The Top 10 Best Hit Songs of 1961

Okay, now we’re really in the thick of the pre-Beatles dry spell, and make no mistake folks, this year was rough. The 1960 Year-End Hot 100 is a veritable ocean of mediocrity, with precious few islands of quality to speak of. I can’t even write much here, I just want to get this over with. These are the 10 songs that made 1961 incrementally less of an ordeal. On with the show!

#10: Adam Wade- Take Good Care of Her

Questionable gender politics were somehow even more pervasive in pop this year than they were in the 2 years prior, and sadly even some of the better stuff wasn’t exempt from this. Countryish crooner Adam Wade’s “Take Good Care of Her” has a bit of unfortunate framing (specifically, the idea that the girl he loves was “won” by another man”, eegh), and the song is a little on the mopey side, but nonetheless, I actually quite like it. Why? Well, Mr. Wade has an awfully pretty voice for one thing, with a lot more bassy resonance than many of his contemporaries. I also think he comes off as very genuine; I couldn’t exactly blame someone for thinking his magnanimity is all phony, but on this record I hear a man honestly trying his best to be happy for a woman he cares about, despite his sadness that they didn’t end up together. Actually, that sadness is probably this song’s biggest boon- this year’s charts left me in a pretty sour mood, and I ended up being somewhat more forgiving towards the songs that weren’t so blastedly upbeat.

#9: Ray Charles- One Mint Julep

There were a surprising number of instrumental hits this year, and a surprising number of them were surprisingly enjoyable. Surprising! This short little ditty is energetic enough that you can almost forgive the fact that Charles himself doesn’t actually sing on it- Strange, considering the 1952 original by The Clovers actually did have lyrics and vocals. Still, the fun, boisterous arrangement makes this thing listenable enough to set it ahead of most of its peers.

#8: Dee Clark- Raindrops

I said earlier that there was a lot of iffy stuff this year when it came to gender, and this is one song that I think actually managed to work that aspect to its advantage. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say this song is a critique of the ways in which men are taught not to express vulnerability, but I do think it’s pretty plainly about those oppressive gender norms, and I’d even argue it benefits from being more observative than condemnatory. The narrator of the song is clearly very distraught, but the penultimate line is still him asserting that “a man ain’t supposed to cry”, centering the conflict not on his emotional pain, but on his failure to live up to societal standards of masculinity. The game is given away at the end of the track, with Clark’s vocals becoming less measured and more raw and soulful, culminating in that anguished wail right before it fades out. The tune itself isn’t exactly thrilling (though the added thunder effects are a very nice touch of atmosphere), but I still truly admire Clark’s willingness to tackle an issue that, sadly, remains prevalent to this day.

#7: Ben E. King- Spanish Harlem

Ben E. King proved himself to be an unequivocal force for good in ‘61, with both his hits this year earning spots on this list. I don’t think it’s at all controversial to say this is the lesser of his two big songs, but I still think “Spanish Harlem” could stand to be appreciated a bit more nowadays. It really shows off songwriter Mike Stoller’s knack for spare yet impactful arrangements, and it’s also worth pointing out how shockingly well-rounded the mix sounds despite that sparseness. King brings it all together with an excellent vocal performance- He has the smoothness and surety of a Brook Benton and the instant likeability of a Sam Cooke. Its legacy may have been dwarfed slightly by the Other Hit Song King put out this year (don’t worry, I’ll get to it), but “Spanish Harlem” is still a great song that holds up extremely well today. 

#6: Dion- Runaround Sue

Dion DiMucci is kind of the awkward middle child of early ‘60s white rock ‘n’ roll. He never had the charisma or raw vocal talent of an Elvis or a Bobby Darin, but he still managed enough quality songwriting to outstrip the throngs of disposable pretty-boys mucking up the era. This is probably my personal favorite of his, though again we do see a faint trace of outdated gender norms (this girl is PROMISCUOUS??? She GOES OUT WITH GUYS??? Aaaaeeuuhhh???). It’s not exactly a deal breaker though, with the focus mainly being on the titular woman’s infidelity rather than her promiscuity which, y’know, fair enough. Let’s be real though- Dion himself is perfectly fine here, but those backup singers? I hope they were paid well for their work, because without “Hey! Hey! Bum-di hey-de hey-de…” this song would pretty much be totally useless. It’s both impressive and slightly tragic that a song from over 50 years ago that could essentially be re-named “Thot Patrol” is still less regressive than “Dear Future Husband”, a much more recent song with, now that I think of it, an extremely similar arrangement…Better hire a good lawyer, Meghan Trainor, Robin Thicke went to court for less than this.

