Last year, I listened to and rated all the Billboard #1 hit songs from the 50s based on their use of the guitar, because — well, because. I scored each song from 1 to 10 on four possible guitar elements: riffage, rhythm, fills and solo. The ultimate guitar #1 hit would score a perfect 10 in all four categories for a maximum score of 40. (No #1 song has yet broken 30.) I compiled the results — from the first rock & roll #1 hit (“Rock Around the Clock,” July 1955) to the end of 1959 — in the ebook Number One with an AXE!. The results were promising; the average scores showed an upward trend as the years progressed, culminating in a respectable average of 10 in 1959. Eagerly I dove in to the #1 hits of the early 60s. Would the upward trend continue? No. No it would not.
While there is some terrific guitar work, as in the surf classic “Pipeline,” further down the charts, where #1 hits are concerned, the years 1960 – 1963 are a desert for the guitar lover, as shown by the chart above. Ah! But even deserts contain the occasional beautiful flower. While the guitar drought ends in 1964 (can you guess why?), there are a few blooms to be discovered and enjoyed. Here they are, along with some other tidbits from the pre-fab (four) era…
I got rhythm, please don’t ask for anything more. Of the 103 #1 hits from 1960-64, 97 of them featured rhythm guitar. That’s a heartening 94%, but many of these rhythm parts were a) rather bland (basic ‘chunking’ is all we get on “Duke of Earl,” “Monster Mash,” “Everybody Loves Somebody” and others) and/or b) buried in the mix. Meanwhile, only 12 songs boasted a riff (11.7%); 23 contained fills (22.3%); and a measly 10 featured a guitar solo (9.7%).
The Beatles saved the day, sort of. 1964 eclipsed 1959 as the strongest guitar year to date, but even without the Fab Four, 1964 would score the second-highest guitar average. For this we can thank the Beach Boys (“I Get Around”), the Animals (“House of the Rising Sun”) and Roy Orbison (“Oh, Pretty Woman”), plus songs featuring solid but forgotten or overlooked guitar parts: “My Guy” by Mary Wells, “A World Without Love” by Peter and Gordon (written by Paul McCartney); and “Hello, Dolly!” by Louis Armstrong.
All hail the Rooftop Singers! The two men in this one-hit vocal trio played guitars while they sang “Walk Right In.” Twelve-string guitars! AND one of them was left-handed! In 1963! This song scored a 23, tying it with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles for the top total score in all of 1960-64.
Beatles 1.0? They sang great harmonies with powerful vocals. They wrote their own songs (partially) and played their own instruments. The Beatles had more edge and certainly more guitar, but appreciate for a moment The Four Seasons, who hit #1 with “Sherry” (Sept. 1962) and “Walk Like a Man” (March 1963) well before The Beatles arrived in February 1964.
Please Please Me 1.0? Check out the harmonica, tight vocal harmonies, and overall vibe on “Deep Purple,” a November 1963 hit by Nino Tempo and April Stevens.
Joey Dee & the Starlighters. Their January 1962 hit “The Peppermint Twist, Part 1” is a lush oasis where we can fill our canteens and water our horses. Why? Because of a twangy, twenty-bar guitar solo. Talk about a sound for sore ears!
Eric Gale. This session man extraordinaire is a pop music history chapter unto himself. He played on hundreds of songs in the 60s and 70s, and he dresses up the 1961 Bobby Lewis tune “Tossin’ and Turnin’” with some excellent rhythm and fill work.
Photo Credit: Public domain photo of The Four Seasons.