Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Muddy Waters, Loretta Lynn, and The Phantom were the jukebox gems of 1960

Muddy Waters, Loretta Lynn, and The Phantom were the jukebox gems of 1960

Off The ChartsTo commemorate 60 years of the Billboard Hot 100, Off The Charts revisits each year since it was established to spotlight songs and artists that didn’t make the cut, yet still made a significant impact.

The year: 1960

Billboard Hot 100’s Top 20 Songs Of 1960

1. Percy Faith, “Theme From A Summer Place”
2. Jim Reeves, “He’ll Have To Go”
3. The Everly Brothers, “Cathy’s Clown”
4. Johnny Preston, “Running Bear”
5. Mark Dinning, “Teen Angel”
6. Brenda Lee, “I’m Sorry”
7. Elvis Presley, “It’s Now Or Never”
8. Jimmy Jones, “Handy Man”
9. Elvis Presley, “Stuck On You”
10. Chubby Checker, “The Twist”
11. Connie Francis, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”
12. Bobby Rydell, “Wild One”
13. The Brothers Four, “Greenfields”
14. Jack Scott, “What In The World’s Come Over You”
15. Marty Robbins, “El Paso”
16. The Hollywood Argyles, “Alley Oop”
17. Connie Francis, “My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own”
18. Brenda Lee, “Sweet Nothin’s”
19. Brian Hyland, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”
20. Roy Orbison, “Only The Lonely”

Death stalked the radios and the rec rooms of 1960. Three of the year’s No. 1 hits were suffused with the stuff: Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” in which a gunslinger falls in love with a Mexican girl, then he dies. Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear,” in which a “young Indian brave” falls in love with a girl from another tribe, then they die. Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” where two high school lovers are torn apart when the girl gets hit by a train. (She dies.) America was still reeling from “The Day The Music Died,” the 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, when Eddie Cochran—Holly and Valens’ friend, who was left with a morbid fear of touring—died in a car accident in April. (He was on tour.) All these teen idols dying left their equally young fans in a permanent fugue state; in 1960, the rise of these “teenage tragedy” songs gave them the macabre means to purge those big, melodramatic teenage feelings.

It was easy to feel like rock ’n’ roll itself had died before it barely got started. Its biggest name, Elvis Presley, was very much alive but still wrapping up an Army stint (although he quickly made up for lost time, cutting two of his biggest hits after discharge). Meanwhile, Johnny And The Moondogs was only then embarking on its earliest U.K. tours, before rechristening itself The Beatles in August. There were plenty of now-forgotten, singles-driven rock combos lurking around the charts—The Whozits, The Whatevers—and assorted Brylcreemed wannabe-Elvises like Bobby Rydell, but few genuine stars. And looming over it all was the congressional investigation into payola, finally declared illegal that year, which would come looking for rock DJs like Alan Freed, changing how rock ’n’ roll was marketed and perceived.

Meanwhile, the vacuum was also being filled by doo-wop and soul, spun by the likes of The Drifters and Sam Cooke; jukebox dance hits like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and Jimmy Jones’ “Handy Man”; cheap novelties like“Alley Oop” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”; and music that lived squarely in the intersection of country and pop, like The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, and Jim Reeves (who would be dead four years later, in his own private plane crash). One of the biggest stars of that predominant “Nashville sound”—syrupy strings, smooth backing harmonies—was Brenda Lee, who vied with her fellow pint-sized powerhouse Connie Francis to be that year’s queen of future Malt Shop Memories ballads. Many of these artists practiced a dreamily romantic, nigh-tranquilized form of pop embodied by the biggest hit of the year: Percy Faith’s instrumental “Theme From A Summer Place,” which spent a then-record nine weeks at No. 1, lulling an uneasy nation into a soporific trance.

But under the American Bandstand, there were wilder things taking place: electrified swamp blues; revved-up garage and surf rock; haunting, barebones gospel; and folk singers who would go on to become the voices of their decade, once it woke from its stupor. Here are some of them.