#5: The Dave Brubeck Quartet- Take Five

Sometimes, a song is just too good not to be a hit. Cool jazz might have been the hip new sound all the kids couldn’t get enough of a decade prior, but by 1961 its time in the pop world had more or less come and gone. Nonetheless, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” wound up being one of the most commercially successful jazz singles of all time after it was re-released in May ‘61. The single edit is actually substantially different from the full album version, and some jazz-heads would probably be horrified to learn that the version that became a hit omits Joe Morello’s indelible drum solo, but I can’t say I mind the cut-down version. The important stuff is still intact- That is to say, it still vibes like an absolute motherfucker. When I call this “cool jazz”, it isn’t just because that is, in fact, the appropriate genre label for it, but also because it’s just so damn cool. That smooth sax line and piano/bass vamp perfectly captures the feel of a smoky jazz club or a dimly-lit city street. It’s fantastic mood music, and it perfectly nails the balance between virtuosity and accessibility that all the best jazz does.

#4: Ray Charles- Hit the Road Jack

And yet again, Ray Charles claims his rightful place in my top 5. “Hit the Road Jack” is deservedly ubiquitous at this point, but I do think that, like “One Mint Julep”, it’s hurt a little by the fact that Charles himself isn’t much of a presence on the track, to the point where it could just as easily have been credited to The Raelettes or Margie Hendrix. At under two minutes in length, it’s also a tad slight in comparison to his earlier hits. But this is all nitpicking, really. Charles still completely nails his vocal part, he has excellent chemistry with the Raelettes, and the sprightly instrumentation makes this pint-sized tune feel more substantial than it really should.

#3: Floyd Cramer- On the Rebound

Let’s just take a moment to really appreciate Floyd Cramer. The man’s enormous impact on the music world is rarely acknowledged, mostly because the lion’s share of his work was done behind the scenes as a session musician for countless country and rock artists. Which artists, you ask? Oh, just some obscure, little-known singers like Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, The Everly Brothers, and Elvis Presley, to name a few. Ever listened to “Heartbreak Hotel”? That’s him on the piano. Cramer’s session work in the 50s and 60s practically defined the Nashville sound, and his trademark “slip-note” style is now so ubiquitous that the idea of one human being inventing it seems almost absurd. Anyway, enough about the man, how’s “On the Rebound”? Well, earlier I said that “Take Five” was fantastic mood music, in that it’s really good at cultivating an atmosphere and setting a mood. “On the Rebound” is fantastic mood music, in that it puts me in a fantastic mood every time I hear it. The song it reminds me the most of is Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” theme for A Charlie Brown Christmas– a similarly chipper, optimistic tune, but something in Cramer’s signature whole-note slurs gives it that extra shade of emotional depth so as to not feel overbearing in its positivity. I always say that the best happy music acknowledges unhappiness, and somehow “On the Rebound” feels as though it manages to do so without using a single word.

#2: Ike & Tina Turner- It’s Gonna Work Out Fine

This is a very well-written song, with lots of fun back-and-forth between the two vocalists, and it features one of the tightest grooves of the year. But at the end of the day, it all comes back to Tina Turner. The woman was and is an absolute powerhouse behind the mic, and while Ike’s velvety baritone is certainly delightful in its own right, it’s Tina’s bombastic delivery that truly seals the deal here, because her energy and passion is just so damned infectious, and her affection for her husband clearly shines through. Ike and Tina’s relationship is remembered today mostly for drug-fueled conflict and a messy, prolonged divorce, and if Tina were a lesser performer than she is, this song could have easily wound up tainted beyond redemption by that fact, the same way all of Kesha’s early-2010s party jams now leave me with a slightly sick, guilty feeling in my chest. But Turner brings her absolute A-game here, and though I know better in 2020, I can’t help but believe that their relationship really will work out fine, at least for the three minutes this song lasts.

#1: Ben E. King- Stand By Me

Here we are folks, the sole undeniable, bona-fide classic pop tune this year produced: Ben E. King’s magnum opus, “Stand By Me”. I almost feel like I shouldn’t even have to explain this track’s merits. Is there anyone out there who genuinely doesn’t like this song? If there is, I’ve never met them, and frankly I don’t think I’d want to. The way the instrumentation builds and builds throughout the song is a masterclass in studio engineering, with the mix getting more and more layered and rich without ever becoming crowded or claustrophobic. King’s vocals are simultaneously raw and restrained, full of emotion yet not in the slightest oversold or excessive. And the lyrics carry the simple but incredibly potent message that, even in the bleakest of times, when all hope seems lost, it is human connection that will see us through. It’s easy to interpret the words as being directed at a romantic partner by default but, to my ears at least, King makes it feel bigger than that. When I listen to this song I hear an expression of hope- hope that if, at the end of days, we’re able to turn to not just our lovers, but to our neighbors, our family, our friends and peers, and find solace and comfort in that simple companionship, we’ll be able to face our end with grace and dignity. We’re all going to die, yes, but if this song is anything to go by, we don’t have to go alone. And I won’t mince words here, I think that sentiment is absolutely beautiful.

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