In the history of popular music, no decade impacted culture quite like the 1960s. No other decade saw the likes of Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Brown — all at their prime. And perhaps no other decade saw such a vast evolution in popular music, with the sounds changing as fast as the culture of the Baby Boom. Reflecting or escaping from the turbulent events around them, number one artists of the sixties created an eclectic soundtrack for the times.
When the 1960s began, former WWII Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the US and the song at the top of the charts was a country ballad named “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. The quiet simplicity of the fifties was in its death throes, helped to its grave by the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and others. Elvis returned from the Army the same year, and just a few weeks after John F. Kennedy was elected to office, the King reclaimed his throne at the top of the charts with “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Ballads and teen romance songs dominated the charts at the beginning of the decade. 1961 saw the rise of fad songs such as “The Twist” by Chubby Checker, female singing groups like the Shirelles and Marvelettes, and teen idols like Ricky Nelson and Dion experience success. The new hope inspired by Kennedy and “Camelot” allowed Americans to enjoy another year of innocent bliss.
In 1962, popular music remained largely the same. Teen pop still ruled the charts, Chubby Checker twisted again, and young men and women were slow dancing to love ballads. Ray Charles topped the charts, and the Four Seasons began a hit streak that would last for the next few years. But, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and a growing social consciousness inspired by the Beat generation and folk music, things were soon to change.
Bob Dylan scored no number one hit in 1963, but his influence was surely spreading throughout popular music as the country’s tastes began to shift. Though pop music still consisted predominantly of fluffy love songs and snappy dance numbers, a prodigy named Little Stevie Wonder scored his first number one, and Jan and Dean took surf music to the top of the charts. By the end of the year, Kennedy was dead and the country would never be the same.
Reeling from the events of the prior year, Americans turned to the Beatles for solace. From February to May of 1964, the Beatles held the number one chart position. Like the country, the music scene would be forever changed, as teen pop transformed from Bobby Vinton to the Beach Boys and the Animals. Americans also started hearing about a place called Vietnam.
With the Beatles firmly established as the pinnacle of popular music scoring five number ones in 1965, many similar artists and copycats achieved success. The Byrds topped the charts with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and the Rolling Stones announced their presence by scoring a number one hit with “Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No).” While the Temptations and the Supremes reflected the Motown sound, they failed to reflect the plight of African American civil rights activists. However, Barry Maguire would hint of the new social awareness with “Eve of Destruction” which topped the charts in September.
With the escalating war in Vietnam and an emerging counter culture in the States, music became more message-driven and powerful. However, with songs like “The Ballad of the Green Beret” topping the charts and the Motown bands still scoring hits with love songs, 1966 served as a warm up for the psychedelic explosion of 1967. The year that included the Summer of Love also included riots, social turmoil, and The Monkees. Barring a few weeks at the top from the Beatles, Stones, and the new group The Doors, the charts were dominated this year by Motown, Lulu, and more teen love songs, like “The Letter.”
The year 1968 proved the most turbulent of the decade, perhaps the century. With increasing opposition to the war, massive student demonstrations, political assassinations, race riots, and a sharp division between generations, music finally reflected the turmoil. Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye each scored number one hits, and Simon and Garfunkel connected with listeners everywhere with “Mrs. Robinson.” This wild year had “Harper Valley PTA” sandwiched for a week at the number one spot in between “People got to be Free” and the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” which was twice as long as most other singles and stayed at the top of the chart for nine weeks. By now, many popular artists stopped focusing on singles to focus on albums.
The last year of the decade saw humanity land on the moon and Woodstock. Psychedelic sounds dominated the charts with “Crimson and Clover,” “Dizzy,” and “In the Year 2525,” ironically topping the charts while billions watched transmissions from the moon. The Beatles scored their last hit of the decade with “Come Together/Something,” and the Supremes topped the charts as the decade closed with their last number one hit “Some Day, We’ll be Together.”
While many of the most influential artists of the sixties like Dylan or Hendrix never topped the charts, their impression can be felt in the massive shift from 1960 to 1969. The tone of the songs that topped the charts certainly darkened throughout the decade, as times continued to grow more tumultuous. However, through it all, feel-good songs continued to find their way to the top of the charts. It seems the greatest accomplishment of 1960s popular music is that it offered more choice for everyone.
“List of number-one hits (United States).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 31 Dec 2006. 26
Jan 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_number-one_hits_%28United_States%29&oldid=97579454>.