“Petticoats of Portugal” and other non-hits of 1956

“Marty on Planet Mars (Parts 1 & 2”) by Marty on Novelty Records. The El Venos (from Pittsburgh) singing “Now We’re Together” (Groove Records). “I Wanna Be Seventeen All of My Life” by the Silver Sisters. The Dawn Breakers doing “Boy with the Be-Bop Glasses (and the Suede Shoes,” on Coral Records. You probably never heard of any of those records. I certainly hadn’t, and now I’m wondering what “be-bop glasses” were, what that Marty single might be like (it must be a combination of the character from the Delbert Mann film and the trend of break-in “Flying Saucer” records, right?), and what the advantages of what being seventeen forever might be. Never graduating high school? Avoiding the draft? Carrying around a fake I.D. forever? I really want to hear “Broadway at Basin Street” by The Four Beards on ABC-Paramount. They were a Brooklyn group, apparently, whose record only cracked the top 10 on WKXY in Sarasota, Florida. There has to be a backstory there.

Every once in a while over the last few days I’ve been picking up the 80-page book Cash Box Regional Hits 1956, presented by chart scholar Joel Whitburn, just combing the columns of names of 45s, artists and labels from that pivotal year, records that failed to make any of the national singles charts but had a moment of success on radio stations and juke boxes and in record stores in local areas, as reported in Cash Box magazine. We learn, for example, that the Dawn Breakers record was #5 on WKBW in Buffalo, NY, and was being played by the dj Herb Knight.

Nearly every page has something odd and fascinating. In November ’56, the Goons’ “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas” was top 10 on WWIN in Baltimore. There were a lot of records of songs from My Fair Lady and The Most Happy Fella. Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” was top 10 in about a dozen local markets, and top 5 on the national R&B chart, but never crossed over to the pop singles chart. Columbia Records released a single by Joan Weber called “Goodbye Lollipops, Hello Lipstick (I’m Not a Baby Anymore),” a top 4 hit on Greenville, MS’s WGVM. 1956 is generally regarded as the year rock’n’roll made its Big Move, with the explosion of Elvis, and what these 1270 non-hits show us is that the music business was a crazy jumble, with labels large and small throwing everything out there: instrumentals (a lot of them), novelty records – like “Love is) The $64,000 Question” by Tony Travis on RCA Victor — vocal group R&B, rockabilly. There were great records on Atlantic (The Clovers, The Drifters, Chuck Willis, Clyde McPhatter) and Sun (Carl Perkins, Warren Smith), all now considered classics in their genre, but at the time falling short of the primary pop charts.

Steve Lawrence, on Coral, put out a cover of the Cadillacs’ “Speedo” (#6, WSAI Cincinnatti), and something called “Ethel, Baby” (#9, WAVZ New Haven). There were a lot of odd celebrity records: Steve Allen’s “What is a Freem?,” Jayne and Audrey Meadows’ “Dungaree Dan and Chino Sue,” Andy Griffith’s “No Time for Sergeants,” Danny Thomas’ “Nobody Knows But the Lord,” and “In the Middle of the House” by Milton Berle. The book helpfully tells is that Uncle Miltie was “the biggest TV star of the 1950s,” but who doesn’t know that? (Famous Berle joke: A comic kept challenging Berle to a size contest, and finally, fed up with the pestering, someone told Milton to “just take out enough to win.”)

It was a nutty year, with all those “Flying Saucer” rip-offs, tributes to James Dean, those twinkling instrumentals like “Petticoats of Portugal,” so many drippy ballads. But what you take away from Cash Box Regional Hits 1956 is all the excitement that was churning up below (literally: beneath the lists of official hits) the surface. Flip the pages, and the narrative starts to emerge, the local hits on non-major labels that are about to crack American music in half, from Lee Allen’s “Rockin’ at Cosmo’s” to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” (that wasn’t a national hit??) to the Dells’ “Oh What a Nite” (top 5 R&B, but only Arnie Ginsburg at WBOS Boston reported it as top 5 in pop world), Smiley Lewis’ “One Night.”

There’s a randomness to this book, and there’s no way you can interpret it as being statistically reliable; as Whitburn says in the introduction, there were 42 dj, 21 retail, and 21 juke box top 10 reports published in Cash Box each week, so it was really a spin of the wheel which 45s got mentioned in any given issue. There was likely some payola involved, some favors called in. But the randomness makes total pop sense. You could imagine an entirely different book of a thousand 1956 singles on small record labels that got airplay for a week or so in some market and then faded into even more complete obscurity. Look at the labels on the cover: Balboa Records, Pep Records, Turquoise Records, Selma Records, Buddy Records…each record representing an idea that the three minutes of music captured on it will be heard everywhere. Some of the singles in this book have reverberated for six decades, most were relatively invisible even then. That’s a key story of American pop, and I can’t wait for the 1957 volume

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