1960- I’ve often heard it referred to as the worst music year in post rock n’ roll history. That actually may be true though if you’ve followed this blog you know that one of my main beliefs about music in the 2nd half of the twentieth century is that no year is a bad year. In 1955/56 rock n’ roll had exploded into the public consciousness, and the years ’56-’58 were particularly fertile. By 1960 most of (white) rock n’ roll’s biggest stars had become waylaid- either by death or some other factor and folk music began to dominate the collegiate scene as the rock n’ roll teeny boppers grew up and went to college. The record companies brought in heavily marketed and imaged teen idols like Frankie Avalon and Fabian who were a pale imitation of the rebellious and authentic rockers of just a few years before- they were the early sixties version of today’s American Idol contestants.
Elvis Presley, certainly rock n’ roll’s biggest star, joined the army and signed a contract with Colonel Tom Parker, whose primary goal seemed to be to get the King to appeal as much as possible to the middle of the road. Buddy Holly (along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper) died in a plane crash the year before and Jerry Lee Lewis was being shunned by the American public for his marriage to his 14 year old cousin. Little Richard left rock n’ roll for religion and although Chuck Berry was still having hits he was about to be in heaps of legal troubles and eventually sent to jail for transporting a 14 year old minor across state lines. Two of the main sub genres of rock n’ roll- Doo Wop & Rockabilly were also petering out though there were still some fine charting songs in 1960 for both.
So that certainly paints anything but a rosy picture, but what is often left out of the history books is all of the good music being made in 1960- most of the best stuff was being made by black artists so it is unfortunately no surprise that many times it is given too short shrift in the white historical lexicon. But artists like the Everly Brothers, huge in the last fifties, were still firing on all cylinders in 1960 with two of their biggest hits, “Cathy’s Clown” and “When Will I Be Loved” along with a few other great but lesser known tracks. Roy Orbison also emerged as one of the best new artists of 1960. Though he had been recording at Sun since the mid 50’s he didn’t hit big until ’60 with “Only the Lonely”, his first in a string of amazing hits that lasted through the early part of the decade. Underrated (except by Italians 🙂 ) Connie Francis also had some great would be girl group (if she wasn’t a solo singer) gems, paving the way for singers like Dusty Springfield & Lesley Gore a few years later.
But the really great music came from the Soul & Blues artists. All of the inventors of soul- Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jackie Wilson & Ray Charles had some of their very best years in 1960- in fact, they were all at the peak of their powers. Labels like Atlantic, Chess & King were still flourishing and the Blues was in high gear. Starting with the Kings (B.B., Freddy & Albert) as well as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters & Elmore James to name the biggest hitmakers. Many of these tracks wouldn’t be known to white America until the late 60’s when British heavy metal/hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin & Cream covered them. Several huge 50’s artists like Fats Domino & Hank Ballard had big hits in ’60 as well, though both were at the tail end of their charting careers. Another big 50’s, Atlantic’s The Drifters, climbed to even bigger hits in 1960 when they got a new lead singer in Ben E. King, who also contributed his first solo hit “Spanish Harlem” which would become a soul standard. Lesser known soul/blues artists like Little Willie John also had big years, while the city of New Orleans was generating tons of excitement as well with one off singles like “Carnival Time” by Al Johnson, “Ooh Pa Pa Do” by Jessie Hill” and “Go to the Mardis Gras” by Professor Longhair, which would become the theme song for the yearly Mardis Gras event.
Even though Elvis had become somewhat neutered, or at the very least watered down, he still was good for a handful of great songs- “It’s Now or Never”, “Stuck On You”, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” amongst all of the other dreck. And “True Love Ways” was released posthumously after Buddy Holly’s death, the song a fitting reminder of so much future creativity and greatness lost. Like I said, 1960 may pale in comparison to every post 1955 year in music but it is still well worth exploring. And I didn’t even mention that some of the best jazz albums of all time came out in ’60 (the first two absolute gamechangers)- see below!
Buy Sketches of Spain – Miles Davis
Buy Sketches Of SpainAmazon
Buy Giant Steps – John Coltrane
Buy Giant StepsAmazon
Buy Blues & Roots (Bonus Track Version) – Charles Mingus
Buy Blues & RootsAmazon
Buy Beauty Is a Rare Thing – The Complete Atlantic Recordings – Ornette Coleman
*The “Change of the Century” album is included on this release
*Not available via Amazon
Buy Ella Fitzgerald Live In Berlin Mastered – Ella Fitzgerald
Buy The Complete Ella In Berlin: Mack The Knife Amazon