1961: The Year That You Didn’t Know Changed Music

If you follow the history of music, particularly popular music, you know that certain years always recur in the conversation. 1936 marked the first of Robert Johnson’s legendary blues recordings, while 1956 marked the ascent of Elvis. You know that The Beatles did Sullivan in 1964, Woodstock happened in 1969, and that The Sugarhill Gang recorded the first hip-hop song to hit the Top 40, “Rapper’s Delight,” in 1979. Those years and many others always swirl about the conversation, but one year is consistently overlooked. In retrospect, 1961 is hugely important, as it set the stage for the rest of the decade and for decades to come. Let’s turn back the clock to the year that Berry signed the girls from the Projects, two former school friends met up again, Patsy went pop from the hospital, and four lads played the Cavern Club for the first time.

1. January: Motown Signs The Supremes

“Where Did Our Love Go” (Uploaded to YouTube by The Supremes)

They were originally called The Primettes, a girl-group companion to The Primes, which featured Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks. The four original members of the Primettes were Betty McGlown, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross; several of the girls lived in and around the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit. They sang together for two years (McGlown left, and was replaced by Barbara Martin). During this time, Ross got her former neighbor, Smokey Robinson, to get them an audition with Motown label head Berry Gordy. He didn’t sign the girls at first, thinking them too young. But the group persisted, showing up at the label HQ and eventually getting to do handclaps and more on records. By January of 1961, Gordy agreed to sign them, with a catch. The Primes were no more, with Williams and Kendricks joining The Temptations, so Gordy felt they needed a new name. Ballard picked one from a list. Forever after, they’d be The Supremes.

2. January 30: The Shirelles Go #1

The Shirelles hold the distinction of being the first Black all-girl group to hit #1 on the Hot 100. The song was “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Obviously, the #1 was incredibly important for the glass ceiling that it shattered and the opening that it created for groups to follow (like the newly signed Supremes). The song was a big hit internationally, making the Top 5 in countries like the U.K. and New Zealand. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was also the first #1 for its writers, the then-married couple of Gerry Coffin and Carole King. The pair would write 30 hit songs together throughout the 1960s.

3. February: Motown Sells a Million

Berry Gordy positioned his Motown label as “the sound of young America.” He put together a studio system with top-notch writers and musicians, and signed talent local to Detroit that he could elevate into stars. One of those early stars (and songwriters) was Smokey Robinson of the group The Miracles. In 1960, Gordy and Robinson co-wrote “Shop Around,” a song for The Miracles that would take the label into previously uncharted territory. It went to #2 on the Hot 100 singles, #1 on the R&B chart, and, by February of 1961, became the first Motown single to sell a million copies. “Shop Around” was a statement of legitimacy for Gordy’s system and growing stable of artists, paving the way for Motown to earn the nickname “Hitsville, U.S.A.”

4. February: The Beatles Play The Cavern Club

The stage at the Caravan Night Club
The Cavern Club in 2016 (Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock)

It wasn’t the first time for everybody. John Lennon had played the club with The Quarrymen in 1957; Paul McCartney played with them in 1958. Future bandmate Ringo Starr had played with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes in 1960. But the first time that The Beatles (and George Harrison) played there was February 9, 1961. At that point, the line-up was Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Pete Best. The Beatles had just returned from their long residency in Hamburg, Germany, and their constantly evolving showmanship combined with their youthful energy convinced everyone that something about that band was special. Sutcliffe would leave that summer, and Best would be replaced by Ringo Starr in 1962. Between their first date and August of 1963, The Beatles played The Cavern Club 292 times, building the tight unit that would take the world by storm.

5. February: Reprise Begins Releasing

Frank Sinatra remains one of the biggest names in the history of music. In 1960, he did something that only an artist of his clout could do: he formed his own label. Reprise Records would be a place where Sinatra could exercise his artistic freedom more thoroughly, while also creating a home base from which his friends, like Sammy Davis, Jr., and specially selected acts could release records. Both Sinatra and Davis began releasing singles and albums on the label in 1961; others quickly joined the line-up, including Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and Rosemary Clooney. The set-up is what earned Sinatra the nickname “The Chairman of The Board.” One young artist signed to Reprise in 1961 would go on to make a big splash during the rest of the decade; that was Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy. Signed at age 20, she would blow up mid-decade as a music and style icon with classic hits like 1965’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

6. July: Billboard Separates the Charts

In 1961, there were still radio stations that wanted to avoid any association with the label “rock and roll.” Billboard magazine, which was the compilation source for the most widely read and acknowledged charts tracking popular music, tried to accommodate stations by creating a separate chart that would leave out up-tempo hits from the rock genre. The so-called “Easy Listening” chart debuted in July of 1961. While some rock or R&B artists would cross over with ballads, the general sound and feel of the chart was essentially a generational split. Younger listeners would come to consider “Easy Listening” to be “old people’s music.” That fracture between younger and older audiences would become one of the cultural engines of the entire decade. The chart has changed names many times over the years, adopting monikers like “Middle-Road Singles” and “Pop-Standard Singles” before settling on “Adult Contemporary” in 1983.

