The Important Hits of 1961
Hearing the History: Songs of 1961
In 1961 relations between the USSR and the US deteriorated with the Soviets testing nuclear weapons, then spearheading the construction of the Berlin Wall which separated East Berlin and West Berlin. Newly inaugurated President Kennedy advised Americans to build shelters in their backyards as protection against nuclear war. He had a busy year as well with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and the launch of the Peace Corps. The first man in space was a Russian named Yuri Gagarin in April but the US caught up them in the space race by sending up Alan Shephard in May, and the new era of space exploration had begun.
In the music world, some old trends continued, and some new waves started crashing on the shores of popdom. It's hard to imagine now, but in 1961 Lawrence Welk and Dion shared top spots on the charts, with newcomers like Dick Dale pioneering the surf-guitar instrumental and black music making ever-larger inroads on American jukeboxes and transistor radios. The King of American pop, Elvis of course, continued his domination of the charts with several number 1 hits, but he had increasing competition for the sexy brylcream-haired crown.
The Tube Creates a Rock Star
Ricky Nelson was a heart-throb and a hit as a handsome young TV star on the Ozzie and Harriet show, and quickly became one of the biggest-selling singers ever after having hits with Hello, Mary Lou, Travelin' Man and many others. He also became an early casualty of the Hollywood-LA hit-making machinery when he moved on with his life and had to outlive and outgrow his status as a barely talented pretty boy turned crooner. But these days, even Bob Dylan appreciates his body of work.
The British Are Coming
Cliff Richard was a big star in his native England. With his group known as the Shadows, he created a bad-boy image that would later be co-opted and expanded by other notable British groups looking to make it big in the states. He was here before any of them, and in 1961 had several top ten hits. His success probably paved the way for the real British invasion which was just a couple of years away, and even John Lennon acknowledged the debt his group owed to Richard and his music
And getting right to the top like Roy Orbison. His 2 big hits of the year were Crying and Running Scared. The world couldn't get enough of his operatic voice and late-teen angst, and he would keep giving it to us for years to come. Del Shannon sang about his little Runaway and created a sound with a Farfisa organ that would become a rock and roll staple, and the song is still overplayed today on classic rock radio - satellite, of course. The Wanderer by Dion showed that he was a travelin' man too - it seems to be a common theme that demonstrated the bad-boy outlaw side of squeaky-clean looking young stars. And Dick Dale's Let's Go Trippin' was an instrumental with a title that a few years later would have been considered bannable, but in that long ago year of 1961 was innocent and healthy - and in the running mode with the other hits.