Top 10 (9) Novelty Songs from the 50's & 60's That Couldn't be Hits Today
While toiling in unemployment, I realized how much I enjoyed writing Top Ten lists for TopTenz.net. So I think I'm going to keep doing it, once a month, on the Beacon of Speech Blog. So while I work on my next wave, here's one from 2014 that got rejected, then turned into a Top 9 list.
With political correctness running amok in America today, one has to wonder how people survived a generation ago being offended everywhere they went. You would think that innocent novelty hits would stand the test of time, for who could forget those classic tunes of the 50’s and 60’s like Wooly Bully, Purple People Eater, or Charlie Brown. Trouble is a lot of those songs contained mild stereotypes that caused the casual listener to be amused. In researching this article, I was unable to locate the scientific data that showed the mental anguish caused by these 9 Novelty Hits of the 50’s and 60’s that couldn’t be Chart Toppers Today.
Can’t be written now? I can’t believe this was written in 1952. Originally created and performed in 1952 by Dave Bartholomew, My Ding-a-Ling was a straight on subversive tune about Bartholomew’s private parts. 20 years later, Chuck Berry tweaked the lyrics just a little bit, making the content a double entendre. Berry’s Ding-a-Ling ended up being a #1 hit in the United States and charted in 5 different countries around the world. As a matter of fact, it was Berry’s only #1 hit in the United States. Nearly 2 dozen studio albums, 45 singles, and over 60 years of recordings, and this was his biggest hit. When you watch the video, note some of the audience enjoying the song, yet a fair portion of that same audience looking flat out confused.
The argument of whether either version could be recorded today, I use the analogy of the National Park System. When you visit the caves in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, you will see graffiti from hundreds of years ago. That graffiti is historical. If you decided to create some graffiti of your own and spray the walls today, you would be fined, detained, and probably be beaten with the night sticks that the rangers carry.
A seemingly generic Romeo and Juliet tale about two young Indians that fell in love and then drowned in a river. Written by J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper, who famously died in a 1959 plane crash) and sung by Johnny Preston, Running Bear spent 3 weeks as the #1 song in the United States and another 2 weeks as the #1 song in Great Britain. Preston’s biggest hit of his career, the Indian ‘chants’ were done by Richardson and country legend George Jones. (Think about that for a second. The backup singers on this single went on to be enshrined in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, respectfully.) If you took out the Indian chants, it would probably be safe for public consumption today, but then you would have lost the rhythm of the song.
This catchy gem is a story split between the adventures of the singer in the jungle and his girlfriend back in the states. The doo-wop half of the song in the ‘states’ is standard fare, nothing dicey there. But the half of the song in the ‘jungle,’ umm, let’s just say some of those beats, jungle sounds, and even natives screaming just wouldn’t fly today. The Jay Hawks wrote the original and had a Top 20 hit earlier that same year. But if you listen to both versions of the song back to back, the Cadets version is clearly the superior musical option.
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has been using this song to introduce stories about the homeless for over 20 years now. Not nice stories, mind you, but mocking stories. Like the way Quentin Tarantino changed the mental imagery of the song Stuck in the Middle with You in the movie Pulp Fiction, Ain’t Got No Home’s meaning seems to have changed by association. Despite being a Top 5 hit on the R & B charts in 1956, the song was relegated to the Novelty Section of the record store. The Frogman was a blues and rockabilly pioneer with Ain’t Got No Home being known as his signature tune. Today the Frogman probably could have gotten away with singing “Ain’t Got No Tone” as the song is mostly braggadocio about his singing range.
Frank Gallop died in 1988 at the age of 87 with a discography listing under a dozen songs. What Frank Gallop was primarily known for was his radio and TV work. Working with such historical icons of American Popular Culture such as Milton Berle, Perry Como, and Dean Martin, Gallop was an announcer or actor on nearly 3 dozen shows. The Ballad of Irving was the story of a fat, inept, Jewish cowboy named Irving. The song was hysterical, rocketing up to #2 on the charts in 1966. Mostly a story with a musical bed underneath, you could probably get away with most of the generic Jewish stereotypes today, but probably not the continued berating of Irving for his weight problem.
Going from one extreme to another, Pat Boone is one of the most prolific musical artists of the 20th Century. 69 Studio albums, 63 Singles, and countless Compilation albums, Pat Boone recorded his first album in 1956 and his last in 2006. Known for his smooth voice and vanilla covers, it is rare that Pat Boone has even skirted controversy, having released dozens of Christian-themed songs. Maybe in 1997 when he sang an album of heavy metal covers, In a Metal Mood, No More Mr. Nice Guy, but that wasn’t so much controversial, as surprising. Along that same vein, I came across 1962’s Speedy Gonzales. A Top 10 hit in America, it wasn’t Boone’s biggest hit, he had 6 #1 songs in the states, but it was one of his biggest hits nonetheless. If you listen to Boone’s voice and the upbeat delivery, no problems, but the lyrics, there is no way the stereotypes of the Mexicans involved wouldn’t court a boatload of controversy today. Again, if you could ignore the lyrical content, it’s a ditty that sticks in your head.
Larry Verne spins the tale of one of George Custer’s cavalrymen being very concerned regarding the incoming Indian hordes. A #1 hit for Verne in 1960, you could listen to the song over and over again and laugh at the same parts every single time. The problem is what’s funny in 1960 seems out of place today. Within the past 10 years, the NCAA has forced colleges to strip away Indian nicknames or face sanctions, the Washington Redskins nickname has been under nearly constant attack, including threats from the federal government, and even Chief Wahoo of Cleveland Indians fame has been finding less and less defenders. The Indian sound effects in Mr. Custer would be condemned in today’s environment in about 2 seconds.
If I wrote this song today, loaded with the layer upon layer of ethnic stereotypes contained within, I would be more hated then when Marilyn Manson wrote Anti-Christ Superstar. The sad thing is Ray Stevens is a historically great performer, who, if there was a Novelty Music Mount Rushmore, he would surely be on it. Ahab the Arab was Stevens’ third highest charting hit, which is impressive considering he has nearly 100 singles under his belt, and again, the song is catchy as all get out. Only Everything is Beautiful and The Streak were bigger hits, but even though Stevens’ output has been more political of late, he is still performing. I can’t imagine Stevens could release Ahab today between the Arabic ‘chants’ and the references to turbans, camel-riding, and Ahab being the ‘Sheik of the Burning Sand.’
There seems to be an undercurrent today that the mentally ill are undertreated and overmocked. I’m not saying whether that is true or not, I’m just saying that seems to be the general feeling. With that being said, there are no bad words, no stereotypes, or even anything specific that could be pointed at when reviewing this pop culture classic from the 1960’s. Actually, there’s nothing in the song except for insanity, sirens, and drums/clapping. Shooting up to #3 on the American charts just weeks after its release, the single was quickly banned on some radio stations. Shunned by critics and revered by teenage boys, the song sparked sequels, re-makes, and covers by artists as varied as Biz Markie on one end of the spectrum to current rockers the Five Finger Death Punch. Even Napoleon XIV kept going back to the Coming to Take Me Away well, repeatedly. Again, if released today, I could see the talking heads on cable television condemning this song as an example of the further corruption of American society by those not sensitive to the plight of the mentally ill. I’m glad Napoleon Bonaparte (yes, that is who gets the writing credit for the single) wrote this song when he did.