four Seasons. (And if you don’t believe that this presaged 1964 rock, consider that George Harrison unintentionally plagiarized the music and harmonies in his iconic “My Sweet Lord” just seven years later.) I also loved Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs “Sugar Shack” as much for its unique guitar sound as anything else.

The Motown sound hadn’t reached its peak yet. This was to come during 1964-66 with the Supremes, Four Tops and Temptations reaching ascendency. However, 1963 was the year when four outstanding singers/groups came to prominence and arguably led the way for Motown in the future. First, there was Martha and the Vandellas “Heat Wave” which is hard not to hum in the summer, and naturally hit it big in August. Smoky Robinson and the Miracles after their initial success with “Shop Around” in 1961 didn’t break out again until 1963 which featured ” You’ve Really Got A Hold on Me” and “Mickey’s Monkey”. Then , there was the beginning of a long and storied career with Marvin Gaye’s “Pride and Joy”. But the true artist breakout which would revolutionize music for decades to come was a 12-year-old sensation named Stevie Wonder who sang and played a mean harmonica in “Fingertips” .

Folk was in full stride ( and it was later combined by Simon and Garfunkel, the Byrds and the Mamas and Papas to make American folk-rock) . “Walk Right In” by the Rooftop Singers was a #1 hit by this New York City group. Peter Paul and Mary scored two #2 hits with “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Even a catholic nun aptly named “The Singing Nun” had a folk French language hit “Dominique” which hit #1 in December. My sister bought her whole album, though I can’t say I remember her playing anything but the title song.

Of course, folk’s undisputed leader Robert Zimmerman a.k.a. Bob Dylan had his first critical and eventual commercial success with “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” released in 1963. The album included four notable Dylan songs “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Don’t Think Twice, Its Alright” ( both covered by the aforementioned Peter, Paul and Mary), “Girl from the North Country”, and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” which later became Dylan standards.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic a brand new group from Liverpool had three #1 hits in the UK  “Please Please Me”, “From Me to You” and “She Loves You”. Yes , 1964 was going to be one helluva year…..

From → Music 60s70s

  1. Excellent rundown of the musical happenings of 1963, Bruce, especially the historical context of that year. As you pointed out, it was certainly a transitional year, with certain trends (surf music, early Motown, the folk music bridge between Pete Seeger’s era and the flower power of the Mamas and the Papas) clearly paving the way for the rest of the decade.

    I have a few personal thoughts to add to fill out the musical landscape that existed 50 years ago. First, there were still many popular remnants of the pre-rock, lounge-music vocal era – Andy Williams crooning “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and Bobby Vinton with “Blue Velvet”. Duos like Nino Tempo & April Stevens (with “Deep Purple”), Dale & Grace (with “I’m Leaving It Up to You”), and Inez and Charlie Foxx (with “Mockingbird”) all foreshadowed the coming of Donny & Marie some ten years later.

    The female vocalists shouldn’t be ignored either. Hanging onto musical relevance was Eydie Gorme with “Blame It on the Bossa Nova”. Ms. Gorme, however, was turning the reins over to a hipper vocalist by the name of Leslie Gore, who scored hits with “It’s My Party”, “Judy’s Turn to Cry”, and “She’s A Fool”.

    There were two novelty hits in 1963 that are memorable. Allan Sherman, a song parodist long before Weird Al Yankovic made a career out of the medium, was on a hot streak, having released several best-selling LPs and singles leading into 1963. His monster hit of 1963 was “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”, reaching No. 2 on the national Billboard Hot 100 chart.

    The other novelty hit was “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto, which topped the Billboard charts for several weeks. As with The Singing Nun’s “Dominique”, “Sukiyaki” was notable because it was sung entirely in a foreign language, Japanese in this case.

    Indeed, 1963 was a hodgepodge of music, again very much a sign of the times. Once the British Invasion occurred, the schism between the younger, hip generation and the homogenous Pat Boone generation was irrevocably widened.

  2. Great comments John. I confess to focusing most of my discussions to precursors of 60s rock and folk/rock and the British invasion, but you have filled many of the other key areas of interest for 1963. I did miss one notable song however “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, probably because I usually think of it as an early 1964 hit , even though it charted in December 1963. This song was noteworthy as it included many of the standards of mid-1960s rock including an unforgettable guitar riff, a guitar solo and unintelligible lyrics.
    Anyway, thanks for your comments.

  3. John permalink

    As a total aside, I wanted to add that after watching the most recent season of American Horror Story: Asylum, that I will never be able to listen to Dominique again without cringing just a little. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, it’s set in the early ’60s in an insane asylum run by nuns. The nun in charge, played superbly by Jessica Lange, chooses to play Dominique for the inmates in their common room. It’s a perfectly chosen and ironic song to hear incessantly and it’s debatable as to whether the song was chosen to torture the patients or to somehow placate them.

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