1963 was still not a particularly strong year for the hot 100, but after the punishing doldrums of the previous year, I doubt there’s much that wouldn’t have felt like an improvement, and indeed, ‘63 was substantially better than ‘62; if I’m in a generous mood I’ll probably even give it the edge over ‘61. But in all seriousness, ‘63 was when pop music finally began its steady ascent out of the horribly dull wasteland it began the decade in. The glory days of the psychedelic 60s are still a ways off, but at this point they’re clearly visible on the horizon, and listening to the hits of 1963, across all genres there’s a sense that something big is just around the corner (Whether that “something big” was the Kennedy assassination in November or the cultural upheaval that was to follow it is up to you). From Motown Records establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with via fresh-faced young soul artists like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, to country music getting a kick in the pants from a revitalized Johnny Cash, to acts like The Beach Boys finally staking out an identity for white rock that didn’t hinge entirely on cribbing from black contemporaries, this was arguably the year the 60s really started, and folks, it’s all uphill from here. On with the show!
#10: Rufus Thomas- Walking the Dog
This year, most genres were in the process of stepping their game up, but it was undoubtedly R&B that emerged the champion. There are going to be a lot of soul songs on this list, starting with this forgotten gem based around nursery rhymes. It’s a silly premise, and Thomas definitely plays that silliness up in his vocal delivery, but it’s not treated like a joke, and it nails the tightrope act of being the kind of song that genuinely is “good if you don’t take it too seriously”. In all honestly though, what gave this song the slight edge over its many worthy competitors is that fake-out intro. It’s the perfect way to take the piss and let the listener know right off the bat that Rufus is in on the joke. It’s not exactly that deep or smart, but if you’re looking for some quality deeper R&B cuts from this era, “Walking the Dog” gets the job done.
#9: Stevie Wonder- Fingertips
Even at the tender age of 13(!), Stevie Wonder was in a league of his own. Often, my biggest issue with child stars is that their voices just sound too young and innocent to convincingly sell any emotion beyond “unthinking exuberance” or, if you’re unlucky, “petulant whininess”. There are definitely exceptions to this, but for the most part, they just don’t have the life experience to make the material compelling. Perhaps Stevie agreed with me on this, because his first big single is almost entirely instrumental. What “Fingertips” reminds me most of is Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?” which, if you’ll recall, made my first best-of list back in ‘59. It’s another loose, upbeat tune that feels like it could turn into a full-on jam session at any moment; more showmanship than craftsmanship, but all the more entertaining because of it. Since Stevie’s mostly just wailing away on his harmonica and bongos, his (admittedly very young-sounding) voice can’t really disrupt the proceedings by much. And, when he does use his voice, he’s just ad-libbing to get the crowd hyped up, and it turns out “unthinking exuberance” is a pretty damn effective tone to take when it comes to crowd work. Obviously he’s best known today for his extraordinary composition and production work, but this early live recording captures Stevie’s prodigious gifts as an entertainer and performer, especially the last minute when, after finishing his song and walking offstage, he runs back onstage and starts jamming out an impromptu encore to wild applause. If you strain your ear you can even hear Joe Swift, the bassist on stage, frantically asking his bandmates what key they’re in before the band kicks back in to play Stevie out. It’s the kind of fun, unexpected moment that you can only get with a live recording, and it makes for a lively start to one of the most impressive careers in pop.
#8: Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters- Cry Baby
It’s really a shame Garnet Mimms usually doesn’t get much more than a passing mention when discussing the history of early soul music. Granted, when a half-dozen of your contemporaries go on to become some of the most influential and enduring artists of the 20th century, perhaps that’s inevitable, but Mimms nonetheless brought enough of his own style and unique talents to the table to be worthy of more substantial discussion. The influence of gospel music runs strong throughout all early soul and R&B, but Mimms really leans into that aspect of his sound and does so quite well, too. On “Cry Baby”, those gospel influences especially help him pull off two of the best spoken-word passages in a pop song I’ve heard thus far on these lists, with the dramatic female backing chorus providing appropriate gravitas for his impassioned, almost sermon-like delivery. In fact, the song almost makes more sense as a religious metaphor than it does when taken literally. The lyric is all about the narrator taking back a former flame who treated him badly in the past, but at face value the framing doesn’t quite capture the human weakness at the core of his decision to let her back in. But if you look at it as a metaphor for forgiving someone of their sins and letting them back into the light of God, or as a deity speaking to someone re-adopting a theistic worldview, the reassuring, magnanimous tone suddenly feels much more apt. I’ve said that I’m not opposed to religious/Christian music on principle, and this is a quality example of a song about faith (whether religious or otherwise) that you don’t need to be a believer to enjoy.