7. August: Patsy Cline Crosses Over from Her Hospital Bed

“I Fall to Pieces” (Uploaded to YouTube by Patsy Cline)

In June of 1961, country star Patsy Cline nearly died when the car she was traveling in with her brother was hit head-on by another driver. With a dislocated hip, a broken wrist, and more injuries, Cline underwent emergency surgery. Her initial prognosis was bleak, but Cline survived and spent a month in the hospital recovering. While she was in bed, the single that she’d released in April, “I Fall to Pieces,” surged on the Country and Western chart. By August, it had hit #1 Country and crossed over to the Pop charts, where it would peak at #12. Before the end of the month, she would record a new song by a struggling songwriter for release in October (you’ll see).

8. October: West Side Story Takes Over

West Side Story was a huge hit film in 1961, but the soundtrack was impossibly big. Released in October, the album would sit at #1 for a ridiculous 54 weeks (yes, more than a year). Remarkably, it would remain the best-selling album of the ENTIRE DECADE . The only other album to have a similar run at #1 is Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which spent 37 (non-consecutive) weeks on top. The Broadway show (which launched in the ’50s) and the subsequent film were inextricable from 1960s culture, and remain a crucial piece in the legacies of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins.

9. October 16: “Crazy” Is Released

“Crazy” (Uploaded to YouTube by Patsy Cline)

Patsy Cline’s follow-up to “I Fall to Pieces” hit stores on October 16. The song was “Crazy.” It went #2 Country, #9 on the Hot 100, and #2 on Easy Listening. It established Cline as a firmly entrenched crossover star. Though she would die in a plane crash in 1963, Cline left a legacy as a top-flight vocalist; she had also mentored her friend, Loretta Lynn, who would become a dominant force in Country throughout the decade.

The other side-effect of “Crazy” is that it solidified the career of its songwriter, Willie Nelson. The song became the biggest juke-box hit of all time, and established Nelson as an in-demand writer. He signed with Liberty Records in 1961 and started releasing his own hit singles the following year.

10. October 17: Mick and Keith Meet Again

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform on stage
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on stage in 2019. (Bruce Alan Bennett / Shutterstock)

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met at age seven in 1950 when they were both schoolchildren in Dartford, England. They went to school together until the Jagger family moved in 1954. Coincidence (or maybe fate; okay, definitely fate) put them both on the same platform at the Dartford railway station. The two old friends started talking; Jagger had records by Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry with him, which excited fellow blues fan Richards. That meeting led directly to the pair forming their first group together, the Blues Boys. By the next year, they would be in a new group with Brian JonesDick Taylor, Ian Stewart, and, eventually, Charlie Watts; that group would come to be called The Rolling Stones.

11. November 20 & 22: Bob Dylan Records His Debut Album

Bob Dylan had been gigging in New York when he was signed to Columbia Records by John H. Hammond. Hammond produced Dylan’s self-titled debut, which would see release the following March. The album includes two original songs; the remainder of the album is a set of covers largely drawn from folk tradition. Bob Dylan didn’t make great waves upon its release, but the hit of what would come is there. His next album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, would open with “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

12. November 27: The Beach Boys Debut with “Surfin’”

“Surfin’” (Uploaded to YouTube by Beach Boys)

If your parents went out of town and left you food money, but you blew it all on musical instruments, you’d probably be grounded for eternity. Then there’s the Wilson brothers (Brian, Carl, Dennis), their cousin (Mike Love), and their friend (Al Jardine). When the Wilson boys’ parents took some friends to Mexico City for a few days over Labor Day weekend, the boys used the money to rent instruments and equipment to work out a song that Brian and Mike wrote. Dubbed “Surfin’,” the upbeat tune had its first performance for the shocked Wilson parents when they returned home. The Wilsons’ father, Murry, himself a musician and songwriter, said he’d manage the group. They ended up recording the song for the Candix label, using the name The Pendletones, in October. When they got the pressed singles back, the label’s PR man had changed their name. The Wilsons, Love, and Jardine had become The Beach Boys. “Surfin’” hit #75 on the Hot 100, but the following year, they took “Surfin’ Safari” to #14, the first of their 36 Top 40 singles.