The Phantom, “Love Me” (January 1960)

In 1958, a singer named Jerry Lott found himself in a studio with only one song ready to record. According to legend peddled by the man himself, Lott then had to be reminded that this 45 needed something on the flip side—and so, with the goal of sparking rock ’n’ roll back to life with pure “fire and fury,” he and his band cobbled together “Love Me,” a 90-second single so delirious, it’s hard to imagine it even being conceived in that teenybopper era. Its wild screams and cacophonous guitar wouldn’t reach the ears of an unsuspecting public until 1960 and after Lott brought the record to Pat Boone, who supposedly repackaged him as the Zorro-masked The Phantom and helped him land a release on Paramount’s Dot Records. Sadly, Lott suffered a few devastating personal tragedies soon after and all but disappeared, leaving little trace of his career beyond this proto-psychobilly monster—which rightly found a long second life as a crown jewel on dozens of compilations, and as one of the first songs The Cramps ever recorded. [Matt Gerardi]

Lightnin’ Slim, “Tom Cat Blues” (March 1960)

By 1960, Lightnin’ Slim and Excello Records head Jay “J.D.” Miller were well into their prolific, decade-plus collaboration in defining Baton Rouge’s swamp-blues sound. That year saw the release of Lightnin’s first full-length, Rooster Blues, a compilation of earlier singles with a handful of new tunes like “Tom Cat Blues.” “Tom Cat” is the kind of slow, muddy number the bluesman excelled at, and Miller’s minimalist production lets him shine, with only a spare drum kit and harp howling along. Lightnin’ sounds as weary (and leary) as can be with this black cat hanging around his gal’s door, and, well, you know how blues songs end: “People, she ain’t my gal no more.” Lightnin’s biggest hit, the 1959 R&B-charting “Rooster Blues,” was behind him, but his charismatic labelmate and brother-in-law Slim Harpo would carry swamp blues to the national charts (and the Rolling Stones’ radar) in the new decade. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Loretta Lynn, “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl” (March 1960)

By the mid-’70s, Loretta Lynn had gained a reputation as a feminist firebrand with hit singles like “The Pill” and “Rated X,” pointed critiques of a culture that punished women for going out at night to drink and dance—but not the men who drank and danced with them. That wasn’t just a phase: Her outspokenness is a core part of Lynn’s musical identity, going all the way back to her very first single, “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl.” Recorded while Lynn was still a stay-at-home mom playing music part time, the song was reportedly inspired by someone Lynn met at a club in Washington state. It’s told from the perspective of a woman who spends her nights in a honky tonk, drowning her sorrows after being abandoned by her lover. Sung in the same tearful, quivering style as country singer Kitty Wells (who covered similar territory with 1952’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”), “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” was a hit on country radio thanks largely to Lynn and her husband driving around the country, hand-delivering 7-inches to local DJs, a story later dramatized in the Sissy Spacek movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. [Katie Rife]

Miriam Makeba, “The Click Song” (May 1960)

Miriam Makeba spent much of the 1950s singing in South African stage productions and vocal groups, including the massively influential Manhattan Brothers, whose 1956 song “Lovely Lies” became the first South African record to break the Hot 100. In 1960, Makeba released her self-titled solo debut, backed by her mentor Harry Belafonte’s band. The album didn’t perform as well as later efforts, but “The Click Song”—prefaced by Makeba saying, “It’s called ‘The Click Song’ by the English because they cannot say ‘Qongqothwane’”—became one of the singer’s signatures, bringing the traditional Xhosa wedding song to the world. (“Qongqothwane” translates in Makeba’s native language as “knock-knock beetle,” the good-luck omen at the song’s center.) Joyous and fiery, her performance showcases the strikingly beautiful melodies and language of her home village, as well as Makeba’s inimitable talent. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, “Shakin’ All Over” (June 1960)

Performing in full buccaneer costume in front of a black sailcloth, while high-kicking lead singer Johnny Kidd brandished a cutlass, The Pirates might have been one of many forgotten gimmick bands of the early rock ’n’ roll era were it not for “Shakin’ All Over.” The song—driven by the spindly, staccato guitar lines of guest star Joe Moretti—shot to No. 1 in the U.K., where it had a huge impact on nascent rock bands like The Who. Chances are you’re more familiar with The Who’s version, captured on 1970’s Live At Leeds, or The Guess Who’s chart-topping take in 1965—or really, any of the two dozen covers of “Shakin’ All Over,” performed by artists as diverse as Flamin’ Groovies, Wanda Jackson, Fugazi, and fellow pirate rocker Adam Ant—than you are with the original. But it’s all there in The Pirates’ first take, a song that has more menace and swagger than a whole galleon of cutthroats. [Sean O’Neal]

