Way Back 2020

December 28, 2020 - Christmas Music Hits an All-Time High with 18 Songs in Billboard's Top 20

There's never been a hotter December...for Christmas music, that is, whether by way of streaming, radio airplay or good old-fashioned home listening on vinyl records, CDs and the occasional cassette or reel-to-reel tape. Caroling from house to house became the rage in the 19th century as books of songs were widely published, aiding in the carolers' merry pastime prior to (and since) the late-1880s introduction of recorded music. But over the 13 decades since that time, seasonal music's classic era really took off in the 1940s (when Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which still holds the record as the biggest hit single of all time in any category, sparked a surge in holiday songs by popular artists), then rocked on through the 1950s (when hi-fi sound systems and longplay Christmas collections emerged) and reached new technical heights with the stereo recordings of the 1960s.

A never-before-imagined 33 holiday selections have taken control of Billboard's current top 50 singles, all but a handful recorded during the aforementioned classic era. With the number one hit ("All I Want for Christmas is You," Mariah Carey's 1994 holiday entry enjoying its fifth week in the top spot this year and last), nine songs stage a near-complete takeover of the top ten, including "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee (number two last year and again this week), "Jingle Bell Rock" by Bobby Helms, "A Holly Jolly Christmas" by Burl Ives and Andy Williams' "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (at its all-time number five peak), joined by three vintage favorites in their first trip to the upper deck: "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano, "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!" by Dean Martin and rocker Chuck Berry's "Run Rudolph Run," propelled by a newly-produced animated video.

Nine additional songs in the top 20 include Nat "King" Cole's "The Christmas Song" (the re-recorded 1961 stereo version is preferred by radio programmers, but the 1946 hit by The King Cole Trio has received a notable share of radio play and Spotify streams). Two Phil Spector productions from his 1963 A Christmas Gift For You LP have hit new highs: "Sleigh Ride" by The Ronettes and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by Darlene Love both reach the top 20 for the first time. "This Christmas" by Donny Hathaway makes its top 40 debut this week, while "Blue Christmas" by Elvis Presley is in the top 40 for the second straight year; like Berry's hit, it benefited from a newly-released animated video. Presley's backing singer Thurl Ravenscroft (he was with The Mello Men) is in the top 40 for a similar reason: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" has endured these past 54 years since Dr. Seuss's animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas premiered.

Multiple songs by a number of acts have resulted in impressive record sales; Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack from the 1965 Peanuts TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas reached the top ten of Billboard's album chart for the first time, driven by the increasing popularity of "O Tannenbaum," "Linus and Lucy" and "Christmas Time is Here." A number of beloved singing stars have become staples of the season with several recordings apiece creating a steady flow of their songs on the hundreds of Christmas-formatted radio stations. Seems listeners favor a variety of selections from the likes of Crosby, Williams, Gene Autry, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Percy Faith and Ray Conniff and the Singers, giving the airwaves (and streaming sites as well) a nostalgic, warm family feel. The way it should be this time of the year.

November 1, 2020 - Queen's Gambit Makes Winning Musical Moves With Calculated '60s-Era Selections

The Queen's Gambit, a Netflix miniseries starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a teenage chess prodigy, features a diverse song selection that vividly enhances its 1950s and '60s setting. Instrumental backdrops flow from Quincy Jones ("Comin' Home Baby"), Gabor Szabo ("Somewhere I Belong" from his album 1969) and Thelonious Monk (an early-'50s recording, "Bye-Ya"). British babe Gillian Hills' French hit "Tut, Tut, Tut, Tut" entices, as do seldom-heard tracks by Herman's Hermits ("The End of the World"), Nancy Wilson ("Teach Me Tonight"), Donovan ("Bert's Blues"), The Kinks ("Stop Your Sobbing") and Georgie Fame (a 1965 remake of Joe Liggins' 1950 guzzler's anthem "Pink Champagne"). Well-known hits take us through the rest of the 64-square journey: Fame's "Yeh, Yeh," "You're the One" by The Vogues, "Along Comes Mary" by The Association, "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams, The Monkees' rocking flip "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" and two for dancing along with Anya in her living room: Peggy Lee's 1958 smash "Fever" and end-of-the-decade Dutch scorcher "Venus" by The Shocking Blue. I foresee an increase of the sale of boards, pieces and more chess-related swag.

October 21, 2020 - Norm Petty's Trendy While Stewart, Gershwin, Monro, Barry and Soul Man Brown Never Stopped Being Cool

The hot song of the month could be called a modern romantic classic done as a collaboration of two musical icons from different continents. "A Petite Concerto (Illusions of Grandeur)," written by Norman Petty (best known for his Clovis, New Mexico productions of Buddy Holly, The Fireballs and other famous rock acts), was recorded at the Lansdowne Studio in England in 1964 with Ivor Raymonde (best known for producing Billy Fury, Dusty Springfield and other famous British singers). The instrumental track is reminiscent of the orchestral works of composer-conductors like Maurice Ravel and Aaron Copland and has been getting considerable television exposure on a commercial for the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2, a new 5G smart phone...or is it a tablet?

Then there's iPhone's 5G Ultra Wide Band device being touted by Chris Rock ("Remember when the song of the summer took the whole summer to download?") in a spot featuring Billy Stewart's hit 1966 recording of George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's ever-popular "Summertime." Matt Monro's 1966 recording of the Oscar-winning John Barry-Don Black film theme "Born Free" has become part of the essence of Axe deodorant and body wash in a series of TV ads, while James Brown's familiar "I Got You (I Feel Good)" shout appears to be an acceptable reaction to the food being served up at Applebee's restaurants.

October 9, 2020 - Presley, Piaf and Others Continue Making Their Mark on 21st Century Pop Culture

Vintage vinyl delights featured in recent TV commercials include a couple of well-worn favorites: "A Little Less Conversation" by Elvis Presley for Toyota Hybrids and Edith Piaf's formidable six-decade throwback, "Non Je Ne Regrette Rien." A "Shop Etsy" ad features "(You) Got What I Need," Freddie Scott's 1968 precursor to Biz Markie's '89 hit "Just a Friend." On the lighter side, "The Dog," Rufus Thomas's first in a series of four consecutive "dog" singles in '63 and '64, underscores Hyundai's message that having the car keys buried by the family canine doesn't necessarily prevent a person from being able to get inside his locked vehicle. Moving on to the movie biz, a trailer for the documentary Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President shows our oldest living U.S. president reacting to an old favorite ("Sounds familiar!"), Bob Dylan's original recording of "Mr. Tambourine Man."


Jingle Bell Rock Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) Elvis Sings Christmas Songs The End of the World Classical Gas (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone Summertime I Got You (I Feel Good) A Little Less Conversation