ENCORE: Births

1961 wasn’t just important for what happened; it was important for who happened. A shocking number of musicians born in 1961 would have a major impact on the shape of various forms of American popular music. Those people include: Suggs and Mark Bedford (Madness); Gillian Gilbert (New Order); Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies); Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe); Henry Rollins (Black Flag; Rollins Band); Dez Cadena (Black Flag); Andy Taylor (Duran Duran); Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker (The Stray Cats); Roland Gift (Fine Young Cannibals); Enya; Nick Heyward (Haircut 100); Melissa Etheridge; El DeBarge; Tom Araya (Slayer); Kim Deal (The Pixies; The Breeders); Kelley Deal (The Breeders); Boy George and Roy Hay (Culture Club); Alison Moyet; Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat); Dennis Danell (Social Distortion); Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal (Tears for Fears); Terri Nunn (Berlin); Toby Keith; Andrew Fletcher and Martin Gore (Depeche Mode); Guru (Gang Starr); Keith Sweat; Gary Cherone (Extreme; Van Halen); Rikki Rockett (Poison); Dave “The Edge” Evans and Larry Mullen Jr. (U2); Jon Farriss (INXS); Dean DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots); Scott Travis (Judas Priest); Dave Mustaine (Metallica; Megadeth); Bilinda Butcher (My Bloody Valentine); Wynton Marsalis; Randy Jackson (The Jacksons); k.d. lang; Leif Garrett; Jim Brickman; Jim Reid (The Jesus & Mary Chain); Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward (Bananarama); Jill Sobule; Lloyd Cole; Doug Hopkins (Gin Blossoms); Billy Duffy (The Cult); Melle Mel (Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five); Maxi Priest; Kip Winger (Winger); Jim Martin (Faith No More); Debbi Peterson (The Bangles); Billy Ray Cyrus; and Darryl Jones (The Rolling Stones).

Featured image: Katherine Welles /Shutterstock

The 8 Greatest Music Supergroups

They come together like musical Avengers; prominent rock heroes in their own right, they realize the power that they have as a unit. That’s why they’re called supergroups, an assemblage of pro talent that combines into something bigger. This week marks 50 years since one of the biggest supergroups, Crosby Stills & Nash, released their first album. Here’s a look at some of the biggest and what made them special.

1. Cream

“White Room” by Cream (Uploaded to YouTube by Cream / Universal Music Group)

Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner calls Cream the first supergroup, so we won’t argue. The band formed when bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker (both of the Graham Bond Organisation) and guitar legend Eric Clapton joined forces in 1966. Clapton could be considered a supergroup rainmaker, as he’s played with not only Cream, but also the Plastic Ono Band, Derek & The Dominos, Blind Faith, The Yardbirds, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, The Dirty Mac, and more. Cream is notable, among other things, for having the world’s first platinum double-album (Wheels of Fire), their almost scholarly injection of blues into hard rock, and for selling out four 2005 reunion shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall in under an hour.

2. Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Young)

“Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills & Nash (Uploaded to YouTube by Crosby, Stills & Nash / Rhino)

Rather than give the group its own unique name, CSN used everyone’s last names so that they would never be the full band without each other. They officially formed in 1968, but their eponymous first album/mission statement arrived on May 29, 1969. David Crosby had originally been in The Byrds, whereas Stephen Stills came from Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash hailed from The Hollies. CSN emphasized tight, beautiful harmonies and thoughtful songwriting. Neil Young (also of Springfield) would join in 1969 and play off and on with the group for years. As of 2017, various members have commented that they won’t play together again, but the one constant in their history remains unexpected reunions and tours.

3. Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin doing “Immigrant Song” live in 1972 (Uploaded to YouTube by Led Zeppelin)

Jimmy Page was one of three guitar heroes from The Yardbirds (the others being Clapton and Jeff Beck). When he set out to create his own group, he brought in the well-regarded multi-instrumentalist session player John Paul Jones to fill out the bass. They found their singer and drummer in two young men from the Band of Joy, Robert Plant and John Bonham. What followed was nothing less than the redefinition of rock. Standing at the crossroads of blues and metal and powered by the virtuosity of all four members, Zeppelin released anthem after anthem from their 1968 inception until their 1980 dissolution after Bonham’s untimely death. Today, the three surviving members occasionally reunite, and their songs are staples of film soundtracks and classic rock radio.