#7: Marvin Gaye- Pride and Joy
It is, of course, common knowledge that Marvin Gaye is a towering figure in the world of R&B and soul. His work throughout the 70s is second in its immaculate construction and enormous influence only perhaps to the likes of his labelmate Stevie Wonder. But before he became one of the most celebrated soul singers of all time, Gaye was just a journeyman singer and session guy for Motown Records with dreams of one day making a name for himself as a Nat King Cole-style crooner. His first attempt to do so fell mostly flat, but on his sophomore effort he decided to liven things up a little with some bouncier modern soul numbers, including this, his first really big hit. Gaye is undoubtedly still a little wet behind the ears here, and especially when contrasted with his later material he sounds rather unsure behind the mic, but even at this early stage it’s clear this guy’s destined for greatness. Listen to how the main melody moves in just that opening line: that drop into his lower register on the “my” comes out of nowhere! Who would think to write a vocal line like that? And then when he repeats the phrase at the end of the chorus he goes up and hits that same note an octave higher, and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle piece falling into place: ‘ohhh, THAT’S why it sounded like that at first!’. Delightful stuff. Oh, that walking bassline and the little bluesy piano licks are great too. It does lose a few points for one or two clunky lyrical choices (“ I love you like a baby loves his toy”? Ehhh…) but this still packs enough sharp, smart pop songwriting to be a worthy kick-off to Gaye’s illustrious career.
#6: Ray Charles- Busted
Ray Charles marks his fifth consecutive year on my best-of list with yet another cover of a country chestnut, and as much as I do like Modern Sounds…, for my money this is by far the genius’s most successful fusion of country and soul yet. For one, it’s got a lot more energy to it than his material from last year, and he brings a rough-hewn swagger to his delivery that feels totally country and totally R&B all at once. It’s also a marked improvement over the original: Harlan Howard’s 1962 rendition is fine enough, I guess, but Charles pumps the whole thing full of Mississippi blues stank and absolutely brings it to life. The lyric, about being down to your last nickel and desperately looking for ways to make ends meet, sounds a million times more convincing paired with a down-n-dirty swing feel then it does with Howard’s straight-ahead, midtempo 4/4. Furthermore, Charles, who was raised by a destitute single mother in the throes of the Great Depression, is able to flawlessly portray a guy who knows firsthand what it’s like to fly by the seat of your pants and have no clue if you’ll manage to scrounge up enough to pay this month’s bills. Unfortunately, 1963 marks the end of Ray Charles’ tenure on the cutting edge of popular music: a drug arrest and subsequent stint in rehab put a pause on his career, and by the time he returned to music in ’66, the rapidly-evolving pop scene had left him behind. He notched another handful of successful singles throughout the remainder of the decade before the hits dried up for good in the 70s, but “Busted” effectively serves as a capstone to Charles’ half-decade as a proper hitmaker, a final hurrah as the curtains started to close on the era of pop he helped define.
#5: The Beach Boys- Surfin’ U.S.A.
At least for me, it can sometimes be pretty hard to remember why The Beach Boys were ever such a big damn deal. However, when I first listened to their music in the context of the years leading up to and surrounding it, one simple fact just bowled me over: This is rock music, made by white guys, who aren’t trying even a little to sound like black guys. I know that may sound a bit rich given that this song is famously a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”, but in spirit it’s an entirely different beast, to the point where the notion of anyone listening to either song in place of the other is outright laughable to me. If I can glean anything from “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, it’s that Brian Wilson and co. are a bunch of preppy, lilly-white WASPs whose biggest (only) concern is picking which sunny California seaside they’ll fritter away their next weekend at. That could easily have made this song unlistenably obnoxious, but it works because they know what they are and they don’t shy away from it. They aren’t stumbling ass-backwards into portraying themselves this way, it just comes off as an honest expression of what their lives are actually like. It also doesn’t hurt that they wisely focus on the summery, good-time vibes of it all and keep things broad, so it feels like a party everyone’s invited to rather than a detached-from-reality lifestyle gated by economic circumstances. But hey, if you’d rather not think about this song’s socioeconomic implications, you can just sit back and let those spit-shined, pitch-perfect vocal melodies and harmonies wash over you. They even squeeze in a little organ solo in the back half for extra sonic joyousness! Like their British contemporaries (who, spoiler, will be arriving on these best-of lists sooner rather than later), they would soon leave this simple, sunny sound behind for more ambitious and creative territory, but it’s still a pleasure to hear a guy as talented as Wilson putting his gifts towards something this unfussy and straightforward.
