13 March 2023

Why wasn't this a hit?

This is often asked by astounded commenters at YouTube. (See my earlier post When oldies stream the oldies.)

Somebody has discovered an amazing song from the past that they missed in their youth. It's so good: why wasn't it all over the radio and racing up to the top of the charts? YouTube comments on Gwen Stacey's excellent Ain't Gonna Cry No More (1964) include Superb! Why wasn't this record huge? and Great song. This should have been a hitYouTube

It could be down to how well a song was marketed (it's the music business1), or the quirks of radio programmers in your hometown at the time. 

Often, though, it's to do with experiencing new music as it emerged, as it was heard at that point in musical history. 

I love listening to newly-discovered oldies, but I'm listening to them out of historical context. One of my favourite non-hits, Margaret Mandolph's If You Ever Need Me, was released in December 1964. It was surrounded by a unique collection of current songs, and it followed whatever music was available to listeners up to that point.

When I enthusiastically commented on If You Ever Need Me at YouTube in 2022, I had heard it after listening to thousands of songs in countless genres over several decades, songs that were unimaginable when it was released. 

I have no idea how I would have reacted to it if I'd heard it in December 1964. It's like tasting a wine when your palate has been prepared by different foods.

I tried to find some clues in the songs that were in or around Billboard's Top 20 in the month If You Ever Need Me was released. 

British Invaders
• The Zombies - She's Not There:
This innovative British record entered the Billboard chart in November 1964, only 10 months after the Beatles' first US hit. A lot had changed since then.
• The Beatles - I Feel Fine and She's A Woman:
I suspect that just the opening of I Feel Fine would have sounded unusual a year earlier when such Beatles songs as I Want To Hold Your Hand were taking off.
• The Kinks - You Really Got Me:
Again, would this new sound have made #7 at Billboard a year earlier, or would it have just sounded weird?
• On Billboard's Hot 100 for 28 Dec 1963 there was one British act in the Top 20 (The Caravelles - You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry). A year later, 26 Dec 1964, there were nine. So, 5% British to 45% British in 12 months.

Brits doing American songs
• The Rolling Stones Time Is On My Side and
• The Searchers - Love Potion Number 9:
The Stones took Time On My Side to #6 USA, but earlier US versions by Kai Winding (1963: the original) and Irma Thomas (a July 1964 B-side) never charted. The Clovers' original of Love Potion Number Nine (1959) charted #29 Billboard, The Searchers' version got to #3.

American groups
• The Beach Boys - Dance, Dance Dance
• Little Anthony & The Imperials - Goin' Out Of My Head
• The Larks - The Jerk: 
Soul-r&b dance track.
• The Impressions - Amen:
Written by Jerry Goldsmith for a film, Lilies of the Field

• The Supremes - Come See About Me and
• The Shangri-Las - Leader Of The Pack:
Both of these reflect a development from the pre-Beatles girl-group soundsThings were moving on quickly at this stage.
• Marianne Faithful - As Tears Go By
Sedate but up-to-date Rolling Stones cover.

 Gene Pitney - I'm Gonna Be Strong and
• Bobby Vinton - Mr Lonely:
Pitney and Vinton resisting the British wave. Pitney managed to stay hip, helped along by his association with Andrew Loog-Oldham and The Rolling StonesVinton's Mr Lonely was a #1 hit, and he would keep having hits into the mid-70s. § The aforementioned Beach Boys not only survived, they thrived, and became much more than, well, beach boys. And Little Anthony & The Imperials had their first Top 5 hit in 1958 and two in the Top 10 1964-65.

• Julie Rogers - The Wedding and
 Robert Goulet - My Love Forgive Me:
It's easy to forget that there were always middle-of-the-road tracks on the charts of the 60s. I'm assuming they weren't put there by teenage pop fans.

• Lorne Greene - Ringo:
The charts often included such curiosities as this Western-themed record, spoken by Lorne Greene over an instrumental and vocal track. The title didn't hurt, even though it has nothing to do with the Beatles.

Make of it all what you will! It's what the musical palate of December 1964 was savouring. 

At this distance it is hard for me to imagine If You Ever Need Me being introduced into this mix. 

As much as I love the song, I hear it as a continuation of the female pop sounds of 1962-63, the era of The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Chiffons, The Murmaids, The Raindrops and Lesley Gore. Fine by me, sitting up here in the 2020s when an overlooked, sophisticated development of the genre is like a gift. But in December 1964 it might have sounded too much like an echo of the past. In pop music, twelve months can be a long time ago. 

Really, we will never know. You had to be there.

1. Al Hazan recalls producing a record by vanity artist Dora Hall, paid for by her wealthy husband: as far as I was concerned, her husband had hired me to do a job and I was doing it. That’s why it’s called the music business.

 • Anthony Reichardt's YouTube playlists.
 • Billboard Hot 100, 26 December 1964 and 28 December 1963.

Margaret Mandolph - If You Ever Need Me

The Zombies - She's Not There

The Beatles - I Feel Fine

The Supremes - Come See About Me

The Searchers - Love Potion Number Nine (UK 1964)

The Clovers - Love Potion No. 9 (USA 1959)

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