4. Bad Company

Bad Company performing “Movin’ On” live at Wembley Stadium in 2010 (Uploaded to YouTube by MUSIC FOR YOU)

Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label signed Bad Company in 1973. The band originally consisted of former Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs, former King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell, and two members of Free: drummer Simon Kirke and vocalist Paul Rodgers. Rodgers was one of the big selling points of the group, as he is frequently listed among the best rock singers ever. Between 1974 and 1976, they released three Top 5 albums and a series of singles that have become classic rock staples. The band has split and recombined a number of times over the decades, but Kirke and Rodgers (despite stints with The Firm, Queen, and others) remain members of the touring configuration of the band.

5. The Power Station

The video for “Some Like It Hot.” (Uploaded to YouTube by Duran Duran / Rhino)

When you’re in one of the biggest bands in the world and your band goes on a break, you . . . form another band? That’s what guitarist Andy Taylor and bassist John Taylor (no relation) of Duran Duran did in 1984. Teaming up with vocalist Robert Palmer and Chic drummer Tony Thompson, they put together The Power Station, named after the Manhattan recording studio. The band had two hit singles almost immediately with “Some Like It Hot” and their cover of T-Rex’s “Get It On (Bang a Gong).” However, Palmer exited fairly quickly, and was replaced by Michael Des Barres, who fronted the band at Live-Aid in 1985. They scattered shortly thereafter, with Des Barres notably playing the recurring role of arch-nemesis Murdoc on MacGyver. The original line-up got back together in the ’90s with chic bassist Bernard Edwards filling in for John Taylor. The band broke up for good after their last tour in 1997.

6. Trio

The “Trio” “After the Gold Rush (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Music Nashville)

Colloquially called Trio as it was the name of their first studio collaboration, the group of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris teamed up for the simplest of reasons: they’re friends. They tried to collaborate in the ’70s, but schedules never aligned; nevertheless, the three spent the next several years covering each other’s songs in various configurations. They finally got together and put out Trio in 1987; it was an instant success, generating four hit singles and sales of over 4 million albums. The disc won a number of country awards and was even up for the Grammy for Album of the Year opposite Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince, and U2. A follow-up, Trio II, was recorded in 1994, but label politics delayed its release until 1999. A third volume that combines the first two records with outtakes and rarities was released in 2016.

7. The Traveling Wilburys

“Handle With Care” by The Traveling Wilburys (Uploaded to YouTube by TravelingWilburys)

Speaking of groups that form out of friendship . . . while George Harrison (do we really need to say “of The Beatles”?) was recording his 1987 album Cloud Nine with producer Jeff Lynne of ELO, Harrison forwarded the idea of assembling a group. Harrison decided to invite Bob Dylan, while Lynne opted for another legend, Roy Orbison. Dylan introduced the others to Tom Petty, with whom he’d toured. The five musicians got along famously and soon conceived of a group name based partially on a joke of “burying” one another’s mistakes in the song mixing process. The first album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, was released in 1988 and produced two big hit singles in “Handle with Care” and “End of the Line.” Unfortunately, Orbison passed before the release of the second single; the video for “Line” contains a tribute to him in the form of a shot of a guitar in a rocking chair and a framed photo during his verse. The remaining members would release a second album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3 (yes, 3) and a boxed set two years after Harrison passed in 2001.

8. Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters perform “Walk” on a special black-and-white episode of Live on Letterman in 2011. (Uploaded to YouTube by Foo Fighters)

When Nirvana ended with Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, drummer Dave Grohl retreated from music for many months before creating a demo of his own material on which he sang and played all of the instruments. He labeled it as being performed by Foo Fighters even though he didn’t have a band yet. Over the next few months, Grohl did form a band, bringing ex-Germ Pat Smear, who had also played second guitar on Nirvana tours. The rhythm section was originally composed of bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith from Sunny Day Real Estate. The eponymous album dropped in 1995 and the band took off, powered by infectious tunes and clever videos. Goldsmith left and was replaced by Alanis Morissette’s drummer, Taylor Hawkins. The band’s second album, The Colour and The Shape, marked them as major rock artists; the record charted in the Top 10, received a Grammy nomination, and contained three legit classic tracks in “Everlong,” “Monkey Wrench,” and “My Hero.” The band only got bigger from there; Smear departed for a bit, replaced by Franz Stahl, but would eventually rejoin alongside another guitar player, Chris Shiflett (of Me First and The Gimme Gimmes), who joined with the band by their fourth record. Longtime touring keyboardist Rami Jaffee, originally of The Wallflowers, was made a full member of the band in 2017 after 12 years with the group. Today, Grohl, Smear, Mendel, Hawkins, Shiflett, and Jaffee operate as rock royalty. As one of the most successful and consistent touring acts in rock, they’ve won 11 Grammys in various categories, including four for Best Rock Album. They hit the road again this summer.

Featured Image: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Photo by CMA-Creative Management Associates/Atlantic Records; Wikimedia Commons)