#4: Johnny Cash- Ring of Fire
I mean… It’s Johnny Cash. I could very easily just leave it at that and I doubt many people would bat an eye. After all, it’s pretty hard to find new ways to sing Johnny Cash’s praises. In particular, “Ring of Fire”, certainly one of his more celebrated songs, has been a cherished part of the country music canon since well before I was even born. Regardless, I do think that even after stripping away Cash’s weighty legacy there’s still loads to like about “Ring of Fire”. For one, I think it approaches the subject of love from a much less well-trod angle- as something dangerous, something painful and uncontrollable and ravenous. Songwriters June Carter and Merle Kilgore paint falling in love in an unashamedly harsh light, but at the same time it’s far from being anti-love. Carter has said the song is about “The transformative power of love” and as far as I can tell, that reading feels entirely fair to the song’s content. The fire is a trial to be weathered, but it isn’t necessarily to be avoided, and it feels like the narrator understands that they will emerge from the fire stronger and better than before. It’s all tied up with a bow by an unsurprisingly phenomenal performance by Cash himself. He sounds grim-faced and resolute, but not quite cynical yet; there’s still that humanity and fear audible underneath his cool, calm exterior. And of course, that country guitar-n-bass groove, with the mariachi horns adding a western desperado flair to the simple chord progression, is about as classic as it gets. At this point it’s so ubiquitous that I can’t quite gush over it the way I might otherwise, but I still think “Ring of Fire” more than earns its lofty reputation.
#3: The Impressions- It’s All Right
Curtis Mayfield is rightly celebrated for his 70s solo work, in particular his era-defining soundtrack for the blaxploitation classic Superfly. But Mayfield also had a fairly successful run in the 60s as the frontman of smooth soul outfit The Impressions that, in my opinion at least, is largely just as good as his 70s work. And make no mistake, “It’s All Right” is as smooth and soulful as smooth soul gets. Listening to this song is like an aural massage: Mayfield and his bandmates clearly want you to be relaxed and feeling great about life by the time the song is done, and by all measures they succeed. The lyric here is reassuring and optimistic, and the music complements it beautifully with one of the most blissfully mellow grooves of the year. One of the best things about the great soul and R&B of this era is its ability to just immediately put me in a great mood, and on that front, “It’s All Right” delivers in spades.
#2: The Village Stompers- Washington Square
Novelty can only get you so far, but that being said, you can definitely get a fair bit of mileage out of novelty. This year, no one got more mileage out of novelty than The Village Stompers, a New York band that incorporated the sounds of the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk movement into a ragtime jazz context, and bizarrely managed to go all the way to #2 with their first and only hit, “Washington Square”. It’s an incredibly striking little number, not least of all because it sounds absolutely nothing like anything else on the charts this year. The classic New Orleans jazz sound they were working was decades past its peak of commercial relevance, and the folk influences they were picking up in Greenwich Village had only barely started to gain any mainstream notice (for reference, Bob Dylan had released “Blowin’ in the Wind” a scant 7 weeks prior to this song’s debut), so it stuck out like a sore thumb amongst all the doo-wop and R&B it shared the airwaves with. Besides that, it also sticks out by virtue of, well, kind of kicking ass? The loopy, loping rhythm is paired with some eerie, minor-key banjo and guitar picking, and when the jazz clarinet and trumpet kick in it conjures up images of a grimy New Orleans street carnival from the turn of the century, or perhaps some demented Max Fleischer cartoon that never was. “Washington Square” was the undisputed black sheep of the year, and it was great to see something this weird and unconventional rubbing shoulders with the pop titans of the day.
#1: The Drifters- Up On The Roof
If playing in a 50s/60s doo-wop group was, say, a food service job, The Drifters would have been one of the most bottom of the barrel, fast-food slave-labor jobs you can think of- a graveyard shift at Burger King or Waffle House, perhaps. When I say that, I’m referring exclusively to the band members’ working conditions: The pay was pitiful, the gigs were grueling, hours-long sets on the club circuit, and members came and went with such frequency that a single disagreement with the group’s management could get you kicked out for good. In an absolute sense, the band members were doing fine enough for themselves, but by the standard of their fellow charting R&B performers they were basically total scrubs. All this is to say that, when Gerry Coffin and Carole King started shopping around a song about finding a peaceful place where you can escape your thankless nine-to-five and the thousand small indignities that make up your day, The Drifters were the men for the job. “Up On The Roof” is a song that understands the mindset of the working class on an almost spiritual level. Specifically, it speaks directly to the bone-deep, existential exhaustion that comes along with a life of wage labor. Sure, most of us would love to actually improve society, or even just manage to scrape ourselves out a more privileged status, but at this point I think we’d settle for a place where we can just relax and not deal with anyone else’s bullshit for a few hours. That’s how frontman Rudy Lewis sings it at least: the titular rooftop becomes this magical sort of eden (literally described as “paradise”). It really sounds like Lewis spent that whole vocal take desperately wishing such a place were real, and by the end of the song, I’m always wishing right along with him. Few songs on these lists have proven such effective balm for the working stiff’s spirit as “Up on the Roof”, and for that it is my favorite hit song of 1963.