1964 was another “Big Bang” year for music in the 20th century. In one fell swoop the British Invasion seemed to wipe away nearly everything that came before it and set the path for all sixties music that came after. The truth is much murkier than that as plenty of great pre-Beatles music did survive and Motown and Girl Groups as well as to a slightly lesser extent surf music played key roles in the musical landscape of 1964 as well. That said British beat groups did descend on America like nothing since the original rock n’ rollers almost ten years before and like probably nothing since. Though the Beatles were already huge in their native England in 1963, having already released their first two albums, they were nowhere in America until the beginning of 1964. The very popular president, especially among young people, John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated in December of 1963. The assassination marked the end of a somewhat idyllic era (at least for middle class and above white males) and signaled the beginning of darker, more tumultuous times ahead. The Beatles performances on the Ed Sullivan show made them stars in America overnight and record companies scrambled to break as many British groups in America as quickly as possible to capitalize on the new sound. In those days rock n’ roll music was considered trendy and faddish- artists didn’t think about making careers in music, but catching lightning in a bottle. As a result the most successful artists worked at a furious pace churning out song after song. The Beatles for example released two full albums in 1964 (A Hard Day’s Night & Beatles For Sale) as well as a handful of non-album singles. In America, their two 1963 albums were also released as well as additional compilations so satiate the marked. Most teenagers couldn’t get enough and they became the biggest band in the world.
Some other great bands followed the Beatles success. The tougher, more outlandish Rolling Stones were the second most successful and became both their friends and archrivals, particularly in the press. The Stones also released a pair of albums, “England’s Newest Hitmakers” and “12 X 5”- the first was made up of pure covers but did contain their first big hit “It’s All Over Now”. “12 X 5” included their first self-written hit single with “Tell Me”. The ultra Bluesy Animals busted out with a huge #1 single “House of the Rising Sun”, which remains a rock standard to this day. The Kinks burst onto the scene with two great proto-punk singles “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” which anticipated the garage rock movement as well as both punk & Heavy Metal. Less successful (at least in America) but huge in the U.K. were the electric blues group the Yardbirds which featured a young Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Their 1964 album “Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds” is considered one of the classic live albums of all time. In addition to the above legendary bands were a slew of other Brit Invasion groups who had hits (often more than one) in ’64 as well. Some were heavy on pretty ballads like Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Searchers, Chad & Jeremy, the Merseybeats & Peter & Gordon, sharing mucyh in common with the lighter side of the Beatles. One of the biggest was the Dave Clark Five who were both incredibly clean cut and fairly raucous. Bands like the Pretty Things & the Swingin’ Blue Jeans along with one hit wonders like the Honeycomb & the Roulettes rocked hard and had more in common with the blues-based groups like the Stones and the Kinks. Another fantastic, if underrated band the Zombies released their first big single in ’64 as well with “She’s Not There”. All said an incredible amount of new bands and great singles came about in ’64 and despite the hyperbole that the invasion cleared away everything in its path, it truly felt like a new era.
The huge fame and success of the Beatles, Stones etc… encouraged thousands of kids to start bands to play music, get rich and get laid like their idols. The vast majority of those bands never had sustained careers. Some were indeed terrible, some were great but fizzled out after a few years and many others managed a hit song or two before returning to obscurity. Many of these bands tried to directly emulate their British heroes. Some did that so well it was tough to tell them apart from the original. The whole phenomenon is commonly known now as “garage rock” as many of these bands started in their parents’ garages. Most of the best of the music happened between ’65-’67, but ’64 saw some great tracks by early adopters like the Sonics, the Primitives, the Gestures, the Mojos and the Beau Brummels. The Sonics were the only one of those bands with more than a couple of great songs and none of the groups, including the Sonics had a major career. But their limited success did help kick start the movement, which would help to define the middle of the decade’s psychedelic era.