The Stanley Brothers, “I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow” (June 1960)

“I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow,” a.k.a. “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” existed in American folk music for at least 40 years before bluegrass luminaries The Stanley Brothers got a hold of it, but the Virginia duo played the biggest role in popularizing it. The Stanleys originally recorded “Constant Sorrow” in the early ’50s, but rearranged and altered the instrumentation for the version that appeared on 1960’s Everybody’s Country Favorites. That version proved the most popular, buoyed by the Stanleys performing it at the inaugural Newport Folk Festival in July 1959. Not coincidentally, it would be covered by a string of performers in the next couple years—most famously Bob Dylan, until the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys usurped him with their version for the mega-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. [Kyle Ryan]

The Frantics, “The Whip” (July 1960)

With their suits and sensible crewcuts, a squeaky-clean image that was belied by some especially raunchy sax, Seattle’s The Frantics were a favorite on the teen dance circuit, playing their own garage-surf instrumentals for sock-hoppers while also backing touring stars like Bobby Darin. (The group even laid down the original recordings of Darin’s “Dream Lover” and “Bullmoose,” which Darin’s label hired session musicians to recreate.) Before a mid-career personnel turnover saw them blossom into flower-power psychedelia, the eager young mercenaries also dabbled in the novelty-rock game that moved so many 45s at the turn of the decade. The Frantics’ B-movie-inspired, would-be Halloween hit “Werewolf” featured a spooky spoken-word intro into its growls and howls (predicting both Thriller and Tracy Jordan), but it’s “The Whip” that best captures the era: some twangy surf guitar, broken up by the sound of an actual cracking bullwhip wielded by “whip artist” Monty Whiplash. It’s a little silly, a lot catchy, and it has a musical energy that transcends the gimmicks. [Sean O’Neal]

Howlin’ Wolf, “Spoonful” (July 1960)

Howlin’ Wolf’s streak of hits in the 1950s included some of his most iconic songs (“Smokestack Lightning,” “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”), many of them written by the Mississippi native himself. But by the ’60s, Wolf turned more and more to resident Chess Records songwriter Willie Dixon for material. In 1960, he was the first to record “Spoonful,” a Dixon number that has since become one of the most-covered blues songs of all time, though Wolf’s take remains the definitive version. With his booming voice, Wolf brings grit and grime to the song’s hot-blooded innuendo, egged on by Hubert Sumlin’s excitable guitar licks; this is Chicago blues at its very best. The following year, Etta James took a big-band “Spoonful” to the R&B charts before, like so many blues songs of this era, it was popularized by British rockers—psych-blues supergroup Cream. [Kelsey J. Waite]

Muddy Waters, “Got My Mojo Working” (July 1960)

The night before Muddy Waters’ set at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, the National Guard was called in to disperse hundreds of rioting (mostly white) college students riled up by jazz, R&B, and alcohol, the police beating them back with teargas and water hoses. You don’t get any sense of that lingering unease on At Newport 1960, but the seminal live album dealt its own seismic blow by introducing Waters’ electrified Chicago blues sound to broader audiences—most notably in the U.K., where it became a bedrock influence in the record collections of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. You can hear the lightning in a bottle most clearly on “Got My Mojo Working,” where a growling, brrrr-ing Waters and his incredibly tight band, led by harmonica player James Cotton, whip the crowd into a bumping, swinging, climactic frenzy. There’s a riot going on in here as well. [Sean O’Neal]

The Shadows, “Apache” (July 1960)

There’s no way anybody involved in the creation of “Apache” foresaw its musical legacy. Although they weren’t the first act to record Jerry Lordan’s original composition, The Shadows—the backing band of British superstar Cliff Richard, and a popular act in their own right—were the first to actually release one. Hank Marvin’s stringy, reverberating guitar produced an immortal riff that became a surf-rock standard, helping to crystallize that emerging genre. But the song’s unlikely second life began 13 years later, when a novelty disco cover was included on the debut album of Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band. That particular incarnation, with its long, funky drum breaks, became one of hip-hop’s foundational texts, soon dubbed “the national anthem of hip-hop” by pioneering turntablist DJ Kool Herc. Herc first started using the record as a break in 1975, and it’s been sampled in hundreds of songs since, from archetypal hits like “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache” to modern cuts from Kanye West and Missy Elliott. [Matt Gerardi]