By ’64 beach and surf music had already been around several years and especially in 1963 was known as the hottest sound in America before being quickly eclipsed by the Beatles and their like. The best and most popular group was the Beach Boys who had their first hit in 1962 with “Surfin’ Safari”. In 1964 they continued on their incredible streak with #1 hits like “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” as well as the “Warmth of the Sun” album, which though laden with filler, saw them moving in a more musically sophisticated direction setting the stage for the greater heights achieved with future albums like “Today!” and especially “Pet Sounds”, The Beach Boys closest competition were Jan & Dean, a pop duo who also wrote their own music. 1964 was a huge year for them as well with the release of tracks like “Dead Man’s Curve” & “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”. One hit wonders like The Rivieras (California Sun) and Ronny & the Daytonas (GTO) also had hits mining similar territory- the car and beach culture of southern California. Other groups like Dick Dale, who really created the whole surf sound, the Surfaris & the Pyramids stayed truer to actual surf music- the majority of their songs were instrumental, with choppy guitars, wet bass lines and frenetic drumming. ’63 and ’64 was really the first time southern California became a dominant rock n’ roll scene. With a few dips depending on the genre it has remained a musical focal point ever since.
Though much of the old rock n’ roll guard had evaporated by 1964 some still hung in there. Chuck Berry released his comeback album “St. Louis to Liverpool” after getting out of jail and it was as good as much of his previous material and contained four hits including one of his signature songs “No Particular Place to Go”. Little Richard also came back from life in the church with a few comeback hits. Elvis Presley was still enjoying hits but his career became increasingly focused on movie making and both his movies and most of his music in the mid 60’s were incredibly cheesy. He did release the pretty great “Viva Las Vegas” track, which would be his last really good song for several years at least. Jerry Lee Lewis’s career took a nosedive after it was found out that he was married to his 13 year-old cousin. He began reinventing himself as a country star in the sixties but also released the unbelievably great live rock n’ roll album, “Live At the Star Club, Hamburg”. He was clearly still very appreciated in Europe even if many Americans wanted nothing to do with him anymore. Three of the most successful American make rock n’ roll crooners of the early 60’s maintained their success into ’64 as well- Del Shannon, Gene Pitney and especially Roy Orbison, who actually headlined the Beatles first American tour, at least until the Beatles became too popular to keep opening for him.
Another one of the most popular music genres of the early 60’s was morphing into something else entirely. Folk music was hugely popular, particularly amongst the college-educated set. In the 50’s and early 60’s many felt rock n’ roll was for teenagers only, so they moved onto deeper, more meaningful music upon entering college or early adult hood. I’m no expert on folk music, and there certainly are exceptions, but to my ears much of the music wasn’t all that memorable until Bob Dylan burst onto the scene. His 1962 debut was little noticed, but he had a big hit with the 1963 album “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and 1964 brought two more albums- “The Times They Are A-Changing” & “Another Side of Bob Dylan”, both of them laden with brilliant protest anthems as well as several love songs. Dylan wrote all of his own material and was a much more sophisticated writer than most of his folk forebears. Along with the Beatles and the Stones, he would become arguably the most important artist of the decade.
Both Blues and Country were thriving in ’64 as well. Perhaps the most renowned of all then-modern Blues artists, Muddy Waters released his “Folk Music” album, which proved extremely influential on the British blues-loving set. Artists like B.B. King & Bobby “Blue” Bland continued to wrack up multiple hits on the R&B charts. In the country world artists who emerged in the mid 50’s like Johnny Cash & George Jones enjoyed continued chart success, while future “Hee Haw” host Buck Owens was smack dab in the middle of his most fertile period. Another future country legend Merle Haggard got his start in ’64 with “Sing A Sad Song” and arguably the best female country artist of the 60’s Loretta Lynn had a huge hit with “Mr. & Mrs. Used To Be”. Some great jazz records were released in 1964 as well including the great John Coltrane’s extremely underrated “Coltrane’s Sound” as well as perhaps his definitive live recording “Live at Birdland”. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto redefined the brilliant Bossanova sound with their album “Gets/Gilberto” which included Bossanova’s definitive tune “The Girl From Ipanema”. Herbie Hancock & Lee Morgan released two of the great hard bop albums with “Empyrean Isles” and “The Sidewinder” respectively. Frank Sinatra enjoyed huge smashes with tracks like “Fly Me To the Moon”, “The Best Is Yet to Come” & “The Way You Look Tonight”, all among his very most popular songs. The versatile Nina Simone released key tracks like live recording “Mississippi Goddam” & “Don’t Let Me By Misunderstood”, covered by the Animals a year later.
The Motown label, already prolific in the early 60’s, was beginning to dominate the marketplace. It’s biggest groups the Supremes, the Temptations & Four Tops were some of the only groups to even come close to rivaling the popularity of the Beatles. The vast majority of the labels hits were then either written by the amazing songwriting team of Holland/Dozier/Holland or by Producer/Singer/Songwriter Smokey Robinson (also sometimes regarded as Motown president Berry Gordy’s number two). The label had huge hits in 1964 with the three above groups as well as Smokey Robinson’s Miracles, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes and more. “Come See About Me”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Baby I Need Your Loving”, “My Guy”, “Dancing In the Street” & “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, all some of the biggest hits in the history of the label and now standards came out that year, among many other brilliant lesser hits. Another one of the labels biggest stars, Marvin Gaye, enjoyed a bevy of hits in ’64 as well, including one of his first of many duets “What A Matter With You Baby” with Mary Wells.
Martha & the Vandellas, the Supremes & the Marvelettes were three of the many successful girl groups in 1964. Despite the ascendency of the British Invasion groups, the girl group sound was still more popular than ever. The vast majority of the groups did not write or play on their own records (this is also true of the many male groups popular at the time as well). Many of their songs were written by the best crack teams of writers in L.A. and New York City’s Brill Building, including familiar names like Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Mike Leiber & Gerry Stoller, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil & Burt Bacharach & Hal David. Bacharach as well as other super producers like Shadow Morton & especially Phil Spector used these songs and vocal groups as tools to create their own pop symphonies. Amazing session musicians were employed to play on the records and though the subject of the songs nearly always dealt with teenage concerns, the arrangements were anything but simplistic. Some of the more popular female vocal groups and solo stars at the time were the Shangri-La’s, the Ronettes, Lesley Gore, Dionne Warwick, Jackie DeShannon, Sandi Shaw & Dusty Springfield. Two of the most popular male vocal groups, The Four Seasons & the Righteous Brothers also enjoyed tremendous success in ’64, though the lead singer of the Four Seasons, Frankie Valli co-wrote many of their songs along with co-member Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe.
Another male vocal group who wrote their own songs were the Impressions out of Chicago. Their most prominent member, Curtis Mayfield would go on to have a huge solo career in the early 70’s. 1964 was one of their biggest years. Tracks like “You Must Believe Me”, “Keep On Pushing”, “I’m So Proud” and “Amen” became Civil Rights anthems and inspired much hope during such turbulent and changing times. The incomparable Sam Cooke released “That’s Where It’s At” album, which would be the last album release before his murder on December 11th of that year. A song from the album “A Change Is Gonna Come” (a hit in 1965 and included on my best of 1965 mixes) became one of THE anthems of the entire civil rights movement and Sam Cooke’s signature song. Atlantic Records recording artist Otis Redding cut and released some great music in ’64 including “Security”, “Chained and Bound” & “That’s How Strong My Love Is”. James Brown practically invented Funk in ’64 with “Out Of Sight”. Other soul artists like Irma Thomas, Solomon Burke, Jerry Butler & Joe Tex also enjoyed major successes. Soul music was in the beginning of its heyday and would continue to rise throughout the rest of the decade.
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