Lee Hazlewood With Duane Eddy And His Orchestra, “The Girl On Death Row” (August 1960)

Lee Hazlewood already had several hits to his name as a producer and songwriter working with guitarist Duane Eddy, but he stepped out of the booth for an early vocal turn on “The Girl On Death Row,” a song written for the soundtrack of a 1960 neo-noir of the same name—which then changed its title, last-minute, to Why Must I Die? In addition to presaging his famed vocal duets with Nancy Sinatra, the song embodies the kind of cinematic sagas he’d be known for: dramatic strings over a Wild West bassline, and lyrics that tell a tragic story about this doomed, presumably innocent girl (with a decent argument against the death penalty in the bargain). Like all great story songs, it conveys a lot with just a few short verses, and its literary bent points toward future Hazlewood compositions like “Some Velvet Morning.” [Gwen Ihnat]

The Staple Singers, “Pray On” (August 1960)

Nearly a decade before they became Stax soul legends, The Staple Singers were just a humble family band cutting homespun gospel-folk spirituals, born out of their church appearances in Chicago. While they don’t have the big pop sound of later hits like “I’ll Take You There,” early cuts like “Pray On” show why the group made such an impact on fans like Bob Dylan. Lead singer Mavis Staples gives the long road to the solace of her “home on high” the power of prayer—and her irrepressible voice—which can lift even the loneliest, weariest traveler. It’s easy to hear why they’d soon be called to spread that message worldwide. [Gwen Ihnat]

Jackie & The Starlites, “Valarie” (September 1960)

The “crying record” is a melodramatic tradition that dates back to the earliest days of R&B, and New York-based doo-wop group Jackie And The Starlites could wail with the best of them. Singer Jackie Rue was known for his choked-up vocals, sobbing out each word with increasing urgency before breaking down into tears in the middle of a track. That’s what happens in “Valarie,” the closest thing Jackie & The Starlites ever had to a hit single, as Rue screams out the titular woman’s name, pathetically begging her to take him back with a desperation that makes even the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs sound subdued. The song, which was released at the tail end of the doo-wop boom, never charted nationally. But it was a decent-size hit on New York City radio, where it would eventually become a kitschy favorite among punk tastemakers like Lou Reed and Malcolm McLaren. Jackie himself never got to celebrate his group’s cult status, unfortunately; he died of a drug overdose in the late ’60s. [Katie Rife]

Joan Baez, “Silver Dagger” (October 1960)

With a voice like that, Joan Baez was never long for anonymity, and after her performance at the very first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, multiple labels raced to sign her up. But Baez went with the small, yet enormously influential Vanguard, releasing her self-titled debut album the next year. Baez has always been a savvy interpreter of other artists’ music, and on her first release she stuck to traditional songs, putting her own distinctive spin on them. Of these, album opener “Silver Dagger” remains one of the most potent of her early tracks, her shimmering voice delivering the lyrics of the 19th-century folk ballad with an achingly vulnerable, open-hearted style. The record was supposedly recorded in only four days, and Baez was just 19 at the time; with such an accomplished first effort (it was inducted into the Library Of Congress in 2015) created so quickly and at such a young age, it’s little wonder she went on to even greater achievements. [Alex McLevy]

Barbara Dane, “I’m On My Way” (November 1960)

Even an endorsement from Louis Armstrong wasn’t enough to get Barbara Dane’s “I’m On My Way” onto the Billboard 200. But of all artists, Dane is one of the least likely to mind. Dane started her musical career as a campus folkie in the ’40s before discovering that her robust vocals were ideally suited to a number of genres, including jazz, blues, and the then-burgeoning genre of R&B; she acted as her own manager and protested racial segregation in the music industry throughout her career, principled decisions that also affected her ability to break through to the mainstream. Brassy, jazzy, and full of finger-snapping bohemian swing, “I’m On My Way” is an ahead-of-its time empowerment anthem that would come to be prized as a rarity by aficionados of so-called “blue-eyed soul.” [Katie Rife]

Sherri Taylor and Singin’ Sammy Ward, “Oh Lover” (November 1960)

With a few successful groups and solo acts already filling out his burgeoning roster and turning out classics like “Money (That’s What I Want)” and “Way Over There,” “Oh Lover” was Motown mastermind Berry Gordy’s first shot at a hit duet. As was standard practice at the time, he combined a veteran Motown act, largely forgotten Alabama bluesman Sammy Ward, and a newcomer, Sherri Taylor. Although they wouldn’t make the same splash as later Motown twosomes, like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, this unlikely pair showed off an impressive, arresting chemistry on their sole recording. The R&B backing is simple and muted, letting the two singers dominate as they trade lines and push their voices to the limit. [Matt Gerardi]

Bo Diddley, “Ride On Josephine” (December 1960)

Despite landing hit singles in the years right before and after (“Say Man” in ’59, “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover” in ’62), Bo Diddley was in a brief career valley in 1960, one of several he’d endure before finding more lasting crossover success in the latter half of the decade. But that year’s “Ride On Josephine” deserves a place on any list of Diddley’s best songs. It’s a catchy-as-hell pop number that embodies his sound at the time, a sharp, hummable blend of ’50s-style sock-hop pop and bluesy soul. A paean to a woman’s automobile that’s stacked with ambiguous double entendres, “Josephine” is pushed from good to great thanks to those stellar harmonies in the refrain. [Alex McLevy]

The Folkes Brothers, “Oh Carolina” (1960)

“Oh Carolina” is a landmark in contemporary Jamaican music. Written and performed by Trench Town natives John, Mico, and Junior Folkes, and produced by ska/rocksteady pioneer Prince Buster, it was one of the first hits in Jamaica to incorporate Nyabinghi drumming and chanting, courtesy of Rastafari bandleader Count Ossie and his percussionists. The combination of those drums and the song’s American R&B base was a precursor to the musical styles that would develop in Jamaica over the next decade—and more importantly, the song became a national sensation at a time when Rastafarians were being marginalized in the country’s society. Speaking about “Oh Carolina” decades later, John Folkes called it “the first song throughout the whole history of Jamaica that gave the Rastafarian movement respectability,” and its success helped pave the way for the integration of its culture and theology into popular music. [Matt Gerardi]

Desmond Leslie, “Asteroid” (1960)

There’s a fascinating biopic waiting to be made about Desmond Leslie, the monied yet not idle son of an Irish diplomat who flew Spitfires in World War II, wrote screenplays, authored several foundational books on UFOs, and even commissioned Rupert Neve to design the world’s first multi-track mixing console inside his family castle, so he could record his own musical experiments. Leslie’s fascination with the paranormal melded with his love of composing on Music Of The Future, a self-produced, hand-pressed acetate that collected Leslie’s tinkering with tape loops and found sounds to create an imaginary soundtrack for myriad cosmic journeys; fittingly, some of it was later repurposed for early Doctor Who episodes. You can hear a whole nascent movement of psychedelic rock and electronic music in tracks like the eerie “Asteroid”—all of it predicted by a delightful British eccentric who urged in the album’s liner notes, “My musique concrete is meant to be enjoyed.” [Sean O’Neal]

The Parliaments, “Lonely Island” (1960)

Before Parliament was Parliament, there was The Parliaments, a doo-wop group founded by George Clinton that operated out of a New Jersey barbershop while it struggled to land a hit. Real success wouldn’t come until 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify,” a funk-infused classic that foretold the spacey sound of Clinton’s later bands, and this was in a completely different galaxy from early songs like “Lonely Island,” the group’s second-ever single. Arriving at the tail end of doo-wop’s heyday, it sticks to the waning style’s traditions, but it offers a stunningly rich, bass-heavy downer. Unusually, save for the unidentified lead singer (according to Clinton’s memoir, Clinton was “singing bass and baritone” at the time), all the vocals are focused on lower registers. Along with the subtle rumbles of organ and dapples of tenor sax, it gives the song a lush low end that helps the lead’s croon sound even more isolated and desperate. “Give Up The Funk” it most definitely isn’t. [Matt Gerardi]


Sugar Pie DeSanto, “Going Back Where I Belong
Slim Harpo, “Blues Hang-Over
Lightnin’ Hopkins, “Back To New Orleans
Jimmy McCracklin, “What’s That Pt. 1
The Night Raiders , “Screamin’ Mimi Jeanie
Buck Owens, “Above And Beyond
Jean-Jacques Perrey, “Nola
The Revels, “Church Key
Dee Dee Sharp, “The Night
The Vibrations, “